Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown is gone at 90. Two years ago, her famous producer husband David Brown, died at 93. A couple of decades earlier, I found out, David’s son Bruce predeceased both. You would, however, search the couple’s obituaries fruitlessly for a evidence that Bruce Brown existed. The New York Times and the 2010 LA Times obits for David said he had no children. Hillel Italie’s AP obit for Helen Gurley Brown said the pair were "childless by choice."
In a way, that strange statement is true. In the end, the two chose not to acknowledge the younger Brown. Who, according to our mutual college friend and retired New York ad man David Ames, died of AIDS in a New York state prison in the early 1990s.
I called Ames after David’s death in 2010 to find out why Bruce had been censored from the family history. I knew Bruce 50 years ago, when we shared an apartment in New York. We were both at NYU. We both needed a roommate. He had a prime Village location just off Sheridan Square. At that time, Bruce’s father was quite proud of his son and his academic progress. Bruce was fond of his famous father, too, of his renascent Hollywood hyphenate’s career with the likes of Richard Zanuck and Marilyn Monroe. Bruce was not fond of his new stepmother Helen Gurley, though. Nor she of him, it seemed.
But Bruce was proud to quote the only line in Sex and the Single Girl that referred to him, of not by name. As I recall, it went: "My 18 year-old stepson gets his girlfriends to buy him hamburgers."
This was something of which Helen Gurley Brown’s master narrative of feminine empowerment via male approval could only strongly disapprove.
Bruce was the only person brought up in Hollywood that I had ever then encountered. He told wild tales of misbehavior of former child stars his age whose awkward post-success years often centered on drug and sexual abuse. It all sounded very lively and distant to my innocent New England self.
Until he moved out without warning one day, leaving me to face an irate landlady’s eviction. It turned out that the money I’d been giving him for our rent had not gone to her for months. Nor had his share. This was how I discovered that Bruce had a costly drug problem of his own.
After that, we went our separate ways. I did hear that his drug use didn’t prevent him from graduating from college nor getting into a prestigious university’s doctoral program. He was deeply admired as a poli-sci scholar by his peers and professors. He married a beautiful and very intelligent young woman.
I went on with my life and tried to forget about the friend who had put me out on a New York street in the very cold February of my sophomore year. Until his famous father died 48 Februarys later and I noticed his son’s absence from the death notice.
According to our mutual friend, Bruce had gone from using to dealing. He long specialized in supplying touring rock groups. It wasn’t clear what happened to his degree program, though Bruce along the way authored a book on Marxist theory that I obtained and found unreadable. He got divorced.
And then he became known among his famous clients as the magic man with the shiny metal suitcase.
All of this came to a predictable end. He was arrested. He was tried. I know nothing precise about his criminal history. But he wound up in prison; he caught AIDS, apparently in that prison. And in the early 1990s, before there was any serious HIV treatment, he died there, at around 50.
If there was ever an obit for Bruce Brown, I could not find it. People who die in prison usually don’t have obits.
But Wikipedia, in its David Brown entry, somehow found the lost child whom the major media had ignored: "He had one son, Bruce, from a previous marriage who predeceased him."
And that, apart from the reference to the burger-gouging teenager in Helen Gurley Brown’s famous book, is the only trace of himself he left behind.