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Bellingham by the Bay

The helpful elf and the compassionate politico

I need that eclectic mind of yours, Brucie.” So said Herb Caen on the phone about a hundred years ago. “You know what eclectic means, Herb?” I asked. “It means to collect all the useless information you can in your mind — no use at all — until Herb Caen calls, asking for something obscure.” He was amused. … Herb was on the phone, no doubt, because Carole Vernier was on the other line, checking facts, following leads, and innumerable other things she did for the Herb Caen column for more than a quarter century.

Carole died last month at the age of 75. She was a dear friend, and I never could imagine San Francisco without her — still can’t. … To watch her work at Herb’s outer office was something to behold. Like Kali, the Hindu god with four arms, Carole could be on the phone, typing copy, scribbling notes, and Gawd knows what — all at once. Because Jerry Bundsen, and Jesse Hamlin were legmen for Herb over the years, I guess Carole was the preeminent legwoman. She never stopped working. She absorbed Herb’s belief that the “colm” came first, no matter what.

Fiercely loyal to her friends, she also was supremely independent. “I once saw Carole carrying Dick Bernard’s prosthetic leg up the hill for him,” recalls Diane Weissmuller. “That was quite a sight. Particularly when Carole was struggling with COPD.” It gives new meaning to the term “legwoman.” The “helpful elf,” she’d say of herself. Carole was also very funny. “One of the funniest,” says Annemarie Conroy, with the U.S. Attorney’s office. “Carole would make me laugh and laugh.” She was generous to a fault. When she lived on Webster Street in the Marina, she let Glenn Dorenbush, the vagabond P.R. man, sleep on her sofa for six months. … Carole died in her Bush Street apartment. “She did not leave us from a dreary nursing home, or a hospital,” Diane says. “It was her final act of defiance — not to say goodbye to us.” …

There was nothing too obscure that it would not escape Carole’s insatiable curiosity. She loved the story about Henry I of England reportedly dying for “consuming a surfeit of eels.” Carole loved that word, “surfeit.” She loved all words, as long as they weren’t pompous or pretentious. And she could read people as well as she devoured tomes of books and piles of newspapers.

Oh, about that obscure thing that Herb wanted me to answer. I got there just before Carole did. It was the “unprintable thing that Oscar Levant said about Marilyn Monroe when she married Arthur Miller.” I recounted it to Herb. He paused, and said, “You know, it’s still unprintable.” So it will remain unprintable here, too. … Before he died in 1997, Herb received the Pulitzer Prize. That belonged to Carole as well.

Carole did not like to miss anything. Last month there was a memorial for Hadley Roff, the genius behind five San Francisco mayors, at the Delancey Street restaurant. Carole would’ve surely been there. All five mayors attended, a testament to how important Hadley was to San Francisco. In fact, the gathering was a living chapter of San Francisco history. The fire department parked a hook and ladder truck on the Embarcadero; an honor guard with members of the SFFD and the police department were there. Hadley was a former fire commissioner, a deputy mayor, a poli-sci professor, and a reporter for the old San Francisco News. More than that, he gave advice and solace to many a woebegone fellow like myself. I used to sit with him and his late wife, Susie, at the Balboa Cafe. As a conversationalist, he was one of the best. As a compassionate human being, he was tops. … “He was everybody’s friend,” his brother-in-law, Elliot Trommald, said. “Hadley was free from self-righteousness. He put serving people above everything else.”

John Hendricks said that when Hadley joined the staff of Sen. John Tunney, the Los Angeles Times described him as “a disheveled, pear-shaped gourmand.” … “I don’t know about disheveled,” Hendricks added, “he had nice clothes, but his pockets were always jammed with papers, clipping, photos, and all that.” … Hadley’s dear friend, Becky Jenkins, recalled one of their last lunches at the Balboa: “Hadley was in a wheelchair, an oxygen tube in his nose, and a martini glass filled with Ketel One in his hand. He loved food, he loved his Ketel One, but above all, he loved the company of people.” And the company of books. During his last days, friends were still delivering books to his house. Of course, he missed Susie terribly. “I can still see Hadley and Susie at their usual table at the Balboa,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor, and co-owner of the Balboa. “Everyone would stop at the table, pay homage, and exchange kind words. I’ll always remember that.” With Dianne Feinstein … Nancy Pelosi … Frank Jordan … Willie Brown … John Burton … Mimi Silbert … Aaron Peskin … the encomia kept coming. (Carole would like that word, “encomia.”) … But as the applause faded from the speakers, and with the exit of Carole Vernier and Hadley Roff, I think I heard the sound of the last hurrah disappearing in San Francisco, too. …

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Send him something unprintable at [email protected].

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