Annual Boys Night Out event gathers power players and media elite — no girls allowed. 

All that's missing are the cigars. Photo by Robert Altman
All that’s missing are the cigars. And the women. Photo by Robert Altman

By Marke B

The optics are disastrous. In the picture taken last night, freely shared on Facebook by organizer Lee Houskeeper, more than 40 men pose smiling on the top floor of John’s Grill, home of the famous Maltese Falcon and a symbol of SF’s establishment class if there ever was one.

Willie Brown is there. Public Defender Jeff Adachi is there. Scott Weiner and Mark Leno are there. Several SFPD captains and lieutenants, high-powered civil rights lawyers, and power brokers jostle for space in the frame. So do the highest-ranking editors and reporters from the Chronicle, the Examiner, San Francisco Magazine, CBS and NBC. Jim Steinle, father of murdered Kate Steinle, sits in the front row. Even Wavy Gravy the clown is there.

Who’s not there? Women. Even just one woman. “Oh What a Boy’s Night Out” is the caption, followed by a list of attendees’ names.

(Here’s the whole caption: “Oh What a Boy’s Night Out: Willie Brown, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, State Senator Mark Leno, Supervisor Scott Weiner, Jim Steinle, Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz with Chronicle columnists Chuck Nevius, Andy Ross, Scott Ostler and reporter Evan Sernoffsky, San Francisco Magazine publisher Paul Reulbach with his editors Jon Steinberg and Joe Eskenazi, San Francisco Examiner editor Michael Howerton his ace reporter Joe Fitz, Wavy Gravy, KPIX’s Mike Sugerman, Guardian of the Bay Bruce Brugmann, Don Sanchez, Brian Copeland, Judge Paul Alvarado, Gene “Dr. Hip” Schoenfeld, Bob Sarlatte, Civil Rights attorney John Burris, Alex Clemens, Bobby “Bud E. Luv” Vickers, Sam Lauter, Herb Gold, Jack Anderson, George Michalski, Paul “Lobster” Wells, NBC’s Joe Rosato Jr., filmmakers Eric Christensen & John Turner, SFPD legends Joe Garrity, Joe Engler Al Casciato & John Cleary, Jeffrey Gareliv, Mark Margolin, Kevin Pursglove, Richard Johns, James Campbell, Robert Altman, Ron Turner, John Marshall, Michael Clark, Jay Johnson, J.C. Flier Dave Stoelk, Jim Huntington, Terry Callan, Mike Taylor, John Catchings Pat Johnson and FLAX’s Howard Flax”)

The annual Boys Night Out event has been going on in SF for 15 years now — and Houskeeper hosted them in LA for 25 years before that. Paid for by John’s Grill and Houskeeper himself, “It’s just a fun, traditional thing,” in Houskeeper’s words, “playing off how our fathers would be chased out of the house by our mothers in the old days.”

A playful tribute to fictional Mad Men nostalgia? Maybe, but this isn’t a few cigars in the gun room with old friends. This is some high-powered elbow-rubbing between the political class and the media elite. “We invite all the guys we think would make things interesting,” Houskeeper told me — this time around the gathering was a tribute to 84-year-old Wilkes Bashford, on the diamond anniversary of the launch of his eponymous clothing line — “and then we adopt the model of the secret old Black Cat club: Once we turn the Maltese Falcon on its side, anything can be discussed by anyone, without fear of it getting around or what have you.”

That means a hell of a lot of access for journalists (and vice versa for politicos), not to mention all the subtler networking opportunities that both sides build careers and base major decisions on  — as long as they’re male. Take Jim Steinle: He’s one of the most talked-about figures of the year, whose daughter’s senseless murder set the cable news world alight and put SF sanctuary city policies in Congress’s crosshairs. He was in that room. (Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, the other major player in the media frenzy, was not invited “for space reasons.”). Steinle’s currently on a press junket organized by Houskeeper himself to admirably inject some subtlety into a case that’s been rendered black and white by both Fox News and CNN.

But good luck talking to him if you don’t have a penis.

Houskeeper is a legendary SF press agent and local personality who’s been affectionately described as being “born in a different century” — despite having a storied rock career that includes becoming the Doors’ agent at age 20. He describes the Boys Nights Out as containing “an extremely diverse bunch of guys from all over the city map, although we don’t have a lot of young ones. ”

“[Gay State Senator] Mark Leno even joked about how he never turned down an all-boys party,” Houskeeper said.

But when it comes to including women? “We’ve talked about it over the years,” Houskeeper told me, “and there are several smart women that we seriously have thought about inviting.” He mentions early meetings in LA when “June Lockhart, Lassie’s mom, would come read us dirty stories of her choosing” and that “Jerry Brown met Linda Ronstadt at a Boys Night Out.”

“But it would have to evolve organically — we don’t just want to open it up to anyone and make it a club rather than something special,” Houskeeper said. “A lot of times we ask women, smart ones, and they say ‘Hell, no! Why would I want to go hang out with a bunch of old men!’ And sometimes they come after us to include them, but it all ends up being a big game of ‘Gotcha’ in the end. But we have discussed including women, if they could feel comfortable here. And it’s an ongoing process.”

I asked Audrey Cooper, editor in chief of the Chronicle, if she felt such events hindered the advancement of women, especially in the media industry.

“I know that several of my friends and colleagues who were there have requested that future events include the city’s many women leaders,” Cooper told me via email, “and I expect that will happen. For the most part, that group was organized and attended by very smart men — many, many of whom have been my supporters and advocates.

“My two cents? The question you should be asking is whether the inclusion of women would make the event more or less popular. That might say more about the state of gender equality in this city, wouldn’t it?”

Other women in the media industry were less sanguine about the notion of an old school Boys Night Out that included such power players to the disadvantage of women seeking access, especially in San Francisco.

A female journalist told me anonymously (it’s hard to speak out about an event attended by some of the most powerful people in your field):

“What’s hilarious about this photo and the event in general is that none of the journalists who are doing the best and most interesting work in San Francisco are present, because they’re all women. You don’t have the editor in chief of the Chronicle, or the Chron’s City Hall reporters, senior political reporter, top technology reporter, or best crime reporter, because they are all women. You also don’t have any of the rising generation of tech journalists who are covering the most important industry in San Francisco (Nitasha Tiku, Ellen Cushing, Kristen Brown, and Ellen Huet come to mind) because they’re all women too.

“What you do have are a handful of aging power players, a literal clown, and a smattering of local reporters who should know better.”