A few years before he died in 2005, Alexander Harrison Brawner, Jr., described in his obituary as a “global banker and enthusiastic traveler who circled the world several times in pursuit of business and interests ranging from penguins to genealogy” was talking about his life.
“I was born in San Francisco in 1923,” he said. “But the Brawners were a Maryland family. If you go to Washington, DC, the capitol building is situated on land which the Brawners once owned.”
Known as Harry, this lean and elegant gentleman was the son of the late A. H. Brawner, Sr., one time chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and chairman of W. P. Fuller & Co., a paint manufacturing company founded by that gentleman’s maternal grandfather.
Talking to him, in the early part of the twenty-first century, Harry spoke more of his early life and his family than of his business achievements, his globe trotting adventures, or his wide variety of interests.
“In 1922, my father had decided to go to work for the family company and after I was born he and my mother bought 3680 Jackson Street, which is a large red brick mansion facing the Presidio. It was far too big a house for the three of us, but they were planning to have a good-sized family.
“My mother, however, being an Eastern girl, did not realize that for five or six months of the year, San Francisco is encased in fog. So as soon as the fog came, she insisted we spend time elsewhere.
And so, for five summers we rented houses in Hillsborough and eventually she convinced my father to move out there in 1931 to a house called Oak Knoll. They were to stay in Hillsborough until shortly after World War II.
“My mother,” he continued, “the former Virginia Lowry, was from Blairsville, Pennsylvania, where her father was the town dentist. He was an important citizen, but anything but wealthy. When my parents married it really became quite clear for the first time that the backgrounds of the two families were very, very different. But my mother quickly adapted to the style to which she had not been brought up.
“In those days if you had money, even in the Depression, there was a way in which you did things and my mother always aimed to do them in that way, but she always aimed to do them one better. Sometimes that was a little hard to deal with, a little bit gauche. When her family came to visit us, she would repeatedly say to her mother, ‘You’re not dressed properly,’ and make her change her clothes to go shopping or to go to lunch.
“My mother was not politically correct in the slightest degree at any time and would have fitted in quite well with Marie Antoinette. She was very charming when she chose to be, however, and a great lady in some sense, although it was almost stage acting. But my father was forever madly in love with her.”
A lifelong friend of Harry Brawner’s, a literary agent in New York, recalls that, not unexpectedly, his mother was also a superb housekeeper and that her chefs were always first rate. At their house on the peninsula, that lady remembers that “the meals were always delicious, beguilingly presented, and impeccably served.” (Interestingly enough, however, food and its presentation meant little if anything to Harry and his brother. Neither was particularly interested in what they were served to eat. And during the many years of his happy marriage, Harry was known to remark, “We have pass-the-ketchup dinners.”)
But despite the opulent setting in northern California and his mother’s exquisite housekeeping, life was not always joyful for young Harry.
“Christmas Day was an extremely painful event,” he recalled. “My father’s mother’s family, the Fullers, is a fabulous family—terribly inclusive for anybody who is a member of the family but rather exclusive for anyone who isn’t. And from the moment my mother and father moved back to California we celebrated every single Christmas with the Fullers.
“At that time William Palmer Fuller, Jr. was acting senior member of the family and he and his wife Adeline had a house in Hillsborough. And it was there that every Christmas those of us under fourtten had to perform. These were compulsory performances. We played the piano badly, we recited poems badly, and we were all embarrassed greatly. Palmer and Adeline, along with their sons, would sit there and critique each performance. That made it quite humiliating because the sons, although older than I was, were of the same generation. And what made this all particularly unpleasant and actually frightening was that this tradition was not a casual thing but actually billed as a performance. We were competing with every other kid who had ever been there—even those who had been there years before.”
And then there were the sleeping porches.
“Sleeping porches were very common. They would be off one of the main bedrooms—complete in themselves but screened in and without heating. If it was really cold in the winter, we were sometimes allowed to sleep in our own rooms, but otherwise it was considered healthy for us to get the night air. That sleeping porch was part of the structure of our house which had been built originally in 1910.”
Harry Brawner also had some pretty spectacular memories of travel. To begin with, he recounted the procedure of getting from the West Coast to the East.
“When you got on the Overland Limited it had to stop a number of places to pick up water for the huge water tanks. So the train would stop and you would see them hook up the water tanks. And while that was going on you would walk along the platform outside until you were whistled back on board. One of those stops I distinctly remember was in North Platte, Nebraska. We always stopped there. It was a ritual to get off the train and walk back and forth. The first time I did this was in 1925 when I was just two years old, but I seem to remember that much about the trip because we were on our way to Blairsville, Pennsylvania, to visit my mother’s family.”
Later, in 1931 the Brawner family was to go further afield. It was on this extended trip early in Harry’s life that he was to discover how fortunate he was.
“The stock market crashed in 1929, but my father had sold most of his holdings shortly before the crash. He and my mother decided to take an extensive excursion to Europe and North Africa beginning in February 1931. I was to go along with my governess, Anne Marie Schulz (and I was gratified because my younger brother, only fifteen months old at the time, had to stay at home).
“When we stopped off in New York it became obvious to me for the first time that the depression was going on. We stayed at the Plaza Hotel and just outside of the hotel were beggars. That was the first time that I had ever seen beggars in my life. I had to ask questions about who the people were and what they were doing and why they were on the street. I had not known that everybody in the world was not completely well fed. It was the first experience I had to that other world and I was quite shocked by it.
“While we were at the Plaza, my mother became ill with a flu which almost caused our group to miss sailing on the Île de France. We did make it however, and just imagine how exciting it was for a seven year-old boy to cross the ocean on the Île de France. Since it was a very rough crossing and my parents both became deathly ill, my nursemaid became deathly ill and I, as a kid (and even now as a father, grandfather and great-grandfather) never got seasick, I had the run of the ship!
“After a brief stay in Paris at the Meurice, there was another rough crossing from Marseilles to Algiers. A car and driver were engaged there to take our party on a twenty-one-day expedition all the way across Algeria and Morocco to Tangier. We stopped in Fez (at the Palais Jamaï, which remains one of the world’s finest hotels) and on the morning after our arrival strolled into the Kasbah. My mother’s paranoia about health, however, detracted from my visit there. She had decided that the place was germ-infested and wrapped me so completely in the folds of her own garments that I was not only blinded but nearly suffocated as well.
“Interestingly enough, however, we received word when we returned to the hotel that our family was to dine with the local emir, an enterprising entrepreneur who used the toil and talents of his many wives and concubines to produce goods for sale. This invitation was clearly a command.
“It was announced when we arrived at the his palace that the ladies would be permitted to dine with the emir and his male visitors—definitely a rare honor. However, it was also decreed, that the ladies would withdraw to be dressed in proper Arab attire. I assumed that since the women in the streets had been well covered that that would be the case in the evening. Not so. The ladies returned dressed so sparingly as to cause my jaw to drop. My father looked like he needed a martini.
“The emir’s interpreter informed us that we were to be treated to five courses of chicken—each prepared in a different fashion. Each of these courses was presented on a bed of rice. Unaware of my mother’s fastidious ways, the emir, seated next to her, proceeded to feed her himself. With great élan he clawed into the rice with his right hand, extracted a huge hunk, squeezed it into a ball, and plopped it into my mother’s mouth.
“Can you imagine that ‘great lady’ being fed from his hand?
“But she coped.
“She then began to fidget because, I learned later, she felt that someone was trying to play footsie with her. This contact continued and moved up her leg. As it reached a critical point, my mother let out a piecing cry and as she did so, a cat jumped from beneath the table and ran away. An international incident was thereby avoided and the identity of the guilty party—cat or emir—was never revealed. I always believed it was the emir, but the cat was very convenient.”
Harry smiled, leaned back, and continued his reminiscences.
“That story was rather typical of my mother. In a real crisis, she was quite good. But it was with manufactured things of her own imagination that she got into trouble.
“My relationship with her was a very interesting one. After I was a schoolboy, she encouraged me in writing and she was the one who gave me sympathy in my struggles in school. But there was always tension because I never knew what to expect. When she slapped me it hurt both physically and otherwise. Once or twice during my early days my father spanked me and it hurt physically, but it never hurt otherwise. He made it clear that I deserved it and I realized he was right and that was that. With my mother it was different.
“She was an amazing woman in that at moments she realized how lucky she was, but she was also terribly jealous whenever something involved the slightest social implication. She could literally became hysterical. And it was exceedingly difficult to please her but we all tried very hard to do so.”
Harry Brawner left Hillsborough to go to Princeton but his education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the army. He returned to Princeton, graduated in 1947, and shortly after married Alice Ann Lowry, a distant cousin, the great love of his life, and the mother of his four children.