In last month’s Marina Times, Ernest Beyl, who wrote beautiful stuff for the paper, invited everyone to his 90th birthday party and the launch of his new book: Stops Along the Royal Road: Adventures from a Lifetime of Travel. He wrote: “This month, April 11, I’m celebrating my 90th birthday. I hope you’ll agree I’m getting younger all the time. Remember the Bob Dylan line from ‘My Back Pages’? Ah but I was much older then. I’m younger than that now.’ That’s me.”
That was Ernie Beyl — friendly, funny, optimistic. So all of his friends — and there were hundreds — were in shock when we heard Ernie had died the day after his big party. An apparent heart attack. There he was, at the top of his form, signing books, laughing, listening to people praise him and his work one day. Gone the next. That’s life, he would say.
But people are never really gone as long as they are remembered. Ernie was one to remember — and to miss. I myself will miss the pleasure of his company. I am not sure how long I knew Ernie Beyl. A long time. A good time. I think I remember him first from the old Washington Square Bar and Grill, both in the days when Ed Moose and Sam Dietz ran it, and later. It was Ernie’s kind of place, full of music, good drinks, good friends. He liked to walk down there from his Telegraph Hill apartment for lunch. He liked to talk to his old pal, Stanton Delaplane, at Delaplane’s table right by a front window. Delaplane and Beyl loved North Beach, especially at lunch, when the days were full of sunshine, a line from Delaplane’s last column. Ernie liked to quote that line. It was his idea of North Beach.
He made his home there; and wrote about it in his first book, Sketches from a North Beach Journal. Marina Times readers will remember those tales; he often tried out his book ideas in the paper.
But while North Beach was his last stop, the world was Ernie’s oyster. In his last years, he was a walker, but earlier he was a world traveler.
His Royal Road is sort of a memoir. Though Ernie was a San Francisco guy, he was born in Fresno and grew up in Oakland. Right out of high school he joined the Marines. It was just after the end of World War II and he wanted to see the world. The first stop after boot camp was a troop ship that took him across the Pacific to Shanghai. You can only imagine what that amazing, exotic, dirty, exciting city looked like to a 19-year-old Marine from the Bay Area.
Later, of course, Ernie went to Stanford, worked for the San Francisco Chronicle — a job he loved — for Colliers magaizne, and then as a press agent. Those were the days of the Brown Derby in Hollywood and movie stars like Eddie Fisher and Danny Kaye. Ernie also hooked on as a public relations consultant — for Cathay Pacific Airways, as a press officer on ship, a P.R. man in Sun Valley, and a dozen other adventures.
To other people this sounded like work. Not to Ernie.
On one job, he flew to Fiji to meet a ship, but first he met a man he described as “a portly Brit who looked like actor Sidney Greenstreet who wore a stained and rumpled white linen suit.’’ The man “took me to his club, a one-story tin-roofed shed. We sat on the verandah and sipped pink gin. At four o’clock the rains came as they always do in the tropics.’’
He made you see that rainy afternoon in Fiji. He made you want to be there with him.
That was Ernie. Every trip was an adventure, every encounter a story. Best of all, was he would tell you these tall tales over lunch, or over a drink at a bar. He was a great one for talking. And for listening. He’d tell you a story, and then listen to your own tale. When he walked in, people were glad to see him. A rare quality.
Ernie loved bars and he loved food. Marina Times readers will remember his reviews. He was honest; he didn’t like everything. But he gave out awards he called “Ernesto’s.” He like the old staple North Beach classics for sure, tried-and-true places. But he also liked newer places, particularly Betty Lou’s Seafood, which he said was a new classic.
He was open to change and new ideas. For a while he was critical of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, and had some harsh words to say. But he changed his mind; they became pals, and Peskin wrote a blurb for Ernie’s new book. On his birthday, Peskin invited Ernie and his wife, Joan, to city hall, where he was presented with a certificate of honor from the supervisors. It meant the world to Ernie.
When the word of his death circulated in North Beach, we couldn’t believe it. There must be some mistake. Not Ernie, not now. But Rick Carroll, another old friend from Hawaii, The Chronicle and Zamboanga, wrote some advance praise for the dust jacket of The Royal Road: “No one tells ‘get lost’ tales better than life long nomad Ernie Beyl. Read his book. Follow his trail. Go now, before it’s gone.’’
And now it is gone. But I hope you will remember Ernie Beyl. I know I will.