The former mayor Frank Jordan opens up about his marriage to wife and “best friend” Wendy, his unforgettable brushes with Mother Teresa and Ted Kennedy and his rocky tenure in City Hall. “I did things that were not popular, but they needed to be done,” he says.
Luck. Timing. Opportunity.
These words pop up repeatedly like a well-polished mantra when former San Francisco police chief and mayor Frank Jordan reflects on his extraordinary life—and his latest endeavor. For those close to Jordan, it should come as no surprise that the man who has mastered the art of storytelling is writing his own book, a memoir about his careers in what he calls the “three Ps”—public safety, politics and philanthropy. And while Jordan is the kind of guy who’s as likely to strike up a conversation with a busboy as he is with a billionaire, you can be certain that the tales of his life will contain familiar and famous names, from baseball greats to Bono.
“I’m thinking of calling it Frankly Speaking,” Jordan quips. The name may be a joke, but he’s serious about his new craft and halfway through the book he’s been writing the old-fashioned way, pen on paper, from the den of his Pacific Heights home and the couch of his weekend getaway in Sonoma.
Jordan, 82, spent three decades in the San Francisco Police Department, a clear-headed community relations and crime prevention specialist who rose to the rank of chief—but never shot his gun. As mayor from 1992 to 1996, he made tough budget cuts and tough calls, declaring a public health state of emergency every two weeks. And in the final years of his career, he traveled to the Andes and South African savannas as special advisor to the president of the environmentally focused Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
“I’ve always been community oriented,” Jordan explains. “That’s instilled in you as a child as you go through life.” But he could have easily gone down another path after his mother died when he was 10. As his father worked painting houses to support his three children, Jordan bounced between friends’ houses and foster homes, somehow anchored by the sports programs at his local Boys & Girls Club and the structure of the Christian Brothers at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory school.
Jordan’s love of the spoken and written word probably traces to his parents, who emigrated from the West of Ireland. He can, and will, talk for hours, each story lending insight into the journey of a kid who grew up in the Mission, ended up in Germany during the Korean War, then traveled to Ireland to silently say goodbye to relatives on behalf of his ailing father. At 21, he simultaneously joined the San Francisco Police Department and enrolled at the University of San Francisco. Thirteen years later, Jordan graduated. “I tell everybody it took me three terms: Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson,” he jokes.
“You’re supposed to get dementia about my time but I haven’t gotten it yet,” he says. If anything, Jordan can
I did things that were not popular, but they needed to be done. Frank Jordan
cover dozens of topics in an hour. He’s a novice winemaker (Fillmore Cabernet and Pacific Chardonnay), world traveler (40 countries and counting) and grandfather of four (two boys and two girls). As for politics, he prefers to talk about his good experiences, but he’ll also address the time he was Reverend Jim Jones’ uniformed police “shill” at a Sunday service; the backlash from his budget cuts to reduce a $300 million deficit he inherited as mayor; and criticism over his Matrix homeless program. “I did things that were not popular, but they needed to be done,” Jordan says.
For those hoping Jordan’s memoir will dig up dirt on his political opponents, it’s unlikely. “Good luck,” says Wendy Paskin-Jordan, his wife of 25 years. “Frank doesn’t want to say bad things about anybody.”
The Jordans met in the late 1980s at a concert at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Paskin’s girlfriends nudged her to meet the chief of police, and one even challenged her to date him—or else she would. But Paskin pegged Jordan as old-fashioned and authoritative. He was a career public servant 20 years her senior with three grown sons; she had a law degree, an MBA from The Wharton School, plus the distinction of being Los Angeles’ first female lifeguard and a champion swimmer. Somehow, they ended up at Bardelli’s a few weeks later. Not long into the meal, Jordan recalls, his police pager buzzed and he excused himself to make a phone call. Upon returning to the table, he found his date arranging a straight white line of sugar on the table, pretending to snort it with a straw. Jordan, not missing a beat, pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, rolled it up tightly, and handed it to her, telling her it would work better.
“She and my dad are as good a couple as you can find. They grow closer every year,” says Jordan’s eldest son, Jim.
“What’s that great song?” Frank Jordan muses. “‘She’s the wind beneath my wings.’ It’s just wonderful to have a person who’s your best friend as well as your wife.”
The couple’s home, a statuesque Pacific Heights Victorian built in 1884, is a testament to Paskin-Jordan’s flair for interior design and keen eye for auction and antique store scores, from the 400-pound, centuries-old, hand-painted wooden double doors they shipped home from Morocco to a mahogany 1920s phonograph that comes to life at parties when the hosts are in the mood for Al Jolson. Two sleek aqua-eyed Australian Ocicats named Pinot and Zin weave their way through the surfaces of the house, playfully chewing on a fireplace broom and popping in and out of cabinets. And though the photos scattered throughout the house all have a story, Jordan lingers at the trio of black and white images from the day he spent with Mother Teresa at a Haight-Ashbury AIDS hospice. “How did you ever get 50,000 people off the streets of Calcutta?” he recalls asking her. “One at a time,” she answered.
A day with Mother Teresa, the time Pope John Paul II whispered a thank-you into his ear, and the passionate philanthropy of his former boss, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, are things Jordan thinks about often. “Those things all have powerful impact on your life,” he says.
Sweet but stubborn; compassionate but tough; Irish to his core. These are the things that friends and relatives say about Jordan, who’s been pigeonholed more than once. His son Jim admits incredulously, “I still get into debates with people, even friends of mine, who insist he’s a Republican—and he never has been.”
Jordan calls his years as mayor “tumultuous,” but he’s also proud: He turned a deficit into a surplus, forged a strong sister city bond with Ho Chi Minh City, rallied behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the Giants in San Francisco and a received a memorable compliment from Senator Ted Kennedy.
At a senate subcommittee meeting, Kennedy asked Jordan what he’d been doing to address the AIDS epidemic. Jordan told him about his public health states of emergency every two weeks to legalize needle exchanges, and efforts to distribute condoms at high schools. And then, Jordan recalls, “Senator Kennedy said to me, ‘Wow, you know there isn’t a mayor in the United States that would stand in front of the senate subcommittee and make that kind of a statement and expect to get reelected—but I commend you for it.’”
At SFPD, Jordan had a knack for diffusing tough situations by simply talking to people. When Irish rocker Bono defaced Vaillancourt Fountain with a can of spray paint, Jordan went to his hotel, chided him, then talked him into doing an anti-graffiti message for youth.
Roger Reynolds, a San Francisco attorney whose family is part of the Giants investor group, says, “One of the things that is just remarkable about Frank is that he is such a nice person. You don’t find nice people in politics, you find cunning people. My father-in-law, Dan Geller, would say, ‘Frank, you are too nice to be in politics.’ Frank would chuckle and his response would be: Someone has to inject niceness into politics to make everyday life better for people in San Francisco. You have to be kind to inspire kindness in others.”
Longtime friend David Yoder, who co-chaired Jordan’s mayoral fundraising committee, remembers, “When I was raising money for his campaign, there was this guy who said he’d give us $50,000. All he wanted was Frank Jordan to promise him a commission appointment in exchange. When I told Frank, he said, ‘No deal. I’ll name my commissioners for their ability and what they can do for the City—not for their campaign money.’”
“He had no personal agenda. He was totally devoted to making the city the best it could be,” says Lorrae Rominger, who was appointed executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission by Jordan. His support for transforming Treasure Island hangars into film studios resulted in local revenue and big budget movies ranging from Sudden Impact to Mrs. Doubtfire.
“I think history will see Frank Jordan as one of San Francisco’s best mayors,” Yoder maintains.
In the meantime, Jordan is writing his own history, stopping every once in a while to reflect on a life that owes a lot to his three favorite words.