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Colton and Bernard: An Anatomy of a Double Suicide

The act, which one of their longtime friends described as “operatic,” stunned those who knew them and intrigued even those who didn’t.

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Born Harry Bernard Rosenbaum, Bernard spent some time in an orphanage in Philadelphia, which observers believe created a sense of entitlement that the world owed him something. He attended a residential high school in Philadelphia. After graduation, he became a hairdresser and lived a flamboyant lifestyle in the city’s gay community.

Colton, meanwhile, graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., received a master’s in education from Temple University and became an English and speech teacher in the Philadelphia school district, then a systems analyst at Wilmington Trust Co. He married a woman named Susan in a Philadelphia synagogue. After about two years of marriage, he met Bernard at a New Year’s Day party of mutual friends, and the two men fell in love. They both worked as executive recruiters at Atwood Consultants Inc. in Philadelphia, before starting Colton Bernard Inc. in 1970, specializing in placing apparel and textile executives. The duo found their first contacts in a directory of industry engineers, said Bill Seitchik, whose late father, Jack, was approached early on by Colton and Bernard to fill a vacancy at the family’s men’s clothing business, W. Seitchik and Sons.

About four years later, Jack Seitchik joined forces with Colton and Bernard and became president of the firm. “Harry and Roy convinced my dad to go into business with them. They understood recruiting, but didn’t know how to communicate with people in the garment industry, which my father did,” said Bill Seitchik, now an executive recruiter himself at Seitchik Corwin and Seitchik in Mill Valley, Calif., specializing in sewn products industries, including fashion.

After a year, the idea of moving the business — then Colton, Bernard and Seitchik — from Philadelphia to San Francisco was broached. “San Francisco is where Harry and Roy wanted to live,” said Seitchik, noting the couple’s motivation to move largely stemmed from their excitement over the city as an emerging gay enclave. “It was also 1976 and everyone was going west,” said Seitchik, who recalls signing up for the move as a recent college graduate, with Bernard as his head-hunting mentor.

The decision to relocate a fashion-focused business across the country from the nation’s garment center in New York turned out to be prescient.

“The L.A. [apparel] market took off, and the West Coast became the major distribution point” for imports, said Seitchik, recalling how he and Bernard kept up with Seventh Avenue in monthly sales calls to New York, where the firm kept a Midtown office-apartment. “As it turned out, we probably were stronger on the West Coast than anyone from the East Coast.”

The 6-foot, 4-inch Bernard, who had a penchant for wide-wale corduroys and Italian sport coats, cut a striking path with a slender frame and immaculately groomed hair, clearly a leftover from his days as a hairdresser. He loved to shop at Neiman Marcus, although he always bought on sale, friends said, and used his connections to get Zegna suits at a discount. Bernard towered over the dapper, more buttoned-down Colton. “From the day I met them, even in the early Seventies, they were in a committed relationship,” said Seitchik. “Harry wanted people to think the world of Roy.”

Like others throughout the far-flung fashion industry who knew the two men during their 40 years in business, Seitchik’s memories are mainly of Bernard, the more outgoing of the two and the firm’s public face, handling sales calls and newspaper interviews, while Colton managed the back office. Friends continually referred to Bernard’s gift of gab and ability to schmooze his way into getting projects.

“Harry had a natural gift. His showmanship was something he was born with,” said D’Arienzo. “Harry was very street smart. His instincts were very good.”

The Seitchiks’ stint with Colton and Bernard ended in 1979, three years into their San Francisco adventure, when Jack Seitchik decided to open his own head-hunting firm with his son-in-law, Blade Corwin.

Over the years, Colton and Bernard would take on other partners for varying stints, while broadening their services to include market research and organizational studies. Their business peaked in the early-to-late Nineties and at its height employed seven people.

“I remember seeing Harry walking up an aisle in MAGIC with an entourage [of industry acquaintances] following him in the early Nineties,” recalled Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner at Marketing/Management Group.

But as the Nineties turned to the Oughts and the fashion and retail worlds became more and more global, Colton Bernard found it hard to keep up. Multinational businesses required consultants with offices worldwide and staff who understood consumers from Boston to Beijing, Topeka to Tokyo. Colton Bernard’s two-man operation was increasingly dwarfed and there were fewer clients to go around, literally, as retailers and vendors consolidated.

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