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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.

July 03, 1990|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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