Herbert Eugene "Herb" Caen (April 3, 1916 – February 2, 1997) was a San Francisco journalist whose daily column of local goings-on and insider gossip, social and political happenings, painful puns and offbeat anecdotes appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle for almost sixty years (excepting a brief defection to the San Francisco Examiner) and made him a household name throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. A special Pulitzer Prize called him the "voice and conscience" of San Francisco.
Caen was born April 3, 1916 in Sacramento, California though he liked to point out that his parents—pool hall operator Lucien Caen and Augusta (Gross) Caen—had spent the summer nine months previous in San Francisco. After high school (where he wrote a column, "Corridor Gossip") he covered sports for The Sacramento Union.
In 1936 Caen began writing a radio column[clarification needed] for the San Francisco Chronicle. When that column was discontinued in 1938, Caen proposed a daily column on the city itself; "It's News to Me" first appeared July 5. Except for Caen's four years in the Air Force during World War II and a 1950–1958 stint at the San Francisco Examiner, his column—eventually[when?] entitled simply "Herb Caen"—appeared every day except Saturday until 1990, when it dropped to five times per week.
"What makes him unique," a colleague wrote in 1996,
is that on good days his column offers everything you expect from an entire newspaper -- in just 25 or so items, 1,000 or so words.... Readers who turned to Herb on Feb. 14, 1966, learned that Willie Mays' home was on the market for $110,000. The Bank of America now owned the block where it wanted to build its headquarters. "Dr. Zhivago" director David Lean was in town. Meanwhile, "Mike Connolly is ready to concede that the situation in Vietnam is complex: 'Even my cab driver can't come up with a solution.' "
Sports, business, movies and current affairs.
Caen had considerable influence on popular culture, particularly its language. He coined the term beatnik in 1958 and popularized hippie during San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love. (He is interviewed in the 1968 documentary Revolution.) He popularized obscure—often playful—terms such as Frisbeetarianism,[clarification needed] and ribbed nearby Berkeley as Berserkeley ("where time stands still", he said) for its often-radical politics. One of his many recurring if irregular features was "Namephreaks"—people with names (aptronyms) peculiarly appropriate or inappropriate to their vocations or avocations, such as post office cancellation machine operator Nancy Canceller.
Among the many San Francisco personalities making periodic appearances was Edsel Ford Fung, whose local reputation as "the world's rudest waiter" was largely thanks to Caen, who lamented him here in 1984:
SOME WOE around Sam Wo, the skinny three-story restaurant on Washington near Grant. Waiter (and one-time part owner) Edsel Ford Fung, who became famous for berating and insulting the customers, all with tongue in cheek, died Tuesday at age 55, and the skinny old eating place is in mourning. The wondrously named and actually quite charming Edsel was the son of Fung Lok, a former owner of Sam Wo, who named his sons Edsel, Edmund and Edwin – after the first names of the Caucasian doctors who delivered them. Edsel, always a fellow with a flair, added the Ford and hinted broadly that he was related to the auto family; an amused Henry Ford II made a special trip to Sam Wo to check out the rumor . . . By the way, there is no Sam Wo at Sam Wo. The name means something analogous to "Three Happiness," but there is only sadness there this week.
Now and then an item (usually a joke or pun) was credited to a mysterious "Strange DeJim", whose first contribution ("Since I didn't believe in reincarnation in any of my other lives, why should I have to believe in it in this one?") appeared in 1972. Sometimes suspected to be a Caen alter ego, de Jim (whose letters bore no return address, and who met Caen only once—by chance) was revealed after Caen's death to be a Castro District writer who, despite several coy interviews with the press, remains publicly anonymous.
Confidence in Caen was sufficiently high that when in 1985 he reported—mistakenly, as it turned out—that journalist Hunter S. Thompson had become night manager of the "adult" Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre several readers went there hoping to meet Thompson.
[t]he crowded garages and the empty old buildings above them, the half-filled nightclubs and the overfilled apartment houses, the saloons and the skies and the families huddled in the basements, the Third Street panhandlers begging for handouts in front of pawn shops filled with treasured trinkets, the great bridges and the rattle-trap street cars, the traffic that keeps moving although it has no place to go, thousands of newcomers glorying in the sights and sounds of a city they suddenly decided to love instead of leave."
