As a boy growing up in San Francisco, Brown earned his own money by delivering two newspapers — the Call and the Chronicle. After graduating from high school, Brown studied law at the San Francisco College of Law, where he graduated first in his class. While he was in law school, he worked for Milton Schmitt, a blind attorney. After he graduated from law school, Brown continued to work for Mr. Schmitt and upon Schmitt’s death, Brown took over the practice.
On January 8, 1944, Brown was sworn into office as San Francisco's District Attorney, a post he held until 1950 when he became the state's Attorney General. He served two terms as California's Attorney General.
In 1958, Brown was elected Governor, winning by more than 1 million votes. Four years later, Brown defeated Richard Nixon to serve a second term as Governor. While in office, Brown achieved a statewide water plan and improvements in higher education. Brown also ended the practice of cross-filing for political candidates, and backed the use of computers in state government. His most controversial move was when he granted a 60-day reprieve to Caryl Chessman, who was convicted of rape and kidnapping with bodily harm (and eventually executed).
Governor Brown died as a result of a heart attack. He was 90 years old.