On the balmy evening of Saturday, Feb. 7, retail and fashion consultants Harry Bernard and Roy Colton were having dinner at one of their favorite seafood restaurants, McCormick & Kuleto’s in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. It had been a warm, cloudless day for a change, and the clear evening sky with an almost-full moon gave the couple views of the lights of Sausalito and Marin County across San Francisco Bay; they perhaps could even make out the still-forbidding outline of Alcatraz Island against the night sky.
While McCormick & Kuleto’s wasn’t their all-time favorite restaurant, they nonetheless were regulars because it wasn’t too far from their well-furnished apartment on Laguna Street or the headquarters of their company, Colton Bernard Inc., near Union Square.
Few diners in the restaurant that evening probably looked twice at the two men, who had been companions and business partners for 40 years and were known for always being stylishly dressed and for their love of food and fine wines. The maitre d’ no doubt recognized them, as did the waiters and waitresses. But no one would have guessed this dinner was an extra special one for Colton and Bernard. It was their last meal.
A few hours later, upon returning to their apartment in Pacific Heights, the two men would commit suicide together by taking a deadly concoction of pills, the recipe for which was drawn from the book “Final Exit.”
The act, which one of their longtime friends described as “operatic,” stunned those who knew them and intrigued even those who didn’t. How did two seemingly successful executives get to this point?
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Bernard and Colton were well-respected marketing consultants who enjoyed the finer things in life. They dined at expensive restaurants while racking up points on Opentable.com; socialized frequently with friends and business associates; shopped at Neiman Marcus; attended the San Francisco Opera and Ballet, and vacationed annually in St. Barth’s. They had an apartment in New York in addition to the one in San Francisco, had worked for a string of major companies and seemed to know almost every senior executive in the business.
But the truth was far from the reality. According to sources, their consulting and search business had dried up in the last two years; their company had no clients on retainer (they had lost their last one, Old Navy); they were mired in debt with no life savings, and were in failing health.
Bernard, 78, and Colton, 67, had hit the wall: they were two aging men in an industry that thrives on youth.
“They wanted to be seen as king and queen makers,” said Bill D’Arienzo, founder and chief executive officer of WDA BrandMarketing Solutions, who previously ran Colton Bernard’s New York office and continued to do projects with them. “They had a cadre of high-level executives that they nurtured.”
Colton and Bernard kept offices — with desks side by side and Apple computers atop — on the eighth floor of the circa-1904 Flood Building, one of the few downtown structures to survive San Francisco’s historic 1906 earthquake and fire storm, and which also now houses the flagship for San Francisco-based Gap Inc. The building, in the midst of the city’s bustling Union Square retail district, is where novelist Dashiell Hammett, while working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the Twenties, wrote the “The Maltese Falcon.”
Their client list over the years covered high-profile firms such as LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna, St. John, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen, Joseph Abboud, VF Corp., The Generra Co., Greif Cos. and Sportswear International. For some clients, their highly detailed work included market research, perception studies and retail reports, while others used them for executive search.
Mackey McDonald, former chairman and chief executive of VF Corp., was a longtime client. He utilized their market research as he shifted VF from a manufacturing mentality to a marketing one. Colton Bernard did a retail study for a Zac Posen secondary line, and worked on Zegna Sport, which involved three years of research to make sure the correct product was going into the right doors.
Colton Bernard also was instrumental in the development of the Marc by Marc Jacobs sportswear business, making some key executive hires and conducting consumer research to determine which markets and demographics to target. The line was projected to do $10 million in the first year and generated a reported $30 million.
“I knew them for more than 40 years,” said Norman Fryman, a longtime industry executive. “As an officer of several apparel companies, I relied on them to find exceptional talent and they were instrumental in placing bright young people in jobs that led to major careers. They developed what they termed ‘perception studies’ and I commissioned them [when he was ceo of Greif Cos.] to discover what our customers really thought of us and how we could make our company better and more responsive.”
It was a business based on relationships. Colton, president and ceo, and Bernard, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, would recruit executives for high-level positions and stay friendly with them, offering their market research and other services in an effort to further that executive’s success.
