Washington may have had its Art Buchwald, London its J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber”) and Dublin the mercurial Myles Na gCopaleen, but few cities can have been as fortunate as San Francisco in having a chronicler (no pun intended) as prolific, urbane and popular as Herb Caen who wrote in its daily newspapers about life in the city, for almost sixty years. With more than 16,000 columns of over 1,000 words each, lifelong friend, author and restaurateur, Barnaby Conrad, estimated that if “laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles, from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge”.
Herbert Eugene Caen was born on 3rd April 1916 in Sacramento, though he claimed to have been conceived on the Marina in San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition as his parents spent the summer there “complaining about the cold”.
He joined the Sacramento Union as a sports reporter in 1932 on graduating from high school. Four years later he was hired to write a radio column for the San Francisco Chronicle, beginning an association that was to last for 50 of the next 61 years.
On the scrapping of the radio column he persuaded the editor, Paul Smith, that he could write a daily column on the city, and It’s News to Me duly debuted on 5th July 1938, appearing thereafter for six days a week.
When the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1942 he joined the Air Force, assigned to communications, and reached the rank of captain. Returning to his Chronicle column, he continued to record and comment upon the foibles of local government and personailities.
Caen often referred to San Francisco as Baghdad-by-the-Bay, a term he coined to reflect the city’s exotic multiculturism. A collection of his essays bearing the same title was published in 1949, going through seven printings. In 1953 he published the book Don’t Call it Frisco after an Examiner news item of the same name on 3rd April 1918 when Judge Mogan, presiding in a divorce case, stated that “No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles”. Emperor Norton had previously raged against the use of the term and issued one of his imperial proclamations to that effect.
However, a year later, Caen left the Chronicle for higher paid work at the San Francisco Examiner, for which he worked until 1958 when he was persuaded to return to his former employer on the promise of a better salary. His “homecoming” column was published on 15th January of that year.
In 1976 he published One Man’s San Francisco, a fine collection of some of the best writing from his columns. In 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the column was marked by a special edition of the Chronicle’s “Sunday Punch”. At the age of 75 he decided to slow down by reducing his output from six to five days a week!
Caen was hugely popular and a highly influential figure in San Francisco society. He was described by the Chronicle as a “major wit and unwavering liberal who could be charming, outspoken and, at times, disagreeable.”
He called his work “three-dot journalism”, in reference to the ellipses by which he separated his column’s short items, all composed on his “Loyal Royal” typewriter.
His writing was imbued with a gentle, dry wit and an intimate knowledge of the politics, society and culture of his adopted city and the wider Bay Area. Hardly a show, party or any other significant event in San Francisco was complete without Caen’s gregarious presence, and his clever, sometimes acerbic, comments on it the next morning in his column. Conrad said that “he seemed to know everyone in the world; he somehow made them honorary San Franciscans and let us, his readers, have the privilege of knowing them, too”.
His witticisms and plays on words would fill another ten features, but here are a few:
The Bay Bridge was “the car-strangled spanner”, City Hall “Silly Hall” and Berkeley was “Berserkeley”.
Whilst many of his invented words have passed into history, others have become not only synonymous with San Francisco but entered the everyday language. On 2nd April 1958, in a Pocketful of Notes, he reported on a party hosted by 50 “Beatniks” which spread to “over 250 bearded cats and kits”. This is the first known use of the word. And during the Summer of Love in 1967 he contributed more than anybody to popularising the term “hippie”.
In 1996 he was the recipient of a special award from the Pulitzer Prize Board which acclaimed his “extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of the city”. On 14th June of the same year 75,000 people, including Walter Cronkite, Robin Williams, Willie Mays, Don Johnson and Mayor Willie Brown who presided over the event, celebrated Herb Caen Day.
He espoused many liberal causes over his career, including a life long opposition to the death penalty. He was also one of the first mainstream newspaper men to question the Vietnam War. But it is to his beloved San Francisco that we return for one of his most passionate campaigns, namely to have the hideous and excessively busy Embarcadero Freeway, or “Dambarcadero” as he called it, demolished. Success came, but from an unexpected source. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged it so severely that the decision was taken to pull it all down. A three mile sweep of the Embarcadero is now named “Herb Caen Way…” in his honour. The wide promenade is the most eastern street in San Francisco, curving round its northeast corner, proceeding along the waterfront, and ending near AT & T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, the team Caen adored.
Despite a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, Caen continued to write almost until his death on 1st February 1997, though his output understandably shrunk over time. His funeral six days later was held in the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, attended by 250 people with hundreds more outside listening to the hymns and eulogies over loudspeaker.
Caen had willed to the city a fireworks display which was given in Aquatic Park in front of Ghiradelli Square, concluding with a pyrotechnic image of a typewriter on the bay. This tribute was attended by many of his friends and fans, who gathered on Herb Caen Way… on the Embarcadero, lit candles protected from the wind by dixie cups, and walked north along the waterfront to Aquatic Park.
And all this for a local hack!
John Steinbeck wrote that he “made a many-faceted character of the city of San Francisco….It is very probable that Herb’s city will be the one that is remembered”.
But the last fitting words should be left to Caen himself:
“One day if I go to heaven…I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco'”.
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