The Tardy Times

'Only one problem with riding the  
  magic bus: You never want to ge
t off'
                                                       – John Bryan
John Bryan

Guy Wright
Charles Einstein
Bill Hall

Frances Moffat
Jack Rosenbaum
and P.J. Corkery

                                                                                                                        Jack Rosenbaum

John Bryan
A BLOGGER named Gigi walked into Abandoned Planet, a San Francisco bookstore on Valencia Street. She took a copy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” to the “crotchety guy who worked behind the counter.” He began to chat about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. That's when she discovered that the white-haired clerk was John Bryan, a passenger himself on the magic bus in 1964. She was shocked. He didn't even know about Burning Man, which she regards as a contemporary legacy of the Merry Pranksters.
    “It was like running into Rip Van Winkle,"
she wrote, "and describing the future.”
    She asked him about the magic bus.
    “There's only one problem with riding the bus,” he told her. “Once you get on the bus, you never want to get off.”
    John didn't limp in 1964. His hair wasn't white. He was a reporter at the Chronicle, his seventh newspaper. As we waited in the Hall of Justice pressroom for the verdict of an indecisive jury, Bryan entertained us with heresy.
    “Objectivity,” he declared, loudly, aggressively, “is a LIE!”
IT WAS a time when “objectivity” was still, despite the flagrant lapses of the mass mediums, an article of faith. John scoffed at contrary views. And then the jury came in. Out came the notebooks. John called his city desk to unload his notes. No opinions. Just facts. Three paragraphs, buried the next morning among ads for incontinence remedies.
     The handsome Irishman with staring eyes and a gift for print would soon take a side road from the Chronicle, his final stop on the well-paved highway of news reporting. His last paychecks financed his first magazine, “Notes from the Underground.”
    For the nearly four decades he would follow his own code of outrage, activism and anti-objectivity. It was a remarkable career of alternative weeklies, underground magazines and one-man newspapers that he produced himself. He relished conspiracies. No taboos. Bad poetry. No money. Screed upon screed. No “objectivity.”
    He put out four vehement newspapers and three literary magazines in San Francisco, each a commercial failure. In Los Angeles, he was editor of Open City and the Los Angeles Free Press. He didn't seem to need sleep.
     “He was fiery, almost crazed with anti-establishment fervor,” said author-critic Jan Herman.
     In 2002 he got together with Allen Cohen, founder of the Oracle, to publish a single issue of Peace News to be distributed at protests against the Iraq war. Lamed by rheumatoid arthritis, he didn't try again. It was the last of his newspapers.
    We talked to John by phone from time to time. But we didn't recognize the white-haired clerk at the Abandoned Planet.
JOHN DIED Feb. 1, 2007. Ten days later, unconcerned about breaking news in a town with negligible competition, the Chronicle finally published an obituary about its one-time reporter. It began, “John Bryan, a mainstay of the alternative press in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1960s and later, has died at his San Francisco home after a long illness . . .”
     Carl Nolte's well-written story followed the traditions of the mainstream press so despised by John Bryan. The facts were supplemented by the opinions of five friends and admirers.
All the same, the obit violated Bryan's First Law of Journalism: “Objectivity is a lie.”
    To put it another way: “Objectivity doesn't tell the whole story.”
    Nobody told the Chronicle that John, who suffered a stroke in November 2006, could no longer write his name, or anything else. He was 72. On Feb. 1, 2007, he drank a bottle of vodka. He got off the magic bus. With an antique rifle, he blew his brains out.

