Marshall McLuhan Visits Howard Gossage in San Francisco, August 9-13, 1965


Howard Luck Gossage (1917 – 1969)
“People don’t read ads. They read what interests them. Sometimes that’s an ad.” — Howard Luck Gossage

Marshall McLuhan in San Francisco 1965

Here is SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen’s August 12, 1965 account of Professor Marshall McLuhan’s San Francisco visit where a McLuhan festival was taking place. I went to the SF Public Library to read the newspapers of that day. A Shakespearean dramatic lightning storm bolted the bay foreshadowing his arrival. During the week of his stay, the Watts riots broke out, the Beatles stepped off the plane with their new movie HELP!, UFO’s were sighted frequently as the San Francisco Mime troop was cited fervently.

The actual Marshall McLuhan festival was held in San Francisco during the week of August 9 -13, 1965. Tom Wolfe wrote of this in his essay “What if He is Right?” Herb Caen chronicled their hot cool lunch at the recent social innovation – the topless club. Here is the full text of the article. – Mark Beaulieu, April 15, 1995, SF

Rainy Day Session

THREE THOUSAND miles off dept.: The Great Weatherman in the Sky may have His eye on the sparrow–but Sir, it’s New York, not San Francisco, that has the water shortage . . . Further religious note (shakes you up a little dept.): Yesterday, we told about the two Shinto priests performing a ceremony to remove the “hex” on Club Bora Bora–a 75-ft. dragon painted down the alley behind the place and hoo-BOY, did those priests get results! Yesterday morn, the dragon (painted in tempura) had been completely washed away! . . . Assemblyman Jesse Unruh, the Big Wind from Sacramento, blew into UC Medical Center yesterday for further checkups on his knee (he bit it?) and there he ran into a fellow patient, State Senator Jack McCarthy of S’Rafael. “He’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican but at last we have something in common,” said Jack. “Misery!” . . . Dave Falk to Horace Stoneham: “Can you drop in for a drink this afternoon?” Horace, with a Beam that Jim could bottle: “The way we’re winning, who needs it?” . . . Public service dept.: In case of nuclear attack, run, don’t walk, to General Brewing at 2601 Newhall, whose cellar has been designated a Class A Fallout Shelter. Contains food, water, first aid equipment, and case upon case of Luck Lager, Labatt’s and Fisher Beer. All clear ?

* * *FLASH: In town is Prof. Marshall McLuhan, fabled, fabulous, revered, and even sainted by the New Intelligentsia, Director of the Center for Culture and Technology at University of Toronto, author of “The Mechanical Bride,” “The Gutenburg Galaxy” and “Understanding Media,” darling of the critics (“Compared to McLuhan, Spengler is cautious and Toynbee is positively pedantic” – New York Herald Tribune), the man who stands “at the frontier of post-Einsteinian mythologies.”

Hot on the trail of this titan, I thought to myself, “Where is the last place in town you’d expect to see Marshall McLuhan?” and that’s where we I found him–at Off-Broadway in North Beach, lunching amid the topless waitresses with Writer Tom Wolfe, Adman Howard Gossage and Dr. Gerald Feigen.

* * *Being President of the Leg Men of American, I never felt a primal urge to lunch among the topless ladies, but in such distinguished company, who could resist? “Strip steak sandwich,” I said to Waitress Marilyn, who was wearing blue sequin pasties and not much else. As she walked sternly away, I commented “A good-looking girl.”

“Interesting choice of words,” mused Dr. McLuhan. “Good-LOOKING girl. The remark of a man who is visually-oriented, not tactually. And I further noticed that you could not bring yourself to look at her breasts as she took your order. You examined her only after she walked away – another example of the visual: the further she walked away, the more attractive she became.”

“Actually,” I apologized, blushing, “I’m rather inhibited.” The Professor nodded. “Another interesting word. Inhibited is the opposite of exhibited,” he pointed out, “and what is exhibited causes you to be inhibited.”

* * *A TOPLESS fashion show ensued, commentated by a young lady who was fully dressed and in good voice. “Now here, gentlemen,” she said, “is the ideal opera gown for your wife.” A gorgeously-endowed blonde appeared in a full-length gown open to the waist. The audience, composed mainly of Tuesday Downtown Operator-like types, gaped silently. “You’re all dead out there,” chided the commentator. “Where’s the applause?”

“Now the word applause,” interjected Dr. McLuhan, “comes from the Latin ‘applaudere,’ which means to explode. In early times, audiences applauded to show their disfavor; they clapped their hands literally to explode the performer off the stage. Hence you might say that that[sic] the silence here is a form of approbation, at least in the classical sense.”

* * *The show over, Tom Wolfe asked Waitress Marilyn: “Why do you wear pasties?” “Have to,” she dimpled. “It’s the law, when food is being served. For health reasons, you see?” Nobody saw. We invited Marilyn and Rochelle to join us for a drink. “Before we can sit with customers,” said Marilyn, “we have to put brassieres on.” She and Rochelle left and reappeared wearing black bras.

“I think brassieres look sexier than pasties, don’t you?” Marilyn inquired. Everybody nodded. “Besides, you can walk faster with a brassiere.” Everybody looked blank. “What I mean is,” she went on, “you don’t JIGGLE so.” The discussion switched to the recent police raids on Off-Broadway, and Rochelle said “I guess it was just a test case, we haven’t been bothered since. “I see,” said Dr. McLuhan. “To mix a metaphor, it was the thin edge of the trial balloons.” I’m sorry to report this, but it’s a fact that he tittered at his own remark.

We walked out into the sunshine, filled with innocence and good feelings, to find a young man on the sidewalk, handing out blue pamphlets for the “Scandinavian Massage Studio, Miss Ingrid, Director.: The copy read “Six young and trained Scandinavian girls are ready to serve you. For the tired executive we offer private massage rooms, private telephones, stock quotations, the Wall Street Journal, music.”

It didn’t sound relaxing at all. Not half as relaxing as lunch among the nymphs with Dr. Marshall McLuhan and his merry men. (Source:

Here on Walter Landor’s boat (Walter Landor – founder of Landor Associates, one of the world’s leading design firms) is Howard with Walter Landor, Tom Wolfe, Marshall McLuhan and his wife, Alice Lowe (Gossage’s office manager who is currently head of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum), Herb  Caen (the well-known columnist), a city commissioner, and Gerry Feigen, a doctor who joined Howard’s  merry band. 

Read Tom Wolfe’s Account of the visit to the topless waitresses restaurant in his article “What if He is Right?” at

Read the following previous postings on this blog about Howard Gossage, the “Socrates of San Francisco”:-

Howard Gossage, 1960s Marketer of Marshall McLuhan –

New Biography of Howard Gossage –

Howard Gossage: The Socrates of San Francisco –

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