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Jirayr Hamparzoom Zorthian

PVT in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co C


Born 1912 in Türkiye, Died 2004


County of residence at enlistment: New Haven County, CT
Other residence(s): New Haven, CT; New York, NY; Pasadena, CA; Altadena, CA
United States Army, did not accompany the unit to Europe
Occupation before the war: artists, sculptors, and teachers of art
College education before the war: Yale
Notes: Transferred from the 603rd to Army Intelligence; earned rank of T/4 after leaving the Ghost Army
Source: 603rd Camouflage Engineer Roster provided by W. Anderson; Company C roster; photo courtesy of New Haven High School yearbook and Ancestry®

Jirayr "Jerry" Zorthian was born on April 14, 1911 in Kütahya, Türkiye of Armenian parents, the oldest of three children. His father was a prominent writer and intellectual who was arrested and scheduled for execution during the period of the Armenian genocide. He managed to escape, and the family fled to Italy and later the United States, arriving in New Haven, CT in 1923.

Jerry had shown considerable talent in drawing and painting from an early age. When he was four years old, he made portraits of Armenian kings; these were admired, but destroyed by his parents to help keep the family safe.

At New Haven High School, Jerry was on the art board and assistant art editor for the Hillhouse Gleam, the high school's literary magazine. One of his illustrations graced the 1932 cover. (See the image slider elsewhere on this page.) He also was captain of the wrestling team and won a Connecticut state wrestling championship.

He won a full scholarship to Yale School of Fine Arts, and matriculated there. For his senior project, he painted a work entitled Cortez in Mexico. (See the image slider.) He graduated in 1936, and won a Winchester Fellowship to study for 18 months in Europe.

After returning home he became a professional artist, based in New Haven and later in New York City. He created murals sponsored by the Depression-era WPA Federal Art Project, including 11 murals telling the story of Tennessee's early history, which still can be seen in the Governor's reception area at the Tennessee State Capitol. He created a total of 42 murals throughout the US prior to his 1942 enlistment in the US Army, including those adorning the US Post Office in St. Johnsville, NY, humorous murals of the Elizabethan era the New Plaza Hotel in Harrisburg, PA, murals at the 1939 Worlds' Fair, and works on the walls of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub which famously burned in 1942.

Jerry enlisted in the Army on July 24, 1942 and, as a New York City area artist, was first assigned to the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. Sometime in 1943 he was transferred to Army Intelligence, and ended up creating propaganda posters for the war effort and a work he later called his masterpiece, a 157-foot-long mural entitled The Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training. He painted the work at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, and it was later hung at the Pentagon, but it was taken down at war's end and ultimately lost. Interestingly enough, "Camouflage" is featured in one panel of this mural, along with artists and actors at work. (See the image slider.) Shades of the Ghost Army?

Jerry married New Orleans heiress Elizabeth "Betty" Williams in 1942; they would go on to have four children: Barooyr (Barry), Tiran, Seyburn, and Toby. After the war, Jerry and Betty moved to Pasadena, CA where he painted full-time. Within a year, the couple had purchased 27 acres in the Altadena hills which would become the Zorthian Ranch. Shortly after they moved to the ranch, tragedy struck when Jerry accidentally hit and killed his toddler son, Tiran, when the child ran towards the oncoming car. The full story is described in a 1948 article. (See link in Sources.)

It was during the late 1940s and early 1950s that Jerry began building the ranch, lifestyle, and reputation that would mark him as a singular figure in the LA art world. He continued to paint, though he was generally not interested in selling his work, unless he really liked the prospective buyer! He did, however, win a 1949 purchase prize from the LA County Museum of Art for The Mob. But he had also started what he would eventually consider his life's work: turning the ranch into a giant art exhibit by building outbuildings, stables, walls, corrals, mosaics, and sculptures from recycled materials. He referred to the ranch as the "Center for Research and Development of Industrial Discards with an Emphasis on Aesthetics."

