Herb Caen’s 50 Years : Prophet of ‘The City’ Sees Decline

Times Staff Writers

In this most self-conscious of cities, one definition of a true San Franciscan is the ability to decipher the wicked, esoteric ramblings in the gossip column next to the Macy’s ad in the morning Chronicle.

Six days a week, for an affectionate, irreverent and decadent 50 years, Herbert Eugene Caen has defined what this city is and what it means to be a part of it. He has been the arbiter of what to dislike and whom to envy, and is one of the last truly powerful local columnists left in America.

“San Francisco is a concept. It is an idea, a legend, a myth,” explained Scott Newhall, former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Caen’s paper, “and Herb Caen is the prophet, the high priest of the mystique.”


Change in Theology

Lately, though, Caen’s close readers have noticed a change in his theology, a change that says something about this town. Increasingly, the 71-year-old columnist has turned sad about his city and skeptical of the mythology he helped to create.

“San Francisco is in the December of its years,” Caen wrote in a recent column. “Where did it all go haywire?”

“Where once we had ‘characters’ who were adopted and cared for by tycoons,” Caen wrote another day, “we now have people sleeping in the streets.”

Once the West’s lone citadel of civility, San Francisco today is beset with big-city problems. It has smog and traffic, homeless people and vacant high rises. Business is moving to the suburbs, finance to Los Angeles. The city survives in large part on tourism.

“I got a letter recently from a girl who said she had a choice of going to San Francisco or Disneyland,” Caen noted bitterly.

Civic Narcissism

In part, Caen attributes what he sees as San Francisco’s decline to the civic narcissism that his column has epitomized. And others agree.

“He understood this city,” said Frank McCulloch, managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner. “The nihilism, the isolationism. This city loves its own belly button.”

It also loves Caen, though in some quarters the ardor has cooled. Recently, he has come under fire from other Bay Area journalists who believe he accepts free meals and vacations in exchange for plugs in his column, and that he uses his influence to help his friends.

Caen denies all this, as do his friends, but restaurateurs and some of his past associates say privately that he often does not pay his own way.

With all that, however, Caen’s column remains the city’s primary meeting place. It is the most important feature in the morning Chronicle, said Executive Editor William German--more widely read, according to surveys, than Page One.

The meeting place is a wander ing, whimsical pastiche of about 20 items: Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s “Planet of the Apes” hairdo, good friend and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s new Ferrari, quips from society people heard over dinner at the Fairmont, crusades about good taste and civic propriety, and loving musings about The City.

The mythological San Francisco that Caen invented and dubbed “Baghdad by the Bay” was a dream at the end of the continent, a “temple to tolerance” and “safe harbor for the lost souls of faraway tragedies.”

It was a place filled with bookies, poets and rogue politicians who gathered for sharp talk in Madam Sally Stanford’s whorehouse salon. It was “run-down cable cars that still run up the hills . . . the Bay Bridge, hunching its thin shoulders and reaching out to clutch the Oakland shore . . . the Chinatown market owner chasing a squawking white duck along Grant Avenue . . . crooked streets, crooked tunnels, and honest cops who wear old-fashioned seven-point stars.”

A “Real San Franciscan,” Caen wrote, curls his lip “when he sees women downtown in slacks and men in sideburns.” One knows it’s important to jaywalk, to wear a tie downtown and never to wear socks with sandals.

Shaped City’s Image

It was a creation culled from reality, history books and Caen’s own fantasies, but over time an ethos evolved, a philosophy based in great part on equating irreverence with sophistication. And whether he invented or merely reflected the town, Caen’s ethos became the city’s.

It had to do, as California Magazine writer Michael Fessier Jr. put it, with “the essential unseriousness of life, the value of the trivial, the idiosyncratic, the slightly kinked and the attractively obsolete.” Even the column’s structure, held together by ellipses, puns and double-entendres, implied resistance to anything so dull as logic.

The son of a Depression-era billiards hall proprietor, Caen came to San Francisco at the age of 22 to write a radio column for the Chronicle. He had joined the Sacramento Union as a clerk out of high school and won notice in San Francisco by peddling his columns around the state.

Within two years, Caen was writing about the city, a three-dot gossip column mostly about nightclubs, modeled after Walter Winchell’s and Ed Sullivan’s in New York.

In the ‘60s he opposed the war and railed against razing the old city to make way for its “Manhattanization,” but he never railed for long. Brevity averts boredom.

Influence Is Tangible

Sometimes the impact of Caen’s popularity is tangible, if somewhat whimsical. He forced the installation of a radio antenna in the Broadway Street tunnel after he missed a key play in a Giants game, and had a “Last S.F. Exit” sign posted just before that point on the Bay Bridge after he found himself too often in Oakland.

Others say that Caen has used his popularity to exert a less concrete and not entirely positive influence on the city’s life. State Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), for example, goes so far as to call Caen a part of the city’s “moral debilitation.” Others say that his irreverence and abhorrence of the serious has affected the city politically.

“The surface is fun and lively,” said Jerry Lubenow, Newsweek magazine’s longtime San Francisco bureau chief who, in 1984, worked briefly at the Chronicle as a high-ranking editor. “Who cares what’s below the surface? So what if they are on the take?”

Some Bay Area journalists believe Caen himself is vulnerable on the matter of ethics.

Ads Seen as ‘Conflict’

First among their complaints are the television and newspaper advertisements for a local thrift company--San Francisco Federal Savings & Loan Co.--that Caen began doing in 1981. Ads with Caen pitching the S&L;'s rates even appear in the Chronicle. He also has done ads for Honda.

“If he were a politician his paper would rightly be writing about this obvious conflict,” said an executive for a rival financial institution who asked for anonymity because he said he feared Caen might be angry.

