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Where the Heart Is: The Story Behind San Francisco's Official Ballad 

Wednesday, Jul 27 2016
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On or about March 15, 1978, George Cory sat down at a typewriter in his Nob Hill apartment and banged out a four-page will.

Full of strikeovers and white-outs, and peppered with theherebys,aforementioneds and hereuntos endemic to lawyerly boilerplate, the document was helped along (legally speaking) when Cory initialed a few corrected entries in the margins. Toward the bottom of page three, Cory left instructions that there be no funeral and that his remains be scattered at sea.

On or about April 11 — less than four weeks after he wrote his will — he was dead. News accounts said Cory, whose body was found on his faded blue brocade couch in his living room at 18 Pleasant St., killed himself. But the coroner's report had it both ways: On one page, it said Cory's death was a suicide due to a drug overdose, while on another page it said the blood and urine tests found no narcotics in his system.The toxicology tests could have been compromised, as Cory's rapidly decomposing body had been on the couch for more than 48 hours before his landlady discovered it.

George Cory died less than one mile from The Venetian Room inside the Fairmont Hotel, where,16 years before, Tony Bennett had introduced the world to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," the billet-doux to the city. Composed in 1954, the song transformed Cory and his partner, Douglass Cross, from small-time composers into pop-hit plutocrats. As a songwriting team, they never caught the gold ring again, but residuals from their ode to San Francisco brought them millions, and the royalties are still a cash cow for those who now, through inheritances and otherwise, own the composers' rights.In fact, the heartwarming song whose lyrics compare the City by the Bay favorably to Paris has a complicated, sordid history. And while it's brought happiness to generations of San Franciscans, its songwriters never replicated their success.

Cross, who was 54, died in 1975 in a convalescent hospital in Petaluma. As for the indefatigable Bennett, still singing the song as his 90th birthday approaches on Aug. 3, the Cory-Cross composition broadened his already burgeoning fame.

"I had hits before that song, and certainly a lot of hits afterward," Bennett tells me in a recent interview. "But I never had a hit like that one.That song gave me international recognition."

Just this summer, Bennett was in London, singing ILMHISF for Prince Charles and his guests.He bowled over the British by concluding with "Fly Me To the Moon" — without a microphone.

Weeks after introducing the song at the Fairmont, on Dec. 28, 1961, Bennett recorded it in New York — over the objections of Columbia Records' majordomo, Mitch Miller — and it brought him his first two Grammy Awards. Like Frank Sinatra with "New York,New York," Bennett will always be joined at the hip with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

Several years ago, it was estimated that Bennett had sung the song in front of audiences at least 8,000 times. Dozens of other singers and groups have tried to piggyback on the success of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," a Heinz 57 list that starts with Sinatra, ends with the 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett, and has Liberace, Fats Domino, and Pavarotti someplace in between. Dick Bright, who led the house orchestra at The Venetian Room for almost two decades, once recorded a disco version of what Cory and Cross had wrought. ("So long ago, it was vinyl," Bright says in a phone interview.) The ballad has inspired at least one delicious pun — the punch line is a delinquent angel singing to God that "I left my harp in Stan Frank's disco" — and there have been countless parodies, most notably Steve Allen's "I Left My Nose in San Diego," which prompted a lawsuit by the composers.

But the song's origins go back even farther. Cory (the music) and Cross (the words) collaborated to write the song in 1953-54, roughly seven years before it fell into Bennett's lap through sheer serendipity.

As the royalties rolled in, Cory and Cross were able to reverse their steps from nearly two decades before and return to their beloved San Francisco.New York had been a bad fit for the pair — "It was a hard, ruthless city," Cross once said — and they really did pine for the cable cars and the fog. The only reason they'd moved to New York in the first place — or Brooklyn, actually — was to be close to the hub of the music business, and it was there they wrote hundreds of songs, including the forgettable "The Little Sailboat" and "Carry Me Back to Old Manhattan," and where they wrote a few others that were sung but never recorded by Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey.

Once back in San Francisco, Cory and Cross cut a wide if largely unpublished swath of songs.

"These were a couple of guys who really knew how to live," says Peter Mintun, a piano player from Oakland who started a friendship with Cory when the composer hired him to entertain at a New Year's Eve party.

Postmortems of Cross and Cory showed they both suffered from Laennec's cirrhosis, a liver ailment that usually afflicts middle-aged men who abuse alcohol.

"My uncle drank a fifth of whiskey a day, for a long time, and that was only part of his daily consumption," says Ronald Strowbridge, who was 28 when Cross died. "George Cory drank just as much. It got to the point where Uncle Douglass drank so much, you didn't recognize him any other way. But I can think of only two times when he appeared to be really, really drunk. The rest of the time, he handled liquor so well that he really didn't seem drunk."

Strowbridge, who lives in Clearlake, got to calling Cory "Uncle George" just as he called Cross "Uncle Douglass." But the long-running Cory-Cross relationship, professionally as well as romantically, ended several years before Cross' death. They would never write another boffo song.


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Bill Christine

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