by RIP RENSE
(Sept. 24, 2006)
“He knew the heart
and soul of this city. He knew what made it great and he believed in the
nobility of good reporting.” ---San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
sort of like Santa Claus with a good brown dye-job and tortoise-shell
glasses. He certainly had the smile.
Paul Corkery. Dead. These
words belong together as much as cats and water, clowns and funerals, Edgar
Allan Poe and Mickey Mouse.
You might as well tell me
that music doesn’t make noise, fish don’t swim, trees don’t shimmer and look
gorgeous in a late afternoon breeze.
Corkery, I suspect, would have probably called his death this past
Saturday at 61 the ultimate
drudgery. That’s what he called his illnesses through the
years---“drudgery.” The three or four years spent fighting to keep diabetes
from stealing his right foot. The various amputations that ensued, carving a
little more each time until eventually doctors took the knee and hope it
“I’ve got some drudgery
to go through. Just has to be done, all these medical chores,” he would say,
and that would be it. He complained and lamented as much as Lou Gehrig,
preferring to talk about, well, damn near everything else. Certainly the
movers and shakers and insiders and outsiders of his beloved adopted home,
God, how he loved that
stuff. The architects of that city’s élan and enigma were his joy, from the
recovering addicts of Delancey Street to ex-Mayor Willie Brown, for whom he
ghost wrote the recent and well-reviewed autobiography, “Basic
Brown.” I’d sit and listen to him spill hot gossip about the wheels that
turned the place, and all the peccadilloes and scandals and comedies, and
The City’s nefarious history, and I don’t know if I was more engaged by the
stories, or his bemusement.
There he’d come,
walking down Stockton Street, with a cane, fake leg, and genuine smile,
to the Washington Square Bar and Grill, on my annual or bi-annual trips up
there, to gift me with his gab. In recent years, it was about the Willie
bio, and how the cancer had made it a little tough to make his deadline, but
Willie and the publishers were being “just extremely nice about the whole
thing.” Sure they were. They knew they had the right guy for the job, that’s
all. And Corkery somehow managed to write that book, never mind the diabetes
and the Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the tumors and the chemo and the
experimental drugs and. . .drudgery.
And he’d talk about the
town like nobody’s business---other than his. For he made it so. From his
outpatient room in the South of Market neighborhood in the early 90’s, where
he spent several years, Corkery decided to succeed the great Herb Caen as
SF’s signature columnist. It sounds audacious, and I suppose it was, but to
P.J., it was really filling in a blank. He knew he could do the job. He knew
he could live the job. He was from Boston, via Los Angeles, but somehow
became pure San Francisco as only a pure San Franciscan can be. To say he
deeply loved the place is to say that ducks don’t mind water. A former
Harvard history major, Corkery lost himself in libraries, devouring local
tales of the city, and in time became a kind of ultimate insider---without
yet being on the inside.
He did, amazingly enough,
parlay all this into a job offer at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he
would have effectively succeeded Caen. Oh, it was a few lunches and a
handshakes, as I was told, nothing in writing, and the column structure was
up in the air, but the insider was finally in. Yet nothing in newspapers is
ever firm, especially these days, and as months drew on, the offer gathered
dust. A few more months, and the offer was lost in a management shake-up. No
matter, Corkery eventually went to the Examiner, or its gutted post-purchase
remains, and set up shop from 2001 through 2006.
This was the
equivalent, perhaps, of hanging your shingle on an outhouse, but in
short order his column was carrying the rag (complete, at first, with
Caen-esque logo.) Circulation figures showed that when P.J. ran, the poor
mismanaged wreck of a paper. . .had a circulation. The city was certainly
not snobbish about reading the Ex. Ink is ink, and a lyrical gossip
columnist with knowledge, savvy, wit, humanity and compassion had been
missing since Caen. In short order, Paul was hobnobbing with the hobnobbers,
from WashBag to city hall, from Café Trieste to the Delancy Street drug
rehab café. He and Da Mayor, I’m guessing, recognized kindred
iconoclastic spirits, and became good friends.
As Kevin Fagan’s
obituary in the Chronicle reported so well:
“Always in a suit with
cane in his hand, he made the rounds of parties, cafes and street corners to
pick up tips on everything from the latest power-broker spats to the plight
of the down and out.”
It was a slog, though,
trying to write for a free newspaper no one really took too seriously,
wild-and-wooly Florence Fang and family, who made a lot of dough in a
heavily subsidized takeover deal of the paper (and ran it into the ground
before selling to Philip Anschutz)---and who, at one point, were sued by
Corkery in order to keep his job. He deserved better, much better, though
he’d be the last one to ever say such a thing. . .
Me, I met him years ago
at the L.A. Herald-Examiner, where editor Jim Bellows had hired him partly
for his “panache.” Former editor of the Boston Phoenix (who did a short
stint at the National Enquirer, essentially to research an article about the
place for Rolling Stone), Corkery was shoehorned on to a city desk already
overloaded with talent, ego, and elbows. But he was alone on Saturdays,
where I was the morning reporter. I liked him instantly. He was the only
city editor I ever saw who looked like he was having fun. He smiled---you
could see it, even behind a bushy brown beard---and sent me to cover some
big dumbass holiday parade downtown, a very boring kind of weekend
assignment. He must have sensed my feeling underwhelmed.
