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Ellen Byrens; Beverly Hills Civic Leader, Philanthropist


Ellen Byrens, a colorful Beverly Hills philanthropist and civic leader who prodded women to learn details of their husbands' businesses, has died. She was believed to be 68.

Mrs. Byrens, described by a friend as "simply an icon of Beverly Hills," died Monday at her art-filled home of a heart attack.

A resident of Beverly Hills since 1949, Mrs. Byrens served on a myriad of city commissions dealing with everything from urban design and freeways to fine arts and police facilities. She was active in school and library support groups, the community and symphony orchestras, the Beverly Hills Cultural Foundation, Meals on Wheels and Maple Center, which provides counseling for drug abuse and family problems.

She was a founding director of Reiss-Davis Clinic and a past president of the Beverly Hills chapters of the American Cancer Society and the American Red Cross. She was a columnist for the Beverly Hills Courier.

The Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce recently chose Mrs. Byrens as its Citizen of the Year, and was to bestow the honor on her at its annual ball May 5.

Mrs. Byrens served on two Los Angeles County commissions--Music and the Performing Arts from 1969 to 1975 and Obscenity and Pornography in the late 1960s. But most of her efforts were devoted to the civic and cultural betterment of Beverly Hills.

"In a large city, it's not as easy to be effective," she told The Times in 1980. "If we lived in New York, who would listen to me? But Beverly Hills is five square miles, its population is 33,000."

When her late husband, insurance company owner Berny Byrens, was still alive, she always believed in having his dinner on the table when he got home, even if she didn't do the cooking. But she also studied details of his financial affairs--refusing to sign his will when she learned that the attorney treated her jewels as community property controllable by her husband.

That experience led her to create a course she taught through Beverly Hills Adult Education, called "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Your Husband's (Business) Affairs but Were Afraid to Ask."

"Waiting until you become a widow to study money matters is like learning to swim after the ship has sunk," she told students.

Born in Berlin, she fled Nazi rule with her art-dealer father and mother and enough German Impressionist paintings to pay the rent until they were established here. She later attended UCLA, and started out as a teacher.

When wealth provided her with servants, she still believed in being able to handle any task in her household, right down to cleaning the toilets.

"Actually, I love to do toilets," the community leader told The Times. "We have the cleanest toilets in town."

After her son, Barry, was killed during an armed robbery in Hawaii, Mrs. Byrens turned her considerable fund-raising abilities to working for the organization Handgun Control Inc.

Her daughter, restaurateur Bambi Byrens, has asked that any memorial contributions be made in Mrs. Byrens' name to Handgun Control Inc., P.O. Box 96637, Washington, D.C. 20077-7305.

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