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Who Needs Love When You've Got Willie Brown?

Lauren Smiley | November 28, 2013 | Story Profiles

Sonya Molodetskaya—Russian refugee, aspiring boutique owner, mostly absentee immigrant rights commissioner, and decade-long lady friend of ex-mayor Willie Brown—has a zebra pelt on her living room floor. She ordered it on eBay for $1,500; she thinks it came from Zimbabwe. In her closet hang enough chinchilla, sable, and silver fox coats to inspire a PETA protest. The collection includes the tan mink parka that she was wearing when she stepped off the plane at SFO at age 24, back in 1996, after her parents forced her to leave her social life (and boyfriend) in Moscow and reinvent herself as a Russian Jewish émigré in the Outer Sunset.

But hers is no typical immigrant tale, as evidenced by the tower of orange Hermès boxes in the closet, the shelves of stilettos, the 2011 Jaguar convertible in the garage across the street, and the giant black-and-white painting on the living room wall: Molodetskaya wearing a lacy bra and—what else?—a fur, mob-wife style. Across the room is a baby grand piano. She learned to play after her father greased the palm of a Muscovite schoolmaster, but she’s reneging on her promise to serenade me: She has an earache that kept her cooped up at home yesterday, as well as a gash on her hand incurred while slicing Spanish chorizo for a snack.

We’re sitting on Molodetskaya’s couch on a Tuesday afternoon, her earache beginning to subside thanks to a liberal infusion of red wine—each of us is on our second glass. “I can’t live this life sober,” she says in a rich accent that rolls out like a blend of Moscow and Queens. She’s joking—sort of. Having spent several afternoons and evenings in her company, I have learned her terms: There is no interview with Sonya unless you drink with Sonya. She calls this Russian hospitality, and I’ve been subject to it at the Four Seasons Hotel, at a Marina hair salon before a symphony gala, and at Jardinière after a marathon Immigrant Rights Commission meeting—from which she stepped out and asked me, “Where’s the drink?”

As we sip wine from the cellar of Molodetskaya’s financial district loft, we finally arrive at the juicy topic: her arrangement with the famously philandering ex–California assembly speaker and two-term San Francisco mayor, who technically left City Hall in 2004 but is still widely considered a one-man shadow government. She almost always calls her companion “Willie Brown,” even to his face, as if he were yet another brand name in her closet. (“He doesn’t like when people call him Willie,” she says. “I don’t think he likes his name.”) At 79, Brown could be Molodetskaya’s father (she’s 41); in fact, he’s five years older than her father. Not that age has slowed him down. “He’s never really been faithful to anybody,” she says. “He was always a playboy. So did he change for me? I don’t think so.” (In his 2008 memoir, Basic Brown, he writes, “Personally I think you ought to glory in any such reputation.”) Still, she assumes that she and Brown are—she searches for the word in English— “exclusive? Yeah.... If he still had the time to play around, I would build a monument [to him] while he’s still alive,” she says, letting out her loopy laugh. “You have that much energy?”

Molodetskaya’s candor makes it clear that she doesn’t live in the same über-PC town as the rest of us—she lives in Willie’s world. After all, her boyfriend and benefactor is a man who, in his titular Sunday column in the Chronicle, name-drops his political cronies, roasts his foes, and openly states that all contractors lowball bids—or ought to. A man with a stable of children ranging four decades in age, the youngest of whom was conceived with a fundraising associate during his marriage to Blanche Brown (they are still married, but have been amicably separated for decades). A man who back in the ’90s dated Kamala Harris, then a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, currently the state’s attorney general. A man who now has one half of the Bay Bridge named after him.

In Molodetskaya’s brassiness, her expansive wardrobe, her frenetic social schedule—in everything but sheer intellect, she says—“I’m like the female version of him.” Brown rose from segregated Texas shoe shiner to self-made San Francisco kingpin, and Molodetskaya has a similar rags-to-riches tale, having climbed rapidly from refugee saleswoman to society doyenne. Admittedly, her rise was fueled mostly by the power of association with the city’s most famous living politician. But it was also a product of her own disarming and, dare I say it, sincere charm.

“I know people are judgmental, and I’m sure they think of me as a Russian gold digger,” Molodetskaya says. “If I paid attention, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” In reality, she, like Brown, has created an outsize personality that she lampoons better than anyone else can. For Halloween a few years ago, she wore a gold minidress, a huge dollar-sign necklace, and a miner’s helmet. Ultimately, she says, the joke is on the haters. A T-shirt that she had made at Westfield Centre quotes Coco Chanel: “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.”

