San Francisco history led American society toward a greater live-and-let-live tolerance, a shared sense of humanity, and an openness to change that’s as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.
San Francisco was the cradle of the ‘60s, but also its coffin, giving rise to Charles Manson and his Family, the bloody Altamont rock festival, the freakish terrorism of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the shocking Zodiac and Zebra murder sprees, the Jim Jones cult and the biggest mass suicide in American history, the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a wave of anti-gay violence, fiery riots, and a terrifying sexual epidemic. Few cities have endured so many calamities in such a short span. And yet San Francisco not only rose from this decade of wreckage, but gave birth in the process to a set of social values that have become the keystones of liberal America. Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2012) by David Talbot tells the gripping story of San Francisco history between 1967 and 1982. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction.
San Francisco was built on a dare. The city was tossed up overnight on the shimmying, heaving, mischievous crust of the Pacific rim. A gold rush city of fortune seekers, gamblers, desperadoes and the flesh-peddling circus that caters to such men, San Francisco defied the laws of nature. It was a wide-open town, its thighs splayed wantonly for every vice damned in the Bible and more than a few that were left out. San Francisco was the Last Chance Saloon for outcasts from every corner of the globe. If the earth didn’t swallow them first, hell soon enough would.
Great cities have usually been founded by wealthy burghers and craftsmen— their spires and monuments a testament to the holiness of the work ethic. But San Francisco high society was a devil’s dinner party, a rogue’s crew of robber barons, saloon keepers, and shrewd harlots. When the town’s painted ladies went to the theater, gentlemen would rise until they were seated. By 1866, there were thirty-one saloons for every place of worship.
After the great earthquake struck in 1906, a wandering Pentecostal preacher who found himself among San Francisco’s smoking ruins inevitably declared the disaster God’s vengeance on Sodom. In the emotional aftershocks of the catastrophe, the Holy Roller’s hellfire preaching attracted a flock of dazed souls. But the size of his congregation was dwarfed by the crowds that thronged the last theater left standing in the city, where San Franciscans lustily cheered their beloved burlesques.
San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district—with its black-stocking bars, live sex shows, and opium dens—rose again from the earthquake’s ashes. And well into the new century—long before Las Vegas assured tourists that it knew how to keep their secrets—San Francisco aggressively marketed its libertine image. During the Prohibition era, the local board of supervisors passed legislation forbidding San Francisco police from enforcing the dry law. Drag queen shows were written up in the tourist guides alongside the ferryboat rides and Fisherman’s Wharf dining spots.
By the 1930s, however, another San Francisco emerged: Catholic, working class, family oriented. The Church’s influence could be felt throughout the town, particularly in city hall and the police department, where an old-boy’s network of Irish Catholic—and later Italian Catholic—officials held sway.
Catholic San Francisco had its own wild heart: tough stevedores and cable car operators who fought bloody battles for labor rights; and immigrant kids who learned to love Puccini and Dante, and collected nickels for the Irish Volunteers back home. These working-class heroes eventually turned San Francisco into a pro-labor, arts-loving stronghold of the Democratic Party.
But as the Catholic hierarchy solidified its control of the city during and after World War II, it imposed a traditional social order on San Francisco, driving the city’s Barbary outlaws underground. For years, the two San Franciscos waged a clandestine civil war. Gays and lesbians would be swept up at midnight police raids on bars. (Dykes had to wear at least one article of women’s clothing—usually lacy panties—to avoid arrest.) Mixed-race couples were quietly blocked by real estate covenants from renting apartments in the city. Only occasionally did the city’s culture war erupt onto the front pages of the metro newspapers—as it did in 1957 when poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books, was put on trial for publishing “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of war on the American Moloch, and the opening salvo in the 1960s’ epic struggle for cultural freedom.
A decade later, San Francisco’s culture war was in full fury, as the city absorbed a wave of runaway children—refugees from America’s broken family—and transformed itself overnight into the capital of the 1960s counterculture. In the 1970s, San Francisco was overrun by another army of American runaways, as it became the Emerald City of gay liberation.
No other American city has undergone such an earth-shaking cultural shift in such a short span. Today San Francisco is seen as the “Left Coast City”—the wild, frontier outpost of the American Dream. Conservatives have declared war on “San Francisco values” and are bitterly fighting to stop the spread of those values. But long before the culture war went nationwide, San Francisco was torn apart by its own uncivil war. San Francisco values did not come into the world with flowers in their hair; they were born howling, in blood and strife. It took years of frantic and often violent conflict—including political assassinations, riots, bombings, kidnappings, serial race murders, antigay street mayhem, the biggest mass suicide in history, and a panic-inducing epidemic—before San Francisco finally made peace with itself and its new identity.
In the end, San Francisco healed itself by learning how to take care of its sick and dying. And it came together to celebrate itself with the help of an unlikely football dynasty and a team that mirrored the city’s eccentric personality.
San Francisco’s battles are no longer with itself but with the outside world, as it exports the European-style social ideas that drive Republican leaders and Fox News commentators into a frenzy: gay marriage, medical marijuana, universal health care, immigrant sanctuary, “living” minimum wage, bicycle-friendly streets, stricter environmental and consumer regulations. Conservatives see these San Francisco values as examples of social engineering gone mad. But in San Francisco, they’re seen as the bedrock of a decent society, one that is based on a live-and-let-live tolerance, shared sense of humanity, and openness to change.
One of San Francisco’s more flowery laureates anointed it “the cool gray city of love.” But the people who cling to its hills and hollows and know its mercurial temperament—the sudden juggernaut of sea fog and wind that can shroud the sun and chill the soul—recognize San Francisco as a rougher beast. The people who radically changed San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s—and thus, the world—have been ridiculed and trivialized for so long that we’ve forgotten who they really were. But it took a frontier breed of men and women to conquer a town like San Francisco—a town that was still more Dashiell Hammett than Oz. Ginsberg called them “seekers,” which gives them their due. This is the story of their quest, and how they triumphed over the machinery of night.
Excerpted from Season of the Witch by David Talbot. Copyright 2012 by David Talbot. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.