It was little over a year and a half ago that Herb Caen left San Francisco, the city he had defined since the late 1930s. But newspapermen find it hard to break deeply ingrained habits. Recently, Caen picked up his hat and cane, and set out on one of his famous walks, looking for colorful characters and a good story. In keeping with the columnist's new, loftier address, his perspective has broadened to include not just his own crazy town but the entire mixed-up world. Nevertheless, in some ways he's still the same gee-whizzer from Sacramento. Here's what he had to say.
I awoke late the other morning with a terrible pang of homesickness. Outside my window Jeanette MacDonald was singing "San Francisco," and suddenly I could smell warm sourdough French bread and taste fresh cracked crab. It seems like only yesterday that I received the OK sign from the burly guard at the top of the Celestial Staircase, but I've been busy enough here to fill a couple of lifetimes. If I didn't know better, I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven. Imagine what it's like for an old jazz hound like me to find Billie Holliday and Janis Joplin sharing the apartment across the hall. I've discovered that someone's always jammin' somewhere, and St. Peter plays a mean horn himself when he has the time. One night I pushed open a door I hadn't noticed before and wandered into a dark, crowded room that was fairly pulsating with some of the sweetest sounds I've ever heard. Benny Goodman was there, and Charlie Parker. Even the walls were wailing.
* * *
You know what it's like when you move to a strange city. For the first few days, nothing feels right. I played landlocked goldfish for a while, until someone handed me The Perfect Martini and I decided I could learn to love this place. I keep running into friends like Louis Lurie and Lucius Beebe, and people like Saroyan and Jack London whom I'd wished were friends. It bothers the fogey in me, though, to see how some of the other residents dress. I suggested contacting Wilkes and asking him to put together a care package, but apparently the local Robe and Sandals Union runs a tight shop.
* * *
Lately, curiosity has been nipping at my shins, and I've been wondering what has happened down below since I made my departure. Sunday morning seemed a good time to absent myself around here, so I threw on a plaid Brioni suit and a comfortable pair of Gucci shoes. Grabbing my favorite malacca walkingstick, I caught the first meteor heading toward earth, where I immediately noticed a huge hubbub hovering ominously over the White House. I watched as one group of earnest youths rushed into the Oval Office and crammed a pile of documents into a fat briefcase. A few minutes later, another earnest group burst through the door, dumped everything out onto the floor, and filled the poor cowhide sack with an even larger stack. I strolled nonchalantly into the room, flashed my press pass, and demanded to know what was going on. "The President's going to Moscow," the lads chorused, "but Moscow's in turmoil, Yeltsin's shaky, and we don't know what to pack."
* * *
Using my carefully honed powers of deduction, I started to piece together a picture. It helped that one wall was lined with colorful graphs labeled "Latest Stock Reports," which were covered with jagged lines, all sloping down and to the right. Another wall was filled with similar graphs, entitled "Public Opinion Polls," with the names Clinton, Yeltsin, Kohl, Obuchi and Jiang Zemin in smaller letters underneath. On an easel to the left of the President's massive desk, I could see an array of charts marked "Terrorist/Anti-terrorist Attacks." And strewn about the floor were photographs, of angry fist-waving mobs, of men camped outside public buildings, of people pawing through garbage heaps. A map was studded with red pins: Moscow, Tokyo, Jakarta, Bangkok, Beijing, Baghdad, Nairobi, Tirana, Bogotà, São Paulo. After that, I lost track.
* * *
I began to imagine the scene, a couple of days later, of two tired men sitting across from each other at a narrow table, somewhere in Russia. Once powerful, now for reasons that only their own countries understand, they are both fighting for their political survival. And all around them is chaos. They don't understand what is happening. Once politically savvy, now they haven't a clue. They know that they'll be blamed for the disasters that occur on their watch, even though these disasters were decades in the making. Not bad men, but weak, they found it easier to give their capitalist cronies free rein than to put themselves in the driver's seat. Surrounded by experts, they forgot what they believed in. And so they hunch silently over the antimacassar-covered table, their gaudy ties jarring the somber atmosphere. Occasionally, one of them offers a comment or idly sweeps his hand back and forth in front of him. They don't know what to do.
* * *
This is not the world I remembered, that lustrous blue-and-green clay ball whose quirky inhabitants were always in the midst a gallant fight against daunting odds. Has everything changed, even the City-by-the-Bay that I love so unabashedly? But no, a quick hop across the continent restored my rose-colored glasses. There must be hope when a sunny afternoon on Hyde brings out a natty young man in a bright green silk suit, and when you can open a newsrack to discover a flower inside.
* * *
The cool gray fog was creeping over Twin Peaks
as I shot past the Golden Gate, headed for the pearly ones. At least
a few signs of that unquenchable spirit remain, I thought with relief. But
how long would it survive? A wisp from Godspell wiggled through the
clouds and floated next to me, "God save the people."
