Henri Grass, a Parisian-born Jew who resembles a more disheveled version of Albert Einstein, survived World War II in the French underground when Nazi atrocities turned Europe into a slaughterhouse.
But today the erudite and eccentric Grass, who suffers from numerous ailments, is consumed by what he calls the most grueling--and others call the most ill-conceived--fight of his life.
Grass, 74, has laid claim to a share of $5 million in historic lands once owned by the man who founded Camarillo. He bases his claim on his 27-year live-in relationship with one of Adolfo Camarillo’s distant relatives.
However, other prospective heirs and the administrator of the woman’s estate say he has no legal claim to it and instead have offered him a $60,000 settlement. Indeed, he has filed no claim for the estate in court, but has maintained in conversations with the estate’s administrator that he is entitled to a fair share of it, according to the administrator, David Hilgenberg, of the Bank of A. Levy.
Whether or not Grass ultimately exercises his claim in court, the story offers a fascinating glimpse into the colorful history of Camarillo’s oldest family.
The thread that ties Grass to their estate is the stuff of a Hollywood movie. It involves a Polish World War II refugee, a vivacious Ventura County matron who sat on Camarillo’s first City Council, and her sister, a beautiful Angeleno of Lithuanian ancestry who was once personal secretary to such Hollywood royalty as Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.
As of Wednesday, Grass had balked at accepting the estate’s offer, despite urging from friends and social workers.
“We’ve been trying to convince him to take the cash offer, but he’s so stubborn. He’s had a lot of losses in the past year, and he throws up a lot of roadblocks. He never tells you the whole story,” said Muriel Steiger, who has worked unsuccessfully for three months to find Grass a place to live through Senior Home Sharing, a branch of the state Parks and Recreation Department.
For now, Grass is living at a friend’s house in Camarillo, staying in a room above a garage while he considers his next move. Neither he nor his present attorney, John Wissinger--he has gone through three others--will discuss specifics of the case.
Grass claims that the guardian angel that has protected him throughout his life will surely provide a better offer than that which the 22 heirs of the estate of Edith Haran (Tweedy) Camarillo Rouce have offered him.
Tweedy was the daughter-in-law of Adolfo Camarillo, one of the city’s patriarchs. She was also the sister of Shifra Haran, whom Grass lived with for 27 years. Shifra died in August and Tweedy followed her a month later, leaving a $5-million estate that includes a small portion of the original Camarillo property. It is a share of this estate to which Grass lays claim.
The estate includes 29 acres of land planted with row crops near Adolfo Road that Adolfo Camarillo left to Tweedy upon his death in 1958. It also includes more than 100 unopened boxes that are probably crammed with historic artifacts, according to Carol A. Johnston, the lawyer for the Rouce estate.
Grass claims that he married Shifra and consequently is due whatever she would have received from her sister Tweedy’s estate. The estate says he didn’t marry Shifra. Hilgenberg and Johnston point out that Grass has yet to produce a marriage certificate.
California has not recognized common-law marriages since 1895. And while Grass could file a palimony suit and claim part of the estate, some California courts have dismissed such suits in similar situations.
What is known is that Grass met Shifra Haran in Hollywood in about 1958, when she worked as a secretary to movie producers and actors. He lived with her until her death last year in Camarillo.
Shifra’s sister Tweedy had married well. Her first husband was Frank (Pancho) Camarillo, son of Adolfo.
Adolfo and a brother had inherited the vast holdings of his father Juan, a prominent merchant who had purchased the original Spanish land grants of Rancho Ojai and Rancho Calleguas, near present-day Camarillo.
According to newspaper reports, Rancho Calleguas cost $3,000 in gold coins and included more than 10,000 acres.
Juan Camarillo died in 1880, and Adolfo eventually took over the ranch business and raised cattle, Arabian horses and olives, among other crops.