Life as San Francisco’s premier trophy girlfriend starts at 6 a.m., when Molodetskaya checks fashion blogs over espresso. She’s not working nine to five at the moment, so she sometimes goes to Union Square to shop. In a city of understated fashion, skinny jeans, and flats, her taste skews toward “go big or go home”: loud patterns and colors, leather, furs, blingy earrings—fashion that’s made to attract photographers on red carpets and garner copious likes on Instagram.

Occasionally Molodetskaya heads over to the Yerba Buena ice rink to practice her Salchows. Lately she’s busied herself trying to find manufacturers to produce a line of statement T-shirts and clutches that she’s been modeling around the city (“Can't Afford Hermès,” reads one, erroneously). The champagne cork pops after lunch. By 5 p.m., “it’s time to start moving,” she says as she ascends the stairs from her basement in gladiator heels, having swapped her Mickey Mouse sweatshirt for a floral minidress, a chartreuse coat, and a gigantic golden “Love” necklace.

Her appeal lies in being a bit off script: She’s the busty blonde with a Streisand nose, a fashionista pulling up her sleeve to reveal the bandage over her chorizo gash. Her breast surgery a few years ago? A reduction, she confides, to what she says Brown calls “the perfect C cup.”

Page two: “C’mon, 10 years tells the story, doesn’t it?"

Molodetskaya heads out of her condo in the 1 Ecker building, just two blocks from Brown’s 35th-floor condo at the St. Regis (“He made it convenient”). Drawing looks from the black and gray–clad office toilers leaving work on Market Street, she ducks into the slick brasserie Per Diem, where the bartender has been texting her that they have pickle juice today (a Russian antidote for a hangover). As another red wine is poured in front of her, a suited guy, maybe 26 years old—she guesses that he’s a banker—moves in. “That’s a very yellow coat,” he says, petting her mohair sleeve. “I just want to touch it.”

“That’s why I bought it,” she says gamely. “I hope I’m not being rude.” “You’re not being rude,” she responds. “The touching is welcome. It depends on the person, but go on.”

This is, she claims, a rare departure from what she calls “lame California men” who are “too mellow” for her taste. When she’s out with Brown, no man dares approach her—“unfortunately,” she says, given that women approach her companion all the time. Does this make her jealous? “Abso-fucking-lutely.”

A text pings from a friend. Does she want to helicopter to the Grand Canyon this weekend while they’re in Las Vegas? She texts back: no. At 6 p.m., it’s time to start the social agenda, and she strides up the sidewalk to Brooks Brothers. “OK, now we gotta behave,” she says. She’s hitting four events in two hours: to see and be seen, to end up, hopefully, on some fashion blogs—and then to meet up with the man himself.

Neither Molodetskaya nor Brown cooks—they typically eat out seven nights a week. Her favorite restaurant is Kokkari; he gravitates to North Beach Restaurant, Waterbar, and Quince. Brown, she says, is “basically going blind” with retinitis pigmentosa, so she reads him the menu. Because his hearing isn’t what it used to be, she reads loudly. What do they talk about? Usually not politics. From the beginning, “he knew I knew nothing about politics. He knew I wasn’t rich, that there was nothing he could get out of me. But he still found subjects of interest to talk to me about. You would think it was just to get me in bed, but 10 years later, it’s still the story.”

That’s quite a track record for a man who writes firmly in his memoir, “I convey to women who are in relationships with me, ‘Because we go out, because we date, because we sleep together, that doesn’t mean there’s supposed to be anything permanent. Do not expect it. Do not demand it.’” In his column, Brown always refers to Molodetskaya coolly as “my friend” or “my lady friend.”

Nevertheless, Wilkes Bashford, Willie’s droll best friend and clothier, says that that’s just Brown talking big. “That’s kind of his MO, but that only goes so far, too,” Bashford says, adding that you have only to look at the longevity of the Molodetskaya–Brown pairing to see that there are genuine feelings between them. “C’mon, 10 years tells the story, doesn’t it? They have as much fun now as before. They’ve maintained the excitement and allure. When it really gets down to it, they respect each other.”

Brown writes that there are two categories of women that he won’t date—those who want to use him to advance their own political career and those who can’t handle him working the room. Molodetskaya fits neither spurned class. “She knows how to handle Willie,” Bashford says. She has few stated political ambitions, and she understands the “game.” She has realized that despite Brown’s friendly greetings, he doesn’t even know many of the women who approach him. Though she calls Brown her “soul mate,” they’re not into exchanging flowery pronouncements: “He proves his love by doing something nice for me, but not in words too much.”

