San Francisco's Darkest Hours
The founder of Salon takes a fascinating tour of the Golden Gate City, 1967-82.
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot, Free Press, 452 pages, $28
David Talbot discovered San Francisco in a literal Hollywood idyll. "Setting out from the Saint Francis Hotel," he writes of visiting the city during 1960s show-biz trips with his movie-star father, "my siblings and I would trek the wind-whipped hills, wander through Chinatown and North Beach, and take the ferryboat to Sausalito. I knew—listening to some older, long-haired teenagers dressed like Moroccan tribesmen, as they played guitars and flutes in a Sausalito square—that I would make San Francisco my home one day."
Talbot didn't just move to San Francisco. He conquered the town, rising to the top of San Francisco?inflected media (a senior editor gig at Mother Jones, assignments for Rolling Stone, and a stint as the Examiner's features editor). Then in 1995 Talbot led a ragtag band of Examiner refugees in forming the online magazine Salon, and the rest was decidedly not history. Salon has charted a harrowing course through countless iterations (its original URL was the instantly dated "Salon1999.com") and cutbacks, annual predictions of impending death, a long-forgotten "Dutch auction" IPO, all manner of journalistic controversy, and nearly two decades of ever-more-vertiginous economic boom and bust. Yet after 17 years—several lifetimes in old media, let alone new media—Salon is still in business.
Because I have buried more dot-coms than the Grateful Dead have buried keyboardists, and because Salon not only survived but graduated a generation of leading journalists, I consider Talbot both an eminent San Franciscan and a great American. Our dealings have been cordial but not extensive. In fact, before this book I assumed Talbot had been born to the San Francisco aristocracy, figuring he was somehow connected to the Talbot-Dutton House, a landmarked Italianate townhouse in Pacific Heights.
Season of the Witch, instead, is an adopted son's "bloody valentine" to the jeweled City by the Bay, covering the years from 1967 to 1982. Like many who have fallen for San Francisco's charms (this writer included), Talbot remembers what a paradise the place seemed at first and wonders where it all went wrong. He argues plausibly that this particular decade-and-a-half was one of the hairiest, scariest, Dirty Harry–est periods in the long and often grim history of American cities.
The three sections of Talbot's account are titled "Enchantment," "Terror," and "Deliverance." The "Terror" section is nearly twice as long as the other two combined, and it covers the city's descent into chaos in the period after the January 1967 Human Be-In and the Summer of Love six months later. In Talbot's telling, the period after the original hippie bloom was both a time of transformation and a parade of horribles, from bombing campaigns to wars against the police to the dawn of AIDS.
Lest any San Francisco skeptics doubt the city's ability to punch above its weight in both culture and mayhem, consider just a few players from Talbot's large cast: tragic lady blue Janis Joplin; Manson family murderer Susan Atkins; Symbionese Liberation Army guerilla and Patty Hearst kidnapper Cinque, as well as the heiress Hearst herself; self-styled prison revolutionary George Jackson; pioneering Chinatown activist Rose Pak; Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia; early AIDS chronicler Randy Shilts; cult leader and Guyana mass-suicide impresario Jim Jones; murdered politicians Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as their assassin, Supervisor Dan White; idiot-savant Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra; a cell of "Death Angels" affiliated with a Fillmore Street Nation of Islam mosque that murdered 14 people and nearly killed future mayor Art Agnos in the then-infamous but now little-known "Zebra" racial attacks; the Altamont-era Rolling Stones and Hells Angels; miracle-working 49ers coach Bill Walsh; urbane fiction writer Armistead Maupin; seemingly immortal career politician Dianne Feinstein; and, of course, the Jefferson Airplane. (Talbot mercifully elides the band's "Jefferson Starship" transfiguration of the early 1970s.)
This is the story of a god that failed, and the god is progressive utopianism. Talbot is relentlessly progressive, but he embraces the dystopia with gusto, even when that means resorting to right-wing fire and brimstone. As you read, it becomes clear that the witch of the title is not just a throwaway journalistic cliché. Talbot uses demonological terms throughout, referring to the work of "Lucifer" in a chapter title and throughout the text. He calls HIV/AIDS a "demon virus" and joins in the tabloid/populist outrage at the violent crime that engulfed the city in the '70s.
