Virginia “Ginny” B. Brownback, 1924–2011

09/21/2011

Virginia “Ginny” B. Brownback, a candid progressive of East Coast gentility who endured a debilitating, decade-long childhood illness before embarking west to start a family and, in her golden years, blossom as an essayist, photographer and perennial globetrotter, died in her Inverness home on September 3, one week after her 87th birthday. 

A loquacious wit and impenitent news junky, Ginny relished nothing more than a good social gathering, where she would regale loved ones with accounts of her many travels and impart upon them her numerous and incisive political beliefs. 

“Ginny was just a great raconteur, and a feminist in action,” said neighbor and longtime friend Mark Dowie. “She took no shit from any men, ever.”

Virginia Roberts Barton was born in Philadelphia on August 28, 1924, to Thomas, a retired Army lieutenant and leather broker, and Dorothy, a homemaker. Soon after, the family moved to a farmhouse in the suburb of Bryn Mawr, on a street with three towering maples. 

Though Thomas and Dorothy were involved in their children’s lives, regularly leading lengthy dinner discussions with Ginny and her younger brother, Thomas Jr., they relied on the hired help of an aupair named Anna. “Mother supervised everything,” Ginny later wrote, “but seldom changed diapers.” 

Ginny revered Dorothy, and at times agonized over how to adhere to her more closely. “I wanted to be ‘like my mother,’” she wrote, “but could never compete with her looks, her sense of responsibility or her sense of tact; she was never sharp, as I sometimes am, when it came to other peoples’ feelings.”

Thomas and Dorothy’s dining room was a place for lengthy discussions about news, politics and friends. “The one thing [Ginny] and I agreed upon was you should talk about politics and religion at the dinner table,” said her son-in-law, George Curth.

At the age of 15, Ginny was diagnosed with the rare and then-incurable blood stream disease known as milliery tuberculosis, and removed from school. Preferred remedies of the day included high milk consumption, daily periods spent supine under an ultraviolet ray lamp and, and, if the germs spread to the lungs, large quantities of mountain air.

Ginny spent a year at a hillside sanitarium with her mother before returning home to nine more of bed rest and a “brief” flare up of bone tuberculosis, which resulted in surgery and two sets of casts. She never returned to high school.

At 24, in a body brace but largely on the mend, Ginny befriended a wounded military veteran named Hunter Brownback at a friend’s engagement party. “Hunter had the world by the tail when I met him,” she wrote. “He was gorgeous to look at, lithe and agile, sharp, funny, full of love and kindness.” 

Ginny and Hunter developed a rapport and in 1951, two years after moving to San Francisco, were married at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, on Union and Sutter streets. They rented a tiny flat on Russian Hill for $100 a month, an amount considered high at the time. It was there that Ginny gave birth to her first daughter, Dorothy, whom everyone called Dorcy.

Years later, the couple bought a house in Berkeley and gave birth to a second daughter, Brooke. Vacations meant car camping with the kids and, later, short-term rentals in Sonoma and Inverness. An avid swimmer, Ginny spent much of every family trip in the water with the girls. 

For nearly two decades, the marriage seemed invincible. “We were a mutual admiration society of two,” Ginny wrote. “I couldn’t understand the concept of marriage as hard work and compromise. We both seemed to have exactly what we wanted.” But as the years wore on, Hunter’s habitual drinking became too much for Ginny.

As refuge from her unraveling domestic life, Ginny turned to two relatively uncharted outlets: education and travel. “One day at dinner, before her first solo adventure, Mom announced, ‘I’m going to England for six weeks,’” Dorcy said. “The three of us looked at each other stunned and said, in unison, ‘But we’re going to starve!” And mom said, ‘No, you’re going to learn to cook.’”

In 1973, Ginny received a B.A. in English Literature from California State University, Hayward. She bought a small home near the water, in Inverness, and subsequently “took off to Everywhere.” Months in Indonesia, Turkey, traveling along the Silk Route—the trips piled up, and with them pages of written and photographed personal accounts. 

At the age of 61, Ginny sold her first essay—about a trip to Nepal—to the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, she became a regular contributor to the A.A.R.P. magazine Modern Maternity. “I felt sprinkled with the water from the spring of Eternal youth and Luck,” she wrote. “Nothing I ever did was more satisfying than these High Spot years.”

Ginny’s stories were clear and insightful, managing to avoid the maudlin tenor of many new travel writers. “In all the years that I’ve taken the [Los Angeles] Times… I don’t recall an article more enjoyed than the one on Nepal by Virginia Barton,” wrote one subscriber. “I am not now or ever have been particularly interested in taking the kind of trip she did, but her account—how delightful!” 

She was an intrepid traveler, often eschewing packaged tours for the grit and glory of full immersion. “Everything was interesting and fun,” said Charlie Kinsolving, a childhood friend and occasional travel companion. Dorcy wrote, “She loved to go to the end of every road.” 

As much as she relished the months away, Ginny also loved returning home to her family and expansive circle of friends. The first order of business, besides a swim at one of her two favorite spots—Chicken Ranch or Shell Beach—was the calling to order of a proper social gathering. “She loved to get dressed up and throw parties,” said close friend Dave Warnimont.

Ginny’s mornings, even in her latest years, were spent in the company of the New York Times, a fresh donut and a hot cup of coffee, all often hand-delivered by the owner of Perry’s deli, Dan Thompson. 

But she never stopped traveling. In July, Ginny spent a month gallivanting up and down the Eastern Seaboard, where she reacquainted with old friends. After flying home, she spent weeks with family—all three generations of them. She lived her last day as though it was her finest, going for a swim, enjoying a simple meal of local salmon and listening to her favorite opera, La Bohéme, late into the night. 

And then, as Mark Dowie put it, “her old heart just gave out.” 

Ginny is survived by her daughter, son-in-law and grandson, Dorcy, George and Sandy Curth; her daughter, Brooke Brownback; grandson, Jesse Lee, and relatives Josie H. Brownback and Rosemary Curth. In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to either the Inverness Garden Club Scholarship Fund, Doctors Without Borders, or the American Cancer Society.