Herb Caen, America’s most enduring metropolitan newspaper columnist and the man who served as this city’s social and cultural compass for more than half a century, died early Saturday of lung cancer. He was 80.
Caen died at Pacific Medical Center with his wife, Ann, at his side. He had been found to have inoperable cancer last April and sporadically wrote his column in the San Francisco Chronicle despite his failing health.
In recognition of the special place Caen held in his “Baghdad by the Bay,” Mayor Willie Brown ordered the city’s flags flown at half-staff.
“He was an extraordinary human being,” Brown said. “He was so interested in life and so well-informed and so inquisitive about everything and so ordinary in many respects. He was constantly in pursuit of the truth. He loved to tell the story.”
President Clinton, in a statement issued by the White House, said no one knew San Francisco better than Caen. “If we listen carefully on those cool mornings when the fog has boiled through the Golden Gate, out beyond the clattering of cables underfoot and the low moan of the horn at Alcatraz, maybe we will still hear Herb Caen’s wonderful, witty, irrepressible voice,” Clinton said.
Former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, who had known Caen since World War II, said, “I’ve lost a friend, San Francisco has lost its most passionate lover, and the world has lost a fine journalist.”
A clever writer with a wicked sense of humor, Caen had a gift for weaving gossip, one-liners, news scoops and miscellany into an insightful and entertaining daily diary of San Francisco life.
His witty musings in the Chronicle won him a Pulitzer Prize and loyal masses of readers, who would sooner skip their morning espresso than miss the column that bestowed a sense of place and style on this city for nearly 60 years.
Charmed by his odes to their hometown, Caen’s devotees wrote him 1,000 letters a week, which he tried his best to answer. Surveys by the Chronicle confirmed his popularity; most readers digested his column--buried deep in the newspaper--before turning to Page 1.
Such readership gave Caen tremendous influence, making him the city’s most powerful arbiter of what and who was in or out. A harsh word could doom a restaurant or stall a politician’s career; a plug could enrich a charity or extend a stage play’s run for years.
Caen’s stamina was extraordinary as well. In a profession where burnout is a common workplace peril, he kept going and going--shunning computers and pecking away with two fingers on his “loyal Royal” typewriter to the end. His first column appeared July 5, 1938, and he continued writing 1,000 words a day, six days a week, through the 1980s. Later, he slowed a bit--first to five days a week and then to three, after he disclosed that doctors had found a tumor “the size of a pigeon egg” on his lung last April.
His writing streak--broken only by a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II--made Caen the longest-running columnist in U.S. history. His mentor, New York’s Walter Winchell, quit after 40 years.
In his never-ending pursuit of material, Caen lived the life of a bon vivant, trolling the city’s nightspots and opera openings in his natty suits and trademark fedora, gulping vodka--his beloved “Vitamin V"--with big shots and politicos.
Despite keeping such company, he did not hesitate to impale the rich and mighty on his pen. And he often championed the little guy or a social cause that caught his eye.
“Even though he spent a lot of time writing about the beautiful people, the fact is that he remained a part of the city as a whole,” said Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley. “He rode the public buses, he walked the city. He never divorced himself--socially or politically--from ordinary people.”
Caen was proud of that trait, but once said his contributions to the English language made him happiest of all. A deft wordsmith, he coined the term “beatnik"--which made Webster’s New World Dictionary--and many others.
Although he was dubbed “Mr. San Francisco,” Herbert Eugene Caen was born in Sacramento on April 3, 1916. His father, Lucien, was a traveling whiskey salesman and proprietor of a billiard parlor. His mother, Augusta, was an opera singer who inspired young Herbert to take up the piano, which he played faithfully until discovering baseball at the age of 15.
About the same time, Caen launched a column called “Corridor Gossip"--with the byline “Raisin’ Caen"--for his high school paper. Caen’s sister and only sibling, Estelle, once remarked that he was perfect for the job--"a born busybody.”
After graduating from high school, Caen turned professional, landing a job at the Sacramento Union. He was paid $11 a week and later marveled at his good fortune, noting that the Depression was in full swing and work was scarce. The job demanded all his time, so he dropped out of Sacramento Junior College.
Caen intended to quit journalism and become an architect. But in 1936, an opportunity at the Chronicle surfaced, and the self-described “greenhorn from the valley” leaped at the chance to become “a San Franciscan, that most favored of mortals.”
So at the age of 20, he headed West, and later recounted his arrival, by ferry, in the city he christened “Baghdad by the Bay.” Standing at the ship’s prow, he shook his fist at the looming skyline and declared, “I’ll lick you yet, San Francisco.” His bravado ebbed, however, when a stiff gust blew his new hat off his head and into the choppy bay.
For two years, Caen wrote a radio column for the Chronicle. But in 1938--the year after the Golden Gate Bridge opened--he began writing about San Francisco under the title “It’s News to Me.” His column was of the “three-dot” variety popular then--a series of amusing observances, esoterica and gossip items strung together, with ellipses in between.
At first, Caen’s contribution to the journalistic chorus went unnoticed; as an outsider and hick in a very clubby, snobbish city, Caen was, after all, a nobody. But then he lit upon a formula that would distinguish the rest of his career.
“What made the column was when I started to get corny and descriptive about San Francisco . . . which I did because I ran out of items a couple of nights,” he told the Washington Journalism Review in 1986. “I wrote these horrible, poetic, crappy things about the city, and people ate it up. . . . From then on, I was in.”
Kevin Starr, a California historian, said Caen’s timing was golden. After suffering a devastating earthquake in 1906, San Francisco in the late 1930s was a city “creating a renewed image of itself as a favored place of elegance, sophistication and culture.
“The city wanted its myth celebrated, expressed, probed and analyzed,” Starr said. “Herb Caen was just the man for the job.”
Over time, of course, San Francisco changed radically from the “fog-misted dream world” Caen so ardently described. There was the decline of shipping and the waterfront, the flower child 1960s, the rise of gay rights and AIDS. Urban problems from which Caen’s San Francisco had seemed immune crept in--homelessness, crime, litter on the streets.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, said Caen enjoyed talking about the city’s sometimes tawdry past.
“He talked about the days gone by of swashbuckling, the old Barbary Coast kind of town, which I think he lamented the loss of,” said Feinstein (D-Calif.).
A professional nostalgist, Caen by the mid-1980s had grown somewhat cynical about “the city that knows how.” At the same time, he drew criticism for being out of touch with the “new San Francisco” and the new people--minorities, especially--who made it tick.
Other detractors accused him of having lax ethical standards. It was said, for instance, that he traded plugs in his column for free meals, clothes and vacations--a charge he denied. And in the early 1980s, he appeared in advertisements for a local savings and loan, a practice critics called a conflict of interest.
Through it all, Caen kept typing, maintaining a devotion to his craft so slavish that it contributed to three divorces. Aside from the gossip--parceled out under headings like “Caenfetti"--column staples included silly “namephreaks” like “Buzz Minnow,” a local fisherman, and “Give Pizza Chance.” Particularly popular were his sneers at “lesser” cities. Chico was the “Velveeta capital of the world,” and “Lozangeles” was a dreaded civic nightmare, to be avoided at all costs.
Except for an eight-year stint at the San Francisco Examiner, Caen remained at the Chronicle, inhabiting a spartan office with an assistant to help with the mounds of mail. Last year, Caen won a special Pulitzer Prize for being the “voice and conscience of his city.”
How was he able to endure through the generations? Frank McCullough, former managing editor of the Examiner, credited Caen’s bedrock reporting skills, calling him “a leg man, a beat reporter who always had the capacity to be funny, to be wry, to be nasty and to do it all very briefly.”
Caen himself once summed up his success this way: “I guess I’ve just become a habit.” And that, he said, “is the luckiest thing that can happen to anybody.”
In addition to his wife, Ann, he is survived by his son, Christopher.
Memorial services are pending.