A True San Franciscan, or, What Tony Bennett and Emperor Norton Have in Common
The perennial squabble over whether "Frisco" is an acceptable name for San Francisco often devolves into a competition to determine who has the right to have an opinion about the matter at all.
Anyone who is judged not to be a "real" San Franciscan is "invited" to stand down, as contestants battle it out over who is a "native" San Franciscan (and who is a "transplant"); whose family has been in the city the longest; or who has the best Herb Caen cocktail party story.
But maybe there is a better way to judge who is a true San Franciscan.
The American Songbook standard "Nature Boy" hinges on the line:
The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
Tony Bennett wasn't born in San Francisco. It doesn't appear that he ever lived here.
But he has loved San Francisco — and San Francisco has loved him back.
By this standard — the "Nature Boy" standard — Tony Bennett is a true San Franciscan.
There's another gentleman, known as Emperor Norton, who also wasn't born in San Francisco — he didn't arrive until he was nearly 32 — but who adopted San Francisco and loved it as the seat of his Empire.
Has San Francisco loved him back? Yes, although not as well as it might — notwithstanding the fact that he didn't have a chart-topping signature song that, for many, is the very theme song of the city.
The truth is, though: Those natives, residents and former residents of San Francisco who know the Emperor's story best have loved him for the very reasons that help to make him a true San Franciscan.
They have loved him because, in the 1860s and '70s — well before most people in San Francisco or elsewhere were standing up for such things — Emperor Norton was
- an adversary of political corruption and corporate fraud;
- a persistent voice for the fair treatment of racial and ethnic minorities;
- a champion of religious unity who saw the folly of sectarianism;
- an advocate for fair labor practices;
- an exponent of technological innovations that advanced the public welfare;
- a supporter of women's suffrage;
- a defender of the people's right to fair taxes and basic services, including well-maintained streets and streetcars;
a general ambassador of his adopted city, who embodied, championed and heralded the values of openness, tolerance, fair play and the common good that came to be identified with San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay Area.
And they have loved him, and continue to love him, because he did all of this with whimsical, irrepressible style — another San Francisco hallmark.
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Of course, Tony Bennett is nothing if not a man of style.
This month, Bennett celebrates his 90th birthday. And he is honored this very day, in the city where he left his heart, with a larger-than-life bronze statue in front of the Fairmont Hotel — the scene of his San Francisco debut in 1954, and where he returned to introduce his immortal song in 1961.
Good for Tony! Good for San Francisco! Tony Bennett is a true San Franciscan and more.
So is Emperor Norton.
He loved the city — and he is loved in return. Differently, in both cases, than Tony Bennett. But, like Tony, the Emperor meets the "Nature Boy" standard.
And, like Tony, he is a San Francisco legend — one of the oldest: it's nearly 167 years and counting since the Emperor sailed into the Bay in November of 1849.
Indeed, like Tony, the Emperor was a legend in his own time.
Will Emperor Norton get a $1.1M statue on one of the most prominent sites in the city, following a fundraising effort co-led by former mayor Willie Brown?
That would be a fine tribute, to be sure.
But how about this?
In 1872, Emperor Norton set out the original vision for what we now know as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Let's find a way to put the Emperor's name on his bridge in 2018 — the year of his 200th birthday.
But what about the bridge's current names, you ask? What about "Bay Bridge" ? What about "Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge"?
Leave those names where they are. Simply add a name like "Emperor Norton Bridge" as a simple, elegant way of saying thanks and recognizing our deepest history.
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