Speaker Nancy Pelosi had just urged Brown University graduates to stay resilient and summon their “better angels” on Memorial Day weekend when she was forced to turn her attention to a less uplifting situation: her husband’s arrest in California.
The details emerging from the incident were not especially flattering.
The night before, May 28, Paul Pelosi, 82, had been in Oakville, among the country’s most exclusive enclaves, leaving a small dinner at the hedgerow-lined estate of Alexander Mehran, a longtime friend and Democratic donor.
Mr. Pelosi got behind the wheel of his black 2021 Porsche 911 to drive the six miles to the Pelosis’ Napa Valley country house. It was around 10 p.m., according to a police report and eyewitnesses.
He went a little more than half a mile and was trying to cross State Route 29 and make a left. But a Jeep was coming down the highway and hit Mr. Pelosi’s car as he made the turn.
The police who responded arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and suspicion of driving with a .08 blood alcohol content or higher. He is due back in court on Aug. 3. If criminal charges are filed, he will be arraigned then. (The driver of the Jeep was not arrested.)
It may not have been only alcohol that hindered Mr. Pelosi’s driving. Two people who have spoken with the Pelosis since the crash said that Mr. Pelosi had had cataract surgery in the days preceding the dinner. (Doctors are somewhat divided about when it is acceptable to drive, with estimates that range from 24 hours to two weeks.)
The speaker swung into crisis mode. By Sunday afternoon, Larry Kamer, a crisis manager who has a home in Napa and has worked for high-profile clients including Harvard University and Nike, was retained. The family also consulted with John Keker, one of San Francisco’s most prominent defense lawyers, and Lee Houskeeper, a longtime public relations executive for San Francisco political types, including former Mayor Willie Brown.
The newly assembled team had to deal with a few unwelcome certainties: The accident would refocus attention on Mr. Pelosi’s troubled driving record, including a crash when he was a teenager that left his brother dead. It would also send reporters — from TMZ to The Napa Valley Register — scrambling after every detail.
And it would shine a spotlight on the Pelosis’ California life, where the couple inhabit two homes, including a 16.55-acre gated estate and mingle with other rich residents, at a time when economic hardship is straining many people of lesser means.
Ultimately, a representative for Ms. Pelosi gave a terse statement emphasizing Ms. Pelosi’s distance from the accident.
“The speaker will not be commenting on this private matter, which occurred while she was on the East Coast,” it read.
‘Everybody in San Francisco Now Has a Napa Place’
The Pelosis have had a weekend home in Napa Valley since 1990, when they spent $2.35 million for their property, which came with a Palladian-style villa, guesthouse and pool.
“It’s not a palace,” Mr. Brown said. “If you go up there, you will notice that some people have places with caves for the wine and all that kind of stuff. That’s not what they have. They have a place you can actually live in, without servants. You wouldn’t bring the Three Tenors to sing.” But the Pelosis do have a vineyard, from which they sell grapes.
“Everybody in San Francisco now has a Napa place,” Mr. Brown continued. “Everybody who can afford it.”
Neighbors are aware of Ms. Pelosi’s regular presence, in part because of the security detail that appears when she is in Napa and can cause traffic delays. Ms. Pelosi and her husband also host a regular summer gathering that is attended by many of the Democratic Party’s biggest names.
Ms. Pelosi, also 82, usually goes to the Memorial Day weekend dinner that her husband attended just before his arrest, at the Oakville home of Mr. Mehran, a major commercial real estate developer. In an interview, Mr. Mehran said that he had been friends with the Pelosis for more than 50 years. Since the 2020 election cycle, he has given more than $1 million to Democratic politicians and groups, according to Federal Election Commission data.
The Pelosis have taken to Napa, an often insular world where family, political and social circles overlap. They have their spots: Ms. Pelosi eats at Pizzeria Tra Vigne, an artisanal pizza place (where Chelsea Handler was recently spotted), and gets coffee at the Model Bakery (where David Beckham is a regular). She can be seen at Sunday Mass at St. Helena Catholic Church, and sometimes picks up the tab for her daughters’ and granddaughters’ mani-pedis at Blush, the local nail salon.
But even in Napa, Ms. Pelosi, who doesn’t seem to do California casual, is often seen in the fitted suits that are her Capitol Hill signature. After all, the Pelosis remain San Francisco people at heart, and since 1987 have been ensconced in Pacific Heights, perhaps the city’s most exclusive neighborhood, where they own a three-floor red brick townhouse.
They make regular appearances at the city’s biggest social events — among them the San Francisco Symphony’s opening gala — and they have season tickets to the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. They have been known to turn their shopping excursions at the local Giorgio Armani boutique (where Ms. Pelosi was spotted two weeks ago) into a sport of its own.
