Pam Rorke Levy was born September 4, 1956 and passed away on January 4, 2024 after an award-winning career in film and television as a writer, director, and producer and an equally successful ocean-racing campaign teamed with her second husband William Mathews “Matt” Brooks and their classic yawl Dorade. Together, they successfully competed in all the ocean races the famous Sparkman & Stephens 52-footer first won in the 1930s.
Born in San Francisco to Donald M. Rorke and Jean Scott Rorke, Pam recently wrote that she was “a survivor of the Cold War as an Army brat who moved 19 times” during her childhood. She attended high school in Augsburg, Germany, and graduated as valedictorian of her class, at age 16. She went on to attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania , earning a B.A. in Art History, and then journalism grad school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she won the first of many awards with her master’s thesis—an expose of life inside one of Berkeley’s sororities—won Berkeley’s prestigious Eisner Prize for creative achievement.
Pam began her career in commercial television at San Francisco network affiliates, where she eventually became executive producer of programming and program development at the NBC station. “She was cool under pressure, efficient, and very smart,” said her colleague and long-time friend, Mila Holt. “She knew she was exceptionally good at many things, yet she was also insecure, which made her more lovable, more approachable.”
As an independent producer, she worked for cable networks from Discover and National Geographic to HGTV and A&E. The subjects of her films and series ranged from ethical and societal issues to sports—she covered the America’s Cup for NBC in Perth in 1987—and home redecorating, histories, and biographical films. Over three decades, her work earned her nine regional Emmys and many other awards and accolades. “She was very smart, driven… there was a power to her,” said long-time friend Olga Werby. “She was also kind, as an individual and in telling people’s stories.”
One of Pam’s proudest achievements was working with the California Arts Council to develop SPARK, a multi-platform series on KQED documenting the life and work of living artists; it is still on the air and in classrooms today, two decades later. Even while raising two daughters, she managed a day job and multiple independent projects including as senior creative director for major corporate events around the globe. Her clients included top executives at Intel, HP, Adobe, Autodesk, and many other leading tech companies. She continued to work full time even after she first met Matt Brooks in 2009, her second husband and self-professed love of her life.
Pam had sailed little before she and Matt bought Dorade, the 1929 Sparkman & Stephens design created by prodigies Olin Stephens, 21, and Rod Stephens, 20. The slim, powerful boat’s phenomenal success launched the design firm and revolutionized what an ocean-racing sailboat could be. As they learned the story, Matt and Pam soon realized that Dorade demanded a much higher level of sailing commitment from them. They loved it.
First came the complete refit of the 52-foot wooden yawl, and then came “Matt’s Crazy Idea”—preparing the boat, organizing the crew, and racing in the Newport Bermuda Race, the Transatlantic Race, the Fastnet Race (England to Ireland and back), and the Transpacific Race to Hawaii. Pam organized a “Return to Blue Water” media campaign from 2012 to 2018, documenting Dorade’s comeback and its success. This resulted in extensive TV and video coverage, newspaper and magazine stories, and a slew of magazine cover shots.
Pam was hesitant to sail the distance races herself, at first, but at the last minute decided to sail in the often-stormy 608-mile Rolex Fastnet Race in 2015 to document their race against the 1935 S&S yawl, Stormy Weather. “Given how rough the race often is, we explained that this was a horrible idea for her first offshore race,” said Kevin Miller, Dorade’s sailing master, “but she came anyway. Pam wanted to tap into that Dorade energy and feel the boat so she could write about it. She got beat up a little in ‘Fastnet’ conditions near the finish, but she’s tough as nails. That was a look deeper into who she was.”
After that, Pam signed on for the 635-mile Newport Bermuda Race, and when Matt couldn’t make the trip, she took over as skipper. Dorade earned silverware once again.
For the last four years after Pam’s 2019 cancer diagnosis, Dorade and Pam’s racing was limited to East Coast inshore races. As she described it last summer, what kept her going during her treatments was the promise of getting back aboard.
Pam recently completed a memoir titled Return to Blue Water that blends tales of Dorade and the Stephens brothers with those of her new owners. Buying Dorade began as their story of saving a boat and sharing a passion for it, but later it became about how the boat helped save their relationship. Between the pandemic lockdown and Pam’s cancer, Dorade taught them to trust each other as partners and truly be happy together. The boat also taught Pam to overcome her fears and begin to take risks.
Pam’s career making documentaries helped when she started an Instagram account last year, @Pamtheviking. In one unflinching post, she described how two months earlier she had been unconscious in the hospital, unable to walk or eat, when Matt was told she had only months to live. Now, she said, I’m sailing on Dorade, “…determined to make the most of every day on what might be borrowed time…”
In addition to her husband and partner-in-crime Matt, Pam is survived by her daughters Beryl Rae Levy, Jessica Levy, and fur babies Willy, Daisy, and Rosie. She is also survived by stepsons William “Bill” Mathews Brooks, John “Jack” Moldaw Brooks and Stuart Mathews Brooks; her former husband Norman Levy; as well as her brother Anthony Brooks Rorke and his wife Karen Rorke, their children Emily, Julia and Ian and Emily’s daughter, Zulema. Young Zulema brought Pam much joy in her final months.
For some perspective on Pam’s view of living a wholehearted life, this was her address to her daughter Beryl at her 2001 Bat Mitzvah:
“In our society today, success is often defined not by what we do—our deeds and actions—but by what we have: what we wear, the car we drive, the things we buy.
“But you come from a long line of people who think of themselves not just as people who own, but as people who make and do; producers, not just consumers. They are architects and designers, editors and writers, engineers and homemakers; people who define themselves by what they give and what they make each day.
“So it didn’t surprise me when you chose to plant trees in San Francisco. We saw an article about Golden Gate Park’s rhododendron dell. The mature trees at the heart of the garden—some as old as the park itself—were diseased and cut down. So you committed your Bat Mitzvah gifts to the planting of more than 50 saplings in the dell—redwood, cypress, spruce.
“My hope for you is that someday you will return to the dell with your children and your grandchildren. My hope is that you will look up and see how those trees have grown—from tiny saplings into towering and majestic specimens—and that you will see that same transformation mirrored in your own life; having grown and given your all in the same measure.”
And there they stand today, almost 25 years later, taller than all of us.
Events celebrating Pam’s life will be held at St. Francis Yacht Club, Jan. 27, 5pm and New York Yacht Club, Harbour Court, May 16, 4pm. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Sailing Museum in Newport, R.I., or the St. Francis Sailing Foundation in San Francisco.
Although she always burned fast and bright, in some of Pam’s last words to her family, she said: “You know I love you, I know you love me, and that’s all that matters.”