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Beloved community artist buried

Jirayr Zorthian was noted painter, partier, eccentric

By Gene Maddaus
Staff Writer

ALTADENA -- With a peacock feather at his side, artist Jirayr Zorthian was laid to rest Saturday afternoon in a burial plot close to his daughter Elsa's grave.

Zorthian, 92, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure, ending his more than half a century of tireless dedication to the local arts community. He was also known for throwing flamboyant birthday parties that featured naked nymphs and heavy drinking.

"He was a free spirit,' remembered his friend Gary Turner. "He did what he damn well pleased.'

Zorthian is survived by his wife, Dabney, a brother, Barry, three daughters, two sons, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His daughter Elsa died of heart failure in 1969 at the age of 9 and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery.

One great-grandchild, born about a week before Zorthian died, was named Jirayr. Zorthian squealed with delight at hearing the news.

"Those are big shoes to fill,' his grandson quoted him as saying, in a tone devoid of irony. "Do you think he's up to it?'

Zorthian became a legend in the community thanks to both his eccentricities and his prodigious artistic output. His paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

But his reputation as an artist was sometimes overshadowed by his reputation as a socialite. At his lavish birthday parties for himself, naked models would dance around him and feed him grapes.

"He was the first hippie I remember seeing,' said Martin Marootian, who knew Zorthian in high school in the early 1930s. "He flirted with all the girls.'

His passions were legion, and he also developed a reputation for having a short temper.

One friend, Don Stocker, told of a time when Zorthian was at Monahan's, a local bar, and some college guys started patting him on the head and saying "look at the troll.' Zorthian, who was about 5 feet tall, said repeatedly, "Don't touch me,' to no avail.

Finally, "he just cold-cocked the guy,' Stocker said. "Monahan's was so crowded, the kid couldn't fall down.'

A memorial celebration will be held at noon today at the ranch, at the top of Fair Oaks Avenue in Altadena.

Zorthian was buried wearing a Guatemalan red knit shirt and a colorful hat, the same outfit he wore every year when he took his animals to be blessed on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

"He roasted the best pig ever,' said Anton Kaprow, who several decades ago attended Zorthian's children's camp at the ranch, where he learned to sculpt and saddle horses.

The family got permission to bring Zorthian's body to the ranch Friday night. The body lay next to the bonfire all night, in the spot where the pigs usually rest once they've been cooked.

After the casket was lowered into the grave Saturday afternoon, friends and relatives tossed clods of dirt on top.

"Don't worry about getting dirty,' widow Dabney Zorthian said. "He'd want you to get as dirty as you can.'

-- Gene Maddaus can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4444, or by e-mail at