Dragon Has S.F. Toeing the Line of Good Taste

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a caring city, a compassionate city, a city named, after all, for a saint. So it has been with real feeling this week that San Francisco has reacted to the Komodo dragon attack on the poor, unshod left foot of Phil Bronstein, the executive editor of its biggest newspaper:

"I only wish the person who suggested Mr. Bronstein remove his shoes had advised him to go in naked," Mayor Willie Brown offered, cackling.

"What everyone wants to know is, is it true that he tasted like chicken?" hooted Michael McCourt, who tends bar in the Marina District and who is the brother of Frank and Malachy McCourt, the authors.

"What were the last words Bronstein heard before he stepped into the cage? 'Tom Cruise would do it!' " reported San Francisco Weekly staffer Peter Byrne.

"Geez, I hope the dragon's OK," worried Clint Reilly, the former political consultant who, in 1993, walked into Bronstein's newsroom to complain about one of his reporters and left with a broken ankle. Reilly's injury, which required nine screws and a metal plate to fix, coincidentally put his left foot out of commission.

"Yeah, just talking about it, the steel plate in my leg is bending!" Reilly shivered. "Seriously, I was thinking of donating $10,000 to the L.A. Zoo for the perpetual care and feeding of that dragon. I heard it got food poisoning."

Yes, it has been that kind of week here for Bronstein, the tall-and-dark newsman with the celebrity wife and the colorful personal history. "Dragon attacks editor, Mistakes his foot for rat," gloated the rival Examiner, which on Monday ran stories on Pages 1, 2 and 3, maximizing mentions of Bronstein's spouse, Sharon Stone, who had surprised Bronstein with the dragon visit as a Father's Day present.

On Tuesday, the Examiner's columnist, P.J. Corkery, ran the worst of the bad jokes that were coming in by the score, even with the Examiner's meager circulation. ("At least Phil wasn't sitting on the Komodo when he was bitten" . . . .) By Wednesday, not even Bronstein's own people were able to resist. "Please stop sending me dumb jokes I couldn't run even if I wanted to," huffed Chronicle columnist Rob Morse, running three, plus a quip his paper's managing editor had made to a TV station: "Whatever else can be said about this, it certainly set the bar very high for Father's Day."

The authors of the San Francisco Weekly's media column, "Dog Bites," renamed it "Dragon Bites" in Bronstein's honor. Other reporters wondered, on and off the record, whether Bronstein should blame his wife for the injuries that will necessitate months of physical therapy.

"The joke around the Chronicle is that this was Sharon's payback for those pictures in the Daily Star," whispered one local scribe, referring to some shots published last month in the British tabloids of Bronstein having a drink with a public relations woman at W, a fashionable hotel. ("Love on Rocks for Sad Stone" read the headline.)

Meanwhile, letters from Chronicle readers were less sorry for Bronstein than astonished at the laxity of the Los Angeles Zoo. "Whose bright idea was it to remove the white shoes from the white feet of a white man in the hopes of not confusing a near-sighted, simple-minded, ravenously hungry lizard (accustomed to a diet of white rats)?" one reader wrote.

The Bay Guardian linked the incident with a half-baked East Coast-West Coast feud Bronstein recently provoked when, during a speech to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists here, he made a remark that sounded as if he thought Jimmy Breslin had died. The New York columnist and author promptly teed off on Bronstein, despite Bronstein's attempts, then and after, to explain that he had actually said that Breslin was "older," not "over."

(Breslin, elaborating by phone, happily picked up for The Times where he'd left off with the Bay Guardian, after ascertaining that Bronstein "ain't hurt too bad, is he?" "Well, then," the columnist yelled, "what the [expletive] was he doin' in a zoo in Los Angeles? Since when is that the place to edit a San Francisco paper? What I think is, the [expletive] tried to bury me and then went out and tried to commit suicide.")

More serious injuries--or perhaps a less intriguing victim--might have elicited a gentler reaction. Bronstein, 50, has pulled some of the goofiest stunts in newspaperdom and had some of the biggest scoops. He's been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, a foreign correspondent and the butt of "Mr. Sharon Stone" jokes. The Examiner once ran an ad claiming he'd been the first reporter to see Imelda Marcos' shoe collection; he wasn't, but his reputation as a reporter was formidable.

In the past year, he's become a powerful presence as the head of the Chronicle newsroom, which now employs Bronstein's old Examiner staff plus the Chronicle's full roster of journalists. His investigative forays into City Hall have infuriated Willie Brown.

But even among the sort of people who aren't glad to see media big shots nipped by 7-foot lizards, the response has been more merry than sympathetic.

"For better or worse, Phil is one of a great line of San Francisco characters," explained Ken Berry, program director of KGO Newstalk 810, where callers have been weighing in on Shoeless Phil and the Dragon all week, between rants on the McVeigh execution.

"Things," Berry said, "just seem to happen to Phil."

"I don't think it's a lack of sympathy," agreed Dennis Opatrny, a veteran San Francisco journalist who has known and liked Bronstein for decades and who now writes for a legal affairs publication. "It's just a funny episode for someone who considers himself swashbuckling, or whatever. But he has always had a sense of humor about things."

Take, for example, Bronstein's alligator caper, which has been repeatedly cited this week as an eerie foreshadowing of the Komodo run-in.

In the summer of 1996, an alligator that was either 3 feet or 5 feet long, was reported to be holed up in a murky little lake in a park in the Inner Richmond District. Seizing the opportunity for a publicity stunt, the Chronicle flew in a big-belt-buckled alligator wrangler from the Florida swamplands to trap it. Bronstein, who was executive editor of the rival Examiner at the time, responded with his own rescue mission. He rented two wetsuits and drafted Opatrny, who worked for him.

"So we go to this outdoor men's room and start putting on the wetsuits," Opatrny remembered, "and I go, 'Phil, hurry up because the park ranger's gonna stop us from going in the lake.' And I'm in my suit, and it's getting hot, and when he finally comes out, here comes the ranger and a bunch of cameras--somebody's tipped 'em. And while Phil's holding a press conference, somebody looks down and notices he's not even wearing dive boots--he's still got his black tennis shoes on!

"It was all show and no go. I was fryin' in that wetsuit, but hey, if the ranger had let us go in, who knows? Maybe Phil would've gotten his toe bitten then. I only hope he heals in time for his next animal adventure. Maybe we can go diving for Great Whites next."

Chronicle investigative reporter Lance Williams said that for those who know Bronstein--and San Francisco--the dragon bite was to have been expected. What interested him, he said, was that Mayor Brown was so quick to poke fun, given his response several years ago when three activists hit him in the face with pies to protest his policies on homelessness.

Brown pressed felony assault charges, and the pie-throwers were sentenced to six months apiece on misdemeanor battery convictions. "I guess 'funny' is relative," Williams said.

"Obviously what happened to [Bronstein] was a horrifying and terrifying experience," concurred Cindi Berger, Sharon Stone's publicist. Berger, however, was stifling amusement in her next breath. Yes, she confirmed, she'd been the source for that New York gossip item in which Bronstein was said to be mulling a dragon adoption from his Los Angeles hospital bed.

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