Guy Wright
HIS COLUMNS, stories and mug shots appeared for four decades in three of San Francisco's afternoon papers – first, the News (Scripps Howard), then the News-Call Bulletin (Hearst) and, after the 1965 merger, the Examiner (Hearst). From reporter to TV critic to columnist, Guy Wright won the Ernie Pyle Award and numerous other honors.
     His assignments took him to Vietnam, Africa, Central America, Europe and the Caribbean.
     His columns and mug shot were at one point as familiar to city readers as those of Jack Rosenbaum, Mary Ellen Leary, Harry Jupiter, Prescott Sullivan, Bill Leiser, Charles McCabe, Charles Denton, Freddie Francisco (Bob Patterson), Art Hoppe, Stanton Delaplane, Jack McDowell and dozens of other mid-century bylines now dimmed by time.
      We got the impression that Wright felt unappreciated ever since Tom Eastham, his old boss from the News-Call Bulletin, was dislodged from the Examiner front office in the mid-1970s. In any case, his old sources were drying up. Columns took on a plaintive tone. It wasn't as if he was insufficiently liberal in a changing city, although that was a factor. Worse, he had become irrelevant.
     Wright retired to his Fairfax home in 1990 after one last crusade, an attempt to draw attention to the clear-cutting of North Coast timberlands. On Jan. 25, 2007, Wright died of pneumonia at Kaiser Hospital in Marin County. He was 83.
     Eight weeks went by.
     It took exactly two months before the Chronicle reported his death on Page B-6. It was a Saturday paper, the traditional dump for stories with zero priority.
     So much for what Shakespeare called “the bubble of reputation.” From a Roman columnist, Marcus Aurelius, comes a meditation for byline-hungry young journalists: “All is ephemeral, fame and the famous as well.”

Charles Einstein and Bill Hall
LUCKLESS Examiner victims of Herb Caen's column four decades ago, two of his rivals died last year within a month of each other.

ONE OF MANY heavy hitters who struck out against the three-dot columnist, Charles Einstein later lofted a home run when he wrote “Willie’s Time: Baseball's Golden Age” about the life of Willie Mays and American society at the time. (Chronicle sports editor Glenn Schwarz considers it his favorite baseball biography.) The writer, for whom “prolific” seems less than adequate, also authored or edited about 35 books. He wrote more than 500 short stories, screenplays and magazine articles.
     A former sportswriter with INS and author of a crime novel, “The Bloody Spur,” Charles was hired in 1958 when the Examiner desperately needed someone to out-gossip the man who came up with “beatnik,” “namephreak” and “Baghdad by the Bay” (a phrase now fallen into disuse). Caen had jumped from the Chronicle to the then-dominant Examiner in 1950. Eight years later, the meddling of his bosses frustrated him. Examiner city editor Josh Eppinger would lift scoops from Herb's next-day column, hand them to the rewrite desk and put the stolen stories on the front page – with someone else's byline.
     Accordingly, Caen was wooed back to the Chron in 1958 with a nice boost in his paycheck, the guarantee of a full-time assistant and the sense that his once-and-future employer had a more sophisticated readership.
     We’re not alone in believing the Caen mutiny changed the history of San Francisco newspaper journalism. Seven years later, after editor Scott Newhall and the Chronicle trumped the Examiner in daily circulation, the Hearsts surrendered and agreed to the joint operating agreement that would kill the News-Call Bulletin and move the morning Examiner to the afternoon and doom. But that's another story.
     Charles would have been a leading columnist anywhere but in Herb Caen's town. He never had a chance.
     The paper reassigned him to baseball, then to entertainment, but in 1965 he followed Caen to the Chronicle and a baseball column called The Einstein Theory. After that, book followed book. His son, David, writes a high-tech report every week in the Chronicle.
     Einstein, 80, died March 21 in Michigan City, Ind.

AFTER ARMY service in World War II and studies at UC Berkeley, a Glaswegian import named Bill Hall joined the Examiner in 1946 as a cub reporter. His rise was rapid. Four short years later, he had founded and edited the Sunday magazine, then called Pictorial Living. Next was Highlight (like today's Datebook in the Chron)) and improvements in the Sunday travel, book and television pages.
    Hall, who didn't lack confidence, then gave up his post as Sunday editor. He stepped into the trenches to combat Caen and to prove a point – that writing a gossip column couldn't be all that difficult.
    He was wrong.
    Like Einstein and any of the many bright young men to joust with Herb Caen, Hall never had a chance.
    After his column was spiked, he lost his role as a can-do wonder. They gave him a consolation prize as the Examiner's promotion director, a job that ranks right up there with office manager or editor-at-large. He quit and disappeared for almost 20 years into the black hole of the PR department at publicity-shy Bechtel, which pays talented flacks to become unflacks. He retired to Occidental in the western pasturelands of Sonoma County, where he wrote a spy thriller and played a lot of tennis.
    Bill Hall died Feb. 20 at age 86.
    True, Charles and Bill lost their three-dot battles. But they outlived Herb, their nemesis, by 10 years. And the Hearst Corporation ended the 20th century by dumping the Ex and buying the Chronicle, adding a chapter to the history of irony.