The 29 acres that Adolfo eventually left to Tweedy were part of that original rancho. Much of the rest of the land still is in the hands of Camarillo descendants, although Juan Camarillo’s last grandchild, Carmen Camarillo Jones, died in 1987. She left a 1,000-acre estate and bequeathed the 1890 Queen Anne-style Victorian home built by her grandfather to a religious order. It can still be glimpsed through the eucalyptus trees along the Ventura Freeway.
Lavish Life Style
For decades, the family lived lavishly in the tradition of the great California ranching dynasties, hosting fiestas, rodeos and barbecues. In the late 1930s, one of these Western soirees drew a young Phi Beta Kappa UCLA graduate with a master’s degree who taught fifth and sixth grade at Pleasant Valley School.
Her name was Edith (Tweedy) Haran, and local legend has it that she beat out 1,000 other applicants for her teaching job in 1934 by impressing Adolfo Camarillo with her knowledge of the differences between the words carrot , carat and caret .
She met Adolfo’s son, Pancho, at the Camarillo ranch house fiesta, and they began courting.
In 1942, they married and settled into the life style of Camarillo landed gentry.
Tweedy’s sister, Shifra, a tall, dark-eyed woman with wavy dark hair, had chosen a career over marriage and ascended the secretarial ranks to the stars. She worked for Orson Welles during World War II and accompanied Rita Hayworth to Paris in 1946, according to old newspaper accounts.
Five thousand miles away in Europe, meanwhile, Grass returned to his hometown after the war but felt restless and alienated.
In the 1950s, he said in a rambling interview, he took a steamer to New York, bought an old car for $22 and headed West. His journey ended in Hollywood, when he encountered a Pole whom he had known in France during the war and who took him to visit a friend in Hollywood named Shifra Haran.
Smitten, Grass moved in to help Shifra care for her aged and increasingly senile mother. In the early 1960s, the three moved to Camarillo--then a sleepy village--to get away from the growing Los Angeles smog and traffic.
There, Grass earned a living repairing radios in luxury cars, working out of a shop on Ventura Boulevard, old town Camarillo’s main thoroughfare.
And Shifra was reunited with her sister, Tweedy, who had blossomed into one of Camarillo’s most eminent citizens.
Tweedy had taken to Camarillo like a native, dressing in colorful Spanish dresses at annual fiestas and leading drives to plant trees. She helped found a group called Camarillo Beautiful and was an original member of the Pleasant Valley Historical Society. She was active in the state Democratic Central Committee, the Boy Scouts, the American Legion and the Ventura County Chapter of the League of Women Voters.
‘Piercing Black Eyes’
“She had piercing black eyes that made you shiver in your boots,” said Betty Rutherford, a longtime friend and president of the Pleasant Valley Historical Society. “But if she liked you, those eyes were always twinkling at you.”
In 1960, Tweedy was one of the first women to serve on the Ventura County Fair Board. According to old newspaper reports, she was active in the fight for Camarillo cityhood and served on the fledgling city’s council from incorporation in 1964 to 1970. It was Tweedy who coined the city’s slogan “Las Personas Son La Ciudad"--The People Are the City.
“She was an amazing woman, especially during a time when women weren’t as active as they are now,” said Jack Fulkerson, a longtime friend. “I have the utmost respect and admiration for her.”
Friends remember Shifra as the more quiet of the two sisters.
“Shifra was, you might say, a constant companion to Tweedy,” Fulkerson said. “She had a great sense of humor. They were a nice pair.”
Shifra would drive Tweedy to historical society meetings in a beat-up old Cadillac “that went lumpety-lump, just like Jack Benny’s old Maxwell,” Rutherford said. Both sisters belonged to the Garden Club, where they showed begonias.
Tweedy’s first husband died in 1952 and a few years later, she married Alfred Rouce, a Ventura County sheriff’s deputy who died of a heart attack in the mid-1960s. Then she moved into a duplex several blocks from Shifra and Grass, who lived in a modest tract house on Palm Street.
In later years, friends say, the house overflowed with books, broken car radios and belongings accumulated during a lifetime of hoarding.
