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Jirayr Zorthian, bon vivant Pasadena artist, dies at 92

Article Published: Tuesday, January 06, 2004 - 9:09:30 PM PST

By Gene Maddaus
Staff Writer

PASADENA -- Col. Jirayr H. Zorthian, a larger- than-life painter and sculptor whose trash-strewn hilltop ranch has played host to hordes of intellectuals, artists, and naked nymphs over the past half- century, died Tuesday afternoon. He was 92.

Zorthian's reputation as an eccentric artist and socialite has grown into myth over the last decade, as he celebrated each new birthday surrounded by nude models who dangled grapes into his mouth.

"He was alive. He was a living person who was bouncing and curious and excited about life,' said his widow, Dabney, who married Zorthian in 1957. "He made my life quite marvelous.'

Zorthian's health has been failing for the past several months. In early November, he hosted the coronation of the Doo Dah Queen at the Zorthian Ranch in Altadena. He spent most of the evening seated by the bonfire, watching delightedly as contestants stripped, flashed, danced and sang amid a festive atmosphere of music and alcohol.

He was admitted to the hospital shortly thereafter, and missed the Doo Dah Parade. He was readmitted on Saturday night, and died shortly after noon Tuesday of congestive heart failure.

"He was the most fun-loving madcap sprite I have ever known,' said Pasadena spokeswoman Ann Erdman, who has been to many parties at the ranch over the past 10 years.

"Pasadena without Zorthian that doesn't make any sense right now,' said Tom Coston, director of the Light-Bringer Project, and coordinator of the Doo Dah Parade.

Funeral arrangements are pending. In addition to his wife, Zorthian is survived by a brother, Barry, five children, Barry, Seyburn, Toby, Alan and Alice, and several grandchildren.

Known for most of his life as "Jerry,' Zorthian was born in 1911 in Western Anatolia, in Turkey. He and his immediate family survived two waves of Armenian massacres. His father, an Armenian political writer, was separated from the family for three years during the genocide, and presumed executed. His extended family was killed.

The family escaped to Europe, and then to America in 1923, and settled in New Haven, Conn. A draftsman from an early age, Zorthian got a master's in fine arts from Yale, before leaving to study art in Italy during the mid-1930s. At 5 feet 2 inches tall, he was a skilled dancer and a champion high school wrestler. He came close to wrestling in the 1932 Olympics. In his year-and-a-half of traveling in Europe, Zorthian witnessed the rise of fascism.

He returned to the United States painted murals throughout the Depression. One mural, for the governor's mansion in Nashville, Tenn., earned him the honorary title of colonel, which he proudly used on his business card.

He joined the U.S. Army during World War II. Stationed stateside, he used his language skills for Army intelligence. He also painted a massive mural, "The Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training,' which years later he considered to be his masterpiece.

He married Betsy Williams, an heiress to a shaving cream fortune, and moved to Altadena in 1945, settling on his nine-acre ranch at the top of Fair Oaks Avenue.

He divorced, and once claimed to be the first man in California to receive alimony. He raised three children by his first wife and two by Dabney Zorthian, but two others died young, tinging Zorthian's life with tragedy. A daughter died of heart failure and Zorthian accidentally backed over a son in his driveway, a blow from which friends said he never fully recovered.

His art reflected the pain of the massacres, finding salvation in nudes. Much of his work focused on female genitalia, and some friends described his paintings, jokingly, as "every man's fantasy.'

Zorthian believed that "woman was the savior of everything,' his wife said.

Zorthian remade the grounds over the decades, sculpting art out of refuse. Wags joked the place resembled "the Eagle Rock dump,' while others found it "bohemian,' though he didn't like the term.

He became known throughout Southern California for wild parties that would last several days, and became friends with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Celebrities like Charlie Parker and Andy Warhol came to call, but all were welcome, famous or not.

Zorthian liked "anybody that could make beauty out of nothing,' his son Toby said.

When he was 82, Zorthian began throwing large birthday parties with his "naked nymphs,' celebrating as well the renewed vigor of springtime.

"I have 19 more years left before I die,' he said at his 90th birthday party in 2001. "I have 19 years of work that has to be finished. I don't have time to die.'

Several of the nymphs came to his bedside on Sunday afternoon, said Sara Streeter, the head nymph.

"We danced a little bit around him, but the nurse was really cautious with not wanting us to excite him... He was kicking his feet,' Streeter said.

Now, she believes Zorthian is "surrounded by nymphs.'

Coston agreed.

"I think they're welcoming him, and the grapes are out,' he said.

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