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April 3, 2009 5:14 PM

Eye, Fashion

Colton Bernard Double Suicide: A Reporter's Perspective

Colton and Bernard at their wedding at San Francisco City Hall in 2004. After the double suicide last month of Harry Bernard and Roy Colton, two longtime San Francisco-based marketing consultants and headhunters, I heard whispers their deaths weren't...

Colton and Bernard at their wedding at San Francisco City Hall in 2004.
After the double suicide last month of Harry Bernard and Roy Colton, two longtime San Francisco-based marketing consultants and headhunters, I heard whispers their deaths weren't as "operatic and romantic" as was initially portrayed, and there was a darker side to the couple.

I'd known Bernard and Colton for over 20 years and had frequently interviewed Bernard for stories. He gave insightful (although sometimes long-winded) quotes and always seemed to be knowledgeable about industry developments, whether or not he was working with the company in question. But in recent years, I would hear less and less from Bernard, who had suffered from a bout with cancer.

However, he called me in March 2008 to set up a lunch with him and Colton, and said Colton would make the reservation since he collected points on Opentable.com. We ate at one of their favorite New York restaurants, Osteria del Circo, and the couple regaled me with stories about their early days and how they met in Philadelphia before moving their business to San Francisco. It now makes me wonder if they were laying the groundwork for an eventual obituary. Could they have known then that they were winding down their affairs?

Harry was always pitching for a story in WWD, and whenever I'd interview him, it always ended with a request for a regular column in the paper, or for a story about industry predictions he made years ago that appeared to be coming to fruition.

So when news broke Colton and Bernard had taken their lives, I was not only stunned but intrigued about what could have possessed them to commit such an act. It appeared that beneath the veneer of a popular consulting team was a sad secret -- they were flat broke.

In dozens of interviews with friends, former business colleagues, landlords and neighbors, Joanna Ramey, WWD's San Francisco correspondent, and I found out their personal and financial situation had grown increasingly worse in the last few years.

Armed with a photo of Bernard and a camera, Joanna made the rounds of the restaurants and bars in the Castro, and their Pacific Heights neighborhood and headquarters; she checked in daily with the San Francisco police and medical examiner's office; made calls to their office and apartment landlords, and visited the City Hall tax office and the Probate Court. "I feel like Professor Plum in 'Clue,'" said Joanna, as she dug up personal details about their lives.

We called many of their friends and business colleagues. Several executives who worked at the firm over the years, such as Brad Smith, Bill D'Arienzo, Leo Isotalo and Bill Seitchik provided innumerable details about Colton Bernard's clients and lifestyle and the way they operated their marketing research and recruitment business.

I tracked down one of their neighbors in their apartment building, Ming Chapin, who started an online chat immediately after their death. I interviewed her, and she told me that Colton's brother had flown out to San Francisco and he was not happy about being there and having to settle their affairs. It seems like Colton and Bernard were found on the eve of Colton's brother's birthday, and he had to fly out and claim the bodies, pay for the cremation and deal with their estates, which as it turns out, are insolvent. Chapin said hundreds of people had traipsed through the apartment to haul away their stuff after relatives placed an ad on Craigslist.org.

Several colleagues gave us the lowdown on their early days in business and one revealed that Bernard had changed his name from Harry Bernard Rosenbaum.

Joanna dug up the company's 30th anniversary brochure, featuring quotes from industry heavyweights calling Colton Bernard "the McKinsey of the fashion industry" and "wise old owls."

Today, most of their friends would agree Colton and Bernard were getting older in an industry that worships the young, and they no longer saw a place for themselves.

Unfortunately, they made absolutely no financial preparations for the day when their work and health deteriorated. But in a sad way, they did prepare for the story they would eventually get in WWD.
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