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Herb Caen Like I Never Knew Him
Melissa Griffin Caen | Photo: Illustration by Andrew Rae | September 5, 2013
Fifteen years after his death, the legendary Chronicle columnist gained an unlikely new family member: me.
On one of my very first dates with Christopher Caen, we were wandering in North Beach when we happened upon a street fair where artists were making chalk drawings inside large, squared-off spaces near the curb. We strolled past the elaborate images, enjoying chalkscapes of the galaxy, a field of flowers, and then...a vast, dusty picture of Herb Caen.
That it didn’t strike Christopher as strange to see the visage of his late father etched on the asphalt against a blue background was itself highly strange. What made it even odder (to me, at least) was the quote inscribed below the portrait: “One day if I do go to heaven…I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’” Not only was I staring at the oversize face of my date’s dead dad, but I was being asked to think about him contemplating his own death. And did I mention that it was Father’s Day? I stepped back and checked Christopher for signs of discomfort. Seeing none, I was left to assume that this was normal—that in San Francisco, in addition to sunsets and bowls of fruit, Herb Caen is a perfectly obvious subject for your street mural.
Christopher, who is the only child of arguably the most famous San Francisco writer of the last century, had a very different reaction to encountering his dad scrawled in the dust. He was, to my astonishment, delighted. He chatted with the artist, who asked me to take a picture of the two of them. After I obliged and we parted ways, I did what I often do when I feel self-conscious— I said something sarcastic: “So, yeah, just another Sunday in San Francisco?” “Of course,” Christopher chuckled. “I like that he still makes people happy. Wanna get pizza?”
It was clear that this sort of thing happened all the time, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I find romantic relationships difficult enough and have always been fairly private on the subject. The last thing I wanted was to date the offspring of some literary lion whose constant cameos meant that I would frequently have to make nice with, and take pictures of, strangers. Whatever this was, it wasn’t what I call romance.
Fast-forward two years. This August, Christopher and I were married at the historic, Victorian- era Haas-Lilienthal House. The bartenders at the reception served Herb Caen’s favorite cocktail, the Vitamin V, and instead of a guest book, there was a typewriter on which friends and family were invited to type notes.
So, how’d that happen? In the time between my first date with Christopher and our exchange of vows, I went from being weirded out by the omnipresence of my late father-inlaw— whom I never met, who died in 1997, 13 years before I met his son or even read one of his old Chronicle columns—to being oddly comforted by it. I have attended two Herb Caen martini contests at the Bottle Cap, protested the closure of the Herb-beloved Gold Dust Lounge, and watched Christopher speak at the Architectural Heritage Annual Gala in honor of Herb’s legacy. Christopher and I moved in together in March 2012, and the only two pictures hanging in our apartment are of Herb Caen—one of the man himself, the other a cartoon that an artist drew for him after a night out together.
To put it in Caenian terms, this ain’t what I anticipated. I’m from Georgia, and, like most new arrivals to San Francisco over the past 15 years, I have no memory of Herb Caen. I knew of the man the same way that I know of Benny Goodman or Rudolph Valentino—as a vaguely famous artist from well before my time. As a newspaper columnist myself, I had heard the tales about how Herb could put businesses on the map—or destroy them—but times had changed, and the influence of columnists had waned. The magic of Herb Caen was destined, it seemed, to remain a mystery to me.
Then came Christopher and, with him, the deluge of stories about his dad, which seem to crop up whenever we’re in the presence of oldschool San Franciscans. Socialites, taxi drivers, bartenders, librarians, lawyers, politicians, mailmen—they all share anecdotes about columns (often clipped out and carefully framed) in which a family member is mentioned, snippets of conversation that they had with Herb at Le Central, and typewritten letters from the good-mannered columnist thanking them for a story idea. Each old yarn adds to a snowdrift of memories that aren’t mine, but that help me make out the contours of this person I never knew.
Still, as my esteem for Herb has grown, so has my self-consciousness: I’m not becoming some kind of literary groupie, am I? Christopher has lived his whole life with a nagging worry that the people he meets are only interested in his father. He even went so far as to attend high school in New Hampshire to get away from Herb’s benevolent shadow. It is important to me that he knows I’m in love with Christopher Caen: the man who races me to the punch line, the expert on obscure ’80s bands, the boy who loves and misses his father. And I sometimes worry, shouldn’t Christopher have married a “real” San Franciscan? What right do I have to the Caen name when I barely know Herb’s actual work?
To come to terms with that, it has helped me to consider Maria-Theresa Caen. Herb’s third wife and Christopher’s mother, she and I got along like thieves from the very beginning. The first time that I met her, at a dinner party in her home, we began joking about the list of people we would like to have on our plane if it were going down. I seem to remember that Dick Cheney was on both passenger manifests. We spent the evening telling stories and howling with laughter.
I think that Maria-Theresa and I hit it off in part because we both understand (as does Christopher) that it is not easy to be in a relationship with a columnist. We’re always collecting anecdotes, always a little distracted, always frantic before an impending deadline. When I say to Christopher (sometimes with just a look), “I love you very much, but I need you to vanish until I finish this draft,” he gets it. This is a man, after all, who used to spend Sunday mornings at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for his father’s typewriter to stop clacking so they could go out and play.
Growing up with Herb clearly taught Christopher other crucial lessons as well. He knows that you can’t be a decent columnist in this town without hobnobbing with politicians, their staff, consultants, and other wonks—90 percent of them alpha males. Christopher watched his dad do this every single night with aplomb. “We’ll gossip all about it when you get home,” he often says to me. And we do.
When I finally told my mother, who now lives in Alabama, about my new boyfriend, I explained that his father was a famous writer: “Herb Caen, do you know who that is?” I asked. “Yeah, but does Christopher know who you are?” she shot back. After I stopped laughing, I told her that yes, he does—like only the son of a social butterfly newspaper columnist could. And that’s why, despite my initial misgivings and lingering insecurities, I’m now probably Herb Caen’s biggest fan.
“My dad would have loved you,” Christopher says from time to time. “He liked great broads.” God bless him.
Melissa Griffin Caen is a former political columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco