Marian Brown – An Intimate Portrait
Vivian and Marian Brown were San Francisco icons and worldwide advertising mascots, but for many of us they were neighbors and friends. I grew up a couple of blocks away from their apartment on Pine Street. I say “grew up” because I lived on Bush Street between the ages of 20 and 38, and that’s when I grew up.
I met the Browns at Zim’s restaurant on Sutter Street the very day I found my Bush Street apartment. They were full of advice, a bit of which I overrode by renting a place that did not include PG&E. Though outwardly we had little in common we bonded over our love of City life. I even learned to tell Vivian A. and Marian B. apart.
From our very first meeting, Vivian let me call her Viv. I should say, she never objected. Marian said she never had a nickname because the only one would be “Mär” and she didn’t want to be, “The old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be!” She sang out, right there at the table.
They had lived together on Pine Street since 1980. And yes, they thought they would live together in their rent-controlled apartment until the day they died, hopefully within hours of one another.
Typical San Francisco gals, Vivian and Marian were apparently unaware that living as good-will ambassadors doesn’t come with a 401k, even if you’re spreading the love all over the world. Not apparently – I got that from Marian herself. They lived in the moment, and Marian was still buoyantly in the here-and-now when I had dinner with her shortly after Vivian, then suffering from Alzheimer’s, went to assisted living at the Rhoda Goldman center on Post Street in August, 2012. This time, we met up at the Brown’s usual haunt, Uncle Vito’s Pizza on Sutter Street. (In happier times we’d go to the Tadich Grill.)
That day at Vito’s, Marian and I talked about living life to the fullest while you’re young, and about the choice to not save your money for “old age” while you are young. (Marian was then 85 years old. I represented the middle.) She said she accepted that choice without regret. “I won’t cry over spilled milk because I’ve had a lot of nice milk.”
Vivian and Marian hailed from Kalamazoo. Their mother loved “daddy” totally, even though he was a philanderer. “He was her essence,” Marian said, and the girls were never mad at her for standing by him. For them it was a model for deep and abiding marital love. In Kalamazoo, the girls had a proposal from another set of twins, Chester and Lester, but Vivian and Marian didn’t want to be farm girls.
They never married but had one other serious relationship, with twins Don and Del, but the men cut them loose because they felt the women liked one of them better than the other. Marian liked Don, the younger brother, and while she said she never knew which one her sister liked better, Marian suspected the men were right.
She was totally supportive of marriage equality. “It’s your life. YOUR life!” She told me no one should ever get married unless they’re in love and after they’ve lived a little or a lot. “Sex doesn’t last,” she said. And again, no regrets.
I thought that Marian must have been living under tremendous pressure during 2011 and 2012 as Viv declined. Marian confirmed this. After Sam Whiting wrote about her sister’s struggle in the Chronicle, follow-up media coverage focused on the the fact that San Francisco had rallied with donations to look after them. Vivian and Marian touched our hearts, but not everyone’s.
Not unexpectedly, some reacted negatively to pleas for financial support from the public after news of the Browns’ plight promulgated online. Someone posted their lack of sympathy for anyone with “one hundred matching outfits and a life on Nob Hill.” Even in San Francisco, a certain segment of the people don’t like adorable but broke-ass women who lived the “high life.” Or, perhaps it’s not surprising at all, as San Francisco is the city that let its beloved Emperor Norton die in the gutter. (Never forget that!)
I gave Marian a check that was, let’s say, twice what I paid for dinner for Jeff and me at Scoma’s. As I’m part Sicilian, I also had an equal amount in cash that I wanted to give her under the table, off accounts. By the time dinner was finished she had more cash in her purse than it was safe for her to carry, and I’m not kidding. In addition to envelopes mailed in care of the pizzeria, a dozen people (I counted!) said hello and pressed cash in her hand during the hour or so that we dined together. I’m not talking about $20s or $50s. C-notes, baby! That’s the spirit of Mister SF’s SF.
Some volunteers got Marian some new clothes, but she said she didn’t like them. She said it was all “cotton,” and “had to go in the wash.” I laughed, but refrained from reminding Marian that her days of expensive dry cleaning were well and truly behind her! Her stockings looked like hell. I laughed again when she referred to “a run” in them. They were all run. The next day I called a contact at Macy’s who fixed her up with some crisp, new, white hose.
The sisters no longer looked alike because Vivian had lost her two front teeth – one to a fall, the other she just pulled out. “Just last night,” Marian said, “Vivian had it in her head that she was coming home with me.” Marian and “the matron” had to “lock her in.” I know that Marian weighed 92 pounds because she told me, adding “Vivian has lost a lot of weight.”
Except for a brief moment, Marian was not at all blue and was relentlessly optimistic that Vivian would get well, eventually, and we would all have dinner at Tadich when she and Vivian were “90 and then 190.” Marian was wearing the purple suit in which she was frequently photographed during her final year or so. She said this was the suit she wanted to wear “when Vivian comes home.”
“We’ve got to find a cure for this terrible, terrible Alzheimer’s,” she said, “And I bet we will!” Later, when I dropped her off at Rhoda Goldman in a cab, Marian lit up. “It’s been so good seeing you! Hasn’t this day been wonderful?!” I couldn’t believe it. In spite of so much loss closing in on her, she looked and sounded like a talking Baby Jane Hudson doll – in a purple suit and ratty hose.
It wasn’t our last visit, but it was among the most memorable. Vivian died on 1/9/13, Marian on 11/20/14. I loved them both, and I will never, ever forget them.