A collection of essays, Baghdad-by-the-Bay (a term he'd coined to reflect San Francisco's exotic multiculturalism) was published in 1949, and Don't Call It Frisco—after a local judge's 1918 rebuke to an out-of-town petitioner ("No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles")—appeared in 1953. The Cable Car and the Dragon, a children's picture book, was published in 1972.
|“||If I do go to heaven, I'm going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to heaven. He looks around and says, It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco.||”|
In April 1996 Caen received a special Pulitzer Prize (which he called his Pullet Surprise) for "extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city". The following month doctors treating him for pneumonia discovered he had inoperable lung cancer.
June 14, 1996 was officially celebrated in San Francisco as Herb Caen Day. After a motorcade and parade ending at the Ferry Building, Caen was honored by "a pantheon of the city's movers, shakers, celebrities and historical figures" including television news legend Walter Cronkite. Noting that most of the city's present and former mayors were at liberty to attend, Caen quipped, "Obviously, the Grand Jury hasn't been doing its job."
Among other honors a promenade along the city's historic bayfront Embarcadero was christened "Herb Caen Way...". (Caen termed his work "three-dot journalism" for the ellipses separating his column's short items.) This was particularly appropriate given the recent demolition of an eyesore against which Caen had long campaigned: the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, built astride the Embarcadero forty years earlier and derided by Caen as "The Dambarcadero." A tribute to Caen was inserted in the Congressional Record.
Caen continued to write, though less frequently. He died February 1, 1997, survived by his fourth wife and a son from a previous marriage. His funeral at Grace Cathedral (broadcast live by the area's four network television affiliates) was followed by a candlelight procession to Aquatic Park, where Caen's will had provided for a fireworks display—climaxing with a pyrotechnic image of the manual typewriter he had long called his "Loyal Royal" (see image above).
"No other newspaper columnist ever has been so long synonymous with a specific place ... Part of his appeal seemed to lie in the endless bonhomie he projected," said his New York Times obituary, comparing him to Walter Winchell "but with the malice shorn off."
The Chronicle projected a one-fifth decline in subscriptions—surveys had shown that Caen was better-read than the front page. Fifteen years later reprints of Caen's columns remain a regular feature of the Chronicle.
- The San Francisco Book, Photographs by Max Yavno, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1948.
- Baghdad by the Bay, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1949.
- Baghdad: 1951, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1950.
- Don't Call It Frisco, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1953.
- Herb Caen's Guide to San Francisco, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1957.
- Only in San Francisco, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1960.
- San Francisco: City on Golden Hills, illustrated by Dong Kingman, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1967.
- The Cable Car and the Dragon, illustrated by Barbara Ninde Byfield. Doubleday (1972), reprinted by Chronicle Books (1986) (children's picture book)
- After 52 Years, Herb Caen Is Folding His Sunday Column
- SFGate.com. Archive. Herb Caen, April 2, 1958. Pocketful of Notes. Retrieved on June 4, 2009.
- SFGate.com. Archive. Herb Caen, June 25, 1967. Small thoughts at large. Retrieved on June 4, 2009;
- Haight's Fate on Screen. Revolution was reedited in 1996 as The Hippie Revolution.
- Lynch, April (February 8, 1997). "The Mystery Tipster, Strange de Jim, Tips His Hand at Last". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- Ford, Dave (January 23, 2004). "Strange but true: A character from Caen's column captures the character of the Castro". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Whiting, Sam (January 13, 2011). "Strange de Jim: Older, stranger, just as wonderful". San Francisco Chronicle.
- San Francisco Examiner, April 3, 1918. Don't Call It Frisco. Judge Mogan Rebukes Angeleno for Using Slang in His Petition for Divorce. Retrieved on March 31, 2009.
- Herb Caen, quoted in "Words from the heart". USA Today. February 16, 2001. p. D4.
- Lynch, April; Epstein, Edward (June 23, 2011). "Herb Caen Wins Pulitzer Prize / Columnist cited as 'voice and conscience' of S.F. for 58 years". The San Francisco Chronicle.
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