The 5'3" artist also became a larger-than-life figure on the local art scene. Every year from 1949 on, he led the parade for the "Blessing of the Animals" on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, organizing a large entry including horses, goats, pigs, geese, chickens, boa constrictors, and tarantulas. He also started hosting large, raucous parties at the ranch, some of which went on for several days.

In 1953, Jerry traveled to Syria after his father's death, and was gone for some time. When he returned, Betty initiated divorce proceedings. It is possible that she was influenced by scientologist L. Ron Hubbard in this regard. Jerry became the first man in California to win alimony from his ex-wife when, according to a 1954 newspaper article, "he told Superior Judge Kurtz Kauffman he was too busy painting pictures to earn a living." The divorce, and losing his children, was obviously a painful experience for him, resulting in his creating a painting called The Divorcement. The painting was so controversial that Jerry agreed not to show it again while either Jerry or Betty was alive, for the sake of the family. It was finally unveiled in 2017 at the Roslin Art Gallery in Glendale, CA. According to the gallery's invite to the unveiling, "the massive (77″ x 101″), emotionally charged piece expresses his rage aimed towards Betty, depicted as under the control of her monster money-eating mother, with her three children in chains. Although grim in subject, the piece is an explosion of colors, incorporating photographs, text, jewelry, and animal hair." (See the image slider.)

It did not take Jerry long to land on his feet, however. He chaired the Pasadena Art Fair in 1954 and 1955 and, soon after the divorce was final, he met 19-year old Dabney von Briesen, a California debutante. He literally swept her off her feet the night they met when he tossed the statuesque beauty over his shoulder while they were dancing at the Spinsters' Ball. When her mother found out she was engaged to a man 22 years her senior, she sent her to a psychiatrist and also offered to send Jerry!

Jerry and Dabney married on March 30, 1957 and they would become the parents of three children: Alan, Elsa, and Alice. Sadly, Jerry lost a second child when Elsa died of heart failure at the age of eight.

The couple purchased 21 more acres contiguous to the original ranch. They continued to host parties at the ranch, and to encourage other artists to work and camp on the property. Jerry became friends with people from many walks of life, including musician Charlie Parker, artist Andy Warhol, and Manhattan Project and Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman. He and Feynman became close friends; at one of their meetings Feynman said to Jerry: “I think the reason we have these arguments that never get anywhere is that you don’t know a damn thing about science, and I don’t know a damn thing about art. So, on alternate Sundays, I’ll give you a lesson in science, and you give me a lesson in art.” And so it was that, in 1962, at the age of 44 years, Feynman started painting.

The Pasadena and Los Angeles newspapers loved Jerry, and constantly featured articles about him. He seemed to be everywhere—teaching art for LA junior high school students; appearing on Groucho Marx's TV show, You Bet Your Life, in 1960; teaching art at Chouinard Art School and Pasadena City College; spending six months in 1966 on commission in Vietnam, creating paintings for the US Navy; conducting demonstrations at the LA County Fair; serving on the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce and as a trustee for the Pasadena Art Museum; dancing at a 1975 opera ball honoring Beverly Sills (where he stood on his head, threw his wife over his hip, and later balanced a glass of water on his head while jitterbugging).

Jerry continued to expand the construction on the property. He built rental houses out of discarded items, including telephone poles and railroad ties. He also built rock walls, towers, inlaid bridges, and walkways.

In addition, the Zorthians also were running a working ranch. Jerry bred horses and a 1973 article quoted him as follows: "We slaughter all of our animals here: pigs, goats, cattle. We make our own sausages, do our own butchering." For 25 years, the couple also ran a children's summer camp on the property. The Zorthian ranch was also the site of other events including jazz performances, retreats, and movie shoots.

And of course he continued to paint in his studio, with a focus on nude portraits. In 1973, William Agee, director of what was then the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, told The Los Angeles Times that Zorthian’s “entire ranch is a living work of art . . . the distinction between architecture and sculpture difficult to tell. . . . Personally, I find his drawings and paintings very strong and powerful, but he is so involved in so many things that by nature and temperament he is not geared to cranking out a lot of salable art, and he can’t put that ranch on the art market.”

