“Mind if I use you as a punchline? It won’t hurt.”
Bruce Bellingham said that to me more than once in reference to his Marina Times column Bellingham by the Bay. He was right. It never hurt. His words were entertaining and acerbic but always avoided cruelty.
Yesterday I was told that Bruce died, and that’s too cruel for me to comprehend. I imagine he’s trading quips somewhere with loquacious kindred spirits like Oscar Wilde. I can’t believe I’ll never get another phone call that begins, “Sharon, am I calling at a bad time? No? O.K., I’ll call back when it’s a bad time.” I’ve never known a more ornate and extravagant conversationalist. Occasionally his personality was mercurial and difficult to comprehend, but he was a kind, supportive, and generous friend to me for years. In many ways, he was my introduction to the city. Name an interesting place in San Francisco, and it’s likely Bruce took me there first.
Bruce was well known as a frequent contributor to Pulitzer Prize-winning Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle and became the heir apparent of the three-dot column. He wrote a widely acclaimed daily column for the San Francisco Examiner, and had written for the Marina Times for almost 30 years. Bruce was trained as an operatic tenor, and was proud that he sang at the Festival of the Rose of Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland. He worked at KCBS and KQED-FM throughout the 1980s as a writer and reporter. He appeared in the film Father’s Day with Billy Crystal, and narrated the documentary The USA vs. Tokyo Rose, which aired on PBS. Bruce also appeared in the Steven Okazaki film Living on Tokyo Time in which he played an indifferent bureaucrat behind a desk. He authored the book Bellingham by the Bay (Council Oaks Books) based on his newspaper column, a laugh-out-loud original take on the people, places, and events that define San Francisco.
One of Bruce’s greatest moments was on Oct. 23, 2007 when he was honored by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for his service to the community through writing. I was one of several in attendance at City Hall that day when Bruce was presented his proclamation in an official blue folio.
Bruce once wrote, “It’s tough to be a civilized madman in a world that is truly mad — one that is devoid of humor, irony, and compassion.” Many of the battles Bruce fought were within himself, and his myriad troubles tugged at him, sometimes interfering with his ability to connect to his talents, which were massive. Tennessee Williams, whom Bruce admired, said, “Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” Bruce’s later years were fraught with struggle and hardship, but it’s a mistake to describe a life as tragic based on an unfortunate ending. Ultimately, creativity is an act of rebellion. We are not defined by our circumstances and through art, we transcend. That’s magic. Bruce’s words will live on and make people laugh for years to come.
Well, it’s a bad time, and I wish you’d call, but I know you’ve embarked on a new journey, Bruce Bellingham. Bon voyage, friend.
— Sharon Anderson
May 9, 2018