By: Joe Strupp
When Christopher Caen agreed to pen a weekly column for The Examiner in San Francisco last summer, he made clear to editors ? and anyone else who would listen ? that they shouldn’t expect a column like his father’s. For nearly 60 years, the legendary Herb Caen filled his daily inch count with the gossip, scoops, and most of all, unique views of what he liked to call “Baghdad by the Bay.” Having popularized the “three-dot” format, the elder Caen became as much a staple of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge before his cancer- related death in 1997.
Eight years later, enter the younger Caen, who happily emerged to carry on the family tradition but with no attempt at replacing his departed dad. “There are still people who have a fixed idea of what a Caen column is,” he said during a phone interview from San Francisco. Since his column’s debut in July, “I haven’t gotten anyone confusing me with him, but I do get requests for things my father used to do ? funny names he would use, and his practice of mentioning unusual [vanity] license plates.”
The 39-year-old Caen, who writes two columns a week ? one for the Examiner and one for its sister freebie, The Independent ? purposely avoids the three-dot approach Herb Caen practiced and perfected. He says he’d never be able to do it as well and it’s just not his style, citing pieces he had done on everything from getting rid of Christmas lights to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fund-raising techniques: “I like issue-based stuff.”
Despite growing up in San Francisco as the only son of the city’s most famous newspaperman, Caen says he had no interest in the news game, and no parental pressure to go in. But he says he was close to his father, sharing a fondness for baseball games and Herb Caen’s legendary “Vitamin V” Vodka mixtures made famous in many a column. “We would go to Giants spring training every year, and by the time I was in college we were terrorizing the town together,” he recalls.
After attending Stanford University, the younger Caen jumped into the marketing and advertising worlds. He’s run his own ad agency, Foscari Advertising, for six years and still operates it full time. Prior to the column, his only previous writing included a few Chronicle pieces following his father’s death and an unpublished novel.
About nine months ago, all that changed after Caen met Examiner owner Philip Anschutz through a mutual friend. Anschutz, the Denver billionaire who bought the Examiner in late 2003, suggested Caen take up his father’s trade, at least on the side. After a little negotiating, the Caen name returned to print.
Caen said the passage of time since his father’s death made it easier to do. Still, he says he often feels dad’s presence over his shoulder when he’s editing a piece or when he’s stuck for ideas. “He is my phantom editor,” Caen declares. “Sometimes, I stop and [wonder] if he would like it.”