Raising Caen to Prize-Winning Status

Lifetime Achievers

This is the first in a series of articles about the winners of the NSNC’s annual Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award, starting with the initial recipient in 1993.

By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Dave Astor

Dave Astor

Twenty years before National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference attendees visited the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, the NSNC’s first Lifetime Achievement Award winner mentioned the great Twain at our organization’s 1993 gathering.

The place was Portland, Oregon, and the award recipient was legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who had been writing his “three dot” gossip feature since 1938 — less than three decades after Twain’s 1910 death.

During his anecdote-filled acceptance speech, Caen recalled his pre-Chronicle stint at the Sacramento Union, where there was a desk supposedly used by Twain. When someone wanted to purchase the desk, the Union parted with it for the (seemingly) bargain price of $200. “We sold dozens,” laughed Caen — and the NSNC audience laughed even harder. (I was there.)

Herb Caen

Herb Caen, 1994, photo by Nancy Wong

The then-77-year-old Caen (1916-1997) also impressed attendees with his energy, which was reportedly also expended on some serious bar-hopping with fellow columnists. (I wasn’t there.)

Born in Sacramento, Caen went on to cover sports for the Union and then write a radio column for the Chronicle before starting his renowned daily gossip feature. He stayed at the Chronicle for the rest of his life, except for military service during World War II and a 1950s stint at the San Francisco Examiner.

His column — written on a manual typewriter Caen dubbed the “Loyal Royal” — included items about entertainment, politics, sports, and more. He was credited with coining the word “beatnik” in 1958, helped popularize the term “hippie” during San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in 1967, and coined or popularized S.F.’s nickname of “Baghdad by the Bay.”

Caen won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1996 — three years after receiving the NSNC honor now known as the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Dave Astor writes the weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair (New Jersey) Times, blogs at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of the Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir from which the Twain anecdote in this article was taken.

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This piece first was published in the November 2015 issue of The Columnist, the monthly membership newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

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