Jacques Barzaghi, a Former Fixture Beside Jerry Brown, Dies at 82

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Whether as policy adviser, interior decorator or barber, he was a Zen-like presence in that California politician’s orbit, and always dressed in black.

Jacques Barzaghi in 1992 as former Gov. Jerry Brown was being interviewed in a nearby TV studio. The two were inseparable for three decades. 
Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times

Katharine Q. Seelye

June 25, 2021

Jacques Barzaghi, who was a longtime confidant, alter ego and soul-mate of former Gov. Jerry Brown of California and known for his Zen sensibility and noir presence from boot to beret, died on June 1 at his home in Normandy, France. He was 82.

He died in his sleep without an identifiable cause, although he had a history of heart ailments, his daughter Tatiana Barzaghi said.

Mr. Barzaghi (pronounced bar-ZAH-ghee), who was born in France, began his association with Mr. Brown in the early 1970s, when Mr. Brown was California’s secretary of state.

The two were inseparable for three decades, through Mr. Brown’s first two terms as governor, three unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, a failed bid for the Senate, a stint as chairman of the California Democratic Party, a move to Japan to study Zen Buddhism and much of his tenure as mayor of Oakland. It all ended in 2004, when Mr. Brown, as mayor, fired him after Mr. Barzaghi’s wife reported a violent domestic dispute.

Mr. Brown declined to comment for this obituary.

Mr. Barzaghi served in multiple official and informal roles for Mr. Brown, including as barber, interior decorator and armed bodyguard. He was deeply involved in almost everything Mr. Brown did, from helping him make policy decisions to picking out his trademark double-breasted suits.

“He lends creativity and imagination to the administration and serves as a person Jerry can bounce ideas off of,” The Los Angeles Times quoted a Brown aide as saying in 1977, the year Mr. Barzaghi became an American citizen with Mr. Brown’s help.

Intense, bald and heavily tattooed, Mr. Barzaghi, who wore wire rim glasses and dressed in black from head to toe, cut an austere figure and was given to vaguely existential utterances.

“We are not disorganized,” he told The New York Times during Mr. Brown’s 1992 bid for president. “Our campaign transcends understanding.”

On another occasion, asked for his thoughts after touring a state prison to report on conditions there, Mr. Barzaghi reportedly replied, “We are all prisoners.”

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As Mr. Brown prepared for an interview on the CBS program “Face the Nation” in 1992, during the presidential primaries, Mr. Barzaghi was where he usually was in relation to his boss — in the background but close by. 
Credit...David Cantor/Associated Press

Jacques Georges Barzaghi was born on July 26, 1938, in the small town of Beausoleil in the south of France near Monaco. His father, René Barzaghi, who was part of the French Resistance during World War II, was an officer in the French merchant marine. He and Jacques’s mother, Marie Louise (Denoix) Barzaghi, separated when Jacques was 6. In effect abandoned by his parents, the boy was raised by his paternal grandmother.

He left for Paris at 16, before finishing high school. Falling in with theater and movie people, he found work as an actor, taking the stage name Lorenzo Poldi. He joined the French army at 18 and served briefly until he was injured and returned to Paris. There, enamored of New Wave film directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, he dabbled in directing himself.

After the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, Mr. Barzaghi moved to West Hollywood and worked briefly in the film industry. One night at a party in Laurel Canyon, he fell into conversation with a man about movies, relationships and the Navajo, learning only later that this stranger was California’s secretary of state, Mr. Brown. His lack of deference, he told The New York Times, “was the key to connecting” with him.

Some found Mr. Barzaghi a little far out. “When asked a question, he will stare a long moment, during which the words you’ve just spoken seem to ring with foolishness,” wrote The Los Angeles Times. “Then he will utter a cryptic remark like, ‘Don’t sell the skin of the bear before you shoot the bear.’”

Others found him a grounding influence on “Governor Moonbeam,” as Mr. Brown was called in more derisive quarters, a reference to his sometimes eccentric, New Agey tendencies. “I came to think that Barzaghi was the ballast to Jerry Brown’s ship,” one Brown aide told The Washington Post in 1992. “He gave stability. He was the calm at the center of the storm.”

There was little calm in Mr. Barzaghi’s personal life: Over the course of six marriages and six divorces he sired eight children. In addition to Tatiana Barzaghi, he is survived by two other daughters, Jessica Doherty and Edwina Barzaghi; five sons, Ky, Rashad, Akira, Hassan and Salam Barzaghi; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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Credit...via Barzaghi family

Two years after Mr. Brown was elected mayor of Oakland in 1998, The Los Angeles Times reported, a female city employee lodged a sexual harassment complaint against Mr. Barzaghi. After an independent investigation, he was suspended without pay for 15 days, and the city, which had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, settled the claim for $50,000. (Mr. Barzaghi attributed the incident to his effusive “Mediterranean” personality.)

There were further embarrassments to the Brown administration, including Mr. Barzaghi’s failure to report outside income he had received from a prominent Oakland developer for serving as his feng shui consultant. Mr. Barzaghi dismissed the episode as unimportant, saying of the requirement to report such income, “My mind doesn’t work that way.”

In 2004, his wife called the police to report that he had tried to push her down the stairs during a quarrel; he said she had shoved him first. No charges were filed, but Mr. Brown, who was eyeing a run for state attorney general in 2006, fired him.

Mr. Barzaghi soon left the United States and eventually settled in Morocco, where he built a yoga retreat. He lived there for roughly a decade before moving to Normandy a few years ago.

Some in California regarded him as the personification of some of Mr. Brown’s quirks.

“That this unusual and uncharacterizable character crops up and finds a niche so close to power bespoke of Jerry’s very unorthodox way of seeing the world,” Orville Schell, a Brown biographer, told The Los Angeles Times.

But as Mr. Barzaghi said — after being criticized for wanting his personal tattooist to become a member of the Oakland Cultural Arts Commission — “If it is not unusual, then what is the point?”

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