Bernice Layne Brown, 93; Devoted Matriarch of a Political Dynasty
Bernice Layne Brown, widow of the late Gov. Pat Brown and the mother of former Gov. Jerry Brown, died Thursday at her Benedict Canyon home in Los Angeles.
The charming, gregarious veteran of more than a dozen family political campaigns was 93 and had been in ill health for several years.
For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 16, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 11 inches; 417 words Type of Material: Correction
Democratic governors--An obituary of Bernice Layne Brown in Saturday’s California section stated incorrectly that only three Democrats had been elected governor of California in the 20th century. There were four: Culbert Olson, Pat Brown, Jerry Brown and Gray Davis.
Her daughter, onetime gubernatorial candidate and former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, and her son, now the mayor of Oakland, were with her when she died. So were several of her 10 grandchildren.
There were only three Democrats elected governor in California in the 20th century, and Bernice Brown, a wife to one and a mother to another, was close to the heart of the party for most of that time.
Although she held strong private opinions, she was often willing to stay in the background, providing essential behind-the-scenes support for the Brown political dynasty.
She was neat, meticulous and socially correct, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t speak her mind once in a while.
She said that while Pat was off running successfully for attorney general of California in 1946, she found herself left to handle the family alone, and she resented it.
“He was all over the state,” she later told the Washington Post. “I was at home with four kids, and I felt it put too much of a problem on me. When they’re babies, you can call the pediatrician, but when they’re teenagers, you have to make decisions, and I didn’t like having to make them alone.”
Later on, she campaigned for her husband and her son and was a great asset for both.
She said she learned a few tricks along the way, such as always bringing along a change of clothes: “As soon as you don’t, that’ll be the day someone spills coffee all over you on the plane.”
She also learned how to shake hands in a way to protect her arthritic fingers: “Some of these knuckle-crushers can leave me writhing on the floor in pain.”
Recalling when former state Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger was running against her son for governor, she said Younger told Jerry Brown:
“‘Well, you certainly didn’t inherit the Irish charm of your father.’ And Jerry came back very quickly. He said, ‘Well, I may not have inherited the Irish charm of my father, but I inherited the fiscal frugality of my mother.’”
She later told the Post reporter that Jerry was right on the mark.
“I still clip coupons,” she said. “I hate myself for doing it, but I really resent it if I feel I’m being cheated.”
In contrast to Pat Brown, an ebullient, old-style politician who loved to slap backs and tell salty jokes, Bernice Brown was a model of elegance and decorum.
But her humor would still come through.
One night at a 1960s political event in Sacramento, her husband paid tribute to her before a large audience. When he unaccountably stumbled on her first name, Bernice Brown interjected dryly, “his wife of 32 years.”
A native San Franciscan, she was the daughter of a stern San Francisco police captain, Arthur D. Layne, who wouldn’t let her date the 16-year-old Pat Brown when she met him in high school as a girl of 13.
But like so many Californians, Layne came to like the affable young man with so many good stories to tell, and pretty soon the police captain relented.
From the time she was 14 and through her years at UC Berkeley, where she graduated at the age of 19, Bernice frequently dated the bright young man who became a lawyer without going to college.
She became a teacher. At that time, young women who wanted a teaching career were not allowed to marry until they finished three years on probation.
She decided that Pat Brown was worth more than that career, and on Oct. 30, 1930, when she was 21, the two of them eloped to Reno.
The Browns were married for 65 years, until his death at the age of 90 in the same house where she died six years later. After his funeral, she left the church in a wheelchair, her silver hair wafting in the breeze as Jerry rolled her slowly to a waiting car.
It was obvious to friends that Pat and Bernice Brown remained devoted and supportive through all those years together.
But on the day in 1975 that Jerry Brown was inaugurated as governor, she had to make sure that Pat didn’t steal any of their son’s limelight.
When Pat wanted to speak publicly, she gently reminded him, “This is Jerry’s day.”
In addition to Jerry and Kathleen, she leaves daughters Cynthia Brown Kelly and Barbara Casey Siggins. She also leaves 10 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at noon Monday at St. Brendan Church in San Francisco.