When Molodetskaya shows up at Le Central during Brown’s weekly lunches with Bashford, she sits with her own friends, away from what Bashford calls the “men’s only” table. She doesn’t want kids, just companionship. About living alone and seeing Brown only during the evenings, she says sarcastically, “That’s enough.” The formula seems to work. As Brown was once quoted saying in the Chronicle, “There is nothing in the world like Sonya.”

The romance dates back a decade, to when Brown spotted Molodetskaya at the now-closed restaurant Ana Mandara at Fisherman’s Wharf. It had been six years since she had arrived in San Francisco, one of thousands of Russian Jews who immigrated to the Bay Area under the sponsorship of Jewish Family and Children’s Services. In Moscow her family was upper-middle-class, but she always hid the fact that her father was Jewish, fitting into the anti-Semitic culture by being “a good girl at school, and cute.” During the privatization onslaught of the ’90s, her father began receiving death threats over the phone—Sonya’s mother, Alla, says they were from the Mafia—intimidating him into leaving his job managing restaurants. He couldn’t find other work, and Alla’s job planning state banquets was drying up, as were the family’s savings. Molodetskaya, who had earned a civil engineering degree, was working on a management degree to be part of the new economy when her family decided to leave.

With her parents and younger brother, Molodetskaya moved into “the worst possible house you can imagine” on Taraval in the Sunset. That first holiday season, she and her mother found work wrapping Christmas presents in Novato. She took English at City College, then dabbled in computer, insurance, and pharmacy classes. “I tried everything,” she says, before finally falling into the retail work that she really loved, when she was hired as a saleswoman at Wilkes Bashford’s Palo Alto store. It would be a few months before she’d meet Bashford’s best friend. One night in 2002, when Molodetskaya was 30 and engaged to be married, she went out with some fellow Russians and spotted then-mayor Brown dining with his “lady friend” of the moment: fundraiser Carolyn Carpeneti, the mother of his youngest daughter. Molodetskaya’s friend’s husband went over and asked Brown to take a photo with him. But Brown parlayed with his own question: Which of the women over there was the man’s wife? The husband pointed out the brunette. “Perfect!” the mayor responded. He’d take the picture, but only if he were introduced to the blonde: Sonya.

Page three: “My life, what I have, is all because of Willie Brown. That is not a goal.”

Before long, Brown was picking Molodetskaya up at her parents’ house with his driver to go out to dinners alone. The age difference took some getting used to, she says, but soon she forgot about it. “You can love him and hate him, but the minute you talk to him, you get under his spell,” she says. “He’s so charming and so smart, and I’ve always had a thing for smart men.” Because she bristled at the idea of becoming a “kept woman” (and because, she says, Brown has always encouraged her to work), she kept her job at Saks, checking her gowns with the store’s security for galas after quitting time. “The only time she had an extra privilege,” recalls Marsha Sanders, her former boss, “was when she said, ‘Marsha, do you think I could get off early because I’m going to the Grammys?’ Honestly, she never made a big deal that she was his girlfriend or knew all these people. She’s not affected.”

In 2006, Brown cosigned the lease on a storefront on Chestnut Street for Molodetskaya to open a retail store, Podium, but it went under during the recession. She flirted with event planning (once getting 400 people to a condo grand opening overnight by roping in Brown to give a speech) and eventually took a job at Bloomingdale’s fragrance counter, lasting several months.

Molodetskaya’s political life consisted of organizing some of Brown’s fundraisers (like one at North Beach Restaurant for Ed Lee’s mayoral campaign) and attending events. Then, in 2010, Mayor Gavin Newsom called, offering her a post on the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission. Molodetskaya and Brown both claim that he had nothing to do with it: “I swear on my mother’s life, no,” she says. “[Brown] said, ‘If that’s what you really want to do, you have to actually perform, you have to actually do things,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’”

Molodetskaya was reappointed by Mayor Lee last year. Although the commission’s clerk calls her an “enthusiastic member,” she’s not an overly active one—she hasn’t proposed one resolution in her three years on the commission and as of press time had attended only 4 of the last 14 meetings. She is honored to serve, she says, but adds that her status as an immigrant (she’s now a voting citizen) doesn’t necessarily qualify her to make decisions for others. She’d prefer to tackle sex trafficking on the Human Rights Commission or perhaps take on the homeless problem—by moving them off the streets. “Willie Brown thinks I’m a right-winger,” she says.

