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Leah Garchik is listening

Out almost every night of the week, the Chronicle’s social butterfly extracts juicy material for her vibrant city column. Says Garchik: “Everything is grist for the mill.”

By Jennifer Blot

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and Leah Garchik is sitting in the kitchen of her Haight-Ashbury Victorian blowing into a vintage melodica (a marriage of the harmonica and keyboard) to the tune of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” She presses the keys tentatively, then pauses to jot down notes on a piece of paper. Moments later, she fumbles a bit, then proceeds to play the song again—backward.

Possibly more remarkable than the ritual for Garchik’s semiregular gig as a panelist on KALW’s Sunday radio quiz show “Minds Over Matter,” for which she plays a song backward for listeners to call in with guesses, is that she purchased the instrument new as a gift for her father when she was 12.

It’s one of many treasures in the home of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik that offer a glimpse of her childhood in a creative, musical household in Brooklyn. There’s the family piano in the dining room, her grandparents’ 1923 Singer sewing machine and framed photos dating back generations. And in her 45 years in San Francisco—43 in the cozy, cluttered Victorian—she’s amassed an astonishing amount of vintage eye candy: colorful hand-painted Italian dishes arranged in glass cabinets, old measuring cups and egg beaters dangling from hooks on the kitchen wall and oodles of stunning midcentury copper and silver jewelry.

Everywhere Garchik goes—the symphony, a Giants game, even the Alemany Flea Market—she runs into someone she knows, or someone who recognizes her from her column photo. A while back it became clear that her private life isn’t that private—and nearly every errand she runs and event she attends offers something worthy of an item in the column.

“It’s the equivalent of your mother telling you, ‘Don’t waste food.’ It’s a wonderful job in that everything is grist for the mill,” Garchik admits.

She goes out four to five nights a week looking for material to fill a column that runs five days a week. When she attends a gala, she’s looking for the nuances that other reporters may not see.

“The best thing about my column is that I can choose a tiny little window of something, my own view of it. The people who are actually covering it have to write who the caterer was, who did the flowers. I can just say: ‘There were too many trains on the ladies’ dresses and everybody was flopping all over the place,’” she says.

When the column debuted in 1984, it was a hodgepodge of items culled from national magazines and steered clear of anything local for fear of encroaching on Herb Caen’s turf. Today, it’s filled with the sorts of “Only in Ess Eff” items Caen lived for. Garchik has numerous loyal contributors—some of the quirkiest, like Strange de Jim, she inherited from Caen—and an old-school habit of sending postcards to the people who write to her.

“Leah Garchik is the most hands-on journalist I know,” says fellow Chronicle columnist and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. “She only writes about what she experiences and identifies and gives credit when she writes about something she did not personally cover. Many journalists, including columnists, do not have that integrity.”

Garchik first realized her column’s reach when she ran an item about a reader who’d gone to a Jimmy Carter book signing and noticed he was omitting the “e” from his name to save time. “The day after it came out, former President Carter wrote offering to exchange a book for anyone who thought the signature was insufficient,” she recalls. “I was fairly astounded.”

Nancy Bechtle, who met Garchik at a line dance class more than a decade ago, considers the column a must-read. “There’s always, always, always something in her column that you want to know or laugh or smile at,” she says.

“We’re a small town and her column fits in a very prominent place in the newspaper. She never wields power to change things—and she could,” Bechtle adds.

Garchik doesn’t have many rules when it comes to subject matter—but she refuses to be snarky.

“When I was first doing the column,” she recalls, “somebody told me about an anchorperson who was having an affair with another newscaster. The person I pinned it down to had the grace to say to me, ‘You ought to really think about: Do you really want to do that kind of column?’ And I didn’t want to do that column,” she says. “I’m very aware that an item could have a cost to someone.”

Garchik has formed friendships with individuals she’s met through the city’s social circuit, but when it comes to high-profile events, she knows she’s there to do her job—not show up in couture and pretend to be part of that world. Instead, she’ll likely wear the 1930s black-lace dress that belonged to her grandmother, an armful of vintage bangles and a shade of pomegranate lipstick reminiscent of another era.