Mr. Pelosi, who holds investments in commercial real estate and the tech sector, is still a swaggering presence in the city’s society circuit at 6-foot-2, well dressed, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. But more than a dozen people interviewed for this article said they had never seen evidence that Mr. Pelosi drinks to excess. (Ms. Pelosi does not drink at all.) “Paul is a social drinker,” said Mr. Mehran, 71. “That’s the best way to put it.”
Mr. Pelosi has, however, had a history of car accidents over the course of his life. At 16, in 1957, he was behind the wheel of a sports car that crashed. His brother David, who was a passenger, was killed. (A jury ultimately exonerated Mr. Pelosi of misdemeanor manslaughter charges, according to news accounts at the time.)
In the late 1970s Ms. Pelosi became the Northern California chair of the Democratic Party. On her way to a barbecue for a local politician, a car that she was in with Mr. Pelosi and a number of their children flipped on its side. No one was hurt, and Ms. Pelosi hitched a ride to go meet donors.
The Pelosi camp declined to comment to The New York Times on who was driving.
A Political Career Closely Tied to San Francisco Society
Paul Pelosi’s family roots are in San Francisco, but he met Ms. Pelosi when they were both college students in Washington, D.C. The two had much in common. They were liberal Democrats and observant Catholics. And both were Italian American royalty.
When they settled in San Francisco in the late 1960s, Mr. Pelosi’s connections in the city catapulted them into influential circles. His brother Ronald Pelosi, a rising political star on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was married to Barbara Newsom, the aunt of the state’s future governor Gavin Newsom and the sister of William Newsom (Gavin’s father), an appeals court judge who administered the trust of the oil tycoon John Paul Getty.
Nancy and Paul became friends with John Paul Getty’s son Gordon and Gordon’s wife, Ann Getty. The families remain close. Last November, just before heading to Glasgow to address the COP26 U.N. global climate summit, Ms. Pelosi officiated at the wedding of Mr. Getty’s granddaughter Ivy Getty. (Ms. Getty, who wore a 16-foot veil and a mirrored John Galliano for Maison Margiela dress, is an oil heiress; criticism from progressive Democrats followed.)
Ms. Pelosi’s rise in politics began as a fund-raiser, but as her children grew, she began to consider running for office. In 1986, Representative Sala Burton, a Pelosi family friend, entered the hospital with terminal cancer. A special election to replace her was scheduled.
Ms. Pelosi decided to run for her seat, but her house was just outside the district. So Mr. Pelosi leased the townhouse in Pacific Heights, and the family moved about 15 blocks northeast. Ms. Burton endorsed Ms. Pelosi days before she died. The rest is history.
Some analysts consider Ms. Pelosi among the most effective speakers ever to lead the House, and she is a pathbreaking figure in American politics. She has spoken at times of how her faith informs her politics, and her desire to expand the social safety net, and she is credited with pushing the Affordable Care Act through the House.
But it’s clear that this spring has been challenging for her.
She has watched while the landmark legislation passed by the House, the $2 trillion Build Back Better Act, has stalled in the Senate. In addition, House Democrats appear poised for a shellacking this fall, which would mean Ms. Pelosi would have to hand over the speaker’s gavel, 35 years into her congressional career.
Among the powerful political and social figures who inhabit the Pelosis’ world, there was abundant sympathy and some protectiveness after what happened over Memorial Day weekend.
A person who witnessed the accident said both cars were totaled, and that Mr. Pelosi simply sat in the car, seemingly frozen, for several minutes, until the sheriff and members of the Fire Department arrived moments later.
Neither Mr. Pelosi nor the driver of the Jeep was injured.
Some friends felt that Mr. Pelosi’s full night in custody at the Napa County Jail after the accident was excessive. Others were puzzled why their friend hadn’t pre-empted the whole ordeal by simply taking a car service home.
And some local residents suggested that, in an earlier era in Napa, driving after drinking was met with understanding, rather than criminal charges.
“I feel just awful about what’s happened because there was a time when if a thing like this happened, the cops would take you home,” said the society doyenne Diane Wilsey, better known as Dede.
Ms. Wilsey, who is Mr. Pelosi’s fellow trustee at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, is a Republican, but she has donated to several of the speaker’s political campaigns, and sees the couple socially in California.
“I don’t agree with Nancy on everything, but I cannot think of anyone nicer than Nancy or Paul,” she said.
Meanwhile, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Napa County district attorney has been busy fending off some 1,500 angry calls inspired by right-wing pundits, including Donald Trump Jr., claiming without evidence that Mr. Pelosi would not “face any consequence” for the incident. Mr. Pelosi is set to return to court in August. The local authorities stress that he will receive no special treatment.
Steve Eder and Thomas Fuller contributed reporting, and Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Jacob Bernstein and Holly Secon