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Hawaii was also a crossroads of a different sort.
Ever fascinated by the counterculture, he began writing letters to Allen Ginsberg, whom he had met briefly while living in New York, cajoling the poet to come to Hawaii for a reading. Weiner offered to make all the arrangements. The correspondence, consisting of 10 letters and three postcards and preserved as part of the Ginsberg collection at Stanford University spans four years. In 1973, after having passed on Weiner's invitations several times, Ginsberg, along with friend and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, accepted his offer and stopped over in Hawaii on his way to Australia.
The next year, with his wife and young son in tow, Weiner arrived in the Bay Area to take up doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. Having hosted Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in Hawaii, he enjoyed instant credibility as he burrowed in among the bohemians of the North Beach cafe scene. "He went around showing people a photo of him and Ginsberg swimming in the buff in Hawaii," says Stephen Schwartz, an ex-Chronicle reporter and former leftist-turned-conservative scholar, who was a North Beach regular at the time. "It was like his calling card. He traded on his association with Allen to get a toehold."
Savage's North Beach bohemian period remains a sore spot among his old pals. "I always took him as a pretender, a BS artist," says actor Gary Goodrow, sounding a refrain familiar among those who knew him from the Weiner days. "I think a lot of people felt betrayed as the result of what he became," says poet and writer Neeli Cherkovski.
Part of their chagrin stems from the fact that Weiner didn't merely walk away from his former North Beach friends. Rather, as Michael Savage, he mercilessly repudiates them every chance he gets. For instance, in his book, The Savage Nation, he refers to City Lights, the iconic bookstore that Lawrence Ferlinghetti co-founded, as "San Francisco's once-famous communist bookstore."
Savage recounts walking past it one evening to discover a photo of Ginsberg in the window shortly after the legendary Beat poet's death in 1997. Although not naming Ginsberg directly, he refers to "one of the last reigning beatnik poets" whom he once adored as "latrine slime," and writes, "I clasped my hands together and prayed to God. I said, 'Thank you, God, for answering my prayers. One of the blights of the human race is gone.'"
It's a far cry from his apparent eagerness to impress Ginsberg in the early '70s, when he sent the poet press clippings about his work as a student doing botanical research in the South Pacific, and repeatedly implored him to come and visit. Some of Weiner's purported communications with the openly gay poet, as contained in the Stanford collection, seem strangely homoerotic.
Among them is an undated postcard, signed "Michael Weiner," that says, "Watched a tourist from New Zealand taking pictures of Fijian people in the marketplace [and] thought of inserting my camera's lens in your A-hole to photograph the walls of your rectum. I really do apologize, but the thought did occur."
Savage says he doesn't even recall writing to Ginsberg ("although I may have") and dismisses any document suggesting homoeroticism on his part as a forgery, citing gay detractors who have long sought to smear him. "That's all that's on their minds," he says. "They're obsessed with sex, sex, sex."
Savage's disdain of Ginsberg puzzles those who knew him from the North Beach era.
"It really is a mystery. I have no idea what happened to Michael Weiner," says Ferlinghetti. "We were his friends, and as far as I know we never did anything to him."
Ferlinghetti says the two brief encounters he has had with Savage in the last decade left him "flabbergasted." He says the talk-show host shouted "Dirty beatnik!" when their paths crossed in North Beach in the mid-'90s. About two years ago, as Savage was getting out of a limousine in front of a North Beach restaurant, Ferlinghetti says he tried to say hello but that Savage abruptly turned and walked off.
Savage exhibits irritation when asked about "that beatnik shit, which I hate," but that doesn't keep him from expressing his disdain for the old crowd, even if he is less clear about the reasons for it.
He refers to Ferlinghetti as a "jealous little man," dismissing the octogenarian publisher and bookstore owner as "a nothing even when he was something, if you know what I mean." And he is practically apologetic about his past association with Ginsberg. "He was famous. I was a kid. I thought poetry was wonderful. I got to know him very briefly," he says.
Pressed about the "latrine slime" comment, Savage erupts. He says he "only found out years later" about Ginsberg's "lifelong communism" and his affiliation with the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA (whose controversial credo is to end oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships). "I looked at [Ginsberg] almost like a rabbinic figure. Little did I know that he was the fucking devil."
Even when he was hanging out among the anarchists, communists, and assorted leftists at Caffe Trieste in the heart of North Beach, Savage says that, despite what some may claim, he never had a leftist political point of view. "I was more into having a good time and drinking a lot of wine," he insists. "I didn't go there to meet Copernicus." Two experiences appear to have helped speed along his transformation from counterculture aficionado to ultraconservative radio pontificator. The first was after he earned his Ph.D. (in ethnobotany) from UC Berkeley in 1978 and saw his dream of a professorship go up in smoke after no one would hire him.