The postcard world of Stanton Delaplane: He wrote about his North Beach neighborhood
By Ernest Beyl
Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and syndicated columnist Stanton Delaplane lived and worked in North Beach until his death in 1988. He was one of the neighborhood’s esteemed writers in residence.
In his San Francisco Chronicle column, Delaplane could say more in 600 words, and say it better and with more style, than anyone writing for the dailies at that time. Short, simple sentences sputtered across the page deceptively. Delaplane mistrusted most adjectives, but liked verbs that gave his stories a compelling stop-and-go rhythm.
If you have ever enjoyed an Irish coffee, you probably have Stanton Delaplane to thank. He was served that estimable concoction – strong coffee and Irish whisky with a
float of cream on top – in a bar at Ireland’s Shannon Airport many years ago.
Later, Delaplane wrote about Irish coffee and got a lot of mail asking for the recipe. One day he was sitting at the bar of the Buena Vista saloon at the foot of Hyde Street. Casually, he gave the Irish coffee recipe to the owner of the B.V., the late Jack Koeppler. Irish coffee took off.
Delaplane continued to write about it in his column and soon it was an institution of sorts. Irish whisky distillers were ecstatic. A few years later in Dublin, Delaplane recalled:
They took me to a fancy old place with great carved walls and inlaid paneling, got me a bunch of sea-fresh oysters as a starter and then one of them said, ‘Now, Mr. Delaplane, what would you think if we put out a wee bit of a drink made with Irish whisky, a bit of soda and a slice of lemon? We’ll call it the Leprechaun. Do you think it will sell?’
“I don’t know,” said Delaplane. “In fact, I really don’t know why Irish coffee sells.”
He could see the group of distillers drawing back in disbelief. “They were thinking, ‘This guy knows how to do it, but he won’t tell us his secret.’ Anyway, they put out the Leprechaun and it dropped dead,” Delaplane reminisced.
When the impeccable prose stylist traveled, his widely syndicated column, “Postcard,” reached millions of readers. He was the suave but kooky international traveler: He once journeyed to Mexico to find the head of Pancho Villa, which had somehow become separated from the rest of the revolutionary general. But when at home in North Beach, he wrote about dealing with the refrigerator repairman, trying to coax a kitten from a tree, and his penchant for dipping into the cooking sherry.
He also wrote about North Beach. This is from his last published column, April 19, 1988:
I walked in North Beach to sharpen my wits. The best cops knew North Beach. The restaurants spread a good table for them – as they did for reporters. Delicatessens sold 27 kinds of sausage – each one better than the last. A vinegar shop sold 50 flavors. There was a store where I bought fresh pasta. A French bread bakery where we stopped at four in the morning for a hot crusty loaf. The days were full of sun.
Delaplane, who lived on Telegraph Hill, usually began those columns at eight or nine in the morning, wrote slowly on an old Olivetti portable, and carefully polished them. At noon he made his way down to the Washington Square Bar & Grill where he sat at his regular table, with a martini straight up, and continued to repolish the column with a big, black reporter’s pencil. A while later, a Chronicle messenger picked up the column and took it to the paper.
“I write fast enough,” he told an interviewer once. “It’s getting at it that frays a man’s nerves like an old shirt collar. Actually, it’s something like barbecuing a steak. It’s not the time on the fire. It’s all those turns in the marinade; the loving touches with the fork and brush.”
North Beach writer Ernest Beyl was a friend of Stanton Delaplane.