Features

On top of the hill

by Brittany Shoot

Lois Lehrman, scribe of San Francisco society, turns the page

 

Lois Lehrman has never  been afraid to talk to anyone. Don’t mistake the longtime Nob Hill Gazette publisher’s confidence for hubris. One of the reasons the Gazette has endured many decades in a city with a media landscape as rocky as its coastline is that its formidable publisher will speak with anyone, without prejudice.

This serves well in high society, but it is equally advantageous when profiling those with the characteristics Lehrman most values: intelligence and joie de vivre. Take the case of the late ’90s Pacific Heights party where Lehrman saw a distinguished-looking gentleman sitting alone under the stairs. No one had noticed Edwin Teller, the so-called father of the hydrogen bomb, but Lehrman struck up a conversation with the friendly physicist—and later profiled him in an award-winning Gazette article.

Lehrman radiates a uniquely San Francisco blend of sophistication and casualness, but she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with a lawyer father and ballet instructor mother. “I was on stage from the time I was three years old,” she says. When cast in a duet with her younger sister, Lehrman was always the lead, often in a stereotypically male role such as a farmer or prince. She says that tendency—and her fear of becoming the main character from the classic novel Marjorie Morningstar—might explain how she ended up blazing her own personal and professional trail.

“I married too young,” Lehrman says of her first husband. It didn’t work out, so Lehrman took the kids and took off for Miami Beach, Florida, which Lehrman joked could be “the New York of the panhandle,” where they lived for several years. “We three grew up there together,” she says fondly. Without any family or friends around, the threesome inhabited their own world. Every Sunday, for example, they’d visit the local aquarium, where they’d given several of the fish aunt and uncle monikers. After saying “hi” to their extended underwater clan, the three humans would go out for a hearty breakfast.

Eventually, Lehrman moved back to Elizabeth, where she took any job that interested her. She likes to joke that because she grew up in the heart of the American Mafia—and because the James Cagney tough-guy flicks always seemed “pretty glam”—she’d started out wanting to be a gun moll. Detours into college to try her hand at studying speech therapy and elementary education ended abruptly from boredom.

She turned to advertising sales and was the first woman hired at mortgage broker J.I. Kislak to sell commercial life insurance. After several of the “Mad Men” types in her office taught her the ropes, “I outsold them!” she crows, with an unprintable expletive thrown in for emphasis.

From there, she took a job selling advertisements for a Jewish newspaper. When the Catholic organization in town saw how well its competitor was performing, they called to hire the same salesperson to work for them as well. For years, Lehrman juggled both accounts, working out of her home and laying out each issue of the newspapers in her hallways, assistants coming and going at all hours.

Lehrman’s feminist bona fides were always evident in her fierce independence and work ethic. She was even in Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss America contest and the now-infamous bra burning protest on the boardwalk. “But I was inside at a meeting,” she says. “I didn’t know about it—or else I’d have joined!”

It was her children who convinced her to settle down with her second husband, Gene. Already, she says, she’d given them everything—except the experience of having a nuclear family. “They made me marry him,” she says only half-jokingly, noting it was a long courtship because she kept putting him off, even accepting his offers to babysit while she went on dates with other men. After they wed, he adopted her children and his own, and the family moved to San Francisco to support Gene’s job as a vice president at The Gap. Soon after, she nabbed a job at the struggling Gazette, then located on rat-infested Pier 5.

It didn’t take long for Lehrman to grab the wheel and steer the ship. She began by selling ads but eventually bought the magazine in 1981, ushering in a new era of growth, including the Gazette’s eventual relocation to its offices in the Fairmont Hotel to be better situated to cover its core readership. The page count bloomed, too, at times over 70 pages to keep up with advertising demand. The Gazette also weathered the recent recession in style, trimmed down to a sleek 30-something page count.

Computers and technology, Lehrman says, are the real reason she’s retiring. “I’ve taken the Gazette as far as I can,” she explains. “It’s time for somebody younger and more plugged in.” That said, despite recently celebrating another birthday, she exhibits little concern about her own getting up in years. “I hate to be trite, but age really is just a number,” she says.

She doesn’t reveal her age, but she certainly celebrates. Her recent birthday soiree was hosted by two of her dearest friends, real estate developers Ted and Pamala Deikel. “Lois has the presence of a queen and the courage of a Navy SEAL,” they note. “We are lucky to have her in our lives.” Singer and actor Franc D’Ambrosio is another close friend of many years. “How great to see everyone dressed up in their best and coming into Mel’s. It was tremendous fun!” he enthuses.

For someone who keeps a relatively low profile, Lehrman’s influence is easily spotted around town—assuming you know where to look. Not everyone knows that the mural in beloved San Francisco supper club Bix was painted by Lehrman’s daughter, Mindy Cameron—or that Lehrman makes a cameo in it. “I’m the blonde on the left,” she demurs. But D’Ambrosio thinks his friend could retake the center stage of her youth, likening Lehrman to screen legend   “Lois only gets more beautiful, elegant, engaging and enchanting,” he says.

Lehrman’s life may have turned a page, but the book is hardly finished being written. Her phone still rings with Gazette-related questions, and her eyes twinkle mischievously when she explains the next business venture up her sleeve. “It’s a really kicky idea,” she says with glee. For now, she’s keeping it to herself. But when the time is right, she’ll begin her next chapter.

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