Flames Can't Dim Resident's Fire

Times Staff Writer

A week ago, Mary Hollander was a Ventura County avocado farmer with 88 years of living under her belt and a new crop hanging ripe in the orchard of her hilltop hacienda.

"Now I have smoked guacamole," Hollander said Thursday as she waited for her insurance adjuster.

The orchard had gone up in flames early Sunday, along with Hollander's home and almost everything she owns. Antiques. Jewelry. The violin that her late husband played under the baton of maestro Arturo Toscanini. At the sight of her smoldering 20 acres, another homeowner might have walked away.

But as friends and family are quick to point out, Hollander isn't just any homeowner. Though she's staying at a hotel in Oxnard, nobody close to the white-haired Hollander, who stands less than 5 feet tall, expects her to stay there for long.

"She just wills things to happen," said her son Nicholas, a television writer and producer who, with his two children, shares the property. "This is a woman who went through the Depression and wars and shortages ... the death of a daughter."

Hollander has traveled from the fanciest parlors of New York City to the comfortable life on Long Island, where the family home overlooked Oyster Bay. She moved west a decade ago.

"Everything that I loved was in that view," she said of the Somis home, which on clear days commanded a view of the Pacific, about 20 miles west.

Friends, such as Christopher Walken, Hector Elizondo and Marvin Hamlisch, would visit. Hollander would hold court in the 4,500-square-foot house, where the favorite topics were art, politics and sex.

First warned and then reassured by authorities and news reports as the fire lurched westward last Saturday, Hollander and her son had gone to sleep thinking the trouble was still more than 10 miles to the east.

But in the wee hours Sunday, fast-moving flames attacked, leaving the Hollanders only moments to get out.

They grabbed the two dogs, a cat, a few old photos and pieces of art. Hollander might be among the ashes herself, she said, but for the yelping of her Pomeranian and a warning from a neighbor as the temperature climbed.

"The flames were on both sides of the driveway, and so high," she said, "red and orange and smoking. And the wind was whistling. The flames were so big, they looked like huge waves."

The experience was numbing, she said. She had always figured that "bad things don't happen to good people, and I'm good people."

For seniors, social-service authorities say, such a loss can have a very different effect than it might for someone younger.

"An older adult can be resilient, based on the strength that they have, having lived through other kinds of losses and experiences that they can tap into as a reserve. Young people don't necessarily have that," said Susie Forer-Dehrey, a clinical social worker and associate executive director of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

"On the other hand, an older person may have less of a support network," she said. "They may not have the same friends and family they had around when they were younger."

Moreover, such an event may "bring up old wounds and losses and traumas," said Forer-Dehrey. "And for someone who has some memory loss or impairment, the idea of losing photos and memories they can connect to is devastating. To not have that trigger is very difficult. That's why they always say to have the negatives in the bank."

Hollander had no negatives in the bank. But unlike many victims of the wildfires, she has family handy and financial security. And she's almost a force of nature herself, said family friend Tom Ruegger, who called her "a remarkable dynamo of a woman."

Raised in New York and educated at New York University, she married violinist Max Hollander in the early 1940s. Through that decade and most of the next, he was associate concertmaster for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, led by Toscanini.

Mary Hollander directed, produced and acted for the Sagamore Players, a local theater troupe, staging shows near their Long Island home. Her son Lorin, who lives in Maine, emerged as a piano prodigy 50 years ago and continues to tour as a concert performer. Max Hollander died in 1986.

In 1993, Mary Hollander moved to the Somis ranch house and planted the orchard. When the flames came last week, this year's organically produced crop was about to be harvested. "Little Mary's Big Avocados," the labels were going to say. "I was gonna be like Chiquita Banana," Hollander said.

Almost immediately upon her return, Hollander began thinking about how to rebuild, and wondered how many of the avocado trees might come back.

"I'm gonna go back to the hilltop," Hollander said. "Maybe put a double-wide on the property."

Hollander has a cousin who's an architect; there are possibilities in the air. But it's too soon to be sure about details, her son said, because Mary Hollander is just getting started.

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