A 1990 newspaper article described Jerry as a "rattlesnake handler, horse breeder, architect, painter, wine maker, hog butcher, lover of life, and raconteur extraordinaire." It went on to talk about the parties: "He is known for hosting exotic banquets with a robust blend of intellectuals, scientists, movie stars, and artists in attendance. Pilgrims such as actor Burgess Meredith, futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, Bob Hope's wife Dolores, and comedian Cheech Marin have journeyed up the dusty switchbacks to see the ranch's wonders."

By 1990, the ubiquitous newspaper articles had started referring to him as "legendary." A 1990 article described him: "In Pasadena art circles, his reputation for eccentricity has grown to mythic proportions. 'You go to these boring, liberal parties and there he is, having a great time, wearing a leather top hat and colorful vest,' said Pasadena arts activist Dorothy Garcia. 'He's like a half-man, half-horse, a centaur with Pan influences, dancing on tables. He's sort of a mountain Toulouse Lautrec.'"

Jerry died at the age of 92, on January 6, 2004, and he is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. Larry Wilson, editor of the Pasadena Star-News, wrote a column about him after his death which included the following tribute. "He won't be hauling the swill out to the marvelous, massive pigs on his ranch this morning. He won't be keeping that appointment to paint another rapturous young nymph nude from life in his studio this afternoon, beginning to sketch in that Yale-trained, wildly skilled, old-fashioned hand. . . . Who, if not Jirayr, will hold Primavera to celebrate spring, his birthday, Dabney's birthday, their anniversary and everything else under the sun? Who will muster the nymphs, causing them to disrobe on the stage and feed grapes to the reclining Zor-Bacchus [Jerry in red long johns and a toga] while the crowd goes wild? Some readers thought we wrote too much about Jerry and the goings-on at the ranch. Nonsense. We write too much about City Council meetings. If we could find them, we need more Jerry Zorthians. More artists who can befriend the physicists. More charmers who can kiss all the girls' hands. I often tell the story of how Jerry flirted shamelessly with every girlfriend I ever had (excepting Alice) since I was 14 and yet love, and oh how he loved, only Dabney."


1930 census

1936 article in the Hartford Courant (CT) about his graduation from Yale

1938 article in the Johnson City Chronicle (TN) about murals he painted in Tennessee

1940 census

1942 enlistment record

1943 article in the New Orleans Item (LA) about the artist, his wife, and his military position

1945 article in the Daily Mail (Hagerstown, MD) re his winning an art prize

1948 feature in the Atlanta Constitution (GA) about his accidentally running over his child

1953 article about his divorce in The Los Angeles Times (CA)

1954 column by him in the Pasadena Independent (CA) about murals

1954 article in the Pasadena Independent (CA) about his divorce

1956 article in the Pasadena Independent (CA) about an exhibit; includes info about his career

1957 California marriage index

1957 wedding announcement in the Los Angeles Times (CA)

1959 article in the Independent Star-News (Pasadena CA) about his activities

1966 article in the Independent Star-News (Pasadena CA) about his painting for the Navy in Vietnam

1973 article in the Los Angeles Times (CA) about his life and lifestyle

1975 article in the Los Angeles Times (CA) about his dancing

1984 article in the Monrovia News-Post (CA) about his life and art

1990 article in the Los Angeles Times (CA) about his eccentric life and lifestyle

1992 video of his ranch, discussion of his art, and his 81st birthday celebration

1997 article in the LA Weekly (CA) about his life and art

2001 article in the LA Times (CA) about his annual spring party

2004 Social Security death index

2004 obituary in the Yale News (CT)

2004 obituary in the Los Angeles Times (CA)

2004 column in memoriam by Larry Wilson, editor of the Pasadena Star-News (CA) (This column also appears as part of the AskArt biography below.)

2017 article in Artillery Magazine about the unveiling of The Divorcement

Wikipedia article

Zorthian Ranch biography

Autobiography from the artist and several obituaries (NOTE: Full text only readable on Fridays)

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