My City Beautiful
About 10 years ago, I walked through the doors of the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco wanting to satiate my curiosity about my great grandfather’s role in our City’s first world’s fair. Little did I know how a few nagging questions would lead me to write an entire book about the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.
It was there I discovered great librarians who helped me mine several file boxes of my great grandfather’s speeches, letters, photos and other related material to his original vision for the fair and his 10 years of work as one of the primary organizers for the event.
My curiosity had originally been piqued by a letter Reuben Hale wrote my grandfather, O.C. Field, in March 1942. In that letter, Reuben outlined succinct and sage advice to guide my grandfather in his new appointment in Washington, D.C. where he was to help Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior with energy logisitics for World War II ( I mention this letter in the Afterword of my book Panorama). The 13 points in that letter left me stunned. I wondered to myself how my great grandfather came upon such powerful insights about the nature of people and politics in Washington, D.C.
That letter became the catalyst of my curiosity. My hope was to dig deeper into his work and gain whatever insights I could gather into his character as a businessman and civic-minded gentleman. My original goal was to write an essay or two about my great grandfather, but as I continued digging I discovered more and more fascinating people and intersecting stories about business, economics and politics from 100 years ago. My focus started shifting to writing essays on these events and people in a way that could quickly pull a reader into this time period.
My aspiration as a writer was to craft powerful non-fiction stories like those I’d admired from the likes of Joan Didion, Adam Hochschild, Eric Larson, John McPhee and Gay Talese. My goal as a writer was to find those elusive details or gold nuggets that helped shape a vivid scene. What was the weather like that day? What did it smell like? What pre-occupied people’s minds? How did people talk?
It was all of this connective tissue that made not only the research but the writing both challenging and exhilarating. Along the way, I became frustrated many times when I couldn’t find those gems of details. Other times I’d find a nugget and it was a glorious feeling when it happened. At first I was intimidated by the historical research and my lack of training in that field. I leaned into my experience as a business journalist looking for stories, quotes, events and threads that would help connect the players in how they accomplished this amazing feat, overcoming the huge hurdles widespread political graft, the great earthquake and fire of 1906 and the outbreak of World War I.
It was Reuben Hale’s archived speeches, letters and communications spanning a decade that became the cornerstones for my inquiry into early 20th century San Francisco. I remember my first reading of his July 1906 speech to fellow businessmen at the St. Francis Hotel after the great fire and earthquake had leveled the City. Reading that speech probably felt like what archaeologists experience when they unearth a fossil fragment from an unknown dinosaur species. It was a Eureka moment.
That’s how the process started for me. Each speech and each letter took me a bit deeper into the weave and texture of this time period, providing glimpses into the challenges and people who played central roles in bringing the world’s fair to San Francisco. Each piece of the puzzle helped me build more confidence as they became integrated into my writing process. With each building block of 1900s San Francisco, I came to appreciate the many dimensions of the overarching narrative and the unique people and incidents that provided the blueprint for San Francisco as a modern city.
To read more about Panorama go here: