SAN FRANCISCO — Herb Caen's widow was outshone by a blond art dealer. Mayor Willie Brown got half the ink of a politician he beat six years ago. Danielle Steel (with a score of 10) made Amy Tan (5) look like a puny footnote, but then got comeuppance from an ex-husband who bagged an 11. A wealthy environmentalist snagged three times as much limelight as Sharon Stone.
There are probably more constructive ways to start a new year than to count boldfaced names in the society columns. But for the last week this biggest of small towns has been doing it anyway. In what has become a minor sport for Bay Area people-watchers, the Nob Hill Gazette, the area's social calendar of record, published its annual ranking of who was mentioned how many times last year in the pages of the January 2002 edition.
Nearly 1,000 people, from George Lucas, the well-known Bay Area filmmaker, to George Lucas, an opera-supporting retired tailor with the same name, had made it into the publication at least twice.
The Gazette's Tote Board has run for 11 Januaries, launched as a lighthearted sendup by the monthly's owner. In recent years, however, it has approached cult status as economic forces and journalistic fashion have shrunk society coverage in the city's daily newspapers.
Local pundits joke about it, socialites vie to get onto it and philanthropists discreetly scan it for their own names and standings.
"Hail, Anti-Social Losers!" the left-leaning SF Weekly joked last year in an item announcing that "supersocialite" Ann Moller Caen had "easily carried away the coveted crown" with 16 Nob Hill Gazette mentions in 2000. The list for 2001 tallied 17 mentions for Caen--high, but not high enough to beat Heide Betz, an unmarried and socially active art dealer, who pushed her score to 19 when the Gazette reported her appearance at a reception at Caen's "lovely Pacific Heights home" with an appeals court justice.
This time, the widow Caen shared third place with the city's chief of protocol Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, wife of former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who said she had been hearing about her notoriety all week.
Runners-up Patricia Sprincin and Richard N. Goldman tied with 18 mentions. (Sprincin, for non-San Franciscans, is past president of the city's Opera Guild and president-elect of the Symphony League, and Goldman, a retired insurance executive and Republican fund-raiser, is a backer of environmentalist causes and the widower of a Levi Strauss heir. He said he learned of his accomplishment when he called the Gazette's editor Sunday to invite her to a reception for former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, whom he is backing in the gubernatorial race.)
The Gazette's owner and publisher, Lois Lehrman, says the Tote Board originated as "a tongue-in-cheek competition" and a joke on the Gazette's own reputation as a repository for Bay Area-status anxiety. If the 23-year-old tabloid is frankly elitist, it also has a campy, only-in-San Francisco feel to it. It features page upon page of benefits, receptions and private parties, and its debutante-riddled wedding section is titled "Mergers & Acquisitions."
But it is also one of the few publications in which pictures of partying Gettys collide with candids from the annual ball for pet lovers and their four-legged escorts.
The April issue carried an account of a local party at which the butler passed around an after-dinner tray of marijuana and a blurb on the baby shower for Brown's love child, complete with a photo of mother Carolyn Carpeneti and "Da Daddy," as "Da Mayor" was re-nicknamed.
The December issue opened with a shot of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh at a benefit for arts education, and closed with a masquerade party for the city's new American Trial Lawyers' Assn. president.
For most of its history, the Gazette was a secondary player on the social scene in San Francisco. Then-Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, the city's most famous name-dropper, died in 1997, followed by the death of the newspaper's prolific society editor Pat Steger in 1999. The following year, the Chronicle was sold to the Hearst Corp., which, in turn, sold the rival Examiner to the Fang family.
The changes in ownership, combined with the worsening Bay Area economy, prompted a rethinking of the newspapers' styles and editorial priorities. Society news--like local news in general--is labor- and space-intensive and has become less popular in an era of round-the-clock global celebrity gossip.