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Who could ever replace Sydney Goldstein? Interviewing the interview queen of City Arts & Lectures.

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
If you were to list off the top of your head the 10 most powerful people in San Francisco, Sydney Goldstein's name might not come immediately to mind -- but it should. The founder and director of City Arts & Lectures, the country's pre-eminent series of live interviews, Goldstein has brought to the Herbst Theatre's stage (and to public radio stations across the United States) a who's who of cultural and literary figures, from Salman Rushdie to Louis Menand, Susan Sontag to Alice Walker. Other local series bring equally high-profile figures (the Commonwealth Club hosted Al Gore on Monday, for instance) and Bay Area bookstores present an impressive array of readings, but City Arts & Lectures is singular in its focus on the literary intellect and its successful mix of the popular and the provocative.

No one I spoke to about City Arts would say a bad thing about it or about Sydney Goldstein -- as if to do so would be disloyal or would jeopardize a precarious relationship. Fortunately, there's little bad to say about either. The program is consistently compelling, with only the occasional lump caused by an intractable author or inept interviewer. Goldstein's 22 years of producing the series (and more than 10 years before that doing the same thing for the College of Marin) have resulted in connections that draw big names (which she's not afraid to drop -- though she's certainly earned the right to do so) and smart thinkers. Goldstein herself is gracious, forthright, and relentless in her devotion to the series' patrons; she can also be somewhat condescending, and I'd be willing to bet that her relentlessness can be frustrating if you don't agree with her. She's a bit intimidating, which is ironic given the status of the people she lures (less so when she insists she's never star-struck). But these are quibbles.

It does strike me as a little funny that the 5-foot-2-inch head of a bookish enterprise would inspire such awe. I think Goldstein would say the same -- she states (only somewhat disingenuously), "We do a nice, civilized thing." But City Arts & Lectures is a local institution that, as interviewer Barbara Lane says, "sets the gold standard." Gold standard or not, like all institutions, City Arts must change with the times or die, and this may prove harder as time goes on. Goldstein is certainly the series' strength, but she may prove to be its weakness in the long run. Given that she's so intrinsic to the program -- she built it, she runs it, and it's her network that fuels it -- one of the tests of City Arts' ability to adapt will be what happens when she's gone.

Before anyone panics, let me say that as far as I know, Sydney Goldstein is not on her way out at City Arts & Lectures. But she does sound tired, and 22 years is a long time to do one thing -- even something you love.

"It's a privilege to be doing this work," she explains over the phone during our first interview. "How often do people get to go to work and think, "That was really fascinating, in a deep way'?" Goldstein is talking about the responsibility she feels to the 500 or so members ("Friends") of City Arts & Lectures. Because she runs "a tight ship, a small, tight ship" with only two full-time employees besides herself, everyone does a little of everything -- a necessity to "keep me interested." And is she still interested? "Still pretty interested."

Last year City Arts put on more than 50 events (with almost a dozen cancellations and postponements, which add extra work); this year, it'll produce fewer than 40. Goldstein explains, "I'm 57 1/2 years old. I don't want to have to do that many shows."

Goldstein insists that she's focused on day-to-day details: "Can I use the flowers from last night onstage tonight, is so-and-so in his hotel, can we get the [radio] introduction written in time?" But that's not exactly true. She's also the person who can pick up the phone and call, say, her brother-in-law, Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer, and secure his help in getting his fellow Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to appear.

More than any other lecture series -- even more than Terry Gross' Fresh Air public radio program, which is an inspiration -- City Arts is book-oriented. ("If Terry had to choose one type [of subject], she'd be doing musicians. If I had to choose just one, I'd do writers.") More than three-quarters of its speakers are authors, and they don't come to read, but rather to "think out loud about things that matter," as Goldstein puts it. ("I don't need to be read to. I can listen to a tape in the car.") Some of the writers are her friends or have become so over the course of her career: The wall of her office is covered with black-and-white photographs she's taken of everyone from Dick Cavett (another inspiration) to Anita Hill.

The City Arts & Lectures office is a perfect example of Goldstein's influence. She leased the space, a former Japanese bakery on Sutter, three years ago and promptly fixed it up to Pottery Barn-catalog standards. The walls are alternately tomato red, sage green, and butter yellow; window boxes sport cushions upholstered with palm trees ("I love those pillows"); her cockapoo, Sophie, rests on a stylish Kilim rug when she's not sharing a seat with Goldstein; and the retro metal desk matches the plush red chairs. Lining an entire wall are books.

Elegant in olive silk trousers and a khaki sweater, her nails long and painted French white, Goldstein explains that if she didn't run City Arts & Lectures, she'd want to be a general contractor. She likes putting teams of people together, she says: It provides "control and civility and purpose on an ordinary scale." The series was originally run out of her house.

Oh sure, Goldstein's tried other pursuits. In the mid-'90s, she developed Sophie McCall, a golden ale with added calcium, but was stopped in her tracks by litigation from Anheuser-Busch over her tag line, "The Queen of Beers." As the wall of pictures (and some book jackets) proves, she's a fine photographer. She's penned a few published articles, including one on the late film critic Pauline Kael, a beloved friend. When it comes to writing, though, she insists modestly, "I can write a good letter." ("Alice Trillin said that was the secret to my success.")

In truth, though, planning public events has been her job for most of her adult life. And though Goldstein is clearly proud of her program, one wonders whether she feels trapped by its success, by the consistency of its tradition. She envies series that vie for a younger audience -- "I feel like part of the Old Guard" -- but she knows that's not her style.

She does think about handing City Arts off, but has no clear successor. At one time, she had high hopes for a former assistant -- Mitch Goldman, now a regular interviewer -- but, she says, he didn't love the detailed planning required to make City Arts come off. As she explains, "You have to be a little nuts to do this."

One of the best City Arts events I ever went to was Goldman in conversation with New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, and it's one of Gladwell's subjects who most reminds me of Sydney Goldstein. In "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," published in the magazine in January 1999, Gladwell described a Chicago grandmother who seemed to be closely linked to a surprising number and variety of people. Gladwell wondered whether "the people who know everyone, in some oblique way, may actually run the world." Goldstein's connections are legendary, and she's a powerful behind-the-scenes force in San Francisco's cultural life, drawing luminaries to this place who'd never think to come here otherwise. I suspect that someday, perhaps not too long from now, she'll pick up the phone and try to find herself an heir. Whether she'll be able to find one with even a rough approximation of her subtle but widespread influence is an open question.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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