I’m taking some time now to finish an outside reporting project. Sorry, meanwhile, to be missing reporting on such cool events as are transpiring around us … For example, today, a coupla couples who got married at City Hall under the Newsom Dispensation showed up at the mall in the old Rincon post office for a lunch. Midst the hordes of office workers, friends began thrilling the happy, fifty-something, couples, and the crowd, with a capella renditions of “Teenage Wedding” … "Mother-in-Law" and other rock wedding tunes. ... Another couple toured California Street at lunchtime in a classic Chevy ’72 convertible decorated with lavender blossoms and “Just Married!” signs. The California Street cable cars clanged cheery cacophonies of congratulations on their bells. You gotta love this town.
So, I hope to back soon as I have vanquished this outside deadline. Meanwhile, I post excerpts from a long – very long – article I wrote seven years ago this week analyzing the value and the role of Herb Caen, who had just then died, essaying also an attempt at understanding the “man-about-town column” in San Francisco. You might enjoy it. Here goes:
CALL ME SQUIBOB
The first time I sent an item - a piece of news - to Herb Caen for his column, I signed the paragraph "Squibob". The item quickly appeared in his column, but it was unattributed, with no mention either of Squibob or me.
A few days later, I received a note at home from Caen, though, which read simply, "You know? You know about Squibob?" Then he called me and we had the first many discussions, usually in the drafty basement, by the deli counter, of the now gone Emporium department store on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, about the character, life and times of Squibob, one of the most unusual figures in the history of San Francisco newspapering.
Squibob, you might say, was the original Herb Caen. Which may explain, why I think Caen never mentioned him in print. Caen, after all, was the fiercest guardian of the Caen legend, and he may have feared that the story of Squibob might diminish his own accomplishment. Not a chance.
Caen protected the saga of how he, at age 22, had come to San Francisco from Sacramento, talked an editor, who supposedly doubted that there was enough going on in the city to warrant a daily column, into writing the column that was to become his work for 58 years.
Caen’s accomplishment is without measure, his longevity unparalleled, his impact was enormous, his fame incandescent, and his hard-fought-for genius inspiring, but he was not the first wide-eyed columnist to love and mock San Francisco.
Squibob, or George H. Derby to use his proper name, was the first man-about-town columnist in San Francisco. An on-the outs- U.S. Army lieutenant he traveled also at age 22, (probably as part of a punishment tour), in 1850 to the remote and wild town of San Francisco. He promptly began writing articles in based on his daily rambles around the bustling night life, the nascent high society, and the incredible gossip of the new town, in the daily San Francisco newspaper "Alta California."
His accounts of life in the new city and state are hilarious; his stylizing anecdotes prefigured the California tall tales of Mark Twain (who later become a columnist for the Alta California) and Caen’s departments recording the foibles and excesses of the city, "only-in-Marin", and other California districts.
He did more than open up veins of humor, divining that in the stews and spots of San Francisco a man on a ramble could find enough representative eccentrics and behavior, to sell newspapers. Squibob felt he was entitled to inquire about anything, joke about all, and that there was a divinity which did hedge a journalist about town. He was the reporter as prince of the city.
A West Point graduate, Squibob was a dandy, one of Brooks Brothers first customers. He was the Ur-stylish WASP – a Massachusetts born descendant of "King" Derby, America’s first millionaire. Squibob had what in barrooms used to be called "class"; according to Caen, Derby was not above working over a rude sort at a bar, and then magnanimously leaving, as he departed, gloves in hand, enough cash to pay for a night’s worth of drinks for the ruffian and his cohorts.
Squibb’s column about the city and spirit of San Francisco became such essential reading -he was talked about and quoted constantly, that another San Francisco newspaper, not surprisingly, started a similar column, and swiped his name.
Squibob was appearing in two papers.
The Original Squibob lost neither time nor ingenuity in handling the crisis. In his newspaper, he promptly announced the death of Squibob in a traffic accident -- run down under a wagon! The next day, Derby began a new column under a new byline: John Phoenix.
The competition was squelched.