“I’m going to get dressed up because that’s respectful for the occasion,” she explains. “But I have it clear in my head that I’m an observer. If that isn’t clear enough, other people are there to make the point. I was at the opening of the opera, standing next to someone, and said, ‘Nice dress.’ And she said, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You don’t even have to think about what you wear.’ And that’s sort of a good thing: cold water on your head.”

“If you look at the column over time, there’s never anything negative,” says Ellen Newman, who’s known Garchik for about 30 years. “She’s one of the most upbeat, positive persons I’ve ever known—and there’s always a very quiet gentleman behind her: Jerry.”

Jerry Garchik, a labor and civil rights attorney and Leah’s husband of 48 years, accompanies her to most events. With his keen understanding of San Francisco society, he’s sometimes a step ahead of Leah, noticing the arrival of key party guests and steering her their way for quotes. There was a time when Leah felt “greedy” asking to bring him to events, but ultimately figured that if she’s going to spend much of her personal time at events, she wants her partner at her side.

The couple raised two sons—one became a high school librarian; the other, a professional trombonist—and have three grandchildren. They met in Brooklyn in the late 1960s when one of Leah’s friends, who briefly dated Jerry, set them up on a blind date. Their first encounter began with a morning walk on the beach and lasted past midnight, following a screening of Greta Garbo’s Anna Christie. Two years later, they married.

Not long after they moved to San Francisco, Leah landed a job at Walter Landor Associates, a prominent ad agency housed on a ferry boat. But her ambition to be more than one of the agency’s glamorous secretaries—or “Walter Landor dolls” as they were called—got her canned. In a brush with serendipity, one of many for Leah, a friend picked up the phone and called Chronicle satire columnist Art Hoppe, who needed a part-time steno clerk to fill in while his secretary was away.

Hoppe hired Garchik over the phone, and in the two weeks she worked for him in the spring of 1972, she could sense the magic of the newsroom, posting notes around her desk proclaiming, “I love this job.” The not-so-subliminal messages worked: Within a month, Hoppe’s assistant gave notice and the job was offered to Garchik.

“In the worst of jobs if you’re fast at what you’re doing they give you worse jobs,” Garchik explains. “In the best of jobs, they give you more challenging things—this job was just great like that.”

With her lanky 5´9˝ frame, flamboyant style and eager smile, Garchik stood out in the male-dominated newsroom. Early on, she was befriended by writer Merla Zellerbach, who would later become editor of the Nob Hill Gazette. She also caught the attention of editor Bill German. She had several things going for her: she’d attended his alma mater, Brooklyn College, had a lovely biblical name and was familiar with the Yiddish songs he’d sometimes sing.

When her column was in its infancy, German would mark up her work vigorously, crossing out items and writing “No!” in stern black letters. At the time, it seemed merciless. But Garchik believes it was a gift.

When she tried to be overly clever, he set her straight. “The best advice he gave me was: ‘You can’t come into the party wearing a lampshade on your head.’ He meant: Don’t be so full of yourself. Don’t try to be so whimsical and funny.”

The truth is, Garchik does whimsical well. But every once in a while she tackles something heavy. When longtime friend Zellerbach died in 2014, Garchik wrote the obituary. Perhaps even more meaningful was the follow-up story she wrote a month later detailing Zellerbach’s intimate wish to end her life with dignity, rather than get treatment for her illness. It was a column that generated more reader reponse than ever before.

Garchik seems to know that she’s been blessed with incredible friends, life experiences and a job that has never made her question her desire to be a Chronicle “lifer.” She has no plans for a memoir or tell-all book—the items, and their interpretation, are enough for now.

“Willie Brown said to me once, ‘You are so optimistic and positive, but there’s a whole other column there between the lines,’” Garchik recalls. “To me, a really good day is when there is something between the lines. Maybe it’s when the person who it’s about says, ‘Oh, thank you so much, that’s so great’ and somebody else calls and says, ‘Wow, you really got them.’”

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