May we introduce you to Burl Stiff, bon vivant, man-about-town, who’s sitting at the moment in the Whaling Bar at La Valencia Hotel? Of course you already recognize the face, which tops Stiff’s Union society column — the frosty hair, the dapper beard, the twinkling eyes framed by stylish glasses. But here he sits in the flesh, clad in an elegant three-piece suit by Bill Blass, sipping judiciously on well-mixed bourbon. The bar is dark compared to the bright sun on Prospect outside, but luncheon patrons spot Burl regardless; every few moments the bright smile, the breezy little wave, the saluting eyebrows switch on.
Despite his smooth responses, Stiff says his loss of anonymity jolted him when he first assumed the job of chronicling San Diego's beautiful people. "The worst part was trying to remember that what I'd written was going to be hanging up there with my name on it." Before then, he had publicized people more quietly.
He had started out with a journalism degree from North Texas State in Denton ("Where all the Miss Americas come from"), but put in only a few years editing copy (at the New York Times) and covering police news (at the Wichita Falls Record News) before the appeal of greater money and glamour lured him to accept a Ft. Worth job in public relations. A stint with the army and at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles interrupted him, but only temporarily; while vacationing in 1955 he almost unintentionally landed a job working for Barnes-Chase, then San Diego's most prestigious ad agency. There Stiff eventually rose to copy chief — and easily plugged into the wide-open San Diego social circuit.
The contacts he made then were to serve him well, and not only in his future job as columnist. Before the collapse of C. Arnholt Smith's financial empire caught up with Barnes-Chase (part of the Smith holdings), Stiff had accepted an offer in 1965 from Robert O. Peterson to become advertising manager for Peterson's Jack-in-the-Box and Oscar's chains. That eventually led to a similar job with the Southern California First National Bank, where he worked for five years, until Golden Door owner Deborah Mazzanti tapped him in 1975 to publicize her North County spa.
Stiff had actually begun discussing the possibility of writing a society column with Union editors before going to work for Mazzanti, but the negotiations didn't grow serious until 1976. Facing the imminent retirement of Eileen Jackson, the 40-year empress of San Diego's social scene, editor Gerald Warren (an old friend of Stiff's) began looking over sample columns written by the ad man. "There were never really any other serious contenders," Warren now recalls.
Now, two and a half years after his first column appeared, Stiff may have grown more comfortable with his public role, but he still wrestles with another aspect of his column. "All my stories are basically the same story," he explains. "And it is very tough to write the same thing over and over again four times a week."
A few innovative devices for combating the boredom began with his very first efforts. He introduced the use of photographs, a format he admits he borrowed from the pages of Women's Wear Daily, ; and he adopted a breezy writing style ("Not too smart-ass, but lively").
Stiff began popping in on previously unreported social happenings: an "Hour in the Barrio" luncheon, a Drinking Society pub crawl on St. Patrick's Day, a Shriner's installation. In the never-ending search for color, Stiff also found himself juggling a far more frantic party schedule than had Jackson, who compiled most of her voluminous daily column through telephone research.
Tonight, for example, Stiff will show up at a preview reception for an Indonesian art exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art at 5:30, then he'll return to La Valencia's Veranda Room and a party for actor Ralph Bellamy at 6:45, then he'll hurry up Mt. Soledad to a 7:30 dinner party for 18 in honor of Washington Post publisher Kay Graham at Helen Copley's Foxhill estate. It will be a calm evening compared to some; Stiff's record for one day is six parties, and he now racks up about 300 a year. Tonight he'll spend the rest of the evening at Copley's party, but that's a rarity occasioned by his close friendship with the publisher and fortuitous scheduling. Normally he doesn't join sit-down dinners. "He usually doesn't go to the party like he's going to the party," confirms Union photographer Tony Doubek. "He goes like he's going to work."
If Stiff remains ever vigilant, his hosts and their guests long ago learned to relax around their urbane observer. "Of course this thing that he does with using only complimentary photographs gives people confidence in him that he isn't going to absolutely destroy them," socialite Elinor Oatman murmurs approvingly. "I think he had good judgment and he's well-bred.... He's very discreet." Along with carefully controlling the photographs ("Because I don't think people want to see unattractive people"), Stiff also limits reports of disasters to public foul-ups, such as one notable Jewel Ball parking fiasco. An occasional minor gaffe might make it in the column, like the time Alice Dutton, Jane Metzger, Sue Bell, and Jane Chalmers showed up in the same blazing sequined gown at THE COMMITTEE Ball of 1977, or the time the Russell Jarecki's tent leaked in La Jolla; but more wicked incidents never cross Stiff's typewriter. "And no one has told me that I cannot go in there and do a Charlotte Curtis number," Stiff insists. In face, he says he personally enjoys the New York Times columnist's bitchy, caustic tone, "and I have a bitchy streak in me," he adds with characteristic ingenuousness. "But I don't want to do that here. I feel the people have to kind of ask for it in some way, and I just don't feel that this community is asking for that."
Instead, he says he gives the community simple entertainment. "I try to think, 'How do I make this even moderately interesting for somebody who didn't go to the party, didn't plan to go to the party, and probably never will go to any of the parties in the column?'" He says originality (of party themes) grabs his attention, yet all too often he runs into the same foods ("Rumaki, quiches, egg role-type things, ham and turkey and steamboat roasts"), the same florist (Adelaide's) and the same style of clothing over and over again. "You might see somebody like Barbara ZoBell, who is a free soul, do something goofy with her hair, or buy hats at the Western Hat Works, or wear a tinsel boa to party, but she has very little competition."
Typically self-effacing, he rejects the n0tion that San Diego parties might grown livelier as people specifically strive to receive coverage in an increasingly open social column. At least one well-known hostess agrees — partially. "I don't know that people exactly plan a party to attract Burl," she muses, "but I don't know of a hostess in town who wouldn't give her eye teeth to have Burl there. A party isn't a party unless Burl is there. It's the frosting on the cake. You've really made it."