Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review 279: The World of Herb Caen

Herb caen

THE WORLD OF HERB CAEN San Francisco 1938-1997, edited by Barnaby Conrad. 128 pages, illustrated.  Chronicle, $35

Newspaperman Herb Caen is the one who nicknamed San Francisco “Baghdad-by-the-Bay.” In the 21st century it sounds like an insult.

It wasn’t meant so then, when Baghdad was associated with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sindbad.

How long ago it seems now.

When I was a young newspaperman in the East, I used to envy Caen. How wonderful it would be,  I thought, to have readers feed me such lines.

I’m older now and I suspect a lot of those reader lines originated with Caen. He sure could get a lot into a few words.

Just a few years separate the young Caen from F.P.A., but Caen sounds as fresh today as he did when he died, at an extremely youthful 80 years of age, in 1997, while Franklin Pierce Adams (what lout of a parent would name a son after Franklin Pierce, anyway?) seems as antique as the Augustan penmen of the 18th century he used to imitate.

Caen, though, was an antique in a way, the last American boulevardier.

This book offers a tiny but amusing sample of Caen’s output, with lots of pictures.

I was only an occasional reader of Caen in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, usually when some provincial scribe lifted one of his items. Copies of the Examiner or Chronicle didn’t make it back east too often.

I was surprised and slightly disappointed to find that, when it came to so-called national tragedies like the shooting of Jack Kennedy, Caen was as mawkish almost as the columnists in the provinces.

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