Recently, I came across a grisly incident that took place in San Francisco nearly a hundred years ago. Some of the details seem dated, but as I try to make sense of it, I am struck by how little has actually changed. Despite the devastation of earthquakes, fires, and redevelopment, the city remains much the same, especially in its capacity for good and evil. Let me tell you the story.
If you follow Sutter out past Pierce, you'll come to a pretty row of white Victorian houses, each with tall windows and a broad stairway leading to the front door. Over the years, they've been subdivided and the numbers have been changed to create separate basement apartments, but otherwise they must look much as they did when they were two-story houses. It was at 2211 Sutter that young Nora Fuller was found foully murdered in the winter of 1902.
It's hard to get a sense of Nora from the photographs that appeared in the Chronicle and the Examiner at the time. She stares into the distance, her serious expression set off by a cascade of long dark hair, her round cheeks perhaps more childlike as they contrast with the high starched collar that encases her neck. Neither beautiful nor homely, she looks like any fifteen-year-old anywhere.
Nora was born in China. In 1890 her father, who was working as a steamship engineer, either fell or jumped overboard, never to be seen again. Having no way to survive in a strange country, her mother gathered up the rest of the family and embarked for San Francisco. She remarried a year later and Nora took her stepfather's name, but the new marriage failed. Did W. W. Fuller beat his wife? Did he desert her? We'll never know. In any case, she took a route that was far more common at the turn of the last century than we self-centered modernists like to believe. She divorced him. In 1902 Mrs. Alice M. Fuller was living at 1747 Fulton with her four children and an occasional lodger.
Today the block of Fulton between Central and Masonic has been taken over by two ponderous stucco buildings. Sandwiched between them, almost invisible from the corner, is a tiny white house, a charming place with scalloped siding and a sheltering front porch. Its number is 1733, but it must be the kind of house that Nora called home. And which she, like many teenagers, was eager to leave. An indifferent student, her dream was to go on the stage. She used to haunt the Tivoli Opera House (Mrs. Ernestine Kreling, prop.) at Eddy and Market, where Hallidie Plaza now welcomes the world. At Christmastime in 1901, she even managed to sneak backstage and cast herself as an extra for two rehearsals of Red Riding Hood.
Nora had just dropped out of school. One of her first attempts to find work was a letter to a theatrical agency, in which she said she had "a fairly good soprano voice." But she seemed to have better luck with the want ads in the newspaper. On Friday, January 10, her mother spotted a Chronicle advertisement for a live-in babysitter and answered it for her daughter. Late the next afternoon, she received a response, asking Nora to meet the prospective employer, a man named John Bennett, at the Popular Restaurant that evening at 6:00. At 5:00 the girl gulped down an apple and started to dash out the door. Her mother called her back, handing her some money so that she could run some errands on the way home. Nora rushed out to keep the appointment.
At about the same time, at the foot of Geary, a waiter at the Popular Restaurant was serving a man who said he expected to meet a young girl there. Although this man was a regular customer --- he'd been coming to the restaurant for about fifteen years --- he usually kept to himself. The staff knew him only as "Tenderloin," for his habit of ordering porterhouse steaks and carefully cutting away all but the most succulent part. On this particular night, he finished his dinner quickly and went to wait outside, where he was seen pacing back and forth.
Shortly afterward at the Fuller house, Nora's brother Louis answered the telephone. In great excitement, his sister asked him to tell their mother that she had gotten the job and would begin work immediately. But Mrs. Fuller, mother that she was, put her foot down. She insisted that Nora come home and start properly on the following Monday. Practical woman that she was, she reminded her daughter of the money she had given her, and of her promise to pick up some groceries.
Nora agreed to return at once. But instead, she
vanished into the thinnest of air, just like Christina Williams, Kristen
Modafferi and the hundreds of other boys and girls whose pictures now adorn
milk cartons and subway entrances.
The newspapers made much of Nora's disappearance. They ran stories describing her mother's anguish next to items about muggings and mysterious shootings, creating the same kind of rogue's gallery of danger that appears on local TV news broadcasts today.
But nothing more was heard of Nora herself until the afternoon of February 8, when an employee of Umbsen & Co., a local real estate agency, arrived at the house on Sutter Street for a routine inspection. He wandered from room to room in the completely empty building until he reached a closed door toward the back of the second floor. Pushing the door open, he entered a small, closet-like space. What he saw there sent him running downstairs and into the street, shouting frantically to a nearby policeman. For on the bed lay Nora Fuller, completely naked. Someone had arranged her long hair carefully across the pillow. Someone had horribly mutilated her soft young body.
To be continued.
[Part 1: In mid-January 1902, a distraught mother reported the mysterious disappearance of her fifteen-year-old daughter. Nothing was heard of the girl until several weeks later, when the employee of a real estate agency came upon the naked, mutilated body of Nora Fuller, carefully laid out on a bed in an otherwise completely empty house.]