“Philosophically, I don’t like doing commercials,” Caen said, “but it was a matter of dollars and cents.” He said he needed the money to put his son, Christopher, through Stanford University.

If the ads--which Caen says Chronicle Editor and Publisher Richard T. Thieriot approved--represent a conflict of interest, it is at least a public one.

Caen’s critics also say that he accepts meals, trips and even free clothes from some of the people he writes about. Most newspapers prohibit such conduct.

“That’s Herb’s Achilles’ heel,” said Ben Bagdikian, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Caen, who until this year had no expense account with the paper and covered his costs from his salary of more than $120,000 a year, denies such charges:

“I’ve bent over backwards to get the check.” And he sneers at the value of such gratuities: “You can’t buy a plug with a free dinner anyway, or a free drink. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Some restaurateurs in town, however, contradict his account.

“He doesn’t pay,” said the manager of an exclusive Nob Hill restaurant Caen occasionally frequents. The manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the restaurant picks up the tab, tip included.

“What would happen if we did send him a bill? That’s what we don’t want to find out.”

“I would love to think Herb Caen pays for everything,” said an executive of a well-known downtown restaurant who once managed another favorite night spot of Caen’s. “But I know he doesn’t pay when he comes here,” nor at the previous establishment.

Questions about Caen’s ethics took a more significant turn two years ago, when two of his friends became the targets of investigations.

One case involved clothier Wilkes Bashford, whose name has appeared in Caen’s column 41 times over the past two years. In 1985, Bashford was charged with underpaying the rent on his store, which was then in a city-owned building. He eventually pleaded no contest and repaid nearly $800,000 in criminal penalties.

David James Burr--a Bashford store accountant--told the grand jury that Caen’s bills at Bashford’s went directly to the store, rather than to Caen’s home, and that his was the only account handled in such a manner.

“Somebody made the payment. I don’t know who,” Burr testified. He said he believed that Bashford himself paid for Caen’s clothes. “I assumed it was for publicity. . . . I assumed it was good will, to keep our name in the column.”

Based in part on that testimony, Deputy District Atty. John Carbone subpoenaed the records of Caen’s account at the haberdashery. Shortly afterward, without mentioning the subpoena, Caen blasted the investigation, saying it smacked of “witch hunt and vendetta.”

Bashford’s lawyer, George Walker, said there was “no question” that Caen paid for his clothes. Carbone, however, told The Times that the subpoenaed records were incomplete, that there was no proof that Caen did or did not pay his bills.

The second case involved William Oldenburg, a businessman who employed Caen’s then-girlfriend, publicist Donna Ewald. Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp. has filed a lawsuit accusing Oldenburg of fraud and misappropriation of funds in the operation of a Utah thrift. His once-prosperous San Francisco loan brokerage also has closed.

It was Ewald who introduced Caen and Oldenburg. In 1983 and 1984, while she was working for the financier and dating the columnist, Caen wrote about Oldenburg’s firm, calling it “go-go-go” and “hot-hot . . . would you believe billions!”

Defenses in Column

Caen now says he believes Oldenburg hired Ewald to get his name into the column. Ewald refused to discuss the matter.

While the investigations of Bashford and Oldenburg were going on, Caen defended both men and called the reporters covering the cases “vendetta journalists . . . out to ‘get’ somebody . . . as though driven by a personal hatred, based either on jealousy or a desire to look ‘macho.’ ”

“I could have been wrong about Oldenburg. I guess he did hurt some people. I don’t think Wilkes hurt anybody,” Caen said in an interview. “I guess I regret that column, now that I think about it. I guess I was bored by the whole story.”

Caen’s readers, however, have begun to detect not just boredom, but disenchantment. Recently, Caen called San Francisco “a restless city that lost its way.” In another column he lamented that, “The old town lives on in bits and pieces, no longer connected into the congenial whole.”

As a young man, Caen also reminisced about the city past, the San Francisco of the ferry boats and bookies, before the bridges. But the message was always affectionate, as if the spirit of the old town lived on in the present.

‘I Try to Fake It’

Now the modern city seems inadequate to sustain the illusion. “I can’t write about it the way I used to,” Caen said. “I try to fake it every once in a while and . . . you can tell . . . I’m putting it on. It ain’t there.”

In one especially sad column, Caen wrote about running into “the guy who used to be me,” at Enrico’s, a favorite North Beach restaurant now up for sale and another sign of the times.

“‘You won’t like to hear this, but you’ve got to stop living in the past,”’ Caen said to his fictional self.

“ ‘You meet a better class of people there,’ he shot back . . . . ‘Besides,’ he went on, more softly, ‘I don’t live in the past, but I enjoy reminiscing . . . ‘

“ ‘Y’know, you’re beginning to depress me,’ ” Caen wrote to his former self.

Critics, in fact, say that Caen has lost touch with contemporary San Francisco.

Dismisses Social Shift

Caen concedes, “I don’t know anything at all about the Cambodians, the Vietnamese,” (groups that have helped to reinvigorate the run-down Tenderloin district) “but I don’t think it’s column material for me anyway . . . . I can’t see any short, snappy items coming out of the Vietnamese refugees.”

On the other hand, he acknowledges that “there’s a lot of resistance in the city to change. That’s why the city is in trouble on almost every front . . . and I contributed to that by waving the flag.”

And that, as Caen sees it, is part of the problem with the city today. It has gotten so that even the familiar “San Francisco cry” is inadequate:

“ ‘No matter how bad we are, we’re better than anybody else.’ That, unfortunately, is the spirit that made us what we are--a little sloppy around the edges.”

Hasn’t that been Herb Caen’s slogan for the past 50 years?

“I plead guilty,” Caen said.