S.F. Bids Caen Fond Farewell p.10

By: M.L. STEIN THOUSANDS OF SAN Franciscans paid a final tribute to Herb Caen in ceremonies ranging from a church memorial service that was both solemn and zany to a candlelight march with a Dixieland band.
"Herb would have loved it," were the words heard frequently at Grace Cathedral and on a walk along Herb Caen Way on the waterfront on Feb. 7.
Sadness flowed from the Feb. 1 cancer death of the famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist, but the events celebrated his life and good times ? especially the 58 years he delighted readers with his paeans to the city he loved.
An estimated 2,500 people jammed the Episcopalian cathedral atop Nob Hill while thousands more gathered in a nearby park to hear the proceedings via a public address system. An hour before the doors opened, a line of fans stretched around the block. There were prayers, but also, reflective of Caen's eclectic musical tastes, Big Band-era tunes played by clarinetist Buddy De Franco and guitarist Bruce Forman; an operatic solo by Patricia Racette of the San Francisco Opera, and a Brahms requiem by the cathedral choir.
Among those delivering eulogizers were Chronicle editor Bill German, comedian Robin Williams and Mayor Willie Brown.
"For almost 59 years," said German, "Herb Caen spoke to us through his column each day, telling us news we should know and entertaining us with gossip and wit, goading us to care about our unique culture in this community, goading us to care about our government, our blessed environment and about each other.
"With a gift that I cannot blueprint, he achieved the absolute holy grail of journalism: He got readers to pay close attention. He never failed that."
Williams, whose career, legend has it, Caen launched with an item plugging a talented but then-obscure street performer, delivered a string of one-liners that had the audience rocking with laughter.
Being a famous journalist "is kind of like being the best-dressed woman on radio," Williams cracked. "It's kind of a matter of perspective. And I hope that right now you're up there, maybe at some very special club . . . and you're having that perfect martini sitting next to Walter Winchell and Truman Capote."
Brown, a frequent subject of Caen's columns, said his writing "could make the powerful more powerful or render the powerful harmless."
As the crowd streamed out of the cathedral to the rhythm of the Frisco Jazz Band, David Burgin, former editor and chief of the Alameda Newspaper Group and an ex-San Francisco Examiner editor, commented: "You'll never see a send off like this for another newspaperman."
John Heyman, a New Yorker who during business trips to San Francisco was captivated by Caen's columns, said Herb Caen "had that rare thing in journalism ? institutional memory. This is something that television can never offer."
Nostalgia for the San Francisco of another era was in the minds of many in the throng.
Belton Wolf recalled how Caen covered him in the early '40s, when he was the house detective at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and also sang in the band there. "He called me the singing house dick," Wolf added, grinning.
The candlelight parade started at the foot of Market Street in front of the Ferry Building, where 10,000 people gathered, police said. Teenagers with Chronicle newspaper bags handed out candles and matches in an atmosphere resembling a huge party.
Folk singer Joan Baez praised Caen in song, and a choir from the Glide Memorial Church mixed rock with spirituals.
Thousands more bid Caen farewell in dozens of cafes and restaurants, where, in his memory, they handed out either free or low-priced martinis and plates of meat loaf and mashed potatoes, the drink and dish he ordered regularly.
At the Washington Square Bar and Grill and Moose's, two of his favorite watering holes, revelers piled four deep at the bars while the overflow spilled into the street, martinis in hand.
Were he watching, Caen WOULD have loved it. As he wrote in a column June 14, 1996: "One day if I do go to heaven, I'm going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to heaven, I'll look around and say, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco.' "


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here