San Francisco newspaper columnist and institution
Herbert Eugene Caen was born on April 3, 1916, in Sacramento, California. His parents had spent the previous summer in San Francisco, and he always claimed to have been conceived in the city. He spent a few years writing for the Sacramento Union, first as a sports reporter, then covering crime and policing.
In 1936, when he was 20, the San Francisco Chronicle hired him to write a radio column as a replacement for long-time columnist Dinty Doyle. Within two years, however, it became clear that radio columns were not destined to last. Caen convinced his editor, Paul C. Smith, to let him write about current events in San Francisco.
His first column, entitled "It's News To Me", appeared on July 5, 1938. It set the pattern for his future work: made up of short items, separated by three dots, a style partially derived from Walter Winchell. The content was gossipy, full of name dropping and local references. Although Caen would use his column for more serious social commentary (he was, for instance, passionately against the Vietnam War), the best, most entertaining writing was always the lightest.
The column had been running for 6 years when World War II broke out. Caen enlisted in 1942, and ended up in public relations after stints in communications and aerial reconnaissance analysis. When he returned to San Francisco in 1945, he started up the column again. Apart from the war, and an eight-year stint at the Chronicle's then-rival (later sister paper) the Examiner, Herb Caen wrote the same column for the same paper until his death in 1997.
Caen used the column to coin words (beatnik, namephreak) and comment on world events (the Times published his column on Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's wedding). However, the bulk of his items were about San Francisco itself. He reported on, and to some extent created, a vision of the city as an overgrown provincial town: small, friendly, and basically decent.
In 1996, at the age of 80, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his writing. The city of San Francisco held a Herb Caen Day in June of that year. The main waterfront road in downtown San Francisco, rebuilt after the Loma Prieta earthquake, was named after him ("Herb Caen Way...") that same year.
Herb Caen died of lung cancer on February 1, 1997, and passed fully into the San Francisco mythos that he himself created.