Northside SF
On my Mind
Author Merla Zellerbach
photo: Elizabeth Armstrong
Native San Franciscan Merla Zellerbach has been in the social swim almost all her life. It began with the happy combination of an early marriage and a journalistic career that has spanned four decades. In 1962 her first novel, Love in a Dark House, was published. She was soon hired by the San Francisco Chronicle to write “My Fair City,” a column that lasted 23 years. Then after 12 years as editor of the Nob Hill Gazette, she left to return to writing novels. Her newest, a mystery, Love to Die For, is her 15th book. She’s active in many charitable causes, and enjoys her life and her friends in all levels of society and society in general.

How did you get started on a writing career?

I married young and was quite immature. A psychiatrist lived next door. We’d take walks together. I’d pour out problems, he’d suggest solutions, and I’d write down everything. My heroine was a fictional “Diane,” not me. Some months later I happened to sit next to a book editor at a dinner party. I mentioned Diane and he asked to see my writing. I said I wasn’t a writer. He was insistent, and I sent him my scribbles. He agreed I wasn’t a writer, but suggested I research a subject that interested me and do a book around it. I did, and to my amazement it was published.

How did you get from there to the Chronicle?

At the time, Art Hoppe poked fun at politics, Count Marco took jibes at women, Charles McCabe laughed at sports, and I was hired to poke a gentle needle at society. Sometimes I poked too hard and would hear from the publisher.

You’re in the social swim, from a prominent family, and have long been involved in philanthropy. How has society changed over the years?

I think the main change is that today’s society seems based largely on money. Unlike times past, there’s little distinction between old and new money. The old families are still around, but if they don’t support the arts and various charities, they’re not, to use your words, “in the swim.”

My family was prominent, but in a different way. My dad was a rabbi; my brother’s a retired doctor. I was married to Steve Zellerbach for 18 years, and was writing for the Chronicle and on the panel of a TV game show, Oh My Word when our marriage ended. When I remarried I used my married name at the paper, and the publisher said no one knew who I was, and told me to go back to being MZ. I’ve used it professionally ever since.

Some people couldn’t care less about society. How do you answer them?

Understandably many people look down on the whole scene, yet they often enjoy reading about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. More and more we’re concerned about the disparities between the rich and the poor, and I don’t want to get into politics, but antagonism toward the rich is very strong these days, and as I said, understandable.

At the same time, philanthropy is rewarded with social recognition, and many would not part with their dollars [for charities and so forth] if their names were not going to be listed somewhere. So society has a purpose.

Satchel Paige, baseball’s Major League pitcher, once said “Go very light on the vices such as carrying on in society – the social ramble ain’t restful.” Care to comment?

The so-called “social ramble ain’t restful,” you’re right. Now this new “fund a need” addition to many events deals heavily with peer pressure. With all the guests seated at tables the auctioneer starts asking for people to donate $5,000, and those willing to give raise their cards [with their numbers] and bid. It drops down to $2,500, then to $1,000, then $500 and usually ends around $250. By that time people at the tables have seen their tablemates bid and are embarrassed not to bid. A lot of people can’t afford it and feel ashamed. I think it’s a dreadful way to raise funds, but I know it helps the causes.

Getting your name in the papers?

As I said, today it’s all about money – how much you can collect, how much you give. The more you give to worthy causes, the more you’ll get recognized.


March 2012
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