HE WASN’T ALWAYS GREAT: HOW HE GREW…
When Caen started writing his column in 1938, like all beginners, he aped. He mimicked the rat-a-tat "three dot" style and telegraphic word-play manner of the New York Mirror’s celebrated scholar of showbiz, Walter Winchell. Caen played himself as a regional Winchell, a local "Mr. Nightlife" as he often noted. The style was Winchell-like, the approach was pure Squibob.
Although Caen hit the hotels where cafe society dwelled, he also tramped the dives where the hoodlums (an old San Francisco word) lay, North Beach where the Bohemians brewed, and Skid Road where the ghosts jangled. He found such oddities as a woman who had lived in the same house since 1865, discoursed on the origins of the various restaurants all called "Original Joes", and wrote thousands of "snap-shots" of representative types in representatively colorful places.
He loved writing about celebrities, visiting as well as native, captured in florid fleshpots. This appetite never left him. In October 1995 when he was 79, he was alerted by a press agent to the late night presence of Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, the O.J. Simpson prosecutors, at the upscale retro nightclub "Sam Conti’s Cocoanut Grove" atop Van Ness Avenue.
They were cordial to the well-known Caen, and he shanghaied the couple, whose romance was not then publicly known, to an address in San Francisco’s raw but chic South of Market district.
A day or so later, newspapers around the world reported that according to Herb Caen’s column the Simpson prosecutors, were found, direct from their disastrous verdict, rendezvousing in San Francisco at a place called "the DNA Lounge".
It was Joseph Pulitzer, the founder himself of the lofty prizes, who once told reporters at his not-always-lofty New York World, that news is that which is "the apt-to-be-talked-about". Caen knew of course that reporting in his column Darden and Clark were an "item" (the slang use of the word "item" to describe two people as a couple, has its origins with Winchell and Caen) was a scoop, but being able to report that two, who had been so undone by the Simpson trial’s tortured scientific evidence, were at a place called the DNA Lounge, was sure to make the item talked-about. Marcia Clark nearly resisted the ploy, but he managed a legit item.
He had a civic side too, even in the early years. He started crusades, purely parochial ones, like campaigning to save the cable cars, arguing against the Manhattanization of the San Francisco skyline, and bemoaning the befouling of Union Square by pigeons.
By the mid-1950s, with time out for service in World War II, he was becoming "Mr. San Francisco". The Hearst owned San Francisco Examiner outbid the Chronicle, his home since 1938, for his services in 1951, and there he stayed until the Chronicle bid him back in 1958.
His column was local, but clever. He was an inveterate player with words, like Winchell. He was famous for inventing the word "beatnik" (after having tried a few other plays first on the word "beat) in 1958. He was, he told me, the most often quoted person in the Readers Digest’ picturesque speech department.
It was ultimately cornball stuff, as just as the decline of his powers bothered him last spring; he was bothered in the early 1960s by the staleness of the column. Stale at least to him.
Then Howard Gossage, an advertising man with a conscience, emerged on the scene and became part of Caen's world. With his own ad man’s feel for what popular fantasies, fears, impulses, aspirations, and discontents might be at any one time, he began to place that information at Caen’s disposal.
Caen, near the end, remembered Gossage's approach. caen wrote on Aprill 11, 1996, strong>On April 11, 1996 he wrote: "At about 11:30 every weekday, the late Howard Gossage would phone and say with that famous trademark stammer: ‘Whaaaat’s the maaatter, buddy, caaan’t get started on the li’l ol’ collllumn?’ Then he’d hang up with an evil chuckle...Yes, frankly, I am having a little trouble, Howard, ol’buddy, wherever you are. We’ve had Thuh Party, we’ve had Thuh Prize, we’ve had the pop of champagne corks, the piffle and the palaver, and now it’s time to start easing back into the "Aww" stories, the Cuute Firm Names, the God-I-loove-this-city caenecdotage, the stuff and the nonsense, and even the occasional who’s sleeping-with-whom-and-who-cares? Yes, and names, names, and more names, phreaky or otherwise...."
Gossage, of course, had a social agenda, but Caen wasn’t a stooge. Together on the phone, in Gossage’s shop, they would volley about what was on peoples’ minds - what they were talking about, annoyed about, thrilled over. These were topics, feelings perhaps, that weren’t being reported in the news. Soon Caen began to try to express some of this difficult material.
