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Who Needs Love When You've Got Willie Brown?
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Aya Brackett and Drew Altizer | November 28, 2013
Ten years a trophy girlfriend—but still willing to work!
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.