By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
I first met Jirayr Zorthian and his famously patient wife, Dabney, at their San Gabriel Mountain ranch about nine or 10 years ago. At that point I knew nothing about him and the extraordinary environment he and his imagination had created. I vaguely remember having heard about an eccentric and colorful little man somewhere up above Altadena, and perhaps also something about the “pagan” celebrations — latter-day hippie gatherings, I supposed — that were held there. Legend, as I was to learn, had it that the likes of Charlie Parker and other jazz luminaries would jam at the ranch well into the morning. Socialites attended these soirees along with JPL and Caltech scientists and, as the story is told, rode around the property on horseback, naked. Little did I know that I, too, would be quickly and helplessly drawn into the loose circle in which Zorthian and his ranch formed the vital center. So, when early last week I received the news of his departure, I took it personally.
I had been encouraged to pay him a visit in my professional capacity as West Coast director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. It was pointed out that he was over 80 years old at the time and had been active as a muralist in the government arts programs of the 1930s. Yes, a visit seemed appropriate, even required.
The truth is that I was totally unprepared for the extraordinary world that welcomed me at the top of the winding private dirt road. As I recall, the view over Pasadena and the L.A. basin toward downtown was spectacular that day, as it was on the day of his burial and the memorial gathering at the ranch attended by more than 300 friends. I showed up in a blue blazer and tie, standard D.C. Beltway/Smithsonian sartorial fare. Jirayr was unimpressed but didn’t show his disapproval. He was entirely charming and gracious. (Zorba the Greek himself, I thought, as I tried to adjust to this unfamiliar — and seductive — professional situation. How do I behave?) At any rate, it soon became clear that my attire was not only stuffy but inappropriate for the dusty setting and rough terrain we were to explore during our guided tour of his property. I removed my tie and never again made the same fashion error. Far more significant for my personal growth, however, was a subtle change in the way I thought about other accepted conventions and alternative ways to conduct one’s life.
My host’s enthusiasm for his ongoing project was infectious. Quickly I understood that his conception was to create at his ranch nothing less than an art utopia. Wow! Is this ever cool, I thought. So that is how I have described his extraordinary environment ever since. And my descriptions inevitably are met with an urgent request to visit. Over the years I have escorted a number of people, mostly from the art world, to the bohemia of Altadena. Among them were two models who posed during the mid-1960s, both for Jirayr and his great friend — and, Jirayr would no doubt add, student — Richard Feynman. The models recalled how years ago one of them had agreed to be a surprise — or perhaps a gift — for another of Zorthian’s friends, with whom she ended up living. Zorthian as Cupid, as well as Pan.
As time went by and my forays up the mountain became more frequent, and under the influence of atmosphere and setting, I began to think of Zorthian as the genuine article: an authentic bohemian. I came to recognize that he was one of the few among us who was truly interesting. And slowly I began to understand that his entire life was being conducted as an ongoing work of performance art. It seemed that Zorth was showing us that the process of change — and the enjoyment of all that that involves — is what matters in life.
On that first visit I was made to stay for lunch, a typical example of the Zorthian hospitality with which I was to become so familiar. Having removed coat and tie, I settled down at the rustic wooden table in the incredibly cluttered living/dining room of the small house in which the Zorthians had lived for years while the various structures slowly rose around them. Even more cluttered is the bedroom, which they seldom used due to their habit of sleeping outdoors. One or the other assured me that the practice is excellent not only for general health and well-being but also for the amorous life. Love-making at least once a day alfresco all but guarantees sexual health and vitality.
As we ate our lunch, prepared by Dabney, Zorthian kept calling for more wine. “Dabney, more wine for Paul! His glass is empty.” That day I got my first taste of the energy Jirayr brought to his social interactions, and the ability he had — when he decided to use it — to make his guests feel as if they were each someone very special. It seemed to me, however, that he reserved his main attention and charm for the most attractive women among his visitors. And he was outspokenly proud of what he imagined to be his special power over them. He would say to me and other hapless males, those he viewed as his competition, “So, you think you know about women, huh? Well, you don’t know a thing.”
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