After Smoke Cleared : Survivors: Some lost everything in the 1961 fire in Bel-Air and Brentwood. Others fought the blaze and the odds. They all remember the terror.
For almost 30 years, it was the one talked about as “the big one,” the worst fire in the history of Los Angeles, a devastating inferno that swept through Bel-Air and Brentwood on Nov. 6, 1961, razing 484 residences and leaving even the rich and famous homeless.
Richard Nixon, defeated in the presidential race the year before by John F. Kennedy, was living in a leased house at 901 N. Bundy Drive in Brentwood, writing “Six Crises.” As the flames licked closer, he jumped onto the roof and wet down the shingles with a garden hose before fleeing with treasured possessions that included notes on the forthcoming gubernatorial campaign (which he was to lose to Edmund G. “Pat” Brown) and records of his “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959.
The house was saved, the flames doused by firefighters with water pumped from neighborhood swimming pools. Also saved was Checkers, the Nixons’ famed cocker spaniel.
Zsa Zsa Gabor had been in New York, but flew home and, shovel in hand and a 10-carat diamond on one finger, sifted through the ruins of her Bellagio Place home, looking for her jewels. Said Zsa Zsa, “Oh, it’s just like when an American bomber dropped a bomb on our Budapest house!”
Burt Lancaster lost his large colonial home on Linda Flora Drive but his art collection, then valued at $250,000, was saved--it was on loan to Los Angeles County Museum of Art while his home was being remodeled.
On Tigertail Road in Brentwood, Lawrence Welk spent the night on his roof, keeping flames away with a garden hose. Actor Robert Taylor and his family fled their Mandeville Canyon ranch as the fire threatened it. “I grabbed my passport and shaving kit,” he said. “We drove to Ronnie Reagan’s place.”
When the fire was finally brought under control, the lush canyons of Bel Air were covered with a deep carpet of ash, the hills burned bare. Like eerie sentinels, garden statues watched over charred remains of homes. Patio furniture floated in the blackened waters of back-yard pools.
The speculation began almost immediately: Was some of the country’s most expensive real estate going to take a dive? Would people be afraid to rebuild, or to buy now in those hills? Some residents did leave, but most chose to stay and to rebuild on their scorched land.
Everett Laybourne, a lawyer, is one who stayed. He will never forget Nov. 6, 1961. “I was trying a case in court,” he says. “About 11 o’clock the phone rang and the clerk said, ‘Emergency call for Mr. Laybourne. His house is on fire.’ That was kind of an electrical moment.”
Laybourne calmly told the judge, “Your honor, this is disquieting news,” court was recessed and he hurried home to find his house in the 1000 block of Roscomare Road enveloped in flames 50 feet high--”the biggest bonfire you’ve ever seen.”
Earlier, his wife had evacuated their home. Laybourne remembers, “I just stood on the street and looked. . . . I knew there was nothing I could do. For about five minutes, my philosophy of life became very nonmaterialistic--and then I began planning a new home.”
That home replaced the California ranch style house that Laybourne and his wife, Dorrise, had bought from the builder in 1950 for an extravagant $27,000--”we thought we were just giving away our whole lifetime estate.”
The new house is a Japanese contemporary that, he says, he agonized over, certain he would never recoup his investment if he ever sold it. Today, he figures, this house is worth 15 times its original cost.
The night after the fire, Laybourne found in the dust where his house had stood $9.67 in cash, badly singed. Filing his tax return that year, he duly listed it among deductions. Although many homeowners victimized by the fire were audited by the Internal Revenue Service, he was not; he figures that little item was a convincing factor.
Among his Roscomare neighbors forced to evacuate as the flames leapfrogged from Mulholland Drive were actor Otto Kruger, his wife, and their daughter, Ottilie Rescher, who was visiting from the East. Ottilie remembers well the Kruger family stopping to ensure that Laybourne’s wife, Dorrise, was all right. Thirteen years later, Everett Laybourne, by then widowed, married Ottilie.
As for that case Laybourne was involved in, in Municipal Court, well, he returned the day after the fire and, he says, “We won the case going away. After that fire, I owned the courtroom. I think we would have won the case anyway, although I’ll always have a lingering doubt.”
Up in the 1700 block of Roscomare, Connie Wulffson was doing her laundry, when, about 9 a.m. that Nov. 6, her washing machine stopped. The electricity had gone out. She called a friend up the hill, who told her that people were being evacuated.
Bob Wulffson was at work 25 miles away at the Douglass plant in El Segundo when his wife called to tell him about the fire. “She wasn’t very concerned,” he recalls, “but we’d just been through three years of drought” and he was uneasy. He decided to come home--”I was the last one who got in” before police blocked off the road.
When the fire was about three blocks away, they loaded their two cars and he told his wife to drive down the hill, but she drove only a few blocks before abandoning the car and walking back to help. Already, Bob Wulffson had decided to make a stand with a garden hose on the roof. Then the police came along, she says, “and grabbed me and put me on the back of a motorcycle and said, ‘you’re going, lady.’ ”
At the foot of the hill, desperate for news of Bob, she was comforted by a portly man who put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Don’t cry, honey, they’ll find him.” It was director Alfred Hitchcock, who lived over on Chalon Road.
Meanwhile, the Wulffsons’ son, Don, a UCLA freshman, had managed to crawl up Roscomare Road in the gutter, where the water kept him safe from the flames. He joined his father on the roof. Connie Wulffson remembers, “He was afraid to tell us he had lost his retainers” in the gutter.
When the fire was finally out, “even the piano was soggy,” she says. But the house, which the Wulffsons had built in 1950, had been saved, the only one still standing as 14 houses all around it burned to the ground.
Within hours after the fire, she says, “People came in trucks and stole anything that was still there.” There wasn’t much. Even stoves and refrigerators had crumpled under the intense heat.
A week later came the rains that had been so desperately needed, and, with them, flooding that sent torrents of mud down the stripped hills into many of those houses still standing.
Still, Connie Wulffson, a real estate agent, says, “I think I got as much or more for houses after the fire because people came in and thought they were stealing something. People came in and they’d just grab them.” Houses that sold in the $50,000 bracket in 1961 today bring “as much as $800,000.”
Walter Goldschmidt, a UCLA anthropology professor, and his wife, Gale, were in Africa, where they had gone on a research project in the spring, 1961. That November, he recalls, “We were on the side of a mountain four hours away from the nearest mail. We had a tremendous urge to get down to the town, Mbale. It was one of those eerie experiences. I don’t believe in premonitions myself, but it had that quality.”
At Mbale, they had a telegram that had arrived that day from the chairman of the anthropology department: “Study burned, house saved in fire.”
The Goldschmidts had leased their house on Norman Place in Brentwood. But the study, a separate building, had been locked up safely with some of their valuables, his entire library and research papers inside.
Mrs. Goldschmidt flew home, where she spent 10 weeks dealing with the damage and with such nitty-gritty matters as insurance coverage on treasures such as an antique Chinese robe, an Eskimo mask and Indian baskets.
Later, she rejoined her husband in Uganda. It would be 18 months before he would return home to see the ruins of his study.
It was a wind-whipped fire that roared down from the crest of Mulholland, igniting dry trees and telephone poles and rooftops, tearing through Beverly Glen on the east, shooting over Sepulveda Boulevard into the lush canyons of Brentwood and over Chalon Road to Mandeville Canyon.
When Edward Machado of Linda Flora Drive in Bel-Air left for his job about 8 a.m., he had heard something vague about a fire way up on Mulholland. At 11 a.m., when Machado, a sales representative for Stationers Corp., made a call at Boulevard Stationers in Culver City, where the television was on, “they already had pictures of our street burning.”
He rushed home, only to be turned back at a roadblock. His wife had evacuated the 4,500-square-foot home they had built in 1950, grabbing a sheet off the bed and tossing her jewelry into it.
Other fleeing residents were not quite as clear-headed. One woman saved only her books of trading stamps. Another fled with the ham she had cooked the night before; still another, for some unfathomable reason, carried out only the telephone directory.
Late the next morning, the Machados were allowed up the hill for the first look at the ruins of their house--two chimneys still standing. “I went to my safe deposit built into the cement,” he says. “The moment I opened it, it caught fire. There was no oxygen in there. All our papers burned up, our title insurance papers, all that. . . .”
Down the street on Chalon Road, the fire destroyed much of the John Thomas Dye School, in whose auditorium the Machados had been married in 1950.
“Burt Lancaster lived down the street,” he says. “He came up and stood next to me. We were both just about crying. Nothing was left. I used to tell everybody that the king of Siam didn’t have a better place than we did. It was very hard to lose.”
But Buster, the family cat, survived, finding a hiding place somewhere down in the canyon and reappearing several days after the fire.
The fire consumed all but one of the homes along lower Linda Flora. Some homeowners, most of them older, did not choose to rebuild and moved elsewhere.
The Machados moved into a rental apartment at Montana and Sepulveda until, four years later, their new home was completed on the site of the old one.
They also bought one of the nearby vacant lots after the fire at a fire-sale price; he recently sold it for $500,000. “A lucky break,” he says.
Now 80 and a widower for four years, he lives alone in that house that he and his wife moved into in 1965, a house with a million-dollar view. “They’re going to have to carry me out feet first,” he says.
One hundred guests were evacuated that day from the Bel-Air Hotel, among them writer Gore Vidal and producer Otto Preminger.
Gov. Brown declared Los Angeles County a disaster area. The National Fire Underwriters reported the worst property loss in a single California community since the great San Francisco fire of 1906. With almost 500 homes destroyed, that loss totaled $25 million, an interesting commentary on escalating real estate prices in the 29 years since. (Last week’s Santa Barbara fire destroyed 472 homes and other buildings; the total property damage was estimated at $238 million).
Lee and Mary Seidman say they had “never thought of” the Roscomare Valley as a potential firetrap when they built a home there in 1950. In fact, he says, only a few months before the fire, the fire department had conducted a survey to determine how many homeowners in the area had swimming pools. “But they weren’t thinking in terms of fire,” he says. “They were thinking in terms of (civil) defense.”
He recalls seeing wisps of smoke and hearing the scream of sirens as he drove down Mulholland that morning to his office in Sherman Oaks. The fire spread so fast, he says, that by the time he reached the office 10 minutes later, Mary had called to say they had to get out.
Roscomare Valley “looked like a bomb had hit,” he says. “Our place was absolutely leveled.” He remembers seeing a fireman standing on Stradella Road with tears in his eyes, saying, “All these beautiful houses, and I have no water.”
Lee Seidman remembers that, due to a series of events, he then had been pretty down on people. The fire changed his mind about that: “A neighbor I hardly knew handed me his wallet and said, ‘Take what you need.’ ” A bachelor vacated his apartment for the night so the Seidmans and their two young sons would have shelter.
They leased a house nearby, and, Mary says, “I was rather apprehensive about coming back here.” Still, the boys were enrolled in the neighborhood school and both she and her husband loved the area. To this day, she says, “Every time it gets hot and the wind blows, I start getting a little nervous.”
When Mary Seidman fled their home, she grabbed a drawer full of souvenir matchbooks. She laughs as she recalls the logic--that they might explode.
Almost nothing was saved, except their rabbit, their dog and their parrot. Sifting through the embers, they found nothing of their lives that had been except one teacup, intact, and some pennies that the heat had fused together. They kept both as souvenirs.
“It’s the funniest feeling,” he says, “to get up in the morning and you don’t even have a toothbrush.”
Lee Seidman promised his wife she’d be in a new home on the old lot within six months, and, to the day, she was. Of course, the fact that he was a contractor helped. It is a large contemporary, with a new pool built inside the old, fire-weakened pool. In a corner of the patio is a pen for four tortoises, including Toby II, a descendant of Toby I, which was hibernating and perished in the fire.
On a wall of their living room hang boyhood oil portraits of their sons, Gary and Bob, now 41 and 39. The originals were destroyed in the fire. As a surprise housewarming gift, friends had the artist paint them again from his original sketches.
For all of these survivors of the ’61 blaze, pictures and reports of the Santa Barbara fire evoke vivid memories. They remember the soot, the heat, the deafening roar, the frantic anxiety about loved ones.
“Seeing that on television the other night brought it back very strongly,” says Mary Seidman. “My heart goes out to those people.”
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