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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 titled Baghdad-by-the-Bay was published in 1949 and in 1953 he published the book "Don't Call It Frisco" after a 1918 Examiner news item of the same name.[1] Caen died of lung cancer in San Francisco and his funeral was one of the best-attended events in recent city history.


Early years

Caen gained fame with his column "It's News to Me," which was first published July 5, 1938. His columns were known for their dry wit and their author's 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, 1958 column[2] and popularized the word "hippie" during San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love.[3] 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 Caen-reading customers reportedly showed up at the nightclub, eager to meet the Gonzo journalist but disappointed to be told he was not there.

Three-dot journalism

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 [3].

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 because 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. The freeway was never completed to its original design, although the portion that was completed was heavily used because it provided access to Broadway and Fisherman's Wharf. 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.[4]


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."[5] 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 Alex Steffen and Susie Bright.

When Caen's son Christopher launched AWARE Magazine in 2007, he named the holding company "Ellipsis Media" in honor of his father.


  1. ^ San Francisco Examiner, April 3, 1918. Don't Call It Frisco. Judge Mogan Rebukes Angeleno for Using Slang in His Petition for Divorce. "No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles." Retrieved on March 31, 2009.
  2. ^ Archive. Herb Caen, April 2, 1958. Pocketful of Notes. Retrieved on June 4, 2009.
  3. ^ Archive. Herb Caen, June 25, 1967. Small thoughts at large. Retrieved on June 4, 2009.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2]

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Newspaper columnist who worked in San Francisco.


  • "Isn't it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?"[1]
  • "The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around."
  • "I'm going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to Heaven. I'll look around and say, 'It's not bad, but it ain't San Francisco.'"
  • "Martinis are like breasts, one isn't enough, and three is too many"


  1. Winokur, Jon. The Portable Curmudgeon, p. 174. Plume, 1992. ISBN 0452266688
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