What is it about this case that makes it so haunting? It engenders neither the excitement of a who-dun-it nor the suspense of a thriller. By dint of careful investigation and a little luck, the police learned the identity of the murderer rather quickly. Nevertheless, the fate of Nora Fuller captured the imagination of San Franciscans in 1902, as well as those who learn of it today.
The police went through the murder house in a methodical search for clues but turned up very little. In an era that predated DNA testing and identification by fingerprints --- an empty whisky bottle sitting on the mantel in a front room quickly made its way to the trashbin --- they resorted to handwriting analysis. And they pounded the pavement making good old-fashioned door-to-door inquiries.
"John Bennett," the prospective employer whom Nora was supposed to meet, had vanished completely. The proprietor of the Popular Restaurant, Fred Krone, suffered a sudden memory loss, claiming that he could not remember what his frequent customer looked like. His son, Fred Jr., who had not yet acquired his father's sense of discretion, described the habitual consumer of tenderloin steaks as a well-dressed, refined-looking man approximately 40 years old, who wore a brown mustache and appeared to be 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 160 pounds.
A real estate agent at Umbsen & Co. identified the person who had leased the house at 2211 Sutter Street as C. B. Hawkins, a well-dressed middle-aged man with a brown mustache. Hawkins had given his previous address as the Golden West Hotel, located at 68 Ellis; upon questioning, the hotel manager there could find no record of his registration. But several furniture salesmen on Market Street remembered him as the man who purchased a second-hand bed and used bedding and had it delivered to the Sutter Street address just before Nora Fuller disappeared.
Here science, of a sort, took over. Captain of Detectives John Seymour called in Theodore Kytka, a graphologist, who examined 32,000 post office change-of-address cards in the hope of coming across one in the handwriting of "Hawkins." He found several, including one card that sent the conscientious Captain Seymour to Kansas City on what turned out to be a wild goose chase.
The police also appealed to the public, in the manner of today's "Unsolved Mysteries." And here's where luck lent a helping hand. A woman named Ollie Blasier, who had recently reported the disappearance of her lover, Charles B. Hadley, noticed a similarity between his signature and that of C. B. Hawkins. Once Kytka verified that the same person had indeed written both, Blasier volunteered a number of details that clinched the murderer's identity.
Hadley lived with Blasier in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood teeming, then as now, with low-cost hotels and apartment houses. The rooming house at 647 Ellis no longer exists, but it probably occupied the present site of the T Air Travel Hotel parking lot, next to the Panda Chinese-American Restaurant. On the day that news of Nora Fuller's disappearance was published in the papers, Hadley phoned Blasier to say he wouldn't be coming home that night. And he didn't. On the next day, she recalled, she found his blood-stained clothing in the laundry basket. Hadley sounds like an all-round scoundrel. A bookkeeper employed --- the Chronicle noted somewhat maliciously --- by the Examiner, he had recently been caught with irregularities in his accounts. And shortly after he took his abrupt leave, a police report arrived from Minneapolis stating that he was also wanted for embezzlement in that city, under the name of Charles Start.
Hadley never resurfaced. Although Police Captain Thomas Duke speculated, in an account of the case written in 1910, that he might have committed suicide, the man was obviously a survivor. It's more likely that he simply adopted another identity and started afresh in some other place.
It was Nora, not her murderer, who held the public's attention. Did she accompany Bennett/Hadley willingly, or was she coerced? What was she really like? Her mother was convinced from the outset that someone had abducted her innocent daughter and was holding her captive, perhaps a natural fear in a city where prostitution prospered and downtown streets like Maiden Lane (then Morton Street) burgeoned with "cribs" offering cheap sex. The newspapers made much of Mrs. Fuller's teary visit to the house on Sutter Street, where she feverishly scrutinized the wallpaper looking for a message that Nora might have scratched there.
Others described a different person. A friend named Madge Graham spoke of Mrs. Fuller's strictness, and of Nora's clandestine meetings with a man named Bennett. The neighborhood grocer remembered that Nora had frequently come to his store to telephone someone at a hotel. Another acquaintance said he had seen Nora in a nearby park with a man who resembled Hadley.
It may be that both pictures are accurate. Adolescents often have existences that their parents know nothing about, as they work out who they are and what they will become. But the picture that stirred San Franciscans was something more symbolic. They saw a girl on the verge of womanhood, her life destroyed before it could begin. An age-old theme whose poignancy never fades, it has brought significance to early literary deaths from Juliet's in her Verona wedding-tomb to that of Amy March in her narrow Concord bed. It imbues real lives with special meaning as well, from Anne Frank in an Amsterdam attic to four young African-American women in a bombed-out Birmingham church. And it bestows a kind of immortality on a stage-struck fifteen-year-old who died in San Francisco in 1902.