Ken Garcia: PR maven’s journey makes for a true San Francisco tale

For someone who made a living pitching stories, Cynthia Bowman did a remarkable job of keeping one of the best stories mostly under wraps — her own.

But now that she is closing her public relations shop next week after nearly 30 years of representing celebrities, sports stars, socialites and social workers, Bowman’s magical San Francisco tale can be told — and what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Lean, leggy and blonde, the aspiring model, then 17, was living in New York City when she was kicked out of a prestigious private high school by nuns who grew intolerant of her disruptive ways — not the first school from which she had been asked to depart. A friend had decided to see San Francisco and, on a whim, Bowman decided to join her, leaving behind her apartment and her belongings, but clearly not her brashness.

It was 1967, the Summer of Love — a time in which the San Francisco sound of psychedelic rock was reverberating around the world. If Bowman didn’t have flowers in her hair, she fit every other outline of a classic hippy chick — living in a commune in the Western Addition with a bunch of like-minded souls and spending her days wandering Haight Street and doing groovy things like hanging out on the steps of 2400 Fulton St., where the members of a band called the Jefferson Airplane resided.

Her embryonic journey took her from working as a clerk at a medical office, where several of the band members made regular visits, to the headquarters of Rolling Stone magazine, where she was hired as an editorial assistant. The editors loved her vibrant spirit and energy, but were a little surprised when they discovered she couldn’t type.

“Her job involved dealing with freelancers, warding off publicists and working with agents, and she clearly had all the people skills,’’ said the magazine’s then-editor, Ben Fong-Torres. “And then it turned out that I ended up taking dictation from her to type her letters. But she was beautiful and impressive and fit right in.’’

A few years later, she ran into the Airplane’s manager Bill Thompson at a nightclub and he told her the band was looking for a new publicist. For someone who idolized the group, she would have done it for a song, though she had to convince them she had the right skills. “I didn’t even know what public relations was,’’ she said. “Thankfully, they didn’t either.’’

When she arrived at the Fulton Street house the first day, she was told two things: Don’t let anybody in that you don’t know, and don’t forget the combination of the safe. Out of curiosity, she decided to see what was inside, and when she opened the heavy metal door the smell hit her like a surrealistic pillow – giant bricks of marijuana, enough to fill the dispensaries of every pot club in San Francisco.

As she whisked around the country with the band she realized that her primary duties were baby-sitting lead singer Grace Slick and trying to stop ever-enigmatic Marty Balin from escaping interviews with rock writers by climbing out of bathroom windows. It was a dizzying time of drugs and booze and free love — Bowman fell madly for band co-founder Paul Kantner, resulting in the birth of their son Alexander in 1982.

Bowman then decided to leave the group, but other musicians came calling. Boz Scaggs asked her if she would help him set up a little event called the Black and White Ball for some of the local bands, using the basement of the Opera House as the setting. More than 10,000 people showed up.

That led to other gigs doing events for the San Francisco Symphony, the opera, the Museum of Modern Art and the American Conservatory Theater. She made a conscious decision to do more nonprofit work, which led her to publicize the good works of Walden House, Project Open Hand, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and the World Wildlife Fund.

Her impressive client list obscured a rather astonishing fact — during nearly 25 years after she hung her own shingle, she primarily used only three women to help her with the work — Colleen Gallagher, Denise Lamott and Laura Gigounas.

“I never even had a plan, it all just happened,’’ Bowman said. “But I was smart enough to realize I should hire women who were brighter and prettier than me.’’

Now the shoeless hippy chick with the flared jeans has come full circle — she’s gone back to school to get a degree so she can fulfill her dream to become a social worker.

Even rookie publicists know the best stories are the ones you can’t make up.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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