- For the hockey player, please see Herb Cain.
Herbert Eugene Caen (April 3, 1916 – February 1, 1997) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist working in San Francisco. Born in Sacramento, California, Caen worked for the San Francisco Chronicle from the late 1930s until his death, with an interruption from 1950 to 1958 during which he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner. His collection of essays entitled Baghdad-by-the-Bay was published in 1949. He died of lung cancer in San Francisco and his funeral was one of the best-attended events in recent city history.
Caen gained fame with his column "It's News to Me,"
which was first published July 5
. His columns were known for their dry wit and his intimate knowledge of the happenings in his city. Caen had a considerable influence on pop culture and its language; most notably, he coined the term "beatnik
" in his April 2
and popularized the word "hippie
" during San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love
. He also playfully popularized many other (if more obscure) concepts and terms, such as Frisbeetarianism
. To reflect the multiculturalism and exotic character of San Francisco he coined the term Baghdad by the Bay,
and often referred to San Francisco that way. Caen was reliable but not infallible; in 1985 he reported that journalist Hunter S. Thompson
was working as the night manager of the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre
. Thompson indeed was living in San Francisco then and a close friend of the Mitchells but did not work for them in any capacity, and many customers reportedly showed up at the nightclub, eager to meet the Gonzo journalist
but disappointed to be told he was not there.
Caen often referred to his column as "three-dot journalism" since it mostly consisted of short items broken up by ellipses
. He ran the popular "Namephreaks" feature which presented people whose names were related to their occupations or hobbies (such as Nancy Canceller who worked the cancellation machines at the post office
). He regularly ran columns with this topic, one of his most popular. Entries were often submitted by Strange DeJim, who frequently sent jokes to Caen and who many suspected was not a real person but an alias Caen selected for himself. Strange DeJim revealed himself after Caen's death as a writer who lives in San Francisco's Castro District
Herb Caen Way...
For many years, San Francisco had a double-decker freeway
along much of its waterfront on the east side of the city, called the Embarcadero Freeway
as it was built over the street named the Embarcadero
. Many residents, Caen among them, considered it an eyesore as it blocked views of the bay; for this reason it was never completed. Caen frequently lambasted it in his column, dubbing it The Dambarcadero
. In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake
severely damaged the freeway, and the decision was made to demolish it rather than repair it. Remaining in place, but now open to the sky, is the Embarcadero, a small portion of which is named "Herb Caen Way...", with the three dots
included in honor of his writing style. The wide promenade serves as the most eastern street in San Francisco, wrapping the city from the northeast corner, proceeding along the waterfront, and terminating near the new stadium
for his beloved San Francisco Giants
Caen received a special award from the Pulitzer Prize board in 1996 "for his extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city."
He referred to it in his column as his "Pullet Surprise"
Caen can be seen in Jack O'Connell's San Francisco documentary The Hippie Revolution (1996), a reworking of O'Connell's earlier Revolution (1968).
Fireworks following funeral
Caen willed to the city of San Francisco a fireworks display which was given at Aquatic Park
in front of Ghirardelli Square
following his death. The fireworks display concluded with a pyrotechnic image of a typewriter on the bay. This tribute was attended by many of his friends and fans, who gathered on Herb Caen Way ... on the Embarcadero, lit candles protected from the wind by dixie cups, and walked north along the waterfront to Aquatic Park.
Caen has been recognized as a formative influence by a younger generation of Bay Area writers as diverse as Mark Morford
, Alex Steffen
, Susie Bright
, Aaron Cometbus
, and Dave Eggers
When Caen's son Christopher launched AWARE Magazine in 2007, he named the holding company "Ellipsis Media" in honor of his father