Frances Moffat
IN 1977, after she retired as society editor of the Chronicle, columnist Frances Moffat collected some of her greatest hits and piled them into a well-written book of San Francisco's hierarchical history: “Dancing on the Brink of the World: The Decline and Fall of San Francisco Society.”
Decline and fall notwithstanding, the beat went on: Men with boiled shirtfronts and tie-it-yourself silk bowties. . . Women with gleaming teeth and upswept hairdos . . . Well-rehearsed smiles collected by former Examiner photographer Scotty Morris, the society cameraman . . . Endless gossip, some of it publishable.
     Frances went from Stanford to the society page of the Call Bulletin in 1939, the Palo Alto Times in 1943, the Examiner in 1952 and the Chronicle from 1963 to 1973.
    For 34 years she kept track of San Francisco's debutantes, grande dames, jet set playboys and don't-quote-me scandalmongers. She outlived most of them, but her legs gave out.
    She went to Albuquerque 12 years ago to live with her son and get around in a wheelchair. Frances Moffat died Feb. 6 at 95, her name unknown to a new generation of social climbers.     

Jack Rosenbaum
NICE GUYS finish last. It's true. When the long-gone San Francisco News half a century ago promoted columnist Jack Rosenbaum as "Just a Nice Guy," rival Herb Caen picked up the phone and urged him, friend to friend, to pull the rack cards. "Can you think about a worse thing to say about a columnist? he asked. "...But he is such a nice guy that he didn't know what I meant."  
More than 10,000 columns, most of them including "Thoughts While Shaving," came from Jack's typewriter in a 70-year career with the News, News Call-Bulletin, Examiner, Progress and Independent.
    It wasn't an easy job, especially when he didn't want to hurt anyone. 
By the time Jack died on Oct. 21, 2007, he was 100 years old. Gone were Caen and all the other gossipmongers of the middle 20th century – Charles Denton, Dick Nolan, Freddy Francisco (Bob Patterson), Paul Speegle, Bob de Roos, Bill Hall and Charles Einstein (see above) and at least a dozen other scribblers who regarded Jack as a mere purveyor of puffery.
   It was James McNeill Whistler, famous for the painting of his mother, who said, "I'm lonesome. They are all dying. I have hardly a warm personal enemy left."
   Jack didn't have enemies, unless you count the alleged friends and snooty colleagues who laughed at his daily homilies, "Thoughts While Shaving." If Jack showed hostility, he didn't show it.
   According to a story that may be true, an incautious press agent once gave clients a rate card: $500 for an item in Caen's column, $300 for Denton and $100 for Rosenbaum. Caen smiled. Denton didn't. Jack shrugged.
   He didn't even throw a fit when the Examiner's brain trust remade the paper and, when Jack politely asked where his column would appear, he learned that it had been forgotten. On purpose.
   He didn't have time for feuds. The Chronicle's John Wildermuth's obituary quoted former Mayor Joe Alioto as saying Jack had made himself interesting  "without dropping one drop of spleen on anybody."
   He was 89 when he retired in 1996 from his last paper, the weekly Independent, and a series of strokes sent him in 2000 to the Jewish Home for the Aged as a roommate with his brother, Art Rosenbaum, the former sports editor of the Chronicle, who died in 2003.
"Writing a column is  comparable to feeding a lion," he once told an interviewer. "It has to be fed at a certain time every day, and if it's not, it will growl at you."
   Thoughts While (Not) Shaving: If the three little periods are usually called an ellipses, why aren't the three-dot columns called "elliptical"?

P.J. Corkery
IN KEEPING with the absurd tradition that newspapers should studiously avoid mentioning their competition, the Chronicle discovered P.J. Corkery with a five-column feature story on Sept. 24, 2008.
   It was his obituary.
   The 61-year-old columnist for the Examiner died Sept. 20 from non-Hodgins lymphona. Writiing in the three-dot style of Walter Winchell, Herb Caen and many others, Corkery had been the Examiner's man about town from 2001 to 2003 when the free paper was owned by the Fang family. When the Fangs sold the paper, he returned from 2004 to 2006. Then he spent two years ghosting "Basic Brown," the autobiography of former Mayor Willie Brown. 

    Lynn Ludlow

September 2008


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