An American in Paris: Willie Brown's 75th
Paris was the particular which inspired a young Ernest Hemingway to craft the phrase, A Moveable Feast.
That evocative invocation is also à propos in describing last week’s sojourn to the City of Lights to celebrate the 75th birthday of former Mayor (and the former storied Speaker of the Assembly) Willie L. Brown, Jr.
His posse of 126 revelers reflected the long, loyal and varied panoply of Willie Brown’s life -- from family (Blanche Brown, their children, grandchildren and his sisters), legal colleagues (Steven Kay, Jim Reuben), former City Hall staffers (Steve Kawa, PJ Johnston, Karin Carlson Johnston, Matthew Goudeau), lobbyists (Marcia Smolens), longtime pals (Ann Caen, Harry de Wildt, Stanlee Gatti, Irene and John Roth, Pat Kelley, Jack Davis, Pam Moore, Jonathan Moscone, Angelo and Giovanna Pettinari) to his gal pal, Sonya Molodetskaya.
This being the Willie Brown Show, there were, of course, great guest stars, too: impromptu late-night cocktails with actor Keifer Sutherland (star of WLB’s favorite show, 24) at the Park Hyatt on the Place Vendome and an official reception at Hôtel de Ville with Bertrand Delanoë, Maire de Paris.
Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and Da Mayor Willie Brown at L'Hotel de Ville
“Every year, his birthday gets more and more elaborate,” said Brown’s wife, Blanche Brown, who was enjoying her first tour of Paris. “I can’t even imagine what he’s going to do next year!”
Organized by Platinum Advisors co-founder Darius Anderson (lobbyist and gourmand), this year’s three-day celebration featured grand settings and grand tours-- including visits to the apartment of Coco Chanel, the Hermes mothership and a tour of Versailles.
“When Darius and I started planning this trip, I began to realize he’d overstated his wealth and mine,” said Willie Brown, greeting his guests during the first official dinner. “By July, it became clear that when we say, ‘Paris’ we now meant ‘Paris, Texas’!”
Fortunately some stalwart pals stood up to chip in for the the cause, and Brown teased about his elation in their attendance: “Thank goodness we have (John) Roth, (Ron) Cowan and (Eugene) Duffy along -- they’ll just charge if off to someone else!”
“Really,” continued Brown, in high gear. “I’m so delighted to see all of you here tonight because we need more people to pick up this tab!”
But Paris (France) proved the perfect setting for this shindig-- a storied city filled with feasts of all flavors.
Delights and temptations beckon at every twist and turn along those cobbled streets. From dinner at Restaurant Jules Verne atop the Eiffel Tower to more boho ventures at a rollicking piano bar where Champagne was quaffed into the wee hours of morning.
The “official events” were comprised of three celebratory dinners. First, a Bateau L’Excellence Dinner Cruise along the Seine-- with WLB blowing out his birthday gâteau candles atop the yacht as we sailed by the dazzlingly brilliant and blinking Eiffel Tower.
The next night was a black-tie dinner outside Paris at the Pavillon de Music de la Comtesse du Barry (which belonged to the last mistress of King Louis XV). And if you think weekend traffic leaving San Francisco is bad, just try getting out of Paris on a Friday night.
But the real highlight of this swirling soiree was a reception at Hôtel de Ville with Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë.
Oft described as the “first openly gay mayor of Paris” we found it much more interesting as we stood within the grand, gilded rooms of the historic City Hall, strewn with Baccarat crystal chandeliers, that Delanoë is the “first openly Socialist mayor” of Paris.
But his advance team explained that the mayor does not reside in this official residence and actually turned part of the palatial offices over to staffers and neighborhood families for use as a daycare center.
“Why it’s Gavin Newsom all over!” cracked Mayor Brown, with a laugh.
Mayor Delanoë warmly welcomed Mayor Brown and his party within these hallowed halls which are normally reserved for meetings with heads of state.
“Mayor Brown is a man of great conviction and an important symbol of vitality in California,” declared Delanoë. “He is a great precursor in terms of regeneration. After him, Barack Obama was able to be elected!”
Delanoë praised the long sister-city relationship between Paris and San Francisco and, teasingly, said that while he believed that Paris needs both San Francisco and California, he just hoped that San Francisco also needs Paris.
“My wish for Mayor Brown on his birthday is that his youth lasts as long as it did until today,” said Delanoë. “But the gift from my heart is that Paris will always be your home.”
The mayors then exchanged hard-copy gifts -- a book of historic San Francisco prints and maps for Delanoë; Hermes cufflinks for Brown.
“You are correct,” said Mayor Brown in return. “I have always loved Paris. And when I am deported, I hope that I can continue to count on your support and welcome here!”
The toasts and tributes continued later at dinner where guests thrilled for some truth-telling when Brown’s eldest sister, Gwendolyn Hill, got up to speak.
“The truth?” asked Hill of the crowd. “I want to continue traveling with Willie Brown, so no ‘truth’ tonight!”
“We grew up, five of us, in Mineola, Texas,” said Hill, who described her younger brother as, “always ‘bossy’ but a good brother."
“We grew up with very little, but we didn’t know it at the time. Willie Brown kept on eye on all of us and kept us out of trouble,” said Hill, displaying a deft touch of Brown family humor. “If we did get into trouble, we’d have to pay him off so he wouldn’t tell on us!”
For all the merry-making at Mayor Brown’s expense, his longtime friend, Eugene Duffy (an Atlanta politico power broker) brought down the house with his tribute.
“Willie Brown is associated with a lot of great cities of the world, and after this trip we can all reflect upon Paris,” said Duffy. “When you talk about Willie Brown, we always hear a lot about things like ‘Brioni’ and ‘Kiton’. But it’s not only how he clothes himself outside but how he clothes himself on the inside.”
“Willie Brown is always a leader. He possesses great competence with flashes of great humanity,” said Duffy. “And he will now be counted amongst and within the bosom of greatness.”
Then, of course, the floor belonged to Willie Brown.
“For the sake of my late mother, thank God you didn’t give the mike to my sister Baby Doll,” said Brown, laughing. “I already made her a deal not to speak.”
Brown then revealed a rare flash of his softer, sentimental side as he paid tribute to his humble beginnings in Mineola (“rich in its inspiration, rich in its building confidence”) and recalled the strength he received from his mother, Minnie Collins Boyd, and his late Uncle Itsy who encouraged the young Brown to first move to San Francisco.
“I treasure my friends and I treasure where I came from -- even if it was a ‘shotgun’ house with one room. All of that is the foundation of who I am,” said Brown. “It’s been a good life; a great life beyond my imagining.”
“The wonderful thing about turning 75?” asked Brown rhetorically, returning to his signature style. “You can lay out what it was like for you and fewer and fewer people are around to dispute your version of the events!”
Bon anniversaire, indeed, Mayor Brown.
Irene and John Roth
Pam Moore and Eugene Duffy.
Sarah and Darius Anderson
Willie Brown, the Eiffel Tower and his sisters (from left), Gwendolyn Hill and Babydoll Hancock
Isabella and MIchael Brown with Michael's sister, Susan Brown
Cara and Dan Dillon
Pat Kelley, Calvin Grigsby and Debra Owens
WLB with Angelo and Giovanna Pettinari of Rome
Arnold and Isabelle Laub
Timothy Alan Simon, Carl Hackney and Jack Baylis
Michael Davis, Harry de Wildt and Marc Corsi
Marcia Smolens, Willie Brown, Richard Rubin and Sonya Molodetskaya
L'Hotel de Ville, the Parisian version of City Hall
Lloyd and Suzanne Dean and their daughter, Nicole Dean
Blanche Brown and Ann Caen
WLB's son-in-law, granddaughters and daughter (from left) Bobby Freidel, daughters Matea and Besia and their mom, Robin Brown Friedel
Farah and Victor Makras
Dan Henkle and his partner, Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa at L'Hotel de Ville
Mayoral Protocol Director Matthew Goudeau, Sonya Molodetskaya and WLB's former Communications Director, PJ Johnston
Judy and Rich Guggenhime
WLB right at home in Paris' City Hall
Jonathan Moscone, Karin and PJ Johnston in City Hall
SFPUC Asst. General Manager Harlan Kelly, Jr. and his wife, Naomi Kelly
Christophe Martin, Andrea Lucas Pauwels and David Ellington
Kathryn Servino and Simon Snellgrove
Sarah and Darius Anderson, Mayors DelanoeÌ and Brown, and Sonya Molodetskaya
Stanlee Gatti, WLB and Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa
Eiffel Tower ice sculpture with cakes