Probably the most iconic American columnist of all time was San Francisco’s Herb Caen. He is widely credited with developing a journalistic style that became known as Three Dot Journalism. In essence, he set the bar for columnists around the country.
I was fortunate enough to interface with Herb on many occasions during my time at The Mapes and during the Clint Eastwood Celebrity Tennis Tournament at Lake Tahoe. I was also fortunate enough to play tennis with him at the San Francisco Tennis Club.
He was also a frequent visitor to Lake Tahoe on his own free time. On one occasion he happened to be at the Tahoe Racquet Club and told the pro, George Galante, that he particularly admired Galante’s resplendent tennis shirt. Without missing a beat, Galante stripped off the garment and handed it to Caen as a gift. When he returned to work at the SF Chronicle, Caen mentioned the affable Galante by saying, “I finally met a man who would literally give you the shirt off his back.”
On one occasion during a break in the tennis activity at Tahoe, Caen was the center of attention in a group of celebs at the bar in the clubhouse. His proclivity for telling jokes and his quick wit kept stars such as Cornel Wilde, Lorne Greene, Lloyd Bridges and Eastwood himself spellbound.
His daily column in the Chronicle was a two-column full page series of separate paragraphs, each one in a different type face with some of them bold faced that tended to make it a quick and easy read.
It was often said that a single mention in Caen’s column was worth more than a full-page ad in the paper. Caen’s forte was to take a fairly innocuous item and give it his particular comedic touch. He also liked to sub-hed some of the paragraphs with terms like “pocket-full of wry”.
Behind the scenes, Caen’s work was aided by his assistant, Jerry Bundsen, who screened most of the items and selected the ones that were forwarded to Herb. He also had a full-time secretary who handled the voluminous correspondence she received.
Herb also wrote some eleven books about the City of San Francisco, a town he was unabashedly in love with. In one of the prefaces, he noted, “I began writing a daily column for the San Francisco Chronicle on July 5, 1938. It was a magic time in a faraway city that has largely disappeared and may have existed only in foggy myth. A curly-haired wide-eyed open-mouthed 22-year-old gee-whizzer from Sacramento, I felt like a kid who had been turned loose in a candy store.”
Another fabled writer, Walter Winchell on the eastern seaboard, may have been the inspiration for Herb, because of his staccato delivery on the radio. It is often argued among journalists as to who first coined the word RENOvation when referring to the Nevada city’s divorce trade, whether it was Winchell or Caen.
I spent the most amount of time with Herb during the Eastwood tennis tournament when we rented the Ponderosa Ranch at Incline for a nighttime party and I was lucky enough to have my picture taken with him. During that event, one of the highlights was a fake gunfight in the street that gained a favorable nod from Eastwood.
Harry Spencer is a 75-year resident of Nevada and a freelance writer living in Reno.