He continued to report on cute local stuff, but he turned his considerable skill as a reporter to tougher topics. His breakthrough column came on July 17, 1966. It galvanized readers then, and still does. Called "the troubled summer", it opened as follows:
HIS BREAKTHROUGH COLUMN: JULY 17, 1966.
"The troubled summer: It should, be as always, the most fruitful and self-indulgent time of the year, and at first glance it is. The tourists smothering the cable cars and laughing-screaming down the hills. Freeways jammed with the chrome-hard bumper crop of the Affluent Society. Even the Giants are doing well and could win it all. Then why is there so little joy in this joyous season?
"The answer is so obvious nobody wants to talk about it (yet it is always at the back of your mind and on the tip of your tongue). The answer is in the almost constant drone of the planes heading Westward, the servicemen on the street-corners, the gray carriers sliding past the Embarcadero toward the Gate, decks crowded with planes whose wings are folded as though in prayer. The answer is in caskets, casualty lists, napalm and inflation‹in the war that is not a war in pursuit of a victory that has no name.
"The answer is in Presidential popularity polls that climb higher every time more bombs are dropped and in bumper strips reading "Escalate! Get It Over With and Get Out!" (how appropriate that the popular American philosophers of the day are those who write for automobiles)".
The rest of the column, a brilliant diary of a 1966 dinner party (he quotes a guest, reciting the now forgotten politically correct phrase of the day, regarding "that bore" LSD: "I’d like to try it, but only under strict supervision, of course, as a scientific experiment") reported the hastening smashing of complacency, and civility, that the war was producing.
EXPRESSING THE UNEXPRESSIBLE ON A DAILY BASIS.
Unlike the current ilk of woolgathering columnists who squat upon the pages, contemplating their navels or worse and calling it news, Caen devoted the portion of work on the column that was his reporting, to reporting and expressing the city’s conversation with itself.
Others may have helped him realize that being sensitive to this mood, the best and worst in it, was his true beat as a journalist. It’s an excruciatingly difficult beat to walk.
Through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, he grew into the journalist people turned to for news about the city’s discourse with itself, for a sense of company in that conversation. When tragedy or insanity shattered the news, people turned to him for a coherent expression of the feelings that individually we could only deem.
No rocker ever wrote a piece more eloquent, informed, or appreciative than the one Caen wrote immediately following the assassination of John Lennon in 1980.
Caen’s genius was that he was a great enough reporter to go out and talk to people in those crazed times, absorb, assimilate, and then with enormous power, but informal language, express what many of us were guessing at.
In giving voice to what severally and individually we confronted, he as a journalist filled the function once carried out by the now-unread editorial pages of a newspaper.
His work required substantial amounts, from him, of both sociability and solitude. People complain that he could in conversation, suddenly seem to fade away from them, bowing and backing away, smiling and saying "That’s sooooooh San Francisco!" But once he had his item, insight, or expression, he had to move on. It’s good, for the sake of the reporting that he did that he worked in a form as rigid as his ‹the 24 item column, about half of which were sent in by readers. And it’s also good that he had to write on an almost daily basis. The relentlessness of that daily deadline honed his reporting into something more: synthesis, and expression of consensus.
It also gave him what every reporter needs: a second chance. If you don’t get it right today, you can get something new right tomorrow.
Would that today’s columnists could rise above their woolgathering and navel-gazing, and work under such grueling, if refining, conditions.
That was Caen the soloist. He was not only a reporter and writer, he was also the conductor of a column, and its thousands of contributors. These were the ones who, all during his illness, kept on bringing in items. I may have missed Caen, but the San Francisco his column described did not depart the column with him. The readers kept feeding it, out of sheer delight in the material as much as a wish to see their names in print.
Puns, witticisms, phreaky names, odd license plates, people unclear-on-the-concept may have bored him near the end, but they didn’t bore the readers, and Caen was enough of a showman -- he was in fact a brilliant impresario of the talent that assembled itself for his column -- to know to give the customers what they wanted.
What they wanted was the sights, sounds, and humor of the urban experience. That a reader would think to steal a menu from a Tenderloin greasy spoon where the menu announced in a misprint that the place featured "roast turdey- fresh daily" not only meant that the readers of that item would be laughing about it all day, but the theft of a menu just to send a joke to herb was a tribute to the importance of the column in people’s lives.
