Harold & Nancy

Weddings Go On, No Matter What

David Lazarus Sunday, October 21, 2001

The nation is at war, acts of bioterrorism are being perpetrated, she lost her dot-com job a few weeks ago, and Nancy Gottesman still pulled off the Happiest Day of Her Life yesterday.

Despite everything, America's multimillion-dollar marriage business continues to thrive. This is especially true at the moment in the Bay Area, where our parallel-universe weather means more people tend to tie the knot in the roasty-toasty fall than in the sub-Arctic summertime.

In Gottesman's case, she refused to allow anything -- not the Sept. 11 attacks, not unemployment -- to interfere with her Big Day, held at a temple in San Rafael. If anything, she saw it as her duty to tie the knot.

"Every day there's more bad news," she told me. "Anthrax, bombs. But you can't let them win. I won't let someone stop me from doing what I want to do."

Such matrimony in the face of adversity is music to Grace Young's ears. As owner of the Bridal Galleria, San Francisco's leading purveyor of wedding gear, she not only believes the show must go on, marriagewise, but that a good wedding can in fact serve as Prozac for a depressed nation.

"We all can use a warm and fuzzy feeling right now," Young said. "It's a way for us to affirm what we value in America -- love, freedom and relationships with one another.

"I don't want to say that getting married is a patriotic thing to do," she added. "But if it's patriotic for a wedding to keep a hotel going, a caterer going, a photographer going -- so be it."

Not that everything's exactly the same as before. Gottesman said she invited nearly 200 people to her ceremony, but several dozen simply refused to set foot on an airplane.

Meanwhile, Deva Sexton, who won't be getting hitched until April but is already deep into her planning, is trying her best to accommodate the country's changed circumstances.

"My fiance said we need to sit down and think about a budget," she said while trying on a shimmering, $4,000 gown. "I'm a little disappointed, but I guess this was expected."

In fact, Bay Area wedding budgets have been in a tailspin since the tech boom went kerblooey. Bridal Galleria's Young said blushing brides who once didn't bat an eye at the thought of spending $9,000 on a gown are today asking to see things more in the $2,000 range.

"People used to tell me they'd just sell off some stocks to pay for everything," Young said. "Now we discuss budgets right up front."

Laurence Whiting, whose San Francisco company, Now We're Cooking, caters about 60 weddings a year, said budgets that previously ran as high as $150 per guest now typically fall below $100.

"The tone of weddings is a little more somber, a little more in step with the times," he observed. Nevertheless, Whiting pointed out that almost all of his recent clients have requested pricey beef dishes for the menu instead of more-frugal chicken or fish plates.

"Maybe in times like these, people are looking for food that will make them feel better, if only for a day," he said.

Annena Sorenson, one of the Bay Area's leading wedding planners, said that a halfway classy marriage in these parts still runs about $45,000, more than twice the national average. But she, too, has already seen clients economizing, mostly by cutting back on the number of guests.

Sorenson, who oversees all aspects of concocting a lavish and memorable ceremony, said her business has definitely slowed since the Sept. 11 attacks. "People are waiting to see what will happen next," she said.

At the same time, she said, many couples tend to become engaged during the holidays, so she is keeping her fingers crossed that the threat of war and recession will have subsided somewhat by January, when her bookings usually increase.

"People want their wedding to be the most wonderful occasion of their lifetime," Sorenson said. "But it's hard right now. I tell clients that this is what life's all about, that you just have to go on."

You don't have to tell Gottesman twice. She and her new husband, Harold, not only went ahead with their wedding this weekend, but are among the few newlyweds who haven't been frightened from going abroad for their honeymoon. They leave for Fiji on Tuesday.

"There's so many people who don't even know where Fiji is, we figure it's probably a safe place," Gottesman said, displaying the boundless optimism of the newly married.

"In any case, we can't get our money back," she admitted. "I already tried."

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page E - 1

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