“They were small guys, in a certain way on the periphery. But I always thought what they said made sense. Harry was way ahead of the curve. He understood the movement, the motion of fashion, the trends,” said Leo Isotalo, who first knew Colton and Bernard in the mid-Seventies while working in the private label apparel business in Manhattan. Later, Isotalo, as a corporate vice president with Levi Strauss in San Francisco, struck up a friendship with the partners and after retiring in 1989, worked with them on a few brand development projects from 1994 to 2003.
“While sometimes voluminous, their reports were extremely well-written,” said Isotalo, who considered the couple friends.
“They would create amazingly comprehensive road maps to developing business strategies,” said Brad Smith, former senior vice president of Colton Bernard, who worked with the partners 10-and-a-half years. “They would hand clients the presentation and walk them through it.” Smith said Bernard’s mind “was so circular, but everything tied together. He could distill the facts of the situation quicker than anyone I’d ever met. Everybody wanted to talk to him.”
Robert Wichser, principal at The Yucaipa Cos., said about his prior experience with Colton Bernard: “At Joseph Abboud, they worked on three or four different projects. They would assist me in assessing the market and the retail landscape and would do focus groups for general trends.”
“They were real proud of their work,” said Edward Jones 3rd, chairman of Jones-Texas Inc., and a colleague and former neighbor. “They expected big fees. You had to pay the expenses to get them to the meeting. I was always dueling with Harry, always philosophizing. We had great discussions.”
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Born Harry Bernard Rosenbaum, Bernard spent some time in an orphanage in Philadelphia, which observers believe created a sense of entitlement that the world owed him something. He attended a residential high school in Philadelphia. After graduation, he became a hairdresser and lived a flamboyant lifestyle in the city’s gay community.
Colton, meanwhile, graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., received a master’s in education from Temple University and became an English and speech teacher in the Philadelphia school district, then a systems analyst at Wilmington Trust Co. He married a woman named Susan in a Philadelphia synagogue. After about two years of marriage, he met Bernard at a New Year’s Day party of mutual friends, and the two men fell in love. They both worked as executive recruiters at Atwood Consultants Inc. in Philadelphia, before starting Colton Bernard Inc. in 1970, specializing in placing apparel and textile executives. The duo found their first contacts in a directory of industry engineers, said Bill Seitchik, whose late father, Jack, was approached early on by Colton and Bernard to fill a vacancy at the family’s men’s clothing business, W. Seitchik and Sons.
About four years later, Jack Seitchik joined forces with Colton and Bernard and became president of the firm. “Harry and Roy convinced my dad to go into business with them. They understood recruiting, but didn’t know how to communicate with people in the garment industry, which my father did,” said Bill Seitchik, now an executive recruiter himself at Seitchik Corwin and Seitchik in Mill Valley, Calif., specializing in sewn products industries, including fashion.
After a year, the idea of moving the business — then Colton, Bernard and Seitchik — from Philadelphia to San Francisco was broached. “San Francisco is where Harry and Roy wanted to live,” said Seitchik, noting the couple’s motivation to move largely stemmed from their excitement over the city as an emerging gay enclave. “It was also 1976 and everyone was going west,” said Seitchik, who recalls signing up for the move as a recent college graduate, with Bernard as his head-hunting mentor.
The decision to relocate a fashion-focused business across the country from the nation’s garment center in New York turned out to be prescient.
“The L.A. [apparel] market took off, and the West Coast became the major distribution point” for imports, said Seitchik, recalling how he and Bernard kept up with Seventh Avenue in monthly sales calls to New York, where the firm kept a Midtown office-apartment. “As it turned out, we probably were stronger on the West Coast than anyone from the East Coast.”
The 6-foot, 4-inch Bernard, who had a penchant for wide-wale corduroys and Italian sport coats, cut a striking path with a slender frame and immaculately groomed hair, clearly a leftover from his days as a hairdresser. He loved to shop at Neiman Marcus, although he always bought on sale, friends said, and used his connections to get Zegna suits at a discount. Bernard towered over the dapper, more buttoned-down Colton. “From the day I met them, even in the early Seventies, they were in a committed relationship,” said Seitchik. “Harry wanted people to think the world of Roy.”
