Mary Jane Rathbun, better known as “Brownie Mary” died peacefully with friends at her side on the evening of April 10, 1999. Mary attracted nationwide attention several times during her 25 plus years in San Francisco. She moved to San Francisco from Reno, Nevada in the early seventies following the tragic death of her only daughter, Peggy in an automobile accident.
The first of what was to be three busts for baking marijuana brownies gained national attention for her age, which was about 65 at that time and her fliers spread on Castro Street light poles advertising her wares, while working at I-Hop as a waitress. America was really taken with her defiance and course language. The result of that bust was 500 hours of community services; 500 hours which would turn into 18 years of community servitude. At first she bounced around doing hours with Saint Anthony’s and the Community thrift store.
It was the early ’80s, the beginning of what was to be known as the AIDS epidemic that would sweep like a tidal wave across San Francisco and America forever changing us. It was the Shanti Project that first responded to the epidemic and it was there Mary found her home, caring for the young men she would later call her kids. She would be the first volunteer at Ward 86.
Part of her regimen at S.F. General was baking “straight cookies” for all the Ward and on the side baking marijuana brownies and giving them away to kids she met at the hospital. In the late ’80s (while still on probation), as she was delivering brownies to one of the first AIDS patients that the same cop that busted her the first time stopped her on the street, checked out her bag, and busted her again. This time the charges were dropped under public pressure and Mary continued to work quietly at the now bustling S.F. General’s AIDS ward.
It was her third bust in 1990 that would reverberate around the world. It was news because of the fact that all the brownies she was caught in the act of baking were going to her “list” of patients dying of AIDS. She was 71 years old and was working six days a week at the hospital, “Brownie Mary” became a hero to people on every continent, virtually overnight. Dr. Donald Abrams was stunned at the AIDS conference in Switzerland as he watched Brownie Mary on television, having just seen her the day before roaming the Ward cheering people up.
She beat the rap and went on to help me start the Cannabis Buyers Club on Church Street. That Club grew and eventually moved to Market Street in a high rise dedicated as the “Brownie Mary Compassionate Care Center” by the late Senator Marks and Supervisor Tom Ammiano. She helped put both Proposition “P” on the ’91 S.F. ballot and Proposition 215 on the ’96 ballot. Her senior years were dedicated to legalizing medical marijuana, collecting signatures, giving interviews and caring for her kids.
Mary and I co-authored a book in 1994 called “Brownie Mary’s Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipes for Social Change.” In that book she refused to give the famous brownie recipe and instructed me, on her deathbed to retrieve the recipe from her safety deposit box and use it to raise money for charity. She told me to go to Betty Crocker or some cake company to see if they want it. I’m going to try Ben and Jerry’s.
In the end we will all die. If there is a measurement of our lives maybe it’s the love we leave behind, for the millions that loved Mary her spirit of giving and her fight for social justice will be a call for a new generation to get involved and never give up.
Her life changed the world and in her wake is a more compassionate and loving society. Thank you Brownie Mary, you will always be in our hearts.