Herb Caen, whose 60-year journalism career was devoted to doting on San Francisco and whose affections were more than amply requited by legions of ardent readers, died Saturday morning at the California Pacific Medical Center here. He was 80.
To call Caen “Mr. San Francisco,” as was sometimes done, was redundant. No other newspaper columnist has ever been so long synonymous with a specific place. To his fans, Caen (pronounced cane) was sui generis, a towering icon in his adopted hometown - although he was largely unknown in much of the nation, his column of stubborn localisms not even traveling well across the San Francisco Bay.
But in the city, and no one ever doubted what city he was talking about, Caen enjoyed the status of a beloved Boswell by the Bay.
Part of his appeal seemed to lie in the endless bonhomie he projected, always nattily turned out in suit and fedora, often with a martini glass in hand.
Indeed, his role model was Walter Winchell, the legendary gossip monger, but with the malice shorn off. And unlike Winchell, who outlived his own celebrity, Caen’s status as a living landmark grew with his longevity.
In April 1996, Caen turned 80, won a special Pulitzer Prize for his “continuing contribution as a voice and a conscience of his city” and married his fourth wife. In May, he told his readers that he had inoperable lung cancer - he smoked for 40 years but quit 25 years ago - and 5,000 letters poured in.
The city named June 14 Herb Caen Day and 75,000 people turned out.
Caen began writing his column on July 5, 1938, and wrote it six days a week until 1991, when he cut back to five and later to three. “I can’t find a way out: too many bills and ex-wives and a kid in school, things that chew up the income,” he told an interviewer just before he turned 80.
“I never intended this to be permanent, but it looks like it’s going to be.”
Except for an eight-year sojourn at its rival, The Examiner, Caen has been a fixture of The Chronicle, and, according to surveys, better read than the paper’s front page. Editors had even estimated that as many as a fifth of the paper’s 500,000 readers might cancel their subscriptions after Caen’s death.
The 1,000-word columns combined gossip, news, word play and love to San Francisco and those lucky enough to live there, even when acknowledging the unpleasant side of the city.
“The hookers are brazen, the abalone is frozen, and every night is Mugger’s Day,” he wrote in 1971. “Yet, in spite of it all, San Francisco remains one of the great tourist cities. Most triumphantly, there is life in the streets - raw, raucous, roistering and real.”
Caen tossed out more than a few enduring bons mots. Baghdad-by-the-Bay and Berserkeley were his coinage. “Don’t call it Frisco,” he admonished readers once, and locals never did again.