This being San Francisco, the outrage in most cases must be directed at career leftists. Talbot describes a December 1973 evening: Two San Francisco Police Department detectives visit mayor-to-be Agnos in his hospital bed after he has been shot. Whispering in Greek, they inform Agnos of their theory that his attacker belongs to a team of four black men who are randomly killing nonblacks all over San Francisco. Talbot limns the response of Agnos, who will go on to win 70 percent of the vote in a mayoral race in 1987: "Ever the good liberal, he immediately thought that they were overplaying the race angle. 'You cops are all the same,' he told them."
The Zebra case ends up taking much longer to crack than it should, in part because of the cops' clumsy policy of stopping all black males (except, in Chief Donald Scott's words, "very young blacks or big, fat blacks"), but also because the police department, in a city that boasts its own "civil rights commission," is subject to severe restrictions. One detective comes to suspect that the department, which has failed to infiltrate the mosque on Fillmore, has itself been infiltrated by Nation of Islam faithful.
Jim Jones, the socialist potentate of the Peoples Temple (located adjacent to the Nation of Islam mosque), had better luck embedding followers in San Francisco's power structure. District Attorney Joseph Freitas hired Jones' top lawyer to work in his office. When Peoples Temple defectors began asking for an investigation of the cult, Freitas assigned the Jones mole to the case. Feinstein, Milk, Moscone, and future mayor Willie Brown all supported Jones even after he and his followers fled to the jungles of Guyana.
Talbot devotes nearly 50 pages—more if you count a chapter on Moscone's victory over conservative John Barbagelata in the 1975 mayoral race, which was achieved with massive vote fraud by Jones followers—to the Peoples Temple. Giving so much attention to the very familiar Jonestown massacre (which contributed the catchphrase drinking the Kool-Aid to our language) seems at first like a misstep, but Talbot finds a trove of outrages by the city's New Left leadership. "Moscone and San Francisco's liberal leadership had aided and abetted Jones' reign of 'horror, inhumanity, and bizarre brutalities,'" Talbot writes. "And the press immediately clamored for an explanation."
The press, however, had itself been taken for a ride by the Jones cult. San Francisco Chronicle City Editor Steve Gavin, an occasional Peoples Temple worshipper, ran a puff piece on Jones and quashed an investigative piece. Kevin Starr, then an editor at New West magazine, now the pre-eminent historian of California, killed another critical look at the Jones cult.
But nobody's involvement with Jim Jones was less excusable than Harvey Milk's. The gay political icon was a regular congregant at the Peoples Temple even while warning his own staffers about the bizarre cult. The gold-tongued Willie Brown merely praised Jones as "a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein [and] Chairman Mao," but Milk leaned on the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to forward Social Security checks to the Temple's "beautiful retirement community in Guyana, the type of which people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize." When a couple of high-level Temple defectors tried to get their 6-year-old son out of Jones' custody in Guyana, Milk wrote to President Jimmy Carter, urging him not to support the parents and claiming that the child had "loving protective parents in Rev. and Mrs. Jones." The child ended up among the 909 dead at Jonestown.
In 128 minutes of screen time, Gus Van Sant's Sean Penn vehicle Milk, for which Dustin Lance Black won a Best Screenplay Oscar, finds no room for any of this. But Talbot barrels through it with evil glee, and his stubborn support for the New Left revolution sharpens rather than dulls his attack.
There is very little not to like in Season of the Witch. I might have asked for more attention to the role that redevelopment honcho Justin Herman and his destruction of the Fillmore District played in the great coming apart. I was saddened to see only one mention of maverick one-eyed Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle. But these are minor quibbles in a book where even the sportswriting is top-notch: Talbot argues that Eddy DeBartolo's Niners helped bind up the city's wounds, with Super Bowl XVI putting a cheerful coda on the New Left's Jacobin terror.
The prim, rich, self-satisfied San Francisco I got to know from the mid-'90s through the mid-2000s is barely recognizable in Talbot's book. Baghdad by the Bay is now a far-left boutique city run by limousine liberals who ban Happy Meals and circumcision. Safe and scenic, with small (by California standards) black and Latino minorities, San Francisco is no longer the main population center even of Northern California. (Fast-growing San Jose took that title in the 1990s.) Yet the city's mix—of weed and wealth, one-party rule and good-government sanctimony, social laissez-faire and voluminous regulation, health fascism and the best bars in America—is built on contradictions. Season of the Witch is a bracing reminder that even one of the brightest spots of Western civilization is always just a few inches from anarchy.