A year after the passing of a sassy San Francisco celebrity, one soul-searching young twin traverses the town in search of Vivian Brown’s surviving sister.
Under the fading green awning and through the glass doors that adorn the pizza parlor on the corner of Bush and Powell are traces of tiny women who touched a city. Around the corner, away from an open-air kitchen where burly-chested, jolly cooks toss dough and slice sausage, are the best seats in the house — a table for two, near the window, illuminated by a pink neon sign.
Memories were brought to life here, over small pizzas, glasses of red wine and admirations from strangers – those who, after years of distant fascination, finally worked up the courage to make timid introductions, approaching the table with an “I’ve always wanted to say hi,” like children meeting long-revered heroes for the first time.
It was here, every night at 4:30 pm, for decades, that fancy sisters dined, watching the road for classic cars like the ones they drove back home (matching white Oldsmobiles) or inviting lucky strangers to share a meal. They made this window seat, this city, their home, marking it proudly by an unmatched, mysterious dedication to each other and to the places that celebrated their bond, from a quirky theatre in Nob Hill to this homey Italian restaurant. They were unofficial ambassadors of the city; mayors and tourists alike sought them out for photos. (“This is the best city in world!” they’d shout proudly.)
They’d sit and laugh at this table, done up in perfectly matching flamboyant skirts, coats hats and shoes, as if they were always prepared for the biggest soirée. One of their most remembered costumes were bright red dresses and leopard print cowboy hats, worn with white gloves. This was how they always presented themselves, as long as they could remember, a tradition continued from girlhood fantasies birthed in southwest Michigan, where they won competitions for “most identical.” Where, together, they gave the graduating speech for Mattawan High School as co-valedictorians, where they founded and acted as co-chairs and co-presidents of twin clubs, where they attended Western Michigan University with matching majors, where they’d ultimately decided to leave for a more fitting place, a famous city nestled near California’s northern coast.
Once Vivian, the oldest by eight minutes, passed away, Marian sat under the pink glow, sipping red wine across from her sister’s empty seat. Customers uttered condolences and offered to cover the bill for her pizza. Soon, Marian was gone too, forced to move to a more affordable neighborhood, one with fewer hills, which her continuously frail, still elegantly-attired figure could no longer handle alone.
“We haven’t heard from her,” says the restaurant’s manager. “We think she moved to South San Francisco. I’m sorry but it’s busy tonight. Are you ready to order?”
* * *
People ask me what it’s like to share a birthday with a sibling. To me, it’s always felt right to have her by my side. There’s nothing else I’ve ever known. Words can’t really do justice to the love I have for her.
The more complicated part of my own experience as an identical twin is the frustration in accepting that society has a different expectation of identical twin women than we have for ourselves. Wrapped up in this expectation is a focus on physical appearance and compartmentalization. Aside from being addressed mostly as a pair and not by our names (we were “the twins” or “the girls” instead of Stephanie and Allison), we often become something other than people, like specimens under study, or subjects for fascinating personal experiments:
“Lemme look at you.”
“How can I tell you apart? Hold on. You’re chubbier than your sister.”
“Lemme guess — you’re the good girl and you’re the bad girl?”
“Which one’s the smarter one?”
“I once dated a twin and then her sister — they were basically the same people with different body types.”
The insensitivity and sexism in these statements is prefaced, and therefore ignored, with a quick, “No offense, but…” as if we were to obediently play along with the game without getting hurt, molding ourselves into what perceptions people saw in us.
Twin-ness was also our own comfort. We never had to explain ourselves to each other — we just got it. Yet we had to get used to this kind of shock and awe factor. We had to protect each other. Ask any close friends or family of identicals and they’ll tell you that once you get to know the sisters on a personal level, your perception will change — you’ll see them differently, altogether forgetting they’re twins.
We were raised in an environment that learned to value difference, despite the small, conservative town we grew up in. The night we were born even provided a picture of diversity. Standing at the window of the viewing room was the wonderfully chaotic party we’d call family: one side loud, overly emotional Cuban immigrants cursing in Spanish, the other white, traditionally mannered, college football fanatics. More nostalgic get-togethers would reflect on how nurses threatened to kick everyone out because the dancing, shouting and crying became too loud.