Like others throughout the far-flung fashion industry who knew the two men during their 40 years in business, Seitchik’s memories are mainly of Bernard, the more outgoing of the two and the firm’s public face, handling sales calls and newspaper interviews, while Colton managed the back office. Friends continually referred to Bernard’s gift of gab and ability to schmooze his way into getting projects.
“Harry had a natural gift. His showmanship was something he was born with,” said D’Arienzo. “Harry was very street smart. His instincts were very good.”
The Seitchiks’ stint with Colton and Bernard ended in 1979, three years into their San Francisco adventure, when Jack Seitchik decided to open his own head-hunting firm with his son-in-law, Blade Corwin.
Over the years, Colton and Bernard would take on other partners for varying stints, while broadening their services to include market research and organizational studies. Their business peaked in the early-to-late Nineties and at its height employed seven people.
“I remember seeing Harry walking up an aisle in MAGIC with an entourage [of industry acquaintances] following him in the early Nineties,” recalled Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner at Marketing/Management Group.
But as the Nineties turned to the Oughts and the fashion and retail worlds became more and more global, Colton Bernard found it hard to keep up. Multinational businesses required consultants with offices worldwide and staff who understood consumers from Boston to Beijing, Topeka to Tokyo. Colton Bernard’s two-man operation was increasingly dwarfed and there were fewer clients to go around, literally, as retailers and vendors consolidated.
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Even as their clients dwindled to a handful, the executives always believed until the latter part of their lives they could turn the business around. As one former colleague put it, they felt the business was out there; they just had to pound the pavement to get it and twist people’s arms, a process that became increasingly difficult as their health began to fade.
In addition, making money in market research is far more difficult than in executive recruitment. Market research is not a high-margin business and is labor-intensive. The company would make more money on the executive search side, where it could get 30 percent of the executive’s first-year salary. Colton Bernard would never accept anything on contingency — only on retainer. If it didn’t fill the position, the firm would apply the fee to another search for the client.
“All the service businesses in general have changed how they do their business,” said Andrew Jassin, partner at Jassin O’Rourke Group. “Most market research reports don’t work anymore. Harry and Roy were expensive, accurate and articulate, [but] their search business had dropped off.”
Given the importance of appearances to Bernard, he was loathe to declare bankruptcy or make dramatic changes to his and Colton’s lifestyle even as their business foundered. Nonetheless, during the last two years, friends said the executives had begun trimming their expenses. They stopped their annual trips to St. Barth’s, gave up their Lexus convertible and weren’t shopping at Whole Foods anymore — just Safeway.
In the past year, Bernard would sometimes take trips to New York without Colton, to save money. The pair had frequented the San Francisco Ballet since the Eighties, but 2004 was the last year Colton bought the couple season tickets. They refused to give up their New York apartment, though, or to move their San Francisco headquarters into their apartment. The result was three hefty rent payments a month. The pair, who owned no property, were paying about $3,000 a month for the New York apartment on West 55th Street; their San Francisco headquarters cost them around $3,000 a month, and the rent-controlled San Francisco apartment cost them around $2,800 a month, sources said. The business partners had stopped paying their taxes in 2007.
Their Laguna Street neighborhood around Lafayette Park that sits on a hilltop is strictly residential, and quiet, like much of Pacific Heights, which has long been a magnet for the wealthy. Their well-maintained apartment building at number 2235, built in 1939, has a portico festooned with ferns and a topiary. Nearby residents include Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Colton contributed $1,000 to her reelection campaign in 2000); Oracle ceo Larry Ellison; billionaire venture capitalist Gordon Getty, and novelist Danielle Steel.
With sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge from an all-glass sunroom overflowing with plants, Bernard and Colton’s apartment, on the fourth floor of the five-story building, was decorated in a conservative yet tasteful way: “a little bit fussy and tastefully cluttered” said one friend. Sources said the couple were big art collectors (although none of their paintings were famous), and they bought mainly from the Franklin Bowles Gallery, near Ghirardelli Square, which specializes in Old Master greats such as Rembrandt, modern artists such as Picasso and Chagall and contemporary painters like LeRoy Neiman. Their tastes ran mainly toward modern and contemporary art and their apartment contained numerous graphic and abstract pieces, including a three-dimensional depiction of San Francisco.