“They were both very well-educated but eccentric. They would always meet and talk to you in the back yard or in front. The house was always junked up--they wouldn’t let you inside,” said Peter Forchheimer, a friend of Grass’ and whose family fled the Nazis in the 1930s.
Forchheimer said that he met Grass about three years ago at the Camarillo community swimming pool and that he has become increasingly concerned about his friend’s well-being.
Richard Nicholl, who lived across the street from Shifra and Grass, said that the couple did not mingle much in later years and that “they were pretty much recluses.”
In her later years, Tweedy also withdrew from the community she had long championed, those who knew her say.
This may have been in part because all three were growing elderly and were in failing health. The two sisters died within weeks of each other.
Neither left a will.
So Grass began contacting their surviving relatives--second and third cousins who had scattered to Israel, South Africa, Australia, Mexico and the United States and ranging in age from mid-30s to late 80s.
“Henri took it upon himself to contact some of the known heirs,” said Hilgenberg, the estate’s administrator. Hilgenberg said the heirs have praised Grass’ devotion to the sisters.
“I think the family feels a pretty strong commitment to Henri. He’s held in high esteem as a beloved character.”
In fact, in September, five of those relatives asked Grass to represent them in estate proceedings, according to court documents. But according to probate court documents, they changed their minds in November and so the bank was appointed as administrator.
Grass continued living in the Palm Street house after Shifra’s death. A fire scorched about half the house in November, but he stayed there another month until city officials forced him out and into Room 123 of the Best Western Motel, where the estate agreed to pay Grass’ hotel bills until he decided what to do.
House Boarded Up
Today the house--which was co-owned by Tweedy and Shifra--is charred, boarded up, the yard overgrown with weeds. The front porch sags with the weight of boxes, radios, books. Nailed to the front door is a court order to vacate the premises.
At the Best Western Motel, where he lived from December until last week, Grass’ room overflowed with baguettes of bread, charred belongings, stacks of clothes, dried-out bunches of flowers, fast-food containers, World War II spy novels and a Barbara Cartland romance called “An Innocent in Paris.”
Last week, the estate administrator gave Grass a $1,000 check to pay for the first month’s rent at an Oxnard retirement home. But, according to Forchheimer, Grass became angry when he found that the check had been made out to the home instead of to him and he decided against the move.
On Friday, the bank, on the advice of its lawyer, stopped paying Grass’ bill after he failed to accept the settlement.
“There’s a limit as to how far they’re going to go and how much he’s going to receive,” said Hilgenberg, who is both exasperated with and concerned about the recalcitrant Grass.
Hershel Harrison, one of the 22 known heirs to Tweedy’s estate, also is frustrated by the old Parisian.
“But we do care,” Harrison said. “If we weren’t concerned, we wouldn’t be making him an offer.”
Steiger, the social worker, agreed. “The heirs are being more than generous,” she said.
Grass told Steiger that he wants a larger cash settlement, she said, and one of two mobile homes that the Haran sisters bought some years ago to keep in case an earthquake struck Camarillo.
But the estate’s administrators say Grass has not filed a legal claim. Should he do so, it could hold up distribution of the estate for years while the suit winds through probate courts.
As of Friday, Grass had a new lawyer. And, in an interview, he accused the banks, his friends and his previous lawyers of conspiring against him.
‘Dog in a Cage’
“It reminds me of World War II,” he said. “I am like a dog in a cage.”
Forchheimer, his friend, said Grass has grown increasingly suspicious of others’ motives and has rebuffed all offers of help. “Nobody seems equipped to handle someone like that.”
As for the estate of Edith (Tweedy) Haran Camarillo Rouce?
It probably will be divided eventually among about two dozen people from around the globe, who may or may not include Grass. The possible division of the estate saddens Gerald Fitzgerald, a grandson of Adolfo Camarillo.
“Tweedy had many offers to sell and she refused. She was an environmentalist. She loved the old traditional land.”