Score One for Oakland : It’s Official: Court in S.F. Finds There Really Is a There Over There

Times Staff Writer

What was the there that wasn’t there for alleged Oakland-hater Gertrude Stein?

Stein, the expatriate writer who was raised in Oakland, has been on the Oakland Chamber of Commerce’s enemies list ever since she wrote, “There is no there there,” after a return visit to the city in 1934.

The question of exactly what Stein meant was taken up here Thursday at the Court of Historical Review and Appeals, a tribunal that attempts to clear up important historical controversies, such as who invented the fortune cookie.

Stein’s works did not become popular until the 1950s, and it was during that period that San Francisco columnist Herb Caen dredged up the quote to needle the rival city across the bay.


Oakland-bashing has been something of a sport ever since. (Sample: “The best thing about Oakland is the view of San Francisco.”)

Any nemesis of Oakland is a friend of San Francisco’s, so Bernard Averbuch, president of the San Francisco Boosters and founder of the Court of Historical Review, believed it was time to re-raise the issue. After all, who could be harmed, except, perhaps, Oakland?

Municipal Judge Dorothy von Beroldingen presided over a one-hour, noontime session in San Francisco City Hall that featured opposing attorneys, five witnesses (one of whom sang most of her testimony) and innumerable adverbs.

One attorney, Oakland-born Frank Winston, wondered straight-faced whether his city “could get a fair trial” in San Francisco. He admitted beforehand that, like Oakland, he’d had some setbacks, having lost his previous 10 cases before the historical court.


In his most recent defeat, he had failed to convince a judge that the fortune cookie was invented in Los Angeles, not San Francisco.

“Actually,” Averbuch said in an aside, "(former Sen.) S. I. Hayakawa later told me it was invented in Japan and I tend to believe him.”

Winston opened by charging that Stein’s comment had “injured Oakland even more than Al Davis (the owner who moved the town’s Raiders to Los Angeles).”

Questioning Prof. Stephen Dobbs, a local professor of arts and humanities, Winston thundered in mock theatrical style: “What could be more artful and less humane about a city than to say, ‘There is no there there.’ ”


Dobbs, however, asserted that Stein’s line has been taken out of context and theorized that her “theres” referred to “lost youth” and “childhood memories.” She was returning after an absence of more than 30 years, he pointed out, and her childhood home had been torn down.

In fact, a few passages before her comments about Oakland, Stein writes of how “we came into San Francisco, it was frightening, quite frightening,” adding later, “It did make me feel uncomfortable.”

Do the “its” indict San Francisco any more than the “theres” indict Oakland?

“All I know is she couldn’t write at all,” said Winston, obviously not a fan of the stream-of-consciousness mode. “Those are the writings of a disheveled mind.”


Another witness, San Francisco City Treasurer Mary Callinan, wondered whether the George M. Cohan song, “Over There,” was a tribute to Oakland. She sang most of her testimony to that tune.

Robert Begley, former president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, testified that as a youth, he was once ordered to stay after school for misbehaving.

“I was told, ‘Be there at 4 p.m.,’ ” he recalled, “and when I said, ‘But there’s no there there,’ I was given two more hours of punishment.”

Attorney Rodney McLeod, Winston’s adversary, concluded his case by intoning: “What it is, what it is.”


At that point, Von Beroldingen pulled out her written decision, causing Winston to wonder out loud later whether she might have made up her mind a bit early.

Von Beroldingen ruled that Stein, rather than ridiculing Oakland, was only “expressing her dismay that she was unable to recapture many of (her) memories. . . . Borrowing from Dorothy Parker, it is the court’s opinion that Gertrude Stein would have agreed, ‘Some things are better left undone--returning to a place is one.’ ”