Eros and Magic in San Francisco: David Talbot's 1970s, and Mine


David Talbot’s Season of the Witch is a tabloid history of San Francisco from the hangover after the Summer of Love to the Forty Niners’ first Super Bowl victory.  It’s hard to miss with this material, as they say.  The Manson Family, the SLA and Patty Hearst, the Zodiac and Zebra killings, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Dan White, AIDS, and finally Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.  What you might call a tumultuous decade, with a few years tacked on to provide a redemptive finale, although even this lifelong Forty Niner fan (my mother was secretary to General Manager Lou Spadia from 1959 to 1963; the Forty Niner ticket office was my first babysitter) doesn’t put that much value on the Vince Lombardi trophy.

It’s a colorful story, or collection of stories, although many of them are as familiar and recycled as the book’s title*.  Talbot is stronger when he deviates from his chronology and tells the appalling story of the persecution of tough, brave civil rights lawyer Vincent Hallinan and his family by J. Edgar Hoover’s shadow government and the mobs it stirred up to commit rape and mayhem in the name of anti-Communism and one hundred percent Americanism.

But Season of the Witch is, as Ellen Ullman points out, “a top down look at the city.”  The most interesting story is the one Talbot skips, which is the real story of San Francisco in the Nineteen Seventies: the irruption of the strange – sometimes frightening, sometimes wondrous – into private life.

Every city has its public spectacles.  New York in this period has provided rich material to dozens of novelists and memoirists and historians.  But David (“Son of Sam”) Berkowitz probably never had drinks with Abe Beame at Maxwell’s Plum.  Social fluidity has been at the heart of San Francisco’s culture from the beginning.  “The miners came in ‘forty-nine, the whores in ‘fifty-one/ And when they got together, they produced the native son.”

“Probably nowhere else have people considered so many systems of thought and been through so many interpersonal wars,” writes San Francisco native Pauline Kael in her review of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (an essential document of the city in this period.)  “There are no a-priori rejections in San Francisco.”

The dark side of this openness would enter the annals of twentieth century horror and myth several months after the release of Kaufman’s film, when Jim Jones, who in the end found even San Francisco unwelcoming, led more than nine hundred of his followers to cyanide death in the jungle.  Many of these supposed suicides were, in fact, murders.  And it’s to Talbot’s credit that he takes the entire San Francisco political establishment – including the martyred Moscone and Milk – to task for their collusion with Jones.

“Even the jungle wanted him dead.” I first heard the words Apocalypse Now some time around 1976, when Roman Coppola, two classes ahead of me, went to the Philippines with his family for a film production that wouldn’t end.  I didn’t know was “apocalypse” meant.

And what was Peoples Temple to me?  A grim hulk at the corner of Fillmore and Geary, one of many forbidding buildings our carpool drove past in the blighted Western Addition, on the way to the French American Bilingual School, a slightly (slightly) more welcoming Victorian pile at the corner of Grove and Steiner.  It wasn’t the most charming neighborhood at the time.  Our gym teacher was Jacques, a bruiser from Martinique whose principal function was to keep us from getting our asses kicked by neighborhood kids in Alamo Square, across the street.  At the school’s fiftieth anniversary party last February I learned from a teacher that Jacques later left the school as a result of some sordid scandal, the details of which were coyly withheld from me.

I look at my kindergarten class photo from 1972-73.  G became mayor of San Francisco, later lieutenant governor of California.  His sex scandal was comparatively mild by American political standards, but at least she wasn’t an overweight intern.  T was already clearly insane.  She became a junior tennis champion, but her career was cut short by her instability.  Her mother was busted for running a gym that was a front for a massage parlor.  T eventually stopped at a Chevron station after her ill-advised release from the psych ward at San Francisco General Hospital, bought a can of gas, and immolated herself.  B’s father owned the best French restaurant in San Francisco.  Her mother was notorious for other reasons.  B now has her own restaurant in Napa.  And there’s another T, my best friend in grade school.  He became a lawyer, clerked for thugs like Luttig and Scalia, then became chief of staff to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, in which capacity he was responsible for coordinating the White House response to the Valerie Plame affair.  You never know how people will turn out.  He then became general counsel for Facebook and is “worth” hundreds of millions.  Fuck him.

And the other faces?  I’m sure behind them are dozens of stories of the irruption of beauty and terror and magic and desire into that extraordinary fiction we call the family, in the place I call the Free Island of San Francisco.

*In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that Eros and Magic in the Renaissance is the title of a book by Ioan Coulianou (1950 – 1991), Professor of Religion at the University of Chicago, murdered “execution-style” in a campus building, possibly by agents of Romania’s post-“revolution”, reconstituted Securitate.