“This is a boring
assignment, but gimme a ‘hey, Martha’ story,” he said.
“Something that makes a
guy yell to his wife, ‘Hey, Martha! You should hear this!’”
So I did. I wrote about
every weird contrast, irony, flaw, and funny thing I could find. He loved
Some weeks later, the
city desk phone rang and Corkery answered. He had been looking sort of
disassociated among all the manic desk activity---too many cooks---and I’m
guessing he took this call because no one else did.
“Is Mr. Hearst there?”
said a frail female voice.
“Umm. Mr. Hearst? Which
There were still a couple
of Hearsts who occasionally showed up at the Her-Ex in those days---“the
chief,” a sort of doddering William Randolph Hearst Jr., and young Will
Hearst, who was a floating editor.
“Why, there’s only one
Mr. Hearst!” said the voice. “And he was so nice to me. I’ve never
forgotten. He said if I ever needed anything, to just call him.”
Now, a lot of other
editors might have patronized an apparently befuddled old lady on the phone,
and hung up. Corkery was curious.
“You mean William
Randolph Hearst, the editor?”
“Why, of course, young
man! Who else would I mean?”
“Well, Mr. Hearst isn’t
in just this moment. My name is Paul. Can I help you in any way?”
“Oh. Well. My goodness,
well, it’s the Bishop, you see. He’s taken my home away.”
“Oh, he calls himself
that. He’s a terrible man, and. . .I used to be in movies so long ago, you
know, and Mr. Hearst gave the most wonderful parties. . .”
When Corkery hung up
the phone about fifteen minutes later, he walked over to my desk and
said, “I’ve just had the wackiest call from an old woman who claims she knew
William Randolph Hearst and was in silent pictures. She said something about
her home being taken over by some religious maniac. It might all be
delusional ranting, but it might not. Why don’t you drive over there and see
what you can find out.”
The woman turned out to
be a minor silent actress, Mary MacLaren, and in fact she was living in
filth and neglect in what had once been her grand Wilshire district
craftsman bungalow. Some small-time con man---an updated version of Twain’s
Duke or Dauphin---had taken over the place, turning it into a “church,” and
had left the brittle-boned octogenarian to fend for herself. Sic transit
So we sat on her porch,
Mary and I, looking through a scrapbook of her fame in the ‘20’s, as she
scratched swollen insect bites on her legs. And I wrote the “Hey, Martha!”
story to end all “Hey, Martha!” stories, at least in my time at the Her-Ex.
McLaren quickly became a cause celebre and, in a way, a star again, at least
on all the evening news channels. “The Bishop” was evicted, the house sold,
and Mary, if my memory serves, was placed in a very nice old folks’ home for
her remaining couple of years. My thanks from her was a phone call in which
“You are no gentleman!
You are a devil! How could you write about insect bites on my legs! I’ve
never had insect bites on my legs in my life!”
I told Corkery, and we
both howled---and nodded at how die-hard is dignity.
Die-hard. . .
P.J. and I stayed in
fairly frequent touch through the years. I always felt he was a mentor and
guide and sort of comrade-in-arms, and in 1988, when I left the country for
six months, he sublet my apartment. This led to the only “rough patch” in
our association, but one that is fall-down funny in memory. Ever read
Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday?” (The sequel to “Cannery Row.”) There is a
scene where Doc leaves the Lab and all its delicate marine specimens for the
duration of WWII, and sublets it to a professor friend referred to as Old
Jingleballicks. When Doc comes home from the war, he finds the Lab a sort of
history of somebody having had a very, very good time, without oh, doing the
dishes. My place had been, in a word, “rearranged.” Old JinglePaulicks.
But I inherited a lot of good literature in the deal, so it all evened out.
We were born on the
same November day, P.J. and I, six years apart, and I think there was
something a little cosmically entangled in our association. Certainly, we
recognized a mutal, oh, call it Irishness (though he had mine beat, by far), and a mutual
prankishness, if that isn't redundant. I phoned him on his birthday every
year, and occasionally sought his counsel on various issues, both by phone
and e-mail. (Mostly e-mail, as I had to get jazzed with caffeine to even be
in the same brain energy ballpark as that guy.) He was always gracious. To
everyone---except those who were unkind, abusive, malicious. Corkery could
not abide the pretentious or cruel. His motto for dealing with such persons:
“Sometimes all you can do is give somebody a bad afternoon.” (Amen to that.)
And it was P.J. and
fellow Her-Ex editorial page scribe Doug Crichton who took me out for a
drink and calmed me down after a maniac Her-Ex colleague literally tried to
choke me to death in the city room. (Seems I had bruised his titanic ego.) I
will always be especially grateful for that.
I last phoned Paul a
couple months ago, after I heard the dreaded “experimental” word used to
describe his latest cancer treatment. To my astonishment, he sounded
absolutely fine, upbeat, funny, engaged. But then, he would.
Paul Corkery gone?
2008 Rip Rense