Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"San Francisco seems to have always had a peculiarly salubrious climate for personal journalism, the occasional essay, the intimate column, from Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce to Fremont Older and John D. Barry, it’s a great tradition. Today the papers are full of them, excellent, good, bad and indifferent. They are not now and never have been, these columnists, all of them sensationalists. Even the gossipiest ones have never been as invidiously gossipy as some elsewhere in the country. A lot of them have purveyed, between the lines, a lot of wisdom and light."

So wrote Kenneth Rexroth in his very first column for the San Francisco Examiner. The excellent Bureau of Public Secrets website, to celebrate fifty years since their original appearance, is running every column written by Kenneth Rexroth for the San Francisco Examiner from 1960-67. As one would expect from Rexroth, they cover a range of topics. Though at the time I remember wondering why Rexroth, given his politics, would write for a Hearst publication. But then there have been stranger journalistic marriages, such as Beaverbrook and Michael Foot in the UK. I'm looking forward to going back over Rexroth's columns, some of which I read when they were published, even though I steadfastly refused to ever buy a copy of the paper. Maybe one day we can also look forward to someone reprinting the columns of Ralph J. Gleason from the San Francisco Chronicle. Less literary and with no reputation other than in the jazz and Rolling Stone world, Gleason's columns would be a more accurate picture of the era. I remember someone asking at a Left Coast Crime conference in Monterrey, which San Francisco journalist best typified the hardboiled tradition. The panel agreed that it had to be Herb Caen, who also wrote for the Chronicle. I thought, Herb Caen? You've got to be joking. What about Gleason? He shared a column with the renown jazz historian Phil Elwood, not only modelled himself on Hammett, but was the consummate outsider, on the periphery of any number of San Francisco concerts, literary events, film showings, etc., during the era.

I remember nearly running Ralph down in my Yellow Cab just outside Winterland on my very first night on the job. Herb Caen? Until I looked him up just a few minutes ago, I never even knew what the guy looked like.

Though I suppose that's pretty hardboiled in itself. On the other hand, I crossed paths with Rexroth on numerous times, whether on one of my various trips to Jack's Record Store on Scott Street, just below Rexroth's apartment, or the class he taught at SF State. My father had known Rexroth back in Chicago and would listen to him read from his autobiography on Pacifica Radio, and for the rest of the day would talk about the friends they had in common.

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