This North Beach Sketches column is becoming too beefy for my taste. Too many snippets about guys and guy things with only a sidelong glance at North Beach gals, past and present. Yes, we’ve taken note of a few feminine heavyweights, not heavyweights as in tipping the scales, but heavyweights as with accomplishments. Phyllis Diller, Jeanette Etheridge and Brandy Marts come to mind from recent columns. But most of the big boldface names have been male. I want to rectify that right now — March is Women’s History Month — by telling you a few things about some formidable North Beach women.
The Crossword Puzzle Girl
When Laddie Delaplane, widow of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist Stanton Delaplane, died a while back, the Chronicle assigned ace reporter Carl Nolte to write an obituary. Carl did a beautiful job and got me thinking about Laddie. In his Chronicle column, Delaplane referred to her as the “x-word puzzle girl.” After Stan died in 1988, she hung out at the Washington Square Bar & Grill with friends like Scott Beach and me, playing word games. Laddie was a wordsmith, and in a game we called “Horses” she’d stomp me. I wound up paying for a lot of drinks that way. In her will, Laddie specified that friends celebrate her life with a Chinese meal and also that the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band play at the wake. So recently a bunch of us gathered at the R&G Lounge for lunch and the band played on.
The Rainbow Hunter
Fanny Renoir came down to San Francisco from Humboldt County when she was 43 to be a Beat and to “keep the North Beach flame alive. “I wanted to be a Beat angel,” she says. She was and still is. A true bohemian, she works at keeping the neighborhood culture a vibrant part of the City. A filmmaker, poet, producer, curator, singer, guitarist, and comedian, Fanny calls herself “The Rainbow Hunter.” She hitchhiked across the country three times: “If I didn’t get a ride on one side of the road, I’d cross over to the other, stick out my thumb and catch a ride going the other way.” John Perino at Focus Gallery on Upper Grant recently had a one-person showing of Fanny’s work. Drop in. John always has some of her stuff to show. Just don’t hitchhike with her if you have a clear idea where you want to go.
Millie The Flower Lady
If you dined in North Beach back when, you will recall Millie the Flower Lady. Most evenings I can remember, Millie — her name is Mildred Fishman — turned up in North Beach restaurants with a bunch of roses in one hand and a Polaroid camera hanging around her neck. Retired now, Millie was a formidable entrepreneur. She approached dating couples in neighborhood restaurants and offered pleased young ladies a long-stemmed rose. When accepted, Millie shot a Polaroid photo of the smiling pair and charged 10 bucks for the print. I can’t remember anyone ever turning Millie down. I know I never did. Millie has had a rough patch lately, and her friend Jenny at Columbus Cutlery is helping her find a North Beach apartment.
The Blonde Brat Who Grew Up
I first met Marcia Clay when she was a nine-year-old blonde brat. I knew her mother. Marcia is a North Beach painter, poet, and novelist. Her oil paintings and watercolors have been featured in galleries in France, the East Coast, and here in California. She draws inspiration and themes largely from North Beach, where she’s lived more than 30 years: Chinese and Italian children, their mothers and grandparents interacting in Washington Square, at outdoor markets, flower shops, and playgrounds. Other work depicts North Beach interiors: bedrooms, kitchens, restaurants, and coffeehouses, with opulent figures brimming with life. Then there are her self-portraits, frequently edgy and sexy. What keeps Marcia Clay in North Beach? “I love the cultural mix, the foreign influence, Italian and Asian,” she told me.
A Deft Moose With A Great Smile
During the 1970s and ’80s the Washington Square Bar & Grill was the most popular saloon in San Francisco. Ed Moose and Sam Deitsch, partners in the enterprise, are credited with its success. They had a lot of help — Mark Schachern, Jack Brown, Bobby Mulhern, Boom Boom (one of these days I will write an entire Sketches column about the irrepressible Boom Boom), and Harry Denton, to name a few. But it was Ed’s wife Mary Etta who kept the place humming like a well-tuned Lamborghini. In addition to being smart, witty, well-connected, and highly social animals, Ed and Sam could be competitive, curt and abrasive. It was Mary Etta who smoothed out occasional ruffled feathers and bruised egos of friends, suppliers, employees, and even good customers. “And she did it all without ever having to buy anyone a drink,” says old Washington Square Bar & Grill regular and advertising guru Jerry Gibbons, one of this column’s covert correspondents. The rank and file liked Ed and Sam, but they loved Mary Etta, who may still be seen around the neighborhood with a gorgeous, ear-to-ear smile.
The First Topless Star
Lest it has slipped your mind, Carol Doda is the distinguished San Franciscan who danced topless on a white piano in the Condor Club at Columbus and Broadway in the 1960s. She reinforced the racy reputation the City has enjoyed since the Gold Rush. I use the word “enjoyed” because San Francisco has always been proud of being naughty as well as nice. Carol was the first topless star and soon the craze swept around the country. Today she’s the proprietor of a lingerie boutique and sings in North Beach. You can frequently catch her at Amante’s on Green Street.
I’m obviously having such great time writing about these women that perhaps in the next month or so, I’ll pick up where this column drops off. Still up my sleeve are Sweet Pam, Saxlady, Tante Marie, Diane DiPrima, and Grace Marchant.