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Jack Smith

Another note on tossed-out, autographed books--Should Herb Caen be a book's keeper?

April 07, 1986|Jack Smith

Though I was wounded recently when I heard that a book I had autographed to Herb Caen had turned up in the Los Angeles County Public Library, I am restored to good humor by news that much the same thing has happened to Caen.

You may remember that I received a letter from Deanna Unternahrer of Agoura Hills saying that she had checked out a copy of a book of mine called "The Big Orange" and found the following inscription partly hidden by the library card pocket:

"For Herb Caen: Hoping this will help you find the place. Jack Smith."

I remembered writing that inscription, and remembered that I was referring to Caen's writing of Los Angeles that he had come here but "couldn't find the place."

I phoned Caen at once in his office at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he has been writing his column for 47 years (excepting eight years at the Examiner) and confronted him with the evidence.

The only thing he could think to say was, "It must have been one of my ex-wives."

Now, thanks to Norma Slick of Orange, I have my revenge.

"I was afraid that you might be feeling slighted," she writes, "because your signed book to Mr. Caen was found in a library collection. I thought it might cheer you to learn that a book by Mr. Caen met a similar fate.

"I bought a signed first edition of Mr. Caen's 'Baghdad by the Bay' at a garage sale for a quarter. The inscription has a touch of anti-Southern California sentiment. It says:

" 'For J. A., who really should be here--not way down there ! Greetings from the North. Herb Caen."

Evidently J. A.'s copy of Caen's eulogistic pieces about San Francisco (which he now calls "horrible, poetic, crappy") must have been disposed of by one of his ex-wives, no other reason for such discourtesy coming to mind.

Meanwhile, I have heard of two more autographed copies of my books that were similarly cast out.

"Shortly after reading your column in yesterday's Times magazine," writes Barbara Hopkins, "I accompanied my son to the Glendale Civic Auditorium for a show of paper collectibles.

"You guessed it--on one of the tables I spied a copy of 'The Big Orange' and inside it the inscription:

" 'For Helen Mac Elwell, my booster in Swarthmore, Pa. Jack Smith."

Edith Bailey of Playa del Rey writes that she was dusting books, came upon "The Big Orange," looked inside and saw that it was autographed: "To Joanne, a happy birthday. Jack Smith."

"Hate to tell you this," she adds, "but I bought the book at a garage sale in Westchester." Meanwhile, Dr. Ernest McCree Freedle Jr. of Upland sends me evidence that I am not the only author to have an autographed copy of a book discarded by Herb Caen.

"Your column re endorsed books turned out to pasture elicited a strong sense of deja vu ," he writes. "Some years ago, while browsing a San Francisco used bookstore, I found an autobiographical tome by Elinor Smith, 'Aviatrix.' I was surprised to find not only an inscription on the end papers, but also a mash note to Herb Caen."

Dr. Freedle enclosed a copy of the book jacket, showing the face of a fresh, smiling young woman in leather aviator's helmet and flying goggles, and the inscription, as follows:

"To Herb Caen: In the hope that he finds as much enjoyment in these pages as I have in years of reading his columns."

Besides the inscription, there is the note: "Dear Mr. Caen: As a fan of yours for many years, I was particularly intrigued with last Sunday's column on 'eras' and the way they become labeled.

"I trust you will accept and read the enclosed in the spirit in which it is offered.

"Like Helen O'Connell, had I known I was living through one of these 'golden' times, I would certainly have paid more attention!

"The moulding of public opinion often takes place in unforeseen ways."

Well, Caen's insensitivity in allowing Ms. Smith's book to turn up in a used bookstore has certainly shaped one man's opinion of him in an unforeseen way.

"Ms. Smith had gone to a great deal of trouble to present this to Mr. Caen," says Dr. Freedle. "He showed his gratitude by turning the gift book out to the secondhand bookstore. Furthermore, the book had not been read. (The spine had not been bent back or flattened, as required when opening a book fully.) Did Caen's 'wife' also toss this book? Doubtful. Such a cavalier arrogance! The man must be hard to embarrass. . . . It's amazing how fate works to reveal Mr. Caen. . . ."

I wouldn't go that far. I think Herb Caen is a gentle and compassionate man. Undoubtedly he receives many autographed copies of books from authors who hope for a mention in his column, which is very influential. According to an article on Caen in the current Washington Journalism Review, if he gives a restaurant a good plug it becomes a quick success.

The article also notes that Caen had trouble in his three marriages because he was married to his job, which keeps him out late night after night. I can well imagine that one of his wives might have tossed some of his books, especially those that were signed by flashy young women.

I wonder whatever happened to my booster, Helen Mac Elwell, in Swarthmore, Pa.?

Is it the end of an era?

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