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December 2017
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BIGGEST little City
by Harry Spencer

Journalistic Giant 

Harry Spencer
Harry Spencer

This year I would be remiss if I didn’t note that it has been twenty years since San Francisco columnist Herb Caen passed away.

Over the years I had many interesting and enjoyable meetings with the author of “Baghdad by the Bay”. I also on one occasion visited his digs at the SF Chronicle and had the good fortune to meet his “screener”, one Jerry Bundsen. It was Bundsen’s job to go through the myriad notes and items that Caen received on a daily basis and forward on to Herb the most intriguing ones. Herb’s daily column was a full-page, two columns wide, full of various type fonts, some bold-face and split into interesting paragraphs. His unique style was the benchmark for columnists worldwide.

On several occasions, I had the opportunity to communicate with Herb by snail mail. I would post mine on traditional 8½ by 11 pages and Herb would respond on 5 x 7 note cards. His replies were terse and to the point. A couple of examples I still retain follow. The first was dated May 13, 1996 and it went like this: “Harry, old pal, I’m a bit under the weather, but I appreciate the honor. Hope we can get together. A toast to Tarzan of the Mapes!” The second was dated June 18, 1996 and went: “Thanks, Harry. Afraid I can’t make any plans just now. But you remain on my short list of alltime good guys.”

Famous columnist Herb Caen
Famous columnist Herb Caen of San Francisco is pictured at a soiree with the late Contessa Angela Desideri of Reno.

The above missives from Herb came in response to the fact that the Reno Media Press Club had selected him for its inaugural award to the person who had done the most to promote the City of Reno on a nationwide basis.

The event was scheduled as a dinner presentation with Herb travelling to Reno to accept the award.

Unfortunately, he must have been aware at that time of the terminal cancer that would end his life on February 1, 1997.

On the occasion of his passing I wrote an extremely long Memory in the Nevada State Journal. A few of the excerpts from that effort seem as appropriate today as they did twenty years ago. Some of them follow.

San Francisco may have lost its conscience and a dignified court jester, but the City of Reno has also lost a good friend as well as its staunchest supporter with the passing of Herb Caen on Feb. 1.

I first met Herb in his 'salad days' almost 40-years ago, and over the intervening decades we shared many salads together. The first time, it was my great good fortune – as an embryonic PR man – to get the assignment to meet him at the Reno Airport in 1957 and ferry him to the Mapes Hotel, where a portentous event was to occur that evening – the opening of the Coach Room restaurant on the riverside ground floor of the hotel. Herb was part of the cadre of Bay Area Press that manager Walter Ramage (who had also managed the San Francisco Press Club) invited to the debut of the Olde English-style pub that replaced the former Terrace Room of the hotel.

During the ride from the Airport, Herb was everything I had imagined he would be. His chatter was easy and relaxed and his spoken quips were as pungent and humorous as those that speared in his columns. I was surprised at his vitality and enthusiasm. I might have thought to myself, “How can a dude this old be so full of life and excitement?”

That night, as a dozen or so of us celebrated the opening of the room, Herb leaned over to me and said, “Harry, surely you didn’t bring me all the way to Reno just to have dinner?” I replied that we at the Mapes considered him the dean of Bay Area journalists and the party would not be a success without him. At that point he rose, lifted his wine glass and proposed a toast to the host, Charles Mapes. In perfect Caen style he toasted 'Tarzan of the Mapes', a moniker that stuck and that he used over the years in subsequent column items about the hotel and Reno.

I had the pleasure of working hand in glove with Herb on numerous occasions, such as the 1960 Winter Olympics, the Clint Eastwood/Hyatt Celebrity Tennis Tournament and the inaugural Virginia City Camel Races.

Herb Caen
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in his officein San Francisco, California in the '90s. Photo: Nancy Wong

As was his wont, in addition to calling Charles Mapes “Tarzan of the Mapes”, he bestowed an appellation on me with which he would usually greet me. My Caen moniker was “Mr. Reno”.

I closed my lengthy article about his passing with the following quote.

“Of all the herbs in the melting pot that is San Francisco, you left the sweetest taste.”