A Conversation With David Talbot, North Beach Journalist, Historian & Rabble-Rouser

A Conversation With David Talbot, North Beach Journalist, Historian & Rabble-Rouser
David Talbot. (Photo: Courtesy of David Talbot)
By Romalyn Schmaltz - Published on May 18, 2016.

David Talbot, renowned journalist and author of Season of the Witch and other gripping historic tales, recently spun his way through the revolving door into Café Zoetrope to talk with Hoodline about a mix of topics: his time at the San Francisco Examiner, founding Salon.com, his involvement in politics, the state of the city, and the indispensability of visionaries here.

Though he now lives in Bernal Heights, Talbot has been a North Beach fixture—and rabble-rouser—for decades. He still keeps an office there, just an elevator ride away upstairs in the Columbus Tower (also called the Sentinel Building). There, he worked on his new bookThe Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, a history of the CIA's longest-serving, and most powerful, director. 

Columbus Tower. (Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)

Talbot "grew up in L.A., in a Hollywood family," he said. "My father, Lyle, was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors’ Guild." (Talbot's sister, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot, wrote a book about their dad called The Entertainer.)

He recalled the family coming to San Francisco when his father was in plays at the Geary and Curran theaters. "He loved San Francisco, and knew we all would, too: it was the Sixties, it was the Summer of Love, I was a teenager—it seemed like the perfect time," Talbot said. "Smoggy, sunny L.A. wasn’t nearly as mysterious or enchanting as it was here.”

Although Talbot attended Harvard Boys’ School (now Harvard-Westlake), a rigorous military high school, his defiant nature was formed early, and he found himself blacklisted from the halls of higher education. 

“Southern California was kind of the bedrock for that right-wing Republican movement," he told us. "I remember when [President John F.] Kennedy was killed when I was in the seventh grade, all my classmates and some teachers started cheering. At some point around then, I felt like these people were evil."

"Eventually, I was asked to leave in the middle of my senior year, and the headmaster wrote to every college I applied to and said, ‘Don’t let this kid in—he’s a disciplinary risk.’ So no college in America in 1968-69 would admit me, and I couldn’t get in anywhere except [University of California] Santa Cruz. Yay, Banana Slugs! My acceptance letter had three words on it: 'Far out, man.'” 

Because there was no journalism program at Santa Cruz, Talbot majored in sociology and "was living a kind of Lebowski life," as he put it. "In Santa Cruz, I lived in this socialist lesbian commune in this old Victorian ... I was the only man, and it was this wonderful little magic castle where we did politics together, and guerrilla theater, starting the first women's health clinic, food co-ops, and a weekly newspaper, which is where I really began to be a journalist. So we were creating our own world, and I've always thought that that's what we should've been doing."

Talbot at Cafe Zoetrope in March for the launch of Jon Golinger's DCCC campaign. (Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)

He moved to San Francisco in 1981. "I did move back to L.A. briefly, to maybe try and get into Hollywood, and I ended up writing a book down there called Creative Differences. It was so depressing, seeing the compromises these young talents had to make, having to sell out ... I was asked to come work as an executive, and I really wrestled with it for about a week or two until I finally realized it just wasn't me. You know how you have two or three moments in your life that are those real turning points where there's no looking back? Well, that was a big one. I chose option B, which was coming here." 

Talbot worked at the San Francisco Examiner when the Hearst Corporation owned it, describing it as "a madhouse," yet still a corporate newspaper. But he saw a big moment in 1995 when the Internet started to become popular, and took the opportunity to launch Salon.com. 

To start the pioneering "smart tabloid," Talbot cherry-picked talents like Warren Hinckle of Ramparts magazine; Gary Kamiya, who worked at Image magazine (a Sunday insert jointly offered by the very different Chronicle and Examiner); and a handful of other talented writers and designers. 

“My wife Camille came up with the name. We were having all these secret meetings at my house, so the rest of the people at the Examiner wouldn't find out. He wanted to have a salon along the lines of Paris or Greenwich Village for the digital age, so Camille said, "Why not just call it Salon, then?” 

