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Jack Smith

Like a disgruntled Soviet athlete, San Francisco's Herb Caen defected to Los Angeles during the Olympic Games

May 12, 1987|JACK SMITH

As a friend, colleague, admirer and playful opponent of Herb Caen, I read with inescapable bias the recent Times story suggesting that Caen is "disenchanted" with San Francisco, and has "lost touch" with the city he loves.

At 71 Caen has surely lost some of his ardor. For all I know his feet hurt. His column in the Chronicle is older than the bridges. He has seen the shipping go. He has seen the Embarcadero touristized. He has seen the skyline Manhattanized.

Does he really want to live long enough to see his city Los Angelesized?

Yes. He does.

The secret of Herb Caen's apparent disenchantment with San Francisco is that over the years he himself has become Los Angelesized. He is like one of those gourds in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." He is a time bomb, ticking away in the heart of the city, waiting to blow it apart with the ultimate betrayal.

Despite the invective he has poured on us for decades, the truth is that Herb Caen likes Los Angeles. Deep down he is enamored of the city he has long pretended to despise.

Caen's defection first became noticeable when he came down here for the Olympic Games and "wrote so glowingly of the place that old-time San Franciscans thought I had taken leave of my senses."

Recently, Caen sneaked into town for another look and wrote, "I dressed carefully for the occasion in what I considered Terminal L.A. Dapper (Panama hat, beige gabardine suit, pink tie with green polkadots, brown and white shoes), and sauntered into the lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, one of my favorite hotels in all the world, to find the other men dressed in dark suits, black knit ties and button-down shirts. . . ."

Coming from Caen that can only mean that Los Angeles at last is civilized.

I happen to know that Caen's disenchantment with San Francisco is not of recent origin, nor the result of his having reached the age, as he says, "of arthritis and some evidence of brain damage."

I discovered it more than 25 years ago, when Caen and I wrote side-by-side articles for the Saturday Evening Post--my subject being San Francisco and his Los Angeles.

They were supposed to be humorous, but I was so shocked by the decay, trashiness and degeneration I found in San Francisco that mine was darker than I meant it to be.

I wrote:

"San Francisco's golden moment is gone. It passed when nobody was looking. In the postwar years, while change tortured and reshaped the nation, San Franciscans stood idle, believing their inheritance would last forever. San Francisco admired herself in her magic mirror, blind to the creeping decay behind her pretty skyline. Today, as comely as she still may be in some of her moods, San Francisco has the somehow ridiculous look of an old snapshot of Mata Hari.

"As seen by Angelenos, San Franciscans have awakened, but too late. In a panic to make up for lost years, they have torn down unthinkingly and built grotesquely. The city's sudden stabs of urban renewal look like wounds. Almost everything new looks as if it had been dropped on the anguished city from a hostile dirigible. . . . "

Caen meanwhile unloaded a series of his notorious one-liners on L.A. "I've never been able to find out what Los Angeles looks like," he complained. "Lord knows, I've even visited there, which for a San Franciscan is something like a West Berliner's going to the Eastern sector. . . . "

When that issue came out Caen and I appeared together on several television and radio shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco to promote it. In San Francisco, when the moderator read some of my lines, the phone-in lines began to jump.

Listeners would say, "I want to ask Herb Caen why he lets Jack Smith get away with saying those awful things."

And Caen would answer: "Because they're true."

So you see, he knew it all along.

Our story on Caen reported rumors that Caen doesn't pick up his tab in restaurants and has even taken clothing as a gift from a favored haberdasher. I have no idea whether these complaints are true. Such gratuities might be hard to resist. Herb Caen writes about restaurants and celebrities--businesses and people who might prosper from a plug in his column. But I choose to doubt that he gives plugs on a quid pro quo basis.

I suspect that Caen's defection was completed when he visited Los Angeles during the Olympic Games. In 1985 Caen and I again wrote side-by-side stories about our cities, for Family Weekly, and Caen said:

"Nothing was more indicative of Los Angeles' final emergence as a world city than its brilliant handling of the 1984 Olympics. I spent two weeks there, covering the event for my paper, and was impressed not only by the smooth handling of the Games but by the progress L.A. had made in other areas. Los Angeles is no longer the Iowa West of yore. It is a cosmopolitan city, too, and these days (this pains me considerably) its restaurants are not only the equal of San Francisco's, they are in some cases better."

All I know is that during the games Caen phoned me and said he'd like to take my wife and me to dinner.

"You can get us into Chasen's, can't you?" he asked.

"No problem, Herb," I said. "I'll just call them and use your name."

It worked.

And I can say this for sure. Caen picked up the tab.

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