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SF Examiner’s founding travel editor Georgia Hesse reflects on worldwide adventures

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Georgia Hesse looks out on her balcony at home. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Retired San Francisco newspaper writer Georgia Hesse is looking forward to seeing the world’s finest Greco Roman ruins in Libya, one of the few places she’s never been.

“Leptis Magna is even better than Ephesus, the archaeologists tell you, but politics keep me from going there,” says Hesse, 82.

“So that’s still on my bucket list,” adds the founding travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner during a recent interview at her residence in The City.

In her 20 years on the job, and a decade more as a freelancer, the writer crossed the globe more than 100 times, authoring or contributing to more than a dozen guidebooks and numerous articles.

These days, she’s working on a few book projects, including one about women scientists, and is the primary contributor to The Carlisle News, the publication of the Sunrise Senior Living residence near Japantown where she’s lived since 2014. She’s changed her writing style, too, from journalism’s “how, when and how much?” to essays that are more in­ depth, often about history.

“I wrote a story for our newsletter telling people who Isis was, she said: “My favorite Greek goddess, now she’s a bad word.”

Admittedly “terrified of ISIS” today, Hesse says that the few times she was scared during her extensive travels were related to weather: the blistering Sahara, intense Himalayas, and freezing North Pole, when her excursion’s seaplane almost sank in icy water.

North Pole visitor

“I’m the eighth woman in history to have been at the North Pole, and I’ve been to both poles. I am entitled by tradition to put my snow boots on the table after dinner, should I want to. I’ve never done it,” she says.

(Her erudite account of it is online at www.connectedtraveler.com/places-cruises/uscanada.)

Her love of lore and sense of humor come out in the brief biography that turns up in online searches of her name, beginning with how she “claims” to have been born on the 28 Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming.

She wrote it when asked to share background as a contributor to an anthology, and then the Carlisle picked it up: “I guess they liked it; it gives a little levity,” she says.

Hesse did grow up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, established by her grandfather who came from England when it was still a territory.

She didn’t work on the ranch, but learned to ride horses at age 3, and, enjoying the speed, went on to compete.

Always enamored with the outdoors, Hesse says she fell in love with rocks as a child, but that “it wasn’t until I traveled all over the world that I discovered how much I respected them.”

She adds, “I still love to look down from an aircraft and see fault lines, volcanoes, the shape of the earth.”

Antarctica was among her most notable destinations, she says, because, “It’s the last place of its nature on the globe that you have the feeling that you’re back in the Stone Age. It was magic.”

Hesse got a degree in English literature and history at Carleton College in Minnesota, and became a Fulbright scholar studying political science at the University of Strasbourg in France, when the European common market was established.

It was there where she learned about grand museums and cathedrals and Gothic architecture and decided she wanted to travel in life – but knew nothing about travel writing (which didn’t become a business until jets flew frequently, and mass vacations started, making it worthwhile for newspapers to sell ads, she says).

Back in the U.S., she got a job as a typist at a publishing company in New York; then she came to San Francisco, where her sister was getting married. (She was married for “five minutes, once” and lived by herself in her West Portal home for 29 years.)

After many visits to the Examiner in search of a job and writing some stories for the paper, Hesse says Randolph Hearst (son of William Randolph Hearst) offered to “try her out” to be the first travel editor of his flagship paper because she was young, not a union member and had traveled. She also had a “crackerjack” coworker, Carolyn Stull, who did most of the layout.

Georgia Hesse poses for a portrait in her office at the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1960s. (Courtesy Georgia Hesse)

Georgia Hesse poses for a portrait in her office at the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1960s. (Courtesy Georgia Hesse)

Hearst OKs budget

It worked out. After three years, Hearst gave her an annual budget, and through later years (she became editor for the combined Examiner­-Chronicle travel section), he never questioned it. When she wrote a critical story and an airline withdrew all of its advertising, he told her, “OK, we’ll have to get them back.”

She elaborates, “I want to say something favorable about Randolph Hearst, because no one would believe it. He was wonderful to work for.”

While she likes something about just about every place she’s been, Hesse says her current passion is West Africa, because it’s unknown and its art “isn’t sold in every museum in the world.”

Her favorite country in Southeast Asia is Malaysia, because of its greenery and interesting politics: being Islamic, but without antipathy toward the West, having been a British colony (and having English forced upon it).

She also enjoyed crossing the Soviet Union twice on the Trans Siberian Railway, fascinated by the 11 time zones through which it passed.

Today she cannot afford to travel as she once did (“I don’t have Mr. Hearst’s money”), but she’s hardly leading a sedentary life.

In addition to writing e-books (she’s learning formatting) and teaching travel writing at Book Passage in Corte Madera, she serves on various committees at the Carlisle and has been assisting in setting up TED-­type talks for its knowledge­-seeking residents.

“They were quite blown away,” she says, by Frank Werblin, a neurobiologist who developed a goggle-­like device that uses smartphone technology to help people with low vision due to macular degeneration.

She does have a few beefs with the modern world, however, particularly with air travel.

“Can’t we figure out a way to make people safe on aircrafts without this ridiculous overcrowding?”

“Flying’s not much fun anymore,” she says. “Now you have to stand in line. You used to go and walk on. And you had room to sleep. I had three seats in economy!”

Anthologies

Hesse’s writing appears in these current volumes:

• “30 Days in Italy”
• ”Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey Into Day”
• ”I Should Have Stayed Home: The Worst Trips of Great Writers”
• ”Mouffetard: Markets, Meals, and Meandering” (coming Fall 2016)

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  • Susan Alcorn

    It is such a pleasure to read about our esteemed BATW member, Georgia Hesse. I admire Georgia because of her high standards for editing and writing. She continues to inspire and teach younger writers. Georgia is a lady–in the best sense of the word–gracious, polite, and with the ability to put others at ease. I feel privileged to have met her and to be able to work with, and socialize with, her on occasion. Thank you, Leslie Katz, for giving us more insight into Ms. Hesse’s story.

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