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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.”
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