by Bob Sparrow

1919 – 2013  First, let me thank all those who sent their condolences to our family for the passing of our mother; she was an iconic lady who, with our Dad, created an incredibly close and loving family. Sister Suzanne did a great job of writing a fitting tribute last week, as well as the accompanying obituary. As we went through our mother’s effects at her apartment in Sonoma, I was struck by all the things she experienced and the changes that she saw during a life spanning nearly 94 years.

Woodrow WilsonShe was born in 1919, only three months after the end of ‘The Great War’ – it wasn’t called World War I until we had another World War and started ascribing Roman numerals to them.  Let’s hope we see no more Roman numerals. Woodrow Wilson was president – she had seen 17 different presidents in her life, well, not ‘seen’ them, but . . . you know what I mean. The unusual thing about Wilson’s election was that he was the only presidential candidate to run against two previous presidents, incumbent, William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt who was president before Taft and wanted to try it again – Wilson beat them both.  Old ‘Woody’ got elected to a second term promising to keep us out of war, which he didn’t – hard to believe that a politician wouldn’t keep his word. 

Mom was born a month after the ratification of the 18th amendment – that’s the one that prohibited the consumption of alcohol. It wasn’t appealed until she was 24, at which time she immediately went out and ordered a Gin Rickey – a popular ‘highball’ at the time. A year after she was prohibitionborn, the 19thamendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified; never mind that it was introduced into congress in 1878, so it only took 42 years to get through that bureaucratic ‘good ole boy’s club’ – and you thought we have a ‘do nothing’ congress today. OK, we do. And speaking of ‘tools’, the toaster was invented in 1920, but sliced bread wasn’t created until 1928, which makes one wonder what they put in those new toasters.

model T Railroads were still the most common way to get around, but Henry Ford was changing that with the introduction of the Model T in 1908.  In 1919 you could buy one for about $350 – a goodly sum of money in those days. The Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk took place only 16 years before mom was born and the very first commercial flight in the US took place only 5 years before. It’s mind-boggling to think that mom could have met both Orville Wright and Neil Armstrong.

College football’s top team in 1919 was, are you ready for this? Harvard. There was no NFL or NBA; hockey did play for the Stanley Cup, although they didn’t play for it in 1919 due to a flu epidemic.  People spent their leisure time roller skating, playing pool, dancing or going to the movies.

Mom probably went to the movies before she was 8, if so, they were silent movies; ‘talkies’ didn’t happened until 1927. Vaudeville was still a popular form of entertainment and as a teenager I’m sure mom didn’t talk on the phone much, OK not at all; telephones were very expensive anddepression not even available in rural areas; most folks still relied on the telegraph to get a message to someone.

Mom was raised in the ‘Roaring 20s’, lived through the Great Depression, traveled from Marin County to San Francisco on a ferry since the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t built until she was 18.  She was married with a 5 month old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

gin rickeyNo wonder mom used to just shake her head when she’d see a ‘smartphone’, a self-parking car or a wireless printer, about the only thing that hadn’t changed over the years was the Gin Rickey and maybe that’s why she loved them; it took her back to a simpler time and reminded her of all that she had experienced in a lifetime full of wonder. She did live in interesting times.



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20130120-115021.jpgBy Suzanne Sparrow Watson

San Francisco icons generally come in steel (the Golden Gate Bridge) or concrete (Coit Tower). But sometimes they appear in flesh and blood and that is certainly the case of Vivian and Marion Brown, otherwise known as “the Brown Twins”.  The picture at left, in their bright red suits and trademark leopard coats, shows them at the height of their fame, when the world had discovered them.  But those of us who “knew them when” had known they were special for a long time.

In 1977 I started a job in the Financial District of San Francisco. It was a fun time – before über traders and panhandlers took over the streets. And, let’s face it, it is one of the best cities on Earth to experience quirkiness.  One particularly nice day I took a walk from my office on Montgomery Street up to Union Square.  Somewhere on Post Street I spotted two middle-aged women, identical in looks, dress and cadence. I did what most people do when first confronted by the Brown Twins; I did a double take, watched them as they walked the rest of the block, and then grinned from ear to ear.

Turns out that the Brown Twins came to San Francisco in the 70’s from Kalamazoo, where they were born and raised.  They were co-validictorians of their high school class and both went on to earn a teaching credential.  After three years of “that low-paying job” (as they described it), they moved to the City and became secretaries.  Except for six months of their life, they dressed identically every day.  They always lifted their forks in unison and always walked in lockstep.  Neither of them married, although they did date twin brothers they met at a twin convention back in Michigan.  The romances fell apart when Vivian and Marion unilaterally decided to switch dates.  The twins would spend the rest of their lives together – the pleasure of each other’s company was more than enough to provide them with satisfying lives.

Over the next 25 years I worked on and off in the Financial District and in all that time I never lost the thrill of seeing the twins out for their stroll.  Some people thought it brought good luck to catch the twins walking down the street.  Part of the fun of seeing them was watching other people spot the twins, usually for the first time.  The result was always the same – big smiles, looks of bemusement and sometimes a request for a photo.  The Browns never refused a request.  The picture below beautifully captures the typical “what the heck was that?” double-take that the Browns elicited:



They eventually became so well-known that they were included in all things San Francisco: socialite parties, grand openings and civic celebrations. Everything except “Beach Blanket Babylon”.  The producers said they never included an act depicting  the Brown Twins because no two actresses could ever pull off on stage what the Browns did every day on the street.  The Browns hit the jackpot in 1988 when they were featured in a Reebock commercial.  After that they became frequent guests on talk shows and were featured in commercials for IBM, Payless Drug, AT&T, Dell, Apple and Joe Boxer shorts.  Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, was so enamoured by them after they shot the commercial for his airline that he flew them first class to London for a shopping spree at Harrod’s.

But like all things in our fast-paced world, the public lost its infatuation with the Browns.  They still strolled the streets of San Francisco, in their leopard coats but they slowed down.  Finally, last July, Vivien fell and was taken to the hospital.  The doctors discovered that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Marian, ever faithful to her sister, had been trying to care for her on her own.  The sad truth was, like many elderly people, they simply didn’t want to be apart and didn’t have the money for adequate care.  The residuals and appearance fees had dried up long ago.

True to form, when the citizens of San Francisco heard of the twins’ plight, they came to the rescue.  Money poured in to help pay for Vivian’s care, from rich and poor, famous and not famous, literally from every part of the city.  People sent money for Marian’s daily pizza, some offered to drive Marian to visit Vivian each day, others organized fund-raisers.

But in the early hours of January 9th, Vivian succumbed to her illness.   She was 85.  Which means that for the first time in 85 years, Marian is all alone.  It’s hard to imagine how hard that must be for her, literally losing a part of herself.  I hope that she can take some solace in knowing that for many years she and Vivian brought joy to anyone who saw them.  For me, the Brown Twins will always be a part of what made working in San Francisco a cherished memory.