Herb Caen spent almost six decades writing a love song to his adopted city, praising its beauty, style and unique place in the world. On Friday, the city returned that love, its residents gathering to remember the man whose Pulitzer Prize-winning column was a must-read for generations.
“Today, San Francisco stands as one,” William Swing, Episcopal bishop of California, said as he opened a memorial service before more than 3,000 people in the vast splendor of Grace Cathedral.
“I welcome you to Grace Cathedral, knowing full well that Herb Caen’s cathedral was the city of San Francisco, and his prayer was, ‘God, I love this city.’ ”
Caen’s fans and friends began gathering outside the cathedral at dawn Friday to mark his death last Saturday at the age of 80 from lung cancer. They lined up around the block to take part in the remembrance of his collection of local news, gossip and jokes that amused generations of San Francisco Chronicle readers.
Mayor Willie Brown, obviously moved by the death of his friend, praised Caen for writing a thousand words a day, six days a week for more than 58 years, all on a Royal manual typewriter.
“That’s 18 million words, all celebrating life and celebrating the life of his readers,” he told the congregation. He recalled some of Caen’s references to city government, including his use of “Silly Hall” and dubbing Brown “His Willieness.”
Caen’s column, he said, was “so direct, so homey, so folksy, so San Francisco, so Herb Caen.”
Comedian Robin Williams, a friend of Caen’s, told a string of one-liners that brought roars of appreciation.
“Being a famous journalist is like being the best-dressed woman on radio,” he said.
Williams described Caen as an “amazing combination of elegance and funk.”
“I’m sorry you had to leave, man, but you’re still here,” he said.
By the time Grace Cathedral opened its doors at 10 a.m., thousands of people had gathered, from the cream of the city’s society to the blue-collar men and women Caen mentioned so often.
“We wanted to be first,” said Steve Keller, 49, of Concord, Calif., who began reading the column as a boy in San Diego when his grandmother mailed it to his mother. “Herb was terrific. If he’s been part of your life for 49 years, it’s nice to say farewell.”
Those in line included Tom Sweeney, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel doorman, whose Beefeater costume and gracious style was mentioned often in Caen’s column.
“It’s pretty sad,” he said. “He opened the door to a career as a doorman for me. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Several hundred people stood in nearby Huntington Park, where a jazz band and an orchestra performed.
And the cable cars that Caen loved so much clattered by on California Street, each one bearing signs reading, “Herb Caen--Our Bells Ring in Tribute to You.”
But some in the city’s black community were miffed that Caen’s memorial was scheduled for the same time as one for one of their journalistic heroes, Carlton Goodlett, who owned the Sun Reporter, a nationally acclaimed black community newspaper.
“There’s no question that both should receive proper send-offs,” said City Assessor Doris Ward, “but Carlton’s [service] was first.”