Monday, December 12, 2016

cats of old San Francisco

"This visit to San Francisco, a most strenuous one requiring two major speeches and two lesser ones, holds poignant memories. One was of speaking after dinner at the Press Club. It was to be a private and confidential speech, what in other press circles is called 'off the record.' In San Francisco it is called 'speaking behind the cat' - a large carved ebony cat carried in with ceremony and put before the speaker after the tables are cleared. The custom, I was told, began after the great earthquake and fire had destroyed the city in 1906. When the first daring spirits reached the ruins of the old clubhouse, all that remained to identify it amid the general devastation was the large fireplace in the lounge. Curled up beside it was a half-starved and badly singed cat, which was promptly adopted and lived out its remaining eight lives near the hearth of the new club. The cat was famous for its discretion, for although it listened carefully to all that was said, it was never known to have repeated a word. When in time it went to its multiple rewards, it was reproduced, larger than life size, with eyes and mouth tight shut, looking altogether inscrutable, an outward and visible sign of the security pledged to one who spoke behind it."

- Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (recounting events of 1950)

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