The skunkworks genesis of Salon "reminded me of what my dad went through when he started the Screen Actors' Guild, and how they'd have to meet in actors' homes in Beverly Hills and then sneak out the back and go down the alley to, say, Bela Lugosi's house.”

When Salon launched, the Examiner was furious with Talbot, he said, because he poached about half a dozen of its best people. But thanks to the Internet, "the barrier for entry into the world of media technology had suddenly been lowered," he explained. "You could do it—as I did with Salon—for, like, only two million bucks.”

Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline

"What was important to me was that we had really interesting people around who had all grown up together as freelancers," he said. "We knew New York was lame; that there was a 'San Francisco sound' to our writing that New York wasn't picking up on. We had a unique way of looking at sex, technology, politics and culture that New York didn’t, so Salon and Wired were really the first ones that took off on that new talent. We were a posse. When Herb Caen sent me a fan note, I thought, ‘Hey, if Herb likes us, we must be cool.’ Lots of these things were born at the Examiner, and then ferried to Salon.”

While Talbot has been off its main deck for the past decade, Salon continues on, having celebrated its 20th birthday last year. Since stepping away from the site, Talbot has veered into politically charged books such as Season of the Witch, an outline of 15 years of tumult in the city, and The Devil's Chessboard. 

Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline

His involvement in politics led him to briefly consider throwing his own hat into the ring, as he admitted in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle during 2015's mayoral race. Ultimately, though, Talbot has opted to support progressive causes from the sidelines. He's been outspoken on heated political issues like the tech industry, police brutality and referendums on local government transparency and corruption.

Last year, Talbot launched Vision SF as an incubator for San Francisco progressive politics and journalism. It's also a think tank for policy, challenging such pro-development groups as SPUR and SFBARF and supporting local progressive candidates and their ballot measures.

Talbot serves on Vision SF's board with Supervisor David Campos, former Supervisor Christina Olague, fellow journalists Tim Redmond and Julie Levak-Madding, and activists Calvin Welch and Gordon Chin. "We're trying to spark a citywide progressive movement that can take back City Hall from the one percent and the 'pay-to-play' crowd, and give the power back to the people of our beautiful city,” he said.

Though Talbot has said he'll never sell his Bernal Heights home, his "emotional and physical" roots remain in the Barbary Coast. “I lived in North Beach for over a decade—it was where I met my wife Camille, when she was a struggling writer working as a waitress at Beach Blanket Babylon. It's where I wrote and published my book, Burning Desires: Sex in America, and where I pulled together the pack of troublemakers that later gave rise to Salon, including the one and only Gary Kamiya, author of the other great book about San Francisco, Cool Gray City of Love. In those pre-Salon days, we were all having real-life, drunken salons in my North Beach apartment, on the top floor of 1132 Montgomery Street, right up the street from where Ginsberg wrote Howl.”

He and Camille and moved out of North Beach when they started raising a family, but Talbot wrote his last two books in the Columbus Tower/Sentinel Building. "The old green flatiron is clearly full of beneficent creative muses and vibes," he says. "And Camille, whose Irish-Italian-Greek San Francisco family has its own deep roots in North Beach, is writing her own book on the wild bohemian marriage of Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson, not far away, in the Maybeck building."

Bringing it full circle, Talbot's son Joe Talbot, who was born in North Beach, is working on a new film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, in the new San Francisco Film Society offices at 644 Broadway, on the border of North Beach and Chinatown.

644 Broadway. (Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)

“The future of San Francisco has become an increasingly intense issue for me and my family," Talbot told us. "We're seeing the city get taken over by corporate interests that have no real feeling for the city, or the working families, activists and artists who made San Francisco such a gleaming beacon to the world. The city that has, in the past, symbolized social compassion, diversity and creativity, is becoming known more and more these days for its runaway greed and its callousness toward the poor."

He added, “This battle for the soul of San Francisco will come to a head this fall, as progressives fight to keep the momentum going—following the milestone victory of Aaron Peskin last year—and maintain the majority on the Board. Does big tech and real estate money control this city, or do we the people?”

Look for more from Talbot and information on his future Vision SF events through VanishingSF on Facebook and and his own website, TalbotPlayers.com.