The Essay

The Essay: Letters From Herb Caen

By Jennifer Blot

One of Herb Caen’s readers made this collage in tribute to the legendary Chronicle columnist, who would always make sure to respond with cheerful humor to the piles of fan mail he received on a daily basis over decades.

Basic Mac skills. Suggested typing speed: 50 wpm. Possibly familiar with email. Those bullet points on the job description weren’t as interesting to my 25-year-old self as the other things that came with being editorial assistant to Herb Caen— sniffing out potential items, gleaning gossip left on voicemail, fielding media queries — but today I realize that the simple task of typing thank you notes in typewriter font on a Mac, along with retrieving and sending emails, may have meant the most to Caen.

It was part of his other writing, which he’d do daily before tackling his 1,000-word San Francisco Chronicle items column. It was playful, witty and flattering prose that ended up on my desk, onto letterhead and ultimately into scrapbooks and frames in homes around the country.

Coddled regards from one good egg to another.

What a magnificent letter with the authentic San Francisco touches! You are the best.

Your letter gave me a 24-hour lift, for which I am ever grateful.

I loved your report! How lucky is San Francisco to have friends like you.

Hooray for Ess Eff and you.

For every letter or fax he received with a return address, Caen penned a unique reply. This translated into thousands of letters during the short span of time in which he turned 80, received a Pulitzer Prize, got married, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and feted at a massive Herb Caen Day celebration at the Ferry Building.

Fans showered him with namesake poems, limericks and acrostics, Caen-inspired artwork, original songs and music tapes. They mailed in photos of goofy license plates, vintage ephemera, and quite often, their own stories of falling in love in San Francisco, or falling in love with San Francisco and loving San Francisco from afar.

I learned to decipher Caen’s shorthand, typically scribbled in the righthand margins of the letters he received, then typed the 5 × 7 notes and returned to him for signatures. When he got an email account — one of the first at the Chronicle in those mid-1990s dial-up days — correspondence doubled.

Most of the time, the gist of Caen’s notes was simply “Thank you.” Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, thanks for the item, thanks for the sightem, and good luck to you.

Thanks for the warm words on a rainy day!All best and let us carry on.

I was touched by your accolades, however undeserved.

Thanks for the scooplet and warm regards! I won’t say your letter is better than a Pulitzer but it means just as much to me.

Your torrent of inspired verbiage had me in stitches. Thanks for brightening the whole week.

Caen sent countless notes to readers in his 60-year career. But as the once-ubiquitous framed Caen columns in old haunts around town have dwindled over time, I knew the letters had, too. It’s been more than 23 years since Caen, who would have turned 104 this month, penned one of those notes.

Hoping to find someone with a letter on the wall, I contemplated tweeting a query or posting something on a San Francisco Facebook page. But that didn’t feel very Caen-like.

I wanted to call my sidekick, Herb’s long-time assistant, Carole Vernier — who knew everything— but she’s been gone a few years. I emailed old friend and beloved Caen contributor Strange de Jim, whose quips appeared in hundreds of Caen columns — from the first mention in 1972 to Caen’s last column on January 10, 1997 — but as I’d suspected, he had no letters. Though Herb once admitted, “Every morning, I rustle hastily through the mail, looking for Strange’s submission,” his faithful correspondent never listed a return address.

I momentarily got discouraged, then remembered the invitations. Sure enough, though it’s been decades since artist Winston Smith invited Caen to his gallery reception, he still displays the response he received on a wall in his North Beach home, alongside notes from Noam Chomsky, Hugh Hefner and the New Yorker’s David Remnick: “What wonderful ideas and execution, Winston. Sorry I couldn’t make the reception. Thanks and cheers for your talent.”

The letter, dated May 12, 1988, is Smith’s favorite.

“I never dreamt he’d actually take the time to respond and send encouraging words, even though he couldn’t make the reception. It was so very thoughtful of him,” he says.

Caen was a no-show at the Murphy family’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party, but the clan’s tradition of baking 100 loaves of soda bread in a bathtub made it to the column – and a letter followed. Molly Murphy Burke tells me she displays Caen’s letter from March 1987 every year at the party, which is now in its 48th year: “Hello Molly: So sorry to miss the fun and laughter St. Patrick’s Day. Cheers to you all and thanks for thinking of me. Gahbless!”

Seeing scans of Smith’s and Burke’s letters made me smile. They were written before my time (and surely typed by an assistant who used a typewriter instead of a Mac) but the tone, the spirit and gratitude were so familiar. You would think there could only be a couple of ways to say “thanks” — but Caen knew thousands.

Jennifer Blot, a former Chronicle reporter and assistant to Caen, recalls his merry memos to readers, tipsters and fans from all across America. 

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