Every wall in their office near Union Square was covered with artwork, including an Alexander Calder painting. Bernard also displayed a photo of him and his late older brother, Harold, behind his desk.
The partners ran all their expenses through the business, but at the time of their death had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. They’d burned through an inheritance from Colton’s mother, and had lost thousands of dollars in the stock market, dating back to the Internet bubble’s burst in 2000. In recent years, to prop up their finances and pay some debts, they began selling their art collection, as well as their jewelry, including bracelets, rings, necklaces and watches. The two men had also both cashed in their life insurance policies more than five years ago to help make ends meet, said a source.
But as their clients dwindled to fewer and fewer in number, and eventually to none, the financial pressures mounted. At the time of their deaths, their main source of income reportedly was Social Security checks totaling $4,000 a month — the same amount as the premiums for their health insurance with Kaiser Permanente.
Before they took their lives, they destroyed all their financial records and e-mails; they hadn’t filed tax returns for 2008 yet, and none of their other financial statements were found. A search at the Tax Assessor’s Office in San Francisco’s City Hall only turned up two file receipts — from a 1996 payment from Colton for $4,218 owed on 1994 back personal state income tax, and one for $786 of tax due for the period July 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2006. With penalty and interest, the total due was $1,255.27.
Adding to their plight, the two men’s health was failing. Bernard had been fighting cancer and was suffering from macular degeneration, which was being treated with shots to the eye. Colton had circulatory problems and sources speculated he may have been suffering from a life-threatening illness, the nature of which couldn’t be learned. Bernard had a kidney removed 12-and-a-half years ago, and doctors discovered a spot on his lung five to six years ago, which he had surgery to remove. They didn’t get all of the cancer, though, and he went back for more surgery a year later. Bernard later told friends he didn’t want to go through an operation like that ever again.
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While their professional career stood out among industry executives who hired them, even more noteworthy to friends were their personal lives. Numerous sources said Colton and Bernard were extremely devoted to one another throughout the four decades they were together, and how one couldn’t bear to live without the other. They were initially wed in 2004 in San Francisco, with thousands of other couples, when the city’s mayor Gavin Newsom declared same-sex marriages to be a legal right. However, Colton and Bernard’s marriage was subsequently invalidated, along with all gay unions during that period, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 vetoed a state bill legalizing gay marriage. The couple wed again last October, only to have state voters the next month again narrowly outlaw same-sex marriages.
“Harry was a terminal worrier. Roy kept him grounded,” said Smith, the former Colton Bernard executive. “Harry always feared the bottom was going to fall out. Roy tried to shield Harry from stuff he didn’t need to know. He allowed Harry the space to be creative and focus on business strategies.”
Observers also noted Bernard and Colton valued family and were known to spend lavishly on birthday and Christmas gifts for the children of such friends as Dick Baker, former ceo of O.P., and Barry Miguel, ceo of Tracy Reese.
“As self-centered as they could be, they really wanted to help people,” said one source.
“They were very nice neighbors,” said Ming Chapin, a neighbor who started an online chat about the men after their deaths. “They were very kind and thoughtful. Harry was more extroverted, and he liked to play with my dog. They were a very close couple. I never saw them apart. They were always together.”
And they were memorable for their opposite traits.
“Neil Simon could have used Harry and Roy as the models for his ‘Odd Couple,”’ said Fryman. “Harry, gigantic, garrulous, gossipy and brash paired with Roy, slight, bespectacled, introspective and thoughtful. Individually, they might have been considered ‘odd.’ Together, they were a formidable pair, a partnership in business and in life, devoted to each other and to an industry they loved.”
According to one former business associate, one of the many illusions about their relationship was that Bernard was domineering and Colton was the “Stepford wife.” The reality was that Bernard was the driver of the business, but Colton kept their relationship and Bernard going.
And it may have been Colton who suggested a solution to the two men’s growing financial and personal problems. He was the one who got a copy of “Final Exit,” the book that details how to commit suicide written by Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society.
No one knows how long the two men had been plotting their suicides, but there were a few hints of their growing plight. One source close to the couple said that in recent months, Colton and Bernard would threaten to take their lives if relatives didn’t lend them money. A business associate recalled running into Colton several months before their deaths, and he complained about business and said it had become so bad, the two men almost killed themselves.