The readers delighted in a San Francisco whose snapshots they took themselves. The Chronicle shouldn’t let this perish.
These puns and odd sights were as much a part of the column as was Caen’s own work. And in conducting such a column, he was pleasing a lot of people. He was also following the other great model of the now dying American newspaper column, the six-days-a-week contributors’ column. This model of column had started in growing 19th century Chicago where columns like "In the Wake of the News" (presided over by Ring Lardner) and "A Line O’Type" were filled with tales, witty ones, of the new urban experience and in which relationships as warm as those between Caen and his readers were evident.
The readers’ column reached its apogee in the New York World’s "Conning Tower" of 60 years ago, and exists today in meager form in the New York Times’ "Metropolitan Diary." In its day, presided over by a figure known as "FPA" (Franklin Pierce Adams was his real name), the "Conning Tower" was where most the witticisms of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table first saw print.
FPA encouraged competition among his thousands of readers, the sharpest of whom were rewarded with an invitation to a banquet, at which FPA, in the weird tradition of columnists, always failed to appear. Caen was never so cruel to his readers.
ALL IN ALL
Somewhere between the autocrat of the breakfast table and the man who came to dinner, a thrilling personality, Caen was first, and above all, that much maligned thing, a journalist, a writer who reported about the day. He began one column on June 10, 1995, with a typically easy ramble: "Well, the Giants won a pair but otherwise it wasn't much of a weekend. The skies were cloudy and gray and the heavens went drip-drip-drip. That's a small family joke between my sister and me. ..." Then he segued into an account of his own day:
"The weekend got off to a bad start on Friday afternoon as I was about to head to Napa. On Mission, near Sixth, my '85 Jaguar, the notorious ``White Rat,'' began smoking. ... Blasting the horn, I managed to coast through lanes of traffic to a stop at the SE corner of Sixth. Women with children screamed ``Look out, it's gonna blow!'' as they yanked the kids to safety.
"... A hero from the corner liquor store dashed out with a big towel and began flailing at the flaming engine. Traffic at Sixth and Mission is bad enough without a burning Jag cutting off two lanes of a street that has already lost one lane to construction.
"...The street people were having a wonderful time, pulling out every wire in sight. Somebody had called the fire department and a truck pulled up. Four great guys somehow managed to manhandle the dying car into the curb."
Then he relates further his borrowing of a car, and his trip to Napa to see his sister, Estelle. The reader soon realize that this is no ordinary column, but an urban newspaperman’s account of something momentous:
"It was my second visit in a week and we didn't have much to talk about either time. Estelle, the vibrant Sierra Club hiker, the enthusiastic pianist, the great conversationalist with the sometimes sharp tongue, the woman who was more than a mother to me, the older sister whose opinions and judgments meant more than anybody's, this terrific person was pale and drawn, wasting away, her eyes dead, her chin down on her chest, her once-capable hands limp and lifeless on her useless legs. Banal question: how's everything? She struggled to come back from wherever her wandering mind had taken her. `Just terrible,’ she said at last, peering at me.
"After a long silence, she whispered, ‘I'm in big trouble, Herbie.’"
He recalls her early musical career at Julliard in New York, and her return to San Francisco and "the great ferment of the mid-1930s. With her gifts as a hostess -- she was one of those remarkable cooks who could keep four pots and five conversations going at the same time -- she soon assembled a salon. Harry Bridges was there, and Frank and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Barbara and Haakon Chevalier. The young Bill Saroyan would drop in out of the blue and pull up a chair in the big kitchen on Russian Hill. Dong Kingman, Doris and Pierre Monteux, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Albert Elkus: the mix was heady, the dialogue crisp, the politics left. And all the while she was practicing, giving recitals, playing the Emperor with the WPA Symphony, getting admiring reviews..."
This column, abbreviated here, goes on to report his sister’s death. It wasn’t just good newspapering; with its artful composition, its recollection of a significant cultural time, its bluesy language, and cast of city characters and sidemen, this column was American literature.
When he died, I felt as if I had lost the hip older brother in the family.