The Nine Essential San Franciscans

Dianne Feinstein

Lots of famous people were born and/or raised in San Francisco: Joe DiMaggio, O.J. Simpson, Danny Glover, Courtney Love, Margaret Cho, and so on. But you won't find any notable names when you Google the phrase "lifelong San Franciscan". In true California spirit, the people most associated with the City by the Bay either came from elsewhere to make their fortune, or left for elsewhere to do same. So pinning down the nine most iconic San Franciscans – those people whose identities are the most intertwined with the town – isn't a cut-and-dried task. Nevertheless, the following nine people are solid candidates.

  1. Emperor Norton. The first (in)famous San Franciscan was 19th century oddball Joshua Abraham Norton, who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Although facts are predictably vague, it's believed that the English-born Norton arrived in SF in 1849, when he was about 30, with a vast fortune in tow. Three years later, Norton blew that fortune on a misguided investment in Peruvian rice. By the end of the 1850s, he was living in a boarding house and losing his mind. But he was a harmless if highly visible eccentric, and San Franciscans adored his numerous "imperial acts". When the self-appointed emperor died suddenly in 1880, over 10,000 locals turned out for his funeral.
  2. Dianne Feinstein. The California Senator is a homegirl through and through. Born in SF in 1933, Feinstein was elected to the city's board of supervisors in 1969. She became mayor in 1978 after the assassinations of then-mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk (who was certainly an important San Franciscan in his own right, although he only lived there for the last nine years of his life). Feinstein served as mayor for ten years before running an ill-fated gubernatorial campaign. She wasn't out of office for long: Feinstein was first elected Senator in 1992, and still holds the job today. (She is currently the oldest person in the Senate.) She and her husband lived in the ultra-exclusive neighborhood of Presidio Terrace as recently as 2013; I assume they still have a home in the city, as well as in DC. Other Golden Gate politicians include current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Governor Jerry Brown, and current Governor Gavin Newsom; the latter two were born and raised in the city.
  3. Herb Caen. Of course I must include "Mr. San Francisco", although his name won't be familiar to many outside the Bay Area. Born in Sacramento, Caen started writing a column for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1936, when he was only twenty. He kept on writing for them until his death in 1997. Caen ultimately wrote more than 16,000 columns for the paper, blending personal insights and witty anecdotes with city news and gossip. If something was happening in San Francisco, you could trust Herb Caen to spread the word.
  4. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The former poet laureate of San Francisco, who recently turned 100, was born in Yonkers but permanently relocated to SF in 1950. He cofounded the city's legendary City Lights Bookstore in 1953, and the shop soon found itself at the center of the Beat Generation – and plenty of controversy. (City Lights published Allen Ginsburg's Howl, among other works.)
  5. Bill Graham. You can't talk about San Francisco without a nod to the Haight-Ashbury era of the late '60s. But which of those Summer of Love musicians is an "essential" San Franciscan? Jerry Garcia, who was born in SF but fled to Marin County as soon as he got famous? Carlos Santana, who came to SF at 12 but likewise moved to Marin (and now lives in Las Vegas, of all places)? There are some solid runners-up, but concert promoter Bill Graham was at the core of the city's music scene – and he remained so until his death at sixty. You couldn't buy a concert ticket in the Bay Area without "Bill Graham Presents" printed on it. Born in Berlin and raised in the Bronx, Graham remains synonymous with San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, where he booked major '60s acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. But his business thrived for the next two decades, promoting local performers like Journey, Robin Williams, and many more. Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991, flying home from a Huey Lewis and the News (another SF band) concert.
  6. Lemony Snicket. Fellow Golden Gater Danielle Steel may sell more novels, but she's a carpetbagger from New York – and her books are junk. So I'm giving this slot to Lemony Snicket, the nom de plume of Daniel Handler, who was born in San Francisco and lives there to this day. The city's Victorian architecture no doubt influenced his kooky Gothic stories.
  7. Levi Strauss. The brand is better known than the man, but the denim purveyor did in fact get his start in San Francisco: he hung out his shingle in 1853, when he was just 24. (Born in Bavaria, Strauss emigrated to the US at 18.)  His namesake bluejeans didn't arrive until twenty years later, but they would eventually change America's – and the world's – fashion tastes forever. Levi Strauss & Co. is still headquartered in town.
  8. Willie McCovey. San Franciscans sure love their Giants and their 49ers, but in the world of pro sports, very few hometown heroes are actually from said hometown. To wit: the Giants' beloved first baseman McCovey, who died last year, was born and raised in Alabama. He played for the Giants from 1959 until 1973, and then from 1977 to 1980 – 19 seasons total. Then he served as the team's senior advisor for 18 more years. McCovey himself lived in posh Woodside, 30 miles south of the city, but his legacy belongs to San Francisco.
  9. Amy Tan. I could have concluded this list with any of these worthy contenders: photographer Ansel Adams, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, punk singer Jello Biafra, celebrity lawyer Melvin BelliTales of the City author Armistead Maupin, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, or Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. But I'm going with Amy Tan, born across the bay in Oakland but a longtime resident of San Francisco, the setting of her bestselling novel The Joy Luck Club. The city's Chinese population is such an integral part of its identity, and Tan took it to the mainstream like no one has before or since, Flower Drum Song notwithstanding.