As the Gazette celebrates 40 years in publishing, we pay tribute to the magazine’s fearless founder.
By Kendra Boutell
John Drum, the retired antique dealer, knew Gardner Williams Mein all his life. “He was a real character, an original, with a great sense of humor,” says Drum. “He would sometimes appear at parties in a lace dress, for the shock value. In business, he had good ideas, but his timing was always off.”
One of these ideas, the Nob Hill Gazette, began in 1978 as a negligible four-page newspaper.
It was San Francisco’s Golden Age of journalism with Herb Caen, Art Hoppe and John Wasserman writing for the Chronicle. Mein partied and played with them all. Perhaps that is why he took up the challenge when friend Newton Cope suggested he publish a neighborhood newspaper. Cope, whom Caen dubbed “the nabob of Nob Hill,” owned the Huntington Hotel and the Big 4 Restaurant. Despite the endorsement, the savvy entrepreneur felt his hotel and restaurant were not getting enough press. As a result, the monthly Nob Hill Gazette was born.
Former publisher Lois Lehrman remembers her first meeting with Mein: “In 1981, I rang him up. I saw the Gazette at the Stanford Court Hotel. I liked the paper’s name and thought Gardner could use my help.” Mein invited the New Jersey transplant and former ad salesperson for Gannett Company to his waterfront office. The dilettante only hired women with good lineage or great legs. Lehrman possessed the latter. She also brought business savvy, which Mein lacked, to the publication. As advertising director, Lehrman transformed the Nob Hill Gazette from a few pages of newsprint to its vibrant oversized magazine format.
At the time, Mein produced the periodical from Pier 5, a decaying Beaux Arts building. Abandoned by the shipping trades and cut off from the city by an elevated freeway, the once-thriving Embarcadero was in transition. Gazette headquarters lacked a restroom. “Gardner was friends with Walter Landor, so we used the facilities on his boat,” Lehrman recalls. Landor owned a branding company stationed on the Klamath, a remodeled Southern Pacific auto ferry, docked nearby.
The makeshift atmosphere and isolated location did not deter the city’s boldface names from visiting. “I loved seeing the legends of San Francisco in our office on a regular basis,” Lehman says. Mein might decide in the morning to throw a cocktail party that afternoon; Lehrman faced the challenge of rounding up her boss’ socially prominent friends. The colorful movers and shakers invited to these fêtes graced the magazine’s pages. Guests included man about town John Traina, businessman Cyril Magnin, art benefactor Diana Dollar Knowles and art collectors John and Frances Bowes.
Mein knew or was related to all of San Francisco’s elite. Born in 1919, he grew up in a massive Pacific Heights mansion on Broadway and Divisadero. The scion of a Bay Area engineering dynasty, Mein’s family made their fortunes in South Africa’s gold and diamond mines. His grandfathers, Thomas Mein and Gardner Williams (known as the Diamond King), pioneered hydraulic gold mining in California. William Wallace Mein, his father, founded Calaveras Cement Company. Mein, the black sheep of his family, did not pursue an engineering career. Instead, he devoted his energies to the preservation of San Francisco’s historic sites.
When the Bernard Maybeck-designed Palace of Fine Arts faced demolition, Mein led a campaign to save the beloved Marina landmark. Built for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition of ephemeral materials, the crumbling Romanesque colonnade and rotunda required a complete restoration. In 1957, Mein helped raise $300,000 and then persuaded San Francisco industrialist Walter Johnson to contribute another $2 million. This, along with city funding, allowed for the later reconstruction of the Palace of Fine Arts in permanent concrete.
Mein also fought for the San Francisco skyline and against the looming threat of high-rises. In 1970, U.S. Steel proposed a 550-foot-tall office building on the Embarcadero between the Bay Bridge and the Ferry Building. At a public hearing, Mein argued: “High-rises are like heroin. Once you start, you can’t stop except by drastic means, and by then it’s too late.”
As much as he loved San Francisco, Mein was happiest spending time in Tahoe. In the 1960s, he owned the River Ranch Inn on the Truckee River at the foot of Alpine Meadows. The enterprise failed during Mein’s tenure, partially because he let his friends stay for free. It went on to be successful with a subsequent owner. An advocate for Lake Tahoe’s arts and history, Mein gave his time and resources to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society.
Mein died peacefully in 2012, at the age of 93, in Napa. His wife, Lani Logan Mein, three sons (all named Gardner), daughter Mary Elizabeth and a legion of friends survive him. The photographer Fred Lyon describes Mein as “a wonderful unmade bed” and still misses him. “He was always cheerful and laughing, dancing through life with style, from one cocktail party to another,” Lyon says. Lehrman, who bought the Gazette in 1986, concurs. “The adjective that comes to mind when I think of Gardner is fey,” she says. “He was unconventional, charming, a little naughty, had no money sense, and everyone loved him.”