Herb Caen was a legendary and long-time daily columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for his columns that covered what Bay Area residents call The City. He wrote about the characters that inhabited his adopted city whether they were down-and-outers or high flyers, as long as they were interesting. For many Chronicle readers, Herb’s column was the first they read in that newspaper, eschewing the sports page, fashion reports, local news, and national. No one captured the allure, the fascination of San Francisco better than Herb Caen.
Herb published many books about this city with whom he had a love affair, often calling it Baghdad by the Bay. Those books were often accumulations of his daily columns. Whether you were a writer or a personality or a restaurant owner, you knew you had made it when your name reached his column.
Some collectors want his books just because Herb wrote them. Others might collect his books because of their own love affair with San Francisco. Still others might collect his books because their favorite writer found his exploits discussed in a Herb column.
One writer he often favored was John Steinbeck. Caen mentions Steinbeck several times in his One Man’s San Francisco published by Doubleday in 1976, once in connection with one of Herb’s favorite people, an advertising genius named Howard Luck Gossage, one of the many characters that could be found only in Caen’s City by the Bay.
Caen’s book describes Gossage as having an ingratiating stammer, a man with flowing white hair and “the sad-sweet smile that seems to be the signature of so many Irish philosophers.” He goes on to say, “Like most of the best men I’ve ever met, he never haggled over a bill and he over-tipped recklessly….I never met a more unbigoted man, even about bigots; the worst he would say about anybody was, ‘Well, I can t-take him or l-leave him — not n-necessarily in that order.’”
In his One Man’s San Francisco, Caen recalls a meeting between himself, Steinbeck, and Gossage. It occurred when Steinbeck had made his way south from Seattle to San Francisco as he navigated around this country doing his research for the book eventually published as Travels With Charley. This small group had met at Enrico’s Coffee House. Steinbeck was recalling one of the highlights of the trip — not for him, but for his beloved Charley. They were moving through redwood country in Northern California.
“I looked around till I found the largest redwood in the area — an absolute beauty,” Steinbeck told them, “probably 2,000 years old, a considerable tree before Christ was born.
“And then I let Charley out of the camper so he could go and pee on that tree. Now I ask you, what is left in life for that dog?”
“Well,” Gossage ventured, “he could always t-t-teach.”
Only in San Francisco.