Isotalo said Bernard left him a chatty phone message in December, saying he and Colton weren’t going to St. Barth’s for Christmas, as was their routine. “Normally they would take their preprinted address stick-ons with them and send postcards for their holiday greeting,” Isotalo said. “You would never know from his tone that anything was in the wind. He didn’t sound wistful. He sounded like the same old Harry.”
Looking back, Isotalo said he had an inkling Colton and Bernard, who were long past the usual retirement age, hadn’t had much work. “Sometimes it’s the absence of chatter that you know something is going on,” said Isotalo. “I think at a certain point, they ran out their string. When you have two offices and a residence to keep, it probably ate them alive.”
Joan McNeal, who met Colton and Bernard while working for the American Apparel & Footwear Association in Washington, D.C., was home when Bernard called her on Jan. 27. It was Bernard’s wont to call her two to three times a year to shoot the breeze. “We talked about people we knew in common. I knew he had been sick and had problems with his eyesight. He was having shots of this experimental drug in the eye. But he sounded like the same old Harry. Mostly he was remembering the work he had done with the [association] on the marketing committee” that had involved copious research into export markets.
“He was talking about how busy he was, and then said, ‘I have to go. Paris is calling,’” McNeal recalled. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s soooo Harry.’”
Jassin said he spoke to the two men shortly before their deaths. “We were going to give them an assignment for our jewelry client, which was looking for someone to expand them into specialty stores,” he said.
Richard Cohen, ceo of Robert Talbott, found it hard to believe their suicide was prompted by financial problems, since they had plenty of friends they could have asked for help. Wichser of Yucaipa also was shocked by their deaths. “I knew a lot about their business. They had their challenges, with consolidation and people tightening their belts. They were no longer at the level they once were. But I find it difficult to believe it was the business environment. Harry and Roy were experienced. They had been through up times and bad times. They were smart enough and creative enough that they would have gotten through any difficult period.”
He said they had to have weighed suicide very carefully. “How they went about life, how they approached things, professionally and personally, they gave everything a great deal of thought,” he said.
“In my opinion, I think that in their stage of life, their client base started to shrink,” said Baker, now chairman emeritus of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, who was a friend and client for more than 25 years. “They really scrambled to do business over the last four or five years, especially with high-end luxury people, and they were very connected.
“From a financial perspective, their business got tougher and tougher,” he added. “Whether that was the final straw that broke the camel’s back, I have no idea. They always lived larger than life. For them to go off this way is so unlike the two of them.”
• • •
Their suicide exhibited both meticulous planning and utter despair. After their expensive meal on Feb. 7 at McCormick & Kuleto’s, they returned one last time to their apartment. When the bodies were found, there was garbage in the sink, and rancid food in the refrigerator, according to sources.
Whether prepared well beforehand or on that night, Colton and Bernard left written instructions for the police to contact Colton’s younger brother, Neal, a Philadelphia bankruptcy lawyer. They tacked a note to their bedroom door that read, “Please do not disturb us. Please don’t call 911. Please do not try to resuscitate us.”
About five days later, their housekeeper discovered the note. She summoned the building’s handyman, who called 911. The exact cause of their deaths still has not been determined since the medical examiner’s report remains pending. San Francisco police would only confirm their deaths were an apparent double suicide.
Neal Colton, who declined to comment for this story, flew out to San Francisco to identify and claim the bodies, settle their estate and pay for their cremation. Their ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay. Bernard and Colton’s wills are sealed in the Probate Court, and only immediate relatives can open them.
Within days of their bodies being found, Colton’s relatives placed an ad on Craigslist offering all the contents of the Laguna Street apartment to any takers for free. The family apparently decided to give everything away because it would have cost even more money to empty the apartment and pay another month’s rent.
Hundreds of people turned up on Feb. 15 and began snapping up 40 years of Colton and Bernard’s accumulated possessions and carting them down the San Francisco streets.
Relatives also changed Colton Bernard’s Web site, deleting everything but a brief statement on the home page saying the pair had committed suicide and had requested there be no memorial service and that donations in their memory could be sent to the donor’s favorite charity. The site received thousands of hits the week after their suicide.
The Web site has since been taken down completely.