C is for Caen, Herb Caen (1916-1997) or Mr. San Francisco


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One day if I do go to Heaven, I’ll look around and say, “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”.

~ Herb Caen

In 1937, when Coit Tower had just been built and San Francisco could only be reached by ferry as there were no bridges,  Herb Caen became a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. Ultimately, he would get his own column in which he described the ups and downs and ins and outs of the city by the bay for more than half a century.

Caen was born in 1916 in the city of Sacramento but he became such a diehard fan of San Francisco that he took some poetic license and  told people he was conceived in San Francisco when his parents visited the city. During an interview with Caen in 1993, The New York Times would describe Caen as an important landmark of the city that was just as well known as the city’s Golden Gate Bridge or its cable cars. In 1996, Caen would receive the Pulitzer Prize for his extraordinary contributions as the voice and conscience of the city.

As a writer of city chronicles Caen wasn’t only watched by the city’s residents (“You’re in Caen today,” was a well-known expression of the locals he covered) but he was someone people listened to, and especially when it involved the aesthetics of the city. For years, he lambasted the highway which was built over the Embarcadero: he called it the Dambarcadero as it blocked the city’s view on the bay. When the earthquake of 1989 (Loma Prieta) damaged the highway to such an extent that it had to be demolished, giving rise to a new area of the city that blossomed after the removal of the highway, Herb Caen was honored with a little alleyway (Herb Caen Way) in its very location.

Caen had an exclusive Nob Hill address, would never trade his typewriter for a laptop and would drive through the city in a Jaguar. His Frank Sinatra hat was a sign that he identified with a time in which the martini had not been driven out yet by wine bars and crooners still filled the night with swing and dance.

But Caen was especially respected and remembered for his gift of the gab and turns of phrase. The term Baghdad by the Bay to refer to San Francisco’s multicultural makeup was his, and he coined the term Berserkely for Berkeley. He has even been credited with the words hippie (derivation from the word hipster) and beatnik, which is a combination of the words beat and Sputnik (the first Russian satellite that flew around the earth).

But he was also particular about what to call things: “Don’t call it Frisco” he said, for that’s what tourists say: “Don’t say Frisco and don’t say San-Fran-Cis-Co,’ he wrote:  “That’s the way Easterners, like Larry King, pronounce it. It’s more like SanfrnSISco.” When in Rome… or rather when in San Francisco, do it the Caen way and you might be passed off for a local…

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