Our mother, a fierce, fiery redhead, always stressed the importance of guarding each other, yet also guarding our solitude. She taught us to love our own voice, our bodies, to ignore rude comments from people who would compare them, and around the age of five or six, stopped buying identical outfits and let us choose (my sister loved red high-top Converses and I loved black ones). As we aged, we made different circles of friends and developed different hobbies, yet we were always best friends — the kind that, no matter the time or distance, could simply look at each and laugh at something unspoken. We sensed the other’s pain, worry, joy.
I fell hard in love at sixteen with the quiet boy who left yellow roses and poems in my locker. He was unlike everyone else. He was sensitive,intuitive, and most of all, he saw me and accepted me for who I was as an individual. We shared happy years together. He, like my sister, became ingrained in me and my family.
Things began to change when I fell hard in love with another person — a woman. My shame in a struggle with chronic depression was also culminating to the point where I couldn’t hide it any longer. I felt worthless, alone, unheard, lesser than. At the time I didn’t understand that there was nothing to be ashamed of. I could accept and embrace the things that made others different, yet I stigmatized the parts of who I was that made me feel different. I wasn’t failing, like I thought — I was growing.
A timely opportunity soon arose, and I took an editing gig in San Francisco. I was the first to leave my tightly knit, dysfunctional family. I left my first love, my new love and my identical twin sister on the Southern California Coast. I had no friends or family in this new place, and here, I would no longer be known as “twin,” as someone’s girlfriend, as straight or gay, crazy or lost. For the very first time, I learned to be “Stephanie.” And it was the most difficult, most terrifying and most incredible time of my life.
* * *
I first learned of Marian and Vivian Brown, San Francisco’s famous twins, about two years after I moved the city. Vivian died in a nursing home from Alzheimer’s at the age of eighty-five, on January 8, 2013, leaving her identical twin sister, Marian, behind.
I ached for their story, for I knew all too well the innate, fulfilling understanding that comes with identical twin sisterhood and my own dread of losing it. Yet I was curiously moved by the way they knew and embraced their own twin-ness. Marian and Vivian Brown’s greatest pride was being identical to each other. They had no other close family. They lived identical lives, from birth until death separated them, dressing exactly alike from head to toe. They never married and never dated, except for the one short-lived period when they saw identical twin brothers, Del and Don, whom they met at a twin convention. They were school teachers in Michigan and, after their big move to San Francisco in 1970 at the age of forty-three, opted out of working separate jobs as a secretary at an insurance agency and a teller at a bank for a career they could conquer happily together — being twins. They became famous for their eccentricity and warm nature, starring in TV commercials and ads. One forty-foot billboard depicting them in Joe Boxer undershorts even appeared in Times Square in 1995. They were guests on late-night talk shows.
As they grew older in their one-bedroom apartment complete with matching twin beds, they developed a predictable routine, so much so that adoring fans and neighbors could pay fond respects everyday. Marian and Vivian weren’t just twins — they were the San Francisco twins.
What made their story heartbreaking to me was the decline and death of Vivian Brown and where that left her sister, who seemed to disappear into hiding. When she lost her best friend, the person she had lived with for eighty-five years, had she lost sense of self too?
I wanted to know more of the Browns’ story. I not only wanted to celebrate their bond and discover how they touched this city so dearly, but I wanted to see them as individuals. I wanted to uncover a side to their twin-ness that not many saw beyond the surface. I wanted to tell Marian that her story was important, that’d I’d love to hear it from her own voice, even more poignant as she faced the end of life, for the very first time, alone.
Time was running out. I set out on foot to find Marian Brown.
* * *
Around five p.m. on clear fall afternoons, fog rolls slowly in from San Francisco’s bay, kissing the tips of downtown high rises. On heavier days it travels farther in, along the train tracks and to the hills.
Despite my nerves, I was comforted by this fog as I trudged up Powell Street. The backs of my heels were red and warm with blisters from new black shoes. I’d lived here for nearly two years, yet I still underestimated the damn hills.
Up until now I’d struggled to locate Marian. Calls to the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, the social institution that raised funds for the sisters during and after Vivian’s decline, were dead ends. Their fan Facebook page had been untouched since 2013, the last status reading, “We are so sad to hear of the loss of Vivian Brown. Post your memories here if you wish, our thoughts and love are with Marian today.” Reporting on her status by local publications had stopped completely.
I was ecstatic to learn the location of their apartment building, at the top of the hill where Powell meets Pine. I walked through Chinatown to get here, past bustling shop fronts, bright-eyed families with cameras draped on necks and old hotels. I thought about what these streets may have shown forty years ago. San Francisco in the seventies was a hub for radicals and hippies, human rights activists and sexual revolutionists. Amidst all of this, two sassy, done-up twins from Kalamazoo found a place. What path would Marian and Vivian take on their stroll back home?
I was anxious. I realized that I had practically run up the hill, arriving breathless and sweaty-palmed at the elegant apartment complex.
Apartment 1605 was in the corner of a long, grey hall. The wind howled, echoing a cold shrill that bounced along front doors, reaching the final one where I stood. I pictured Marian and Vivian in this same spot, arriving home and hearing this as they turned a key. They must have gotten used to it, and it could have been a comforting welcome back. It was a lonely sound to experience in solitude, and as I stood in the quiet hall clenching my fists, my heart broke, imagining how it felt for Marian.
Things had changed for me, too. My sister and I shared an apartment by the beach in college, where we’d dance in the living room and walk barefoot to surf and drink coffee and watch incoming winter storms. On the last day before my move up north, we sat in the sand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, silently listening to the waves. We knew that things would change, for each of us (she too was soon to embark on her own unique adventure of self-discovery). I recorded the sounds of those waves that day and I’d play them on more somber nights.
One knock. No answer. A second, louder to outdo the wind. No answer. The wind stopped and I made my way down to the first floor.
Before I left the apartment complex, I got lost in the mailroom. I ran into a young woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing a loose shirt and headphones in her ears.
“Um, excuse me. Can you possibly tell me if a Marian Brown still lives here?”
“Marian Brown? She lived here with her twin sister Vivian. In 1605?”
“Oh, sorry. I’ve never heard of them. And I’m pretty sure that unit is vacant.”
She led me out of the building. I turned the corner through the fog for the train home.
* * *
It was dark and sprinkling, one of the first rains of the season. And I was late. Once again I found myself running up hills. “Please arrive no later than 7:45 for your reserved seats,” the invitation read. It was 7:40.
My next stop on the search for Marian was a tiny theatre in North Beach, one that the sisters frequented. It’s known for quirky, over-the-top performances. For forty years it has hosted the longest-running musical revue in history, a multi-act set combining dance, live music, sketches and outrageously towering hats, wigs and props. Beach Blanket Babylon lived on well after its creator, Steve Silver, who began the institution by parlaying a group of local street performers. He died of AIDS in 1995.
A bearded, tuxedoed gentleman from the box office led me to my seat. “Oh. You’re up close. Watch out! You may have to be a part of the show.”
What? Was he kidding? Shit. As a journalist I am completely drawn to people, comfortable and curious in making conversation with strangers. But I also experience some habitual introversion, reserved for quiet, initial observations.
The Browns were different. They admittedly loved the attention they received and were often the first ones to approach fans, calling them over for a casual chat, recommending places to see in the city while playfully giggling and bickering back and forth with one another. It’s said that, as they entered the dimly-lit, red-tinted theatre, the audience stood and cheered. Before they took their seats they would wave and smile — as much a part of the magic as the live band, the performers and the balcony surrounding the tiny stage, gently blanketed by a red velvet curtain.
There was an unmistakable air of playfulness and warmth to Beach Blanket Babylon. As I sat shoulder to shoulder with other viewers, I felt a sense of pride to be a part of what this city represents. We watched as the main character, a young naïve Snow White from San Francisco, searches for love around the world, meeting new friends and politicians and celebrities, like Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Ultimately she ends up returning to San Francisco as a new woman, deeming it the best city in the world. She and Elvis fall in love. The new couple participates in a joint wedding with Liberace and his partner. The officiator wears a three-dimensional model of San Francisco, nearly the size of the stage, on the top of her head. It was ridiculous.
I quickly understood the show’s popularity, in that it oozed silliness and satire. I imagined where the sisters would sit, possibly relishing in this air of playfulness. I thought of the things that my sister and I enjoy doing together, and how that sense of play is so alive when we’re around each other.
As the show came to a close and the audience filed out, warmly gleaming with open-mouthed grins, I wondered if people would cheer for Marian now, celebrating who she is, and not what she represented only with her sister.
* * *
Union Square is a place to warm up to. I wasn’t used to living in a city, and when I first moved here it was shocking to see parts of it so incredibly fast-paced and capitalistic. This 2.6-acre public plaza acts as a central point for downtown, bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets, filled with department stores, chain stores and hotels.
Here was the place where Marian and Vivian Brown were most seen and sought out, down the street from their apartment. People who worked in and around the area considered a Brown sighting good luck, a kind of superstition or positive omen.
I continued to experience difficulty in finding anyone who actually knew where Marian was. I wasn’t entirely surprised that a wish to simply run into her at Beach Blanket Babylon went unfulfilled. But maybe I could find traces of her here. Could she have decided to continue the routine she and her sister so long ago perfected? Would she be walking here alone?
Along my search I’d found more evidence to suggest that the Browns weren’t simply sweet old ladies who truly enjoyed their time together, but that they were also entirely confident, sassy, successful businesswomen — who weren’t to be taken advantage of. According to SF Weekly, the Browns refused their requests for interviews unless they were paid their asking price (which was too much for SF Weekly). Look Talent Agency stated that some magazines paid between $2,000 and $5,000 for daylong interviews. In Union Square, it wasn’t uncommon for fans to receive a business card directly from the pair, accompanying kind farewells. “Send us those pictures you took! We love to see them all.”
It’s clear, though, by speaking with longtime employees of Union Square businesses, that the Browns really did enjoy brightening people’s days. One woman, who moved to the Bay Area with her family from Japan as a kid, worked through college at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. She waited a while to say hello to Marian and Vivian. Once she did, they greeted each other as friends everyday.
I sat on the steps surrounding the plaza, studying the fading light. Dusk fell once again on Union Square. Marian was still unfound.
* * *
One missed call, San Francisco area code.
As I dialed the number back, my heart raced. In my time retracing the Browns’ footsteps and searching for Marian, I began to understand their presence and their mystery as a protected one, both by their own character and by the community of San Francisco. The Browns were beloved, and perhaps it was better suited to leave Marian alone with her grief. More than that, I felt that the sisters themselves enjoyed not having to explain too much to anyone beyond what they were comfortable with — that this kind of intimacy was their winning prize, saved rightfully and exclusively for them, in their own control. This call could be what I’ve been waiting for — not only a look deeper into their dynamics and into their individual experiences, but a location for Marian.
“Hey. Stephanie? Hey! Sorry for the delay. The restaurant stuff has been crazy lately.”
David Dubiner’s voice was strong and raspy. His laidback tone spoke to me like we’d known each other. It was comforting, easy, the kind I’d enjoy hearing over a beer.
David was the owner of Uncle Vito’s, the pizzeria on the corner of Bush and Powell where Marian and Vivian Brown ate nearly every night. He developed one of the closest relationships they had outside of themselves, becoming a friend, even a distant caregiver.
I was moved at the ease to which he used their names. Out of everyone I had spoken to, he was the first to do so without trying. To him, they weren’t simply the Brown “twins” but two separate, complicated, strong willed, important women with a wonderful story.
“Marian and Vivian, despite their closeness, always held an air of competitiveness,” he said.
For a good time it was something to bond them — their own sense of fun and color. Vivian was prone to make decisions while Marian took a quieter role. She teased her sister for being younger, calling her the little one (something I did to my sister as the oldest by one minute, until she asked me not to). Marian was often the follower, the one to appease or ignore her sister’s challenges, given how she felt on a certain day.
Earlier years at Uncle Vito’s were the warmest. Marian and Vivian were more energetic and lively. Fans often joined their pizza dinners. Autographs were signed. As time wore on, things grew quieter, yet the Browns continued their beloved tradition.
Their relationship changed once Vivian returned from a minor surgery. She was different somehow, and as the Alzheimer’s slowly creeped in, they began to lose some of their closeness. Their bickering became more serious. Marian’s role changed and she took the lead in caring for her sister, even as Vivian pushed her away.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disorder and the most common form of dementia. Stages of the disease include anger and aggression, anxiety and agitation, depression, memory loss and confusion, suspicion and delusion. Often, being a caregiver is just as painful, as they grieve over the loss of what they knew their loved one to be. Caregivers can experience their own form of denial, anger, social withdrawal and depression. For Marian, it probably required untold strength in letting go of her life partner.
After Vivian passed, Marian still hung around Uncle Vito’s for a while. The community rallied together and raised money to help with rent and daily meals at the restaurant. She remained in apartment 1605.
Less than a month after her sister’s passing, David helped organize a surprise birthday party for Marian’s eighty-sixth, her first alone, at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in Union Square. Everyone in the city was welcomed to join and an open invitation was published in SFist, an online news and event publication.
Before driving her to the party, David took Marian out to dinner himself.
“She had an idea as to what was going on. She was really nervous.”
“Why do you think she was nervous?” I asked.
“Well…I don’t necessarily think it was not having Vivian. She was nervous because she didn’t know what other people would expect from her alone.”
As David walked her into the hotel entrance, and up the red-carpeted stairwell of the Sir Francis Drake, Marian lit up. Crowds of people were lined along the banister, standing and cheering for the last San Francisco twin.
David laughed recalling it all. “She had the fucking time of her life. Just the fucking time of her life.”
* * *
I walked beneath the fading green awning and through the glass doors that adorn Uncle Vito’s and took a seat at the table set for two near the window. I sipped on a glass of red wine alone. My chest tightened and a chill ran over my arms. I hadn’t yet met her, but I found her. Or rather, she found me.
At the end of my conversation with David Dubiner, he informed me that Marian had moved to a new home and was now under hospice care. He would work to see if we could visit her for a personal meeting together.
“I’ll go with you,” he said.
I wasn’t sure anymore if it was right to meet Marian. Maybe she’d prefer to remain a mystery. Soon, though, we received word that we’d have a chance — it will be up to her how we see her, as it always has been. She knows about me now, and if she feels like a new visitor, I’ll be able to go. That hasn’t happened yet, but if it does I will be there, just to listen.
In the beginning, I never really thought my search for Marian would teach me so much. I initially believed her story to be a tragic one, or a lesson on the importance of aloneness: “If only she and her sister faced life apart before, death wouldn’t be so difficult.” The funny thing is, I failed to remember the all-too-freeing purposelessness in preparing in life to handle death better. Life is meant to be lived, not feared. And the Browns did it well, together, exactly the way they wanted.
Marian and Vivian conquered society’s expectation of identical twin women by reclaiming it and reshaping it into their own eccentric expression. Being identical made them weird and they loved it that way. Their story was theirs to define, a unique form of happiness and playfulness, as it is for every individual. And theirs was a unique partnership, amidst a wide world where there are so many ways in life to share it with the people we love.
The city belonged to the Browns just as much as it belonged to me, the people I met along my journey, and to the new love I would find here. But no one will ever become the San Francisco twins. That role was filled long ago. And it would never be filled again.
I walked past the open-air kitchen and out the door of Uncle Vito’s, dialing my sister. Left on the table at the window was half a glass of red wine and a bill signed at the top:
* * *
I am heartbroken and indescribably moved to announce that Marian Brown passed away this morning. The very day this story published, I received an email from David Dubiner stating:
“I wanted to let you know…she died peacefully in her sleep, and had been comfortable and well looked after.”
It’s raining today in the city. And I feel like I’ve lost a friend. This story was close to unfinished. Due to time constraints and complications, we nearly did not publish it. I wanted to push in order to honor the sisters’ wonderful story. More, it was for Marian. I thought that I’d possibly get the chance to read it to her, to tell her how important her voice was alone. To thank her.
Little did I know that it would be published the same morning of her death.
While I grieve over her loss, along with the city of San Francisco, I am completely honored to have had this opportunity. Although I didn’t meet her, I felt close to her along my search. And I will never forget Marian.
Maybe I didn’t need to thank her. Maybe she already knows that she is special. I’d like to believe it, as so much of my reporting pointed to it. If anything, I hope my story inspires people to love a little bit more, as the Browns inspired me in their own unique way.
I have no doubt that Marian left just as classy as ever.
Here’s to you, Marian. You were never alone.