Voices Out Of The Fog


Meredith Willson & Estelle Caen



Meredith Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1902. He studied piano and flute at the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art, and by age 19 had become a solo flutist with the New York Philharmonic. He relocated to San Francisco in the mid-1920s, and quickly gained notoriety as the Music Director for KFRC, before becoming NBC’s West Coast Music Director in 1932. He was also busy writing original compositions and early motion picture scores.

In this 1936 photo, Willson (right) is shown rehearsing with Estelle Caen (left), a gifted young San Francisco pianist � and the sister of the beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen � who was preparing to appear on Willson’s coast-to-coast broadcast on the NBC Blue Network.


May 16, 1995: Thanks to her love of the piano, I woke up every morning as a kid in Sacramento to the sounds of Beethoven and Chopin. At 14, she was already teaching — and saving her money, so determined was she to get on with her life. At 16, she was at the S.F. Conservatory of Music, where she won a scholarship to Juilliard in New York, and we were proud, but lonely for her energetic presence.

Then � let joy be unconfined! � she returned to San Francisco to become part of the great ferment of the mid-1930s. With her gifts as a hostess — she was one of those remarkable cooks who could keep four pots and five conversations going at the same time — she soon assembled a salon. Harry Bridges was there, and Frank and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Barbara and Haakon Chevalier. The young Bill Saroyan would drop in out of the blue and pull up a chair in the big kitchen on Russian Hill. Dong Kingman, Doris and Pierre Monteux, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Albert Elkus: the mix was heady, the dialogue crisp, the politics left. And all the while she was practicing, giving recitals, playing the Emperor with the WPA Symphony, getting admiring reviews…

Dear Estelle � “Stellie,” as we all called her. She gave me the thoughtful gifts, she critiqued the column and my lady friends (she liked the column better), and yesterday she left, probably because she wanted to. The call I never wanted to get informed me that Estelle Caen Barrett died at 9:05 a.m. at Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa. The best sister a brother could have was 86 and she leaves a vast emptiness.

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