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Quest for a Legacy : Others Want Him to Settle, but Henri Grass Is Staking a Claim for Share of Camarillo Land

March 16, 1989|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

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.

Urge Acceptance

"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.

Land Grants

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.

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