Herbert Gold points to a painting he got in Haiti. (Photo/George Barahona)
Herbert Gold points to a painting he got in Haiti. (Photo/George Barahona)

‘Not Dead Yet’: Nonagenarian S.F. icon Herbert Gold talks writing, Israel, mortality

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If there’s one question that irritates 97-year-old Herbert Gold, it’s this: Are you still writing?

Of course he is! Though these days, the San Francisco writer is back to crafting poetry, like he did when he was a teenager. He still uses his trusty typewriter — “that’s my computer,” he said during a recent interview, pointing to the relic of a bygone era. It sits in his tiny office in the same rent-controlled, Russian Hill walk-up Gold has occupied for well over half a century.

In his 2008 memoir, written when he was only 84, Gold explained why he takes umbrage at that “still writing” question: “Writers might despair or suffer writer’s block, usually loudly, but they don’t decide to quit unless they are even more disturbed than they had to be in order to become writers in the first place.”

Despite some hearing loss and balance issues, Gold obviously has retained his sharpness and wit. There are even advantages to aging, he said, such as cheaper bus rides, and then there’s his cane. “I can hit my enemies with [it] and I can wave it at cars and they’ll stop for me.”

Gold’s memoir, by the way, has been relaunched by the publisher with a new title. Instead of “Still Alive! A Temporary Condition,” as it was when published 13 years ago, it is now “Not Dead Yet.”

“I hate the new title, but they ignored me,” the author remarked.

Gold’s more recent work, “Nearing the Exit,” published in 2018, is a collection of 10 poems reflecting his deep thoughts on love, loss and life — themes he frequently visits in his many novels and short stories. Among his best-known books: the 1966 bestseller “Fathers,” largely inspired by Gold’s old-school, Russian immigrant father, and “Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti,” a work of nonfiction published in 1991.

Haiti, where Gold lived for two years and regularly visited thereafter, remains close to his heart. Colorful Haitian art decorates his sunlit parlor, which is also crammed with books, stacks of newspapers and journals, and blessed with a sweeping view of the city.

At 97, I’m very preoccupied with the fact that I’m not going to live forever.

Often described as an “iconic” San Francisco writer and “chronicler of the Beat movement,” Gold had a broad circle of literary friends that included poet Allen Ginsberg, novelists Anais Nin, William Saroyan and Saul Bellow, journalist George Plimpton and other well-known writers.

Gold is lesser known as a journalist who covered the end of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “With five children [to support], I was writing a lot for Playboy and the Wall Street Journal,” he said.

As a reporter in 1973, Gold witnessed some intense Syrian-Israel action at Mount Hermon, where he saw plane fights and crashes, and helicopters carting away the wounded. “I watched rabbis perform prayers for the dead,” he recalled. “It was a tragic war, except that it ended happily with a victory.”

At war’s end in October 1973, “the country was exhilarated. But the mothers, sisters and wives of those who were killed …” His voice trails off.

Though he had friends in the Palmach (the commando unit of the Haganah), was “very involved with the kibbutz movement” and supports Israel, Gold believes that “they should have made, and they should make, a Palestinian state living in peace and dignity alongside Israel. It’s gotta happen.”

Gold also spent time in Paris at the Sorbonne, and visited the former Soviet Union (he learned Russian in the Army), befriending writers and refuseniks. He particularly remembers addressing the Anglo-American section of the writers union in Moscow and being asked: Why, if you are a progressive for the Soviet people, are you critical of the Soviet Union?

His answer? “Because you bullied the Jewish writers.”

The native Clevelander is no stranger to antisemitism.

“I grew up in a terribly antisemitic community,” he said. “People wanted to see my horns or my cloven hoof. People would chase me home from school. People betrayed me.”

Herb Gold's inner sanctum. (Photo/George Barahona)
Herbert Gold’s inner sanctum. (Photo/George Barahona)

Gold’s father, who owned a grocery store, wanted him to attend a local university and go into the family business. Gold, who was editor of his high school newspaper as a junior, instead chose to attend Columbia University in New York City.

Gold interrupted his studies to enlist in the Army, where he was assigned to an intelligence unit. He re-entered Columbia in 1946 as a sophomore. But he did not get a scholarship he initially had been granted — and he later learned why while sitting in the office of a dean.

“He left the room, with the folder on top [of his desk]. On the top of the scholarship application was a note. It said, ‘We have enough Jews from New York without importing them from the Midwest,’” he said.

While not observant, “I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it,” Gold said. “I’m Jewish because I believe in Jewish principles and because my ancestors are Jewish.”

Married and divorced twice, Gold has children from both unions, and remains close with daughters Ann Gold Buscho of San Rafael and Nina Gold of San Francisco, and twins Ari Gold and Ethan Gold of Los Angeles. (Another daughter, Judy, died in 2016.) He has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“My love of my children is an intense joy to me,” he said. “My kids tell me I’ve changed. I think when I was younger, I was more preoccupied. I always loved them, but I was ambitious about my career, and I was chasing women if I was unattached.”

At the same time, “at 97, I’m very preoccupied with the fact that I’m not going to live forever,” he said.

Death “is inevitable and I have to accept it. I’m comforted by the fact that a few people, my children, will remember me or will inherit something from me, and I will be immortal in that sense.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.