George MacDonald Fraser, Father of Flashman

George MacDonald Fraser

Back in 1995, when I was living on the Isle of Man, I was able to interview George MacDonald Fraser (click for more info).  I was the vice-chairman of Clan Fraser Society of North America (even though I had moved to the Isle of Man) at the time and did so for the newsletter.  One afternoon, my wife and I met with him at the Sefton Hotel on The Strand in Douglas, across the street from the harbor.  We had tea and I interviewed the author of the Flashman novels (click for more on Flashman), several semi-autobiographical books about his experiences in Southeast Asia during World War II (click for a synopsis of one) and histories (click for a review of one).  The chairman of CFSNA was a big fan and, although I was not that familiar with his works, I read some of his books and studied up on him before the interview.  I was impressed with his writing and, as I interviewed him, the man.  He was most gracious and interesting.  Here is the first part of my interview with the late George MacDonald Fraser.

RLC: You have written fictional books and short stories, history, reviews, magazines articles and even worked for Hollywood. Do you have any favorite type of writing?
GMF: I would say the short stories are less trouble than anything else because I don’t have to do any research. And the same holds good for the film scripts. Again, very little research is necessary, and you can just sit down and do it, you know?  The Flashmans take an awful lot of reading and research in advance.  Naturally, any historical novel does.  But I wouldn’t say that I have any particular favorite.  No.
RLC: You worked as a newspaperman in Scotland as one of your notable jobs.  What was your most memorable story or event of this time of your life?
GMF: I think interviewing Oliver Hardy, because he was such a nice man, and exactly as I had imagined and exactly as he was on screen, sitting there in his bowler hat, looking rather weary, which he probably was.  Oh, I can think of things in Scotland when I was deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald, we effectively dealt a blow to Scottish nationalism,which I don’t approve of, although I’m getting more and more sympathetic to it as time goes by, and that was a great satisfaction at the time.  No, no particular stories.  How long have you been here?
RLC: We moved here in November.
GMF: Oh, I see.  Then the name Bill Shankly won’t mean anything to you.  He was a famous football manager with Liverpool.  I mean, he had this sort of reputation in Britain that Casey Stengal and people like that used to have in the United States.  When he managed a very small club I happened to be covering it for my local paper and I got to know him extremely well.  I discovered that of all the people that I have met, he is the one whose name, when dropped, excites the most offense.  Particularly in the north of England.                                                                                                                                   RLC: I think that is one of the things I had to get used to. The household names in America might not be the household names here, and vice versa. We always think that because of our common language, that everything is the same.
GMF: Oddly enough, I think it’s probably most marked in TV entertainment.  I mean, there are all sorts of household names in the States, Johnny Carson for example, that are almost unknown here.  And David Letterman and people like that.  Similarly, the same sort of thing in Britain.  There are those no one in the States ever heard of.  In fact, no one in the States heard anything about British entertainment at all until the Beatles arrived.  That changed everything.
RLC: Having spent some time in America, do you prefer the type of screenwriting on British TV to American, especially in regards to humor and that sort of thing?
GMF: I’ve never subscribed to the belief, which has always been proclaimed over here, that British television is the best in the world.  I don’t think it is.  In fact, I think it has deteriorated very badly.  No, I must say, when I go to the States (and I haven’t been for a few years now) I find myself slipping into it very, very easily and watching TV in hotel rooms and so on.  In no time at all I find myself on the wavelength, you know.
RLC: Did you find any particular shows you liked?
GMF: I’m trying to think.  Mind you, a lot of them are now seen in this country.  Um … well, of course, it was shown over here, I liked Soap.  It was shown a few years ago.  I suppose that it has died now.
RLC: Yes, it was actually fairly short-lived.
GMF: Recently I was asked by a producer in Hollywood (he’s trying to get a television series started and he wanted me to do it) and he sent me tapes of a show called Hercules. Have you ever seen it?
RLC: No.
GMF: It’s abysmal!  But anyway, he said this is the type of thing that is peak viewing in the United States and well up the charts.  I said, “I don’t believe it.”
And he said, “Oh, but it is.  You have no idea how things have changed.'”
It is pretty basic, I mean the Hercules myth, but you wouldn’t recognize it.  It’s just an excuse for slam, bang karate and that sort of thing.  No, I’m not a great television viewer in this country.  I don’t watch an awful lot, aside from news bulletins and old movies.  I generally watch an old movie before I go to bed, or a bit of one, you know.
RLC: I know you did some screenwriting. What was your impression of Hollywood? The type of “feel” you get there, the whole genre?
GMF: You know, I found it very quiet, a rather relaxing place.  I mean the longest stint I had there was at MGM, Culver City, when I was doing a James Bond, Octopussy, for Cubby Broccoli, and that was very civilized living.  I used to turn up and park in the car park every day and watch Walter Mathau striding across looking very lugubrious.  I used to work in the building and that consisted not of writing but entirely of discussing.  That went on for weeks.  Then I think no one wrote it, you know.  But for the rest, most of the time I thoroughly enjoyed it.  My wife and I sort of lived in the “golden triangle” in Beverly Hills and very pleasant it was.  I must say they’ve got it licked for peaceful, quiet living, or so it seemed to me at the time.  I don’t know what it’s like now.  We had good friends there. Dick Fleischer, the director and others, Martin Ritt, who, alas, is now dead.  Most of my time there was actually spent in talking.  I didn’t do any writing there.  As I say, the usual procedure of a movie was to go and talk for long periods.  Then I would go home and write it and then go back and have more discussions and then come back and rewrite, you know.  I must say I liked it.  Last time I was there was to do The Lone Ranger, which never came off, for John Landis.  John and his wife are good friends, although I haven’t seen them now for a couple of years. I doubt if I’ll be going back.  I see no particular reason why I should.  The film industry is changing.  It was incredibly international when I was doing it. Movies would draw their people, their talent and so on, from all corners of the globe and filming would take place all over the world.  Now it seems to be getting more back to the old “studio” system.  More stuff is made in the States and, well, the tax advantage for working in Britain, I gather, is gone. It is a less international feel about it. And I think, too, my generation is getting a bit long in the tooth.  I mean, the people I worked with, an awful lot of them are now dead or my age.  People like Charlton Heston and George C. Scott must now be in their seventies and not as active as they were.  I don’t know the names of all the young producers and directors nowadays.
RLC: Did you have any producers, directors, actors and actresses that made an impression, either positive or negative, that is very memorable?
GMF: Steve McQueen.  We were to do a movie upon which six million dollars had already been spent, called Tai-Pan.  It was eventually made by Dino De Laurentiis with a different script, not mine.  But they sold my script to McQueen and we were all set to do it when the money ran out, or something.  I never discovered what.  Also, the poor guy was physically unwell at that time and died a few months later.  It would have been his last picture, if it had been made.  A funny thing about him was we met in his home which, at that time, was a penthouse in the Beverly Wilshire.  The director and I went up to meet him and talk over the script.  Within thirty seconds he said to me, “You’re from Scotland.”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I’m Scotch.”
And out it came. For about ten minutes I got the history of the McQueens.  He was very nationalistic. Very proud of his Scottishness was McQueen.  We got on very well.  Nice chap.  Reserved, in a quiet way.  Burt Lancaster. I spent a week with him.  Again, discussing a movie that never got anywhere.  That was a very civilized man.  Again, with whom it was very easy to talk.  Much better educated than the average movie person.
If I had to write again for someone, I couldn’t pick anyone better to write for than George C. Scott, because whatever you write he will make it sound a hell of a sight better than it is. And Oliver Reed.  I made five pictures with him and he’s never let me down yet.  Again, he can make it sound better than it is. Some people just have the gift.
RLC: Did you work with Charlton Heston?  Because, you know, he is a Fraser as well.
GMF: That’s right.  Oh boy, I heard about that.  Yes, his son, of course, is christened Fraser.  Fraser, who is now, I think, a director.  Yes, I made three pictures with him in two of which he was Cardinal Richelieu (click for more info on the Musketeer pictures) and the other one he was Henry the Eighth (click for more on Crossed Swords).  He was a very good Henry the Eighth, too.  Worked terribly hard and immersed himself in it.  Going through the script again before hand, I’d had Henry saying something about being king for five and thirty years.  He said, “Actually he’d been king for thirty-seven years.”  And I said, “Yeah.  Poetic license.”  He knew his business.  And we’ve corresponded now and then ever since.  He must be, I should think, thinking about retiring, you know.  Although, actors never retire.
RLC: They become more character actors, as time goes along, I suppose.  Do you have anything waiting in the wings, as far as screen plays?
GMF: At the moment, no.  There is always a sort of permanent thing of people saying they want to do Flashman for the movies or for television.  One of these days it might happen. I’m not particularly worried whether it does or not.  I’m quite happy with them in book form.

1st American Edition
Signed by the author

RLC: Mentioning Flashman brings me back to the book. It was my first introduction to your writing.  It was a very interesting book. The first time you pick it up and you start reading about this fellow…very unique.  Probably the most famous anti-hero in literature, I would say.  Aside from the fleeting description in Tom Brown’s School Days that you attribute this character to, how did you become inspired to create this fellow, who is the ultimate in self-interest?
GMF: I don’t know.  I know I wanted to write a Victorian novel and I ‘d had the thought, I don’t know when, probably when I read it when I was about twelve years old, “What happened to this character.”  In a sense the work was done for me because it’s clear from Tom Brown’s School Days when he was expelled from Rugby, in the late 1830’s.  Right.   What would he do? He’d go into the army.  What was happening in the military world at that time, and so on.  So it was just a question of fitting him into history, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
RLC: Having read them, I’ve found them to be full of detailed descriptions not only of points in history, but also locations, such as Afghanistan during that period and the Civil War period in America with Custer and the gang.  The incredible amount of research in there, obviously.
GMF: That’s the best bit of it.  That’s the best part.
RLC: What I noticed in that is there are certain times the characters become very alive, and sometimes in a negative way.  Custer and Elphey Bey and such.  You see them as pompous fools and idiots?
GMF: Well, an awful lot of them were, you know.  Or so it appears now. Yes, I suppose all the great names of history have their weaknesses and their follies.  An awful lot of history is as incredible as fiction.  You wouldn’t get away with it as fiction.  That, as I say, is the fun in finding out, and finding out, where possible, the real truth behind the legend.  You know, just the small facts and the small details.
RLC: Yours, of course, are considerably more fleshed out than you can find in history because that is the nature of fiction.  If you just had a dry recitation of facts it would be quite boring.                                                                                                                            GMF: That’s right. You have to have Flashman in the middle of it, you know.
RLC: How much freedom do you feel to make someone like Elphey Bey or Custer more fallible than they were or do you try keep-
GMF: I try to keep exactly as it was.  There is only one person I am conscious of perhaps having made out to be a bit more of a villain than he was, and that is Bismarck.  And yet, he was a thorough swine.  There was a Russian called Ignatiev (Count Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatiev, statesman and diplomat) who I may have been a little unfair to, but that’s all.  I will not, in any circumstances, take liberties, particularly with female characters. Unless they were promiscuous I won’t say they were.  I won’t attribute misbehavior to any historical female who wasn’t guilty of it.
RLC: Now, I have noticed in your Flashman books quite a few characters who sound very historical.  Do you bring in what I would call minor historical characters that people might not even have heard of that you encountered in your research?

Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner a.ka. Gordana Khan (1785–1877)

GMF: Oh, yes.  When I did the one before the last one, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, I discovered, about the Sikh War in the 1840’s, these two American adventurers of whom I had never heard.  Incredible men upon whom I am convinced Kipling based The Man Who Would Be King, because their careers are so parallel and the timing is right.  One of them published his memoirs in 1891 (extracts from Gardner’s journal were published in 1853 and Harlan published his in 1842.  Both men died in the 1870’s.) and Kipling produced The Man Who Would Be King five years later.  I’m quite sure he was inspired by them . That kind of character, this man Gardner (Alexander Gardner-click for more on this adventurer) who came from Wisconsin and went about Afghanistan dressed in a full suit of tartan including a tartan turban.  I mean, there he is, and there’s a photograph of him, God help us.  And another, a fellow from Philadelphia (Josiah Harlan-click for more info on his incredible story), who made himself, very briefly, king of a tiny Afghan kingdom.  That is where, I’m sure, Kipling got the idea.  He didn’t last long, and ended up as a dentist in San Francisco, as far as I remember.  But an astonishing career.  There were some very hard fellows about in the last century.  (Some sources consider Sir James Brooke to be one of the inspirations rather than Gardner- click for more)
RLC: One of the things that is very obvious is that Flashy always comes out ahead, in spite of what you would think were some very grave errors of judgement where you think he would be branded a coward.  You always make sure he has an “out.”  How does this inevitable survival of such a person reflect your attitude toward this sort of real life individual?

President Custer?

GMF: I think they do.  I often wonder how many great reputations are genuinely earned.  The more you look into historical characters the more faults and the more virtues you find.  You generally find, this is my experience, anyway, that where there is a myth, so-called, there is a genuine basis for it.  I mean, everybody knows about Custer.  They may not know all the facts and all the details about Custer, but he wasn’t a bad sort.  He made a terrible mistake.  And it was a mistake he could have attempted to justify, because he had done the same thing before and it had worked.  But at Little Big Horn it didn’t.  What is not generally known about Custer is his political ambitions, that he genuinely had his eye on the Democratic nomination.  And he hoped in the far West, in the Little Big Horn campaign, hoped he would win such a glorious reputation that it might see him not only into the nomination, but into the White House.  And God knows, why not?  It happened to Eisenhower, you know. I suppose it happened to Andrew Jackson.
RLC: And even Washington.
GMF: And Washington, quite.  What Custer would have been like as president, God alone knows.  Because he was a pretty hysterical character, or very emotional, anyway.  I don’t think he would have been a great success.  Mind you, I’m not sure who became president that date, after Grant.  Johnson?  No, Johnson was before that.
RLC: After Grant was, ah….                                                                                              GMF: What was the one that was assassinated?
RLC: That was McKinley.
GMF: Wasn’t there one who was assassinated around about 1881?                             RLC: Garfield. After Garfield was Arthur.
GMF: Was it Arthur?
RLC: Chester A. Arthur was later. Then you went to Cleveland, then Harrison, then Cleveland again, and come to McKinley.
GMF: Early 70’s.
RLC: Tilden ran against him, ah….
GMF: Tilden.  That’s a name that rings a bell.
RLC: They made a deal.  Actually the Democrats had the majority in the election and they made a deal with Republicans that they would get the White House in exchange for pulling out the occupation troops in the South…Lemonade Lucy was his wife…I’m into history and it’s like all of a sudden I can’t remember anything.  I hate that.
GMF: I know that Grant was still President.  Grant did two terms, if I remember.  And I think he was just about going in ’76.  That was just about the end.
RLC: Lincoln won in ’64.  After him, up to ’68, was Johnson.
GMF: That’s right.  Through ’72 and ’76 was Grant.  I don’t know who it was from ’76 to ’80.
RLC: If I don’t think about it, I may come up with him.  That would have been interesting, Custer as President.

End Part 1

Vive la France!

"Puisque vous êtes un Américain , aimeriez-vous que, avec le ketchup ?"

“Puisque vous êtes un Américain, aimeriez-vous que, avec le ketchup?”

I try not to be prejudiced.  Sometimes, however, I make generalized evaluations, which is a trait of being prejudiced.  I did that with the French.  I had read accounts of rude, snooty people there (especially the waiters) and even heard personal accounts of such action.  It is not hard to find people who blog about bad Gallic experiences (click here).  True, I’d also heard the opposite from other people (including one of my sisters who studied at the University of Strasbourg for a year), but the most recent accounts were mostly negative.  So I crossed France off my list of places to visit.  Why go someplace where I wasn’t wanted?  I stated to my wife that I would never go to France.  I’d rather eat my hat than go there.

Because we use American Airlines air miles, we have to make reservations months ahead to be sure of a seat on the plane.  This year we had planned to go to Greece.  Then all the economic problems there came to a head.  It was a season of elections and plebiscites.  There was even the question of whether Greece would go off the euro.  With such uncertainty about even what money to use, it did not look like a good time to see the Acropolis.  Where to go for the year’s vacation?  After a bit of discussion about the various possibilities, I said to my wife, “How about France?”  After I picked her up off the floor from a dead faint and finished eating my fedora (Why don’t they make hats out of tortilla chips?), we started making our plans.

View from outside our apartment.

View from outside our apartment.

Although I was less than gassed by the idea of going to Paris, which I understood to be the headquarters of the rude French and overpriced food, there was no way my wife would hear of missing it, so I booked an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis, which is an island in the Seine River, right next to Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame Cathedral is located.  It was a great headquarters seeing the main tourist sites (yes, we did the tourist bit), except for Versailles, which required a short train trip.  Don’t drive in Paris unless you are a LeMans champion, have a death wish, are certifiably insane or are all of the above.  But that’s true of London and Rome as well.  Then again, I feel that way about San Francisco (where I drive as little as possible) and I’ve heard it’s also true of New York City, although I’ve never been there.

The stairs of the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile are worth climbing.

The stairs of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile are worth climbing.

Since this is more about the people than the sights, I will only give a quick review of what we saw.  Skip this paragraph if you’ve already been there.  We went in late October and early November, so the crowds were not as bad as high season.  We bought a museum pass, which Rick Steves recommended, but found it really only helped with the line at the Louvre, a definite must-see that not only has great European paintings and sculpture, but ancient art and artifacts from the Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Assyrian cultures.  The worst line and crowds were at Versailles Palace, making it my least favorite Paris-region site.  Its formal restaurant was good, though.  The Hôtel National des Invalides, which contains the Musée de l’Armée and Napoleon’s tomb, was well worth seeing, especially if you like military history.  Notre Dame, of course, was wonderful and free.  The Arc de Triomphe sits at the hub of twelve radiating streets and has a nice view of much of the city from the top.  Well worth it.  However, one of the radiating streets is the famous Champs-Élysées and it was a waste.  It was packed with crowds and chain stores, with almost no small shops and cafes.  Go to you local mall instead.  We saw some other sights, but these were the main ones.

Eiffel Tower at night.

Eiffel Tower at night.

What about the Eiffel Tower?  We saw it close up, but did not go up.  The lines were very long and we’d been advised it wasn’t worth it.  So we walked below it and studied it from a nearby park bench.  It was impressive.  But at night, it was spectacular.  It had lights all up the structure and there was a bit of a light show every so often.  We also saw it from a bateaux-mouche (meaning “fly boat” because they hosted many of said pests in days gone by) dinner cruise on the Seine.  It was pricey and the dinner was one of the worst we had in France, but well worth it for the comfort (we had a private table inside and it was quite cold outside) and the breath-taking beauty of seeing the City of Lights after dark.

Resto Med near our apartment, where we had galettes.  Our hostess, the blond, was fun and helpful

Resto Med near our Paris apartment, where we had galettes.  Great cider, too.  Our hostess, the blond, was lively and a kick.

Now, to the food and people: both were a delight.  Did we have any rude waiters in Paris, the so-called City of Snub?  No.  True, your waiter won’t come up and say, “My name is Damon and I’ll be your server, sweetheart.  I love that sweater.  Are you a Leo, too?”  Being a waiter is an occupation, not a job, so they try to be professional and polite.  We had two that were rather aloof and some were just average, but none that were rude or gave really poor service.  Outside of Paris, many were even better.  Now, it’s not like our chain restaurants where the idea is to get you in and out as quickly as possible.  Waiters would think it rude to rush the diners.  Simply say L’addition, s’il vous plait, and they will bring you your check.  But slow down and enjoy the experience of dining rather than just eating.  It’s a different philosophy.  And don’t always expect it “your way,” but order what is listed on the menu. We didn’t try to mess with the menu the way you do in California, asking for multiple changes to what we ordered.  I did ask them to hold the crème fraîche on my salmon galette (savory buckwheat crepe) and that was not a problem, but did not make substitutions.  That’s simply not the European or British way.  Live with it.  On the bright side, we had very good food for very reasonable prices by avoiding the “tourist trap” places and the high-cost restaurants.  Salads never had iceberg lettuce and the ubiquitous French dressing was made with shallot, Dijon mustard, salt, lemon juice, red-wine vinegar and a bit of olive oil, not that sweet, ketchup-based garbage I remembered from my childhood.  Food was no more expensive than a restaurant of the same quality here and wine was cheaper.  The most expensive meal we had was at a nice restaurant in Reims, which cost 85.40 euros, or about $93, including wine.  I’ve spent far more here for worse food and drink.  Since tax and tip were included in your restaurant tab, it was often cheaper than here.

Mont Ste Michel- stunning place, but lousy food in the village

Majestic Le Mont Saint-Michel- stunning abbey, but probably the worst eateries in all of France in the eateries in the village below.

I’ve mainly covered Paris, but Paris was not one of the high points for me.  We rented a car at the airport and drove over to Reims, down to Troyes in the Champagne region, then over to Amboise in the Loire Valley, across to Pontorson near Le Mont Saint-Michel, up to Bayeux in Normandy, over to Rouen, then back to the airport.  We used those cities as bases of operations to see the areas around them.  I did a lot of driving and was ready for the rude drivers to cut me off or go so slowly in front of me that I would scream.  I’m still looking for them.  I’m sure they were in Paris, but I didn’t drive there.  The ones I encountered were far more polite that those I see on my trips down Interstate 5 to SoCal three times a year.  Not only that, truckers never pulled in front of you just before you passed them!  The highways were better than many in California and, I have to admit, so were the drivers.  Europe and the UK drivers don’t seem to have adopted, “I’m more important than anyone else” philosophy.

The town of Amboise, viewed from the chateau on the hill.

The delightful town of Amboise, viewed from the chateau on the hill above.

But what about people other than waiters and drivers?  In Paris on Saturday, after seeing Napoleon’s tomb we were looking for a place for lunch, but some were closed in that area.  I was standing on the sidewalk, trying to find a place with my smart phone and a map, when a fellow in running gear came up to us and said something in French.  “I don’t speak French,” I said.  “Do you need help?” he asked.  “We’re trying to find a restaurant,” I told him.  He laid out all the options and told us of a nearby recommendation.  We went there and had a good meal.  A Frenchman took pity on a couple of obvious tourists.  In Amboise, I went into a boulangerie, or bakery, in the early morning to buy breakfast.  The man behind the counter did not speak English and my French was not much better.  Using charades, I made my selection and pulled out a 5 euro note.  Since I could not understand the price he told me, I figured that was safe.  He said something and pointed at a small tray on the counter.  It had the hours for the boulangerie.  I checked my watch and, yes, he should be open, so I again offered my money.  Again, he pointed at the tray.  After a moment, he took my money and put the change in the tray.  The elevator hit the top floor and I realized he was trying to tell me I was supposed to put the money in the tray, that there was a proper way  to pay.  But he had given in to my ignorance.  I touched the side of my head, showing it had finally gotten through, and nodded with a grin.  He laughed and nodded back.  I was in his country unable to speak his language and not following the normal procedure, but he took it well and we laughed together.  That was far from rude.

Proudly standing next tot the man who I greatly admire, Lord Lovat.  I wore clothes like this and seemed to fit in well.

Proudly standing next to the man who I greatly admire, the late Lord Lovat, at Sword Beach, Normandy. In France, I wore clothes like I am wearing here and seemed to fit in reasonably well.

What’s my take on all this?  The French are not rude.  I am sure there are rude French, just as there are rude Americans.  I am sure there are French who have a strong dislike for Americans, just as there are Americans who have a strong dislike for the French.  But when you meet people one-on-one and don’t “cop an attitude,” it’s surprising how nice they can be.  I went to France knowing that it was their country and they did not have to be nice to me.  I tried to be polite to them and was surprised at how they responded.  I tried to fit in as much as possible, struggling with the few words of French I knew, and they seemed to appreciate that.  I even took up the scarf (no, not berets) that so many Frenchmen wore because I liked it and was several times taken for a Frenchman by the French.   Until I spoke, that is.  A good friend gave me a sound piece advice: when you go into a store, always greet the shopkeeper with bonjour (if it’s daytime, but bonsoir) and say au revoir when leaving.  It’s the polite thing to do and all the French do it.  If you’re going to France, don’t be the Ugly Americans (whom we saw a few times on our trip) and expect the French to kiss up to you ( a French kiss?), but realize it’s their country and you are merely a visitor.  You might be surprised at how well you are received.  I was.


Old San Francisco

"HI, I'm Chad."

“HI, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy.”

Old San Francisco is rapidly dying.  Sure there are cable cars and Queen Anne houses, but the shops around Union Square have none of that feel you get when you watch a noir-ish film like The Maltese Falcon.  Sadly, there is not much left of that San Francisco.  “Modern” is the zeitgeist of San Francisco now, I-Phones rather than phone booths and Starbucks and a Caramel Macchiato instead of a coffee shop and a mug of joe.  And with that comes the over-casual dress and attitude that is the current age.  White linen table cloths and dignified waiters in ties have fallen to disposal paper coverings and a guy in a Major Lazor T-shirt saying, “Hi, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy.  What can I get you?”  But not everywhere.  There are a few hold-outs who refuse to give in to the current trends.

John's Grill on Ellis Street

John’s Grill on Ellis Street

A couple of blocks south of Union Square is a haven of Old San Francisco named John’s Grill.   Not being a regular visitor of San Francisco, I’d never heard of it.  By chance, I was checking out restaurants on my smartphone (yes, I do have one) while my wife, Kelly, was shopping, I found it was close and sounded good.  Established in 1908, it was a favorite haunt of Dashiell Hammett.  In fact, you trivia nuts, it is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon. To be honest, I did not remember it at the time, only realizing it when I saw their website on my phone.  I loved the book, The Book, so much that I dedicated my latest Morg Mahoney mystery to it.  Obviously, I found that interesting and I called.  I had no problem getting a reservation, but then six is way too early to dine for most San Franciscans.  I asked if there were a dress code, since I was in Levi’s, and was a little disappointed that there was not.  We showed up on time, but opted to go upstairs to “the Maltese Falcon” Room, which didn’t open until six-thirty.  We took a seat at the small, but well-stocked bar while we waited.

Johnny Walker and Soda?

Johnny Walker and Soda?

I should have ordered Johnny Walker and soda, or two, or more, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but had one Johnny Walker Black on the rocks instead.  Personally, I think soda ruins scotch.  The bartender, Louis, pronounced Louie like in Casablanca,  had been there for thirty years.  The bar was pretty empty, so we had a chance to chat.  He mentioned a few of the famous and infamous who had dined there.  He told us of how things had changed since he started.  Then, you would wear a tux when dining there on Friday and Saturday nights.  You wouldn’t have got through the door in jeans.  While he did not criticize the current policy, I got the feeling that he missed the old days.  The clock struck six-thirty (figuratively) and we went upstairs.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

Downstairs was nice, with cloth table cloths and mahogany paneling, but was rather noisy.  More the hangout for locals coming in for a Grey Goose vodka martini or white wine at the end of the work day than quite dining.  As we hit the top of the stairs and walked past the display case with a black falcon that looked like a dead ringer for the one in the movie, the mood changed.  There was a guitarist playing mellow jazz.  Tables had more space between them.  We had a window table overlooking Ellis Street.  The waiter was polite, helpful and a study in black, with shirt, trousers and tie all in that basic color.  And he wasn’t named Justin and didn’t try to be our good buddy.

The menu looked liked something out of the 50’s or 60’s (click here to see it). There was no seared ahi or cranberry quinoa salad.  I probably should have ordered the Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops in honor of their mention in The Book, but I’m not in love with lamb.  Just because you like a character in a book doesn’t mean you have to eat and drink what he did.  So I opted for the sea bass.  My wife took a walk down memory lane and ordered the filet with Bernaise sauce, her favorite when we both ate steak in the 60’s and 70’s.  Nothing was listed for a starch but a baked potato (imported all the way from Idaho, no less), although I now understand fries are available.  We both had the baked potato, again my wife’s favorite.

The food was great and servings were generous.  Although my sea bass had a beurre blanc sauce and I’m not really into that, the fish itself and the veggies were perfectly cooked.  My wife said the same about her steak.  She was so impressed that she ordered the chocolate mouse torte and said that it was worth the calories, which is saying a lot.  All the way through, our waiter was attentive while never hovering.  It was just like fine dining in the 60’s.  It wasn’t cheap, but we’ve spent far more for far less quality.  If you’re ever visiting San Francisco, I would recommend  breaking your diet and splurging at John’s Grill.

I should mention that Zagat rated John’s Grill as the “#1 Steakhouse in San Francisco.”   Also,The Maltese Falcon Room is a National Literary Landmark and the meeting place of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco (click here for more info).  We chose wisely, both for food and for literary history.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett in coat, tie and fedora

Why write about John’s Grill?  Because it’s a dying breed.  This is Old San Francisco, with all the class of a Hammett novel.  If we lived in San Francisco, would we be regulars?  Maybe not.  I could almost hear my arteries hardening as I ate.  I do try to eat more healthily than I did in the 60’s.  However, the feeling of quiet quality, of dining rather than eating is becoming rare.  We were not rushed.  It would be a place I would go on special occasions.  And our dinner there was a special occasion.  I felt like I should have been wearing a coat and tie, even though it wasn’t required, and have hung my snap-brim fedora (yes, I have more than one and do wear them) on a coat hook by the door.  I was sure that I  felt the ghost of Dashiell Hammett sitting there with us, having lamb chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes.   But maybe that was just the air conditioning.

Old San Francisco is fading away.  When you shop in stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus, you see people in frayed jeans and T-shirts (men and women) instead of suits and dresses.  Am I the only one who thinks we’ve lost something when we no longer make things a special occasion in our lives and dress accordingly?  Maybe I belong back when Hammett was writing about San Francisco.  When no one would have dared go to John’s Grill in Levi’s.