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A City Without Its Poet

He saw San Francisco as a dream cloaked in fog, a magic city part Paris and part Brigadoon that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

It was a mystical island of beautiful people, soft jazz and cognac-colored nights. Laughter never stopped there and parties never ended.

No one loved San Francisco more than Herb Caen and, quite likely, no one ever will again. He was its poet and its prophet for almost 60 years and when he died Saturday, a lyrical voice was silenced.

Even when his column was strictly three-dot gossip and not an essay of love to his City, there was still a poetic quality to it, a rhythm that echoed the clang of cable cars and the mournful bellow of foghorns on the bay.

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He called his essays corny and his itemized name-dropping “the stoop labor of newspapering,” but we all knew he loved what he was doing because you can’t write a column the way he could unless you do.

I began reading Caen in college, and when I wrote for the student newspaper at San Francisco State I tried to emulate him, but trying to copy a master is an exercise in futility. I dropped the effort before the term was over.

He was Mr. Three Dot and no one could ever do it better.

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Beyond his qualities as a newspaper columnist, Caen was a nice guy, the way Jack Smith was a nice guy, despite the levels of fame each had achieved.

When I began writing a column for the Oakland Tribune in 1963, one of my first fan letters was from Caen.

He didn’t know me from nothin’ but began reading me right from the start and welcomed me to the world of commentary with the grace of a maitre d’.

I learned later that he did a lot of that, but the recognition was no less meaningful to someone just getting started in an area of newspapering that is simultaneously compelling and terrifying.

He invited me to lunch occasionally at places like Banducci’s in North Beach, where writers like Alex Haley and Herb Gold used to go. Caen made it his job to introduce me to all of them.

He pointed out the best places to eat in San Francisco and said you could always tell if a restaurant was any good by the quality of its veal.

I only remember him coming to Oakland once where, he joked, veal hadn’t been invented yet. We ate at the old Sea Wolf in Jack London Square, and when I asked him to define Oakland he said it was the only city in the world that could make a square out of Jack London.

It was not so much a put-down of Oakland as an elevation, by comparison, of San Francisco, because Caen would often admit in less competitive moments that San Francisco probably only existed in his imagination anyway.

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That didn’t stop him, however, from saying to me when I left the Bay Area for L.A. that I’d better take a box lunch because there was no place to eat south of Santa Barbara.

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Caen’s influence reached down here through his friend and contemporary Jack Smith, and when I came to the L.A. Times it was Smith who became one of my biggest supporters.

They were alike in many ways, those two masters of commentary, even though their writing styles couldn’t have been more different. Both were gentlemen of the highest order and totally selfless when it came to their colleagues.

Smith lobbied on my behalf when, after about a 10-year hiatus, I decided I wanted to write a column again, only this time in L.A., not Oakland.

A few years later when Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane died, Caen lobbied for me to take his place in San Francisco but understood when I turned the job down.

We both knew that the movement and the muscle in newspapering had shifted south, and the place to be if you were in journalism was down here. San Francisco may have been a precious jewel, but we owned the jewelry store.

“San Francisco has grown old disgracefully,” Caen would write, “from raving beauty to crone. Los Angeles is far ahead of us. It’s outta sight.”

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But the city he created will never grow old and ugly. It continues to exist as the fog-cloaked dream that emerged from the sometimes hard, sometimes airy, poetry of one who saw it clearer than anyone else.

The deaths of Jack Smith and Herb Caen leave me feeling alone and uneasy in the joy and pain of writing a newspaper column. I miss them both. They were golden.

Researching this piece online I came across the Chronicle home page that contained a recorded message by Caen. It said simply, “It’s great to be in touch with all of you!” And it was great for all of us, those many years, to have been in touch with him.

Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com


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