Last year, while talking to former Newsom staffer Dwayne Jones at an event, she mentioned that she’d like to start working again. Jones offered her an office manager job with his private RDJ Enterprises in the Bayview, which works on contract compliance with government and private companies. She tells me that Jones “was a little skeptical, [thinking,] ‘Oh, gold digger—she’ll be sleeping and just roll in,’” but boasts that she was on the job at 8:30 every morning. “I was surprised because of how hard she plays at night,” Jones says, “but she did a fabulous job and was always there on time, monitoring our staff in the office.” Molodetskaya enjoyed relating factoids at events about the city’s ancient sewer system, but in the end, she lasted about six months: “My heart,” she says, “is not there.” (Later, I ask Brown about her gig, and he quips, “Oh yeah—where she was trying to work?”)

When I ask Molodetskaya why she took the job, her usually ebullient mood grows melancholy. “Because I’m 41. You gotta be smart about things, and Willie Brown is not going to live forever, I’m sorry to say that.” She likes to be able to pay her own way and save, she says, and Brown’s largesse doesn’t extend to her parents, whom she has long tried to help. When her mother, who recently separated from her husband and retired from a long-time job as a receptionist, applied for subsidized housing, Brown told Sonya that Alla “needed to go and stand in line,” says Molodetskaya. “It was nothing he could help her with.” Her mother finally landed a below–market rate apartment in a housing development for elderly Russian and Chinese immigrants run by the Chinatown Community Development Center. Her father, Yevgeniy, remained retired and now lives in HUD-subsidized disabled and senior housing on Sacramento Street. Along with other Russians, he frequents the pool at the Jewish Community Center. “I think they sit and talk about good ol’ times,” Molodetskaya says.

Meanwhile, Molodetskaya lives a life that she could never have imagined back in Moscow. “I wouldn’t want to live in Russia now. I would probably be one of the wives being cheated on,” she says. “Yeah, much better here.” Much, much better: She flew to New York’s Fashion Week this fall on Academy of Art University president Elisa Stephens’s jet. In 2009, she flew private to Obama’s first inauguration alongside Dick Blum, Dianne Feinstein’s husband. A shelf in her closet is stacked with photos of her posing with Bill Clinton and Christian Louboutin. Still, she looks somewhat askance at her socialite existence. “My life, what I have, is all because of Willie Brown. That is not a goal,” she says reflectively. “It is an achievement, maybe, in the Russian community. But it’s not an achievement of my life.”

Molodetskaya’s dream is to open a fashion gallery to display and sell local designers’ work. She admits that, given the crash of her former venture, it “would take me a lot of convincing” to persuade Brown to float the startup costs. But she thinks that she might be able to cash in on her wider reputation to find other investors. For now, she’s focusing on her T-shirts, ordering samples from various manufacturers.

Back on the social circuit in her chartreuse coat, Molodetskaya puts her estimable social capital on full display as she knocks out three parties in an hour and a half: Brooks Brothers; Prada; Cavalier. Finally, she Ubers to Sutter Street for the Wilkes Bashford preview party for the Museum of the African Diaspora gala. Brown is already here, holding court in a gray suit and hipster glasses, surrounded by a well-heeled, largely African-American crowd. Molodetskaya chats warmly with Brown’s daughter Susan. (“I’m better friends with [his adult children] than he is,” she says.)

Brown finishes a conversation with a laugh line: “For a $10,000 fee, I’ll do it for you! I have an expensive girlfriend!” When I approach and tell him that I’m working on an article about Molodetskaya, he shrieks in mock disdain: “You are?! Why?” Brown doesn’t like to be upstaged. I ask him for the secret of their longevity. “Ten years ago! Ten years ago!” he repeats, as if he can’t believe it. “I fear the Russian Mafia,” he says, his eyes twinkling mischievously. “She’s a fun lady. She’s really funny.”

And he was attracted to Molodetskaya at Ana Mandara...“Instantly,” he interjects. “Instantly!”

“Instantly what?” Molodetskaya calls over her shoulder from the jewelry counter, where she’s been eavesdropping. “Instantly fall in love with me?”

“No, never!” Brown says. “Attracted, yes. Love, no.”

“I guess our stories are different,” Molodetskaya replies, belting out a belly laugh that carries across the room.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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