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Jack Smith

San Francisco's mighty and humble, clad in black tie, celebrated 50 years of Herb Caen

July 14, 1986|Jack Smith

My wife and I drove up to San Francisco recently for the celebration of Herb Caen's 50th anniversary as a columnist for the Chronicle.

Fifty years may be too long for a writer of trivia to keep addressing the same audience; however, Caen had a 22-year head start on me; no need to worry that I will last that long.

Evidently excusing his 12-year defection to the Examiner, the Chronicle threw a dinner-dance for Caen in the marble halls of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park.

One reason my wife and I went was that the RSVP envelopes were stamped. That's class.

It was a glitzy San Francisco party. Black tie--even Herb's old barfly friends and fellow journalists were dressed. The women's gowns, my wife said, were more "original looking" than they are at Los Angeles black-tie parties. I was especially taken by one skirt that was slashed all the way up the thigh on both sides and in the back, with nothing underneath.

Guests were invited to tour the museum's marvelous exhibition of French Impressionist paintings, which had been sold out for weeks. It was beautifully mounted; many of the paintings were accompanied by quotations from contemporary reviews, most critics trashing the Impressionists' work as anti-art. One vilified Renoir, complaining that the famous painter of rosy women made women's flesh look putrescent.

It made me wonder if critics can ever be believed.

Caen had hand-picked the guests. They were the friends he had gathered in 50 years of reporting the life of the city in brief, snappy, often lyrical paragraphs separated by dots. (Caen himself calls the style dotulism .)

The mighty and the humble of San Francisco society were there. As the Chronicle reported the next day, the crowd included "old friends, new friends, an occasional enemy or two, socialites, politicians, show-biz personalities, restaurateurs, doctors and newspaper associates."

Among the politicians were Willie Brown, Speaker of the Assembly, and Dianne Feinstein, mayor of San Francisco. Considering the number of times she has been impaled on Caen's lance, Feinstein was gracious in reading a city scroll that eulogized his years as the city's diarist.

(Just to show that he hadn't lost his touch, Caen reported this ice-breaking event in his column the next day: "Her feelings about me, generally, are cold, wet and chilly . . . Don't get me wrong--I understand her attitude. She's a wonderful mayor and a fine, upstanding citizen, but there's something about her that invites needling. Maybe it's her Shirley Temple manquee quality--the way she shakes her curls, stamps her feet, clenches her little fists and says, 'By golly, we'll do it! Yessirree, we're all going to get out there and clean up that dirty old Tenderloin!'

"All she wants is to be treated with respect, as who doesn't, and calling her things like Lady DiFi, which I did for much too long, was sophmoronic and demeaning. Furthermore, she is the second most attractive mayor of a major American city, the first being, of course, Mayor Koch of New York. A lot of people say I look like him . . . ")

Cocktails were served among the stone sculptures in Asian Arts; dinner, with two dance bands, in the marble halls of Hearst Court. The tables were named for various historic San Francisco neighborhoods: Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Fisherman's Wharf, Coit Tower, with a place card for every guest.

Caen himself, of course, sat at Baghdad by the Bay, a name he gave the city many years ago. I was assigned to North Beach, but I was confused and a bit annoyed to find no place card for my wife at North Beach. It turned out wives and husbands had been deliberately separated. She was at the Japanese Tea Garden.

My amiability was restored, however, when I found myself sitting next to Cyra McFadden, whose best seller of some years ago, "The Serial," satirized life among the upwardly mobile of Marin County, across the bay, where souls were mated in hot tubs and the local language was psychobabble. (McFadden's new book, "Rain or Shine," is in the bookstores now and doing well.)

She turned out to be tall, slender, vivacious and very bright, which, of course, one would expect of the woman who wrote the first word on the self-indulgent California life style. (She now writes a column for the San Francisco Examiner.)

I took McFadden over to the Japanese Tea Garden table to introduce her to my wife. A few minutes later I took another young woman over to introduce her to my wife. This prompted a gentleman sitting next to my wife to observe:

"Your husband is a retriever."

"Yes?" she said, not sure what he meant.

"He keeps bringing us birds."

Every guest received a scroll that listed "50 Winners of 1936"--the year Caen went to work for the Chronicle. Like any year in this century, it was full of momentous events:

Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin. "The Great Ziegfeld" won the Academy Award for best picture. Stanford beat Southern Methodist in the Rose Bowl. King Edward VIII abdicated. The Queen Mary crossed the Atlantic in three days. The Chronicle won Herb Caen. And Herb Caen "won the heart of San Francisco."

At 11:30, Cyra McFadden and her husband offered to drive us back to our hotel, to save us waiting for a cab, and we accepted.

Herb Caen hadn't made his speech yet. "I was going to say something about you," he told me.

Maybe it's just as well we left.

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