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Gloria Daly; Ran the Original Brown Derby

December 20, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gloria Somborn Daly, the daughter of legendary actress Gloria Swanson and restaurateur Herbert Somborn, who inherited and ran her father's historic hat-shaped Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard, has died. She was 80.

Daly, who, with her children, negotiated the controversial sale and transformation of the distinctive movie industry gathering spot, died Dec. 11 of brain cancer in Carmel.

A celebrity from birth, Gloria Swanson Somborn was born Oct. 7, 1920, to the glamorous actress and the second of her six husbands. The pretty blond child, often compared with her mother, was sought by Hollywood as an actress, but chose a different life.

Her father, an early motion picture producer and distributor, and a millionaire businessman, married Swanson Dec. 20, 1919, and divorced her Aug. 9, 1922, charging, like first husband Wallace Beery and others who followed, that the actress had deserted him.

Somborn became famous on his own four years later when he created the Brown Derby at 3377 Wilshire Blvd. on a bet with screenwriter and longtime friend Wilson Mizner, who dared him: "If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat." Somborn added three more Brown Derbies in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Los Feliz, although only the original was shaped like a hat. The last, at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, closed in 1985.

When Somborn died in 1934 at the age of 53, his daughter, then a schoolgirl in Switzerland, inherited the bulk of his estate, held in trust until she was 30. After a year at Stanford, she married Robert William Anderson, son of a wealthy Bel-Air contractor, in the summer of 1939. They had three children, who survive her--Chris, Larry and Brooke Anderson Young.

In 1952, she made an arrangement with Brown Derby stockholders to relinquish her interest in the other restaurants to gain sole ownership of the original Wilshire Brown Derby.

Although the Hollywood glitterati gradually left the restaurant for tonier venues to the west, it continued to flourish as an internationally known tourist attraction. But by the late 1970s, even the tourists had gone elsewhere and Somborn's heirs were having trouble selling food out of the hat.

So on Sept. 19, 1980, managers on behalf of Daly and her children paid off and dismissed the staff, telling them the domed hat would be razed over the weekend to make way for a high-rise building. Trucks quickly whisked away furnishings and fixtures, and took stored food to a downtown rescue mission.

On Sunday morning, the bulldozers arrived. But protesters for the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage, and even Los Angeles City Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, were there too. The bulldozers were stopped for lack of a demolition permit, and Daly and her children agreed to donate the dome to the two preservation organizations. The property was sold to developers.

No high-rise was ever built. But in 1985, the parcel was turned into the peach and blue Brown Derby Plaza, a shopping center crowned with the slightly relocated 32-foot by 33-foot dome that had sheltered so many celebrities and caused so much fuss.

Daly lived for many years in New York City, where she was active in St. James Parish and was a chaplain's assistant at Memorial-Sloane Kettering Hospital.

After moving to Pebble Beach, Calif., she volunteered at the Hospice of Carmel and the Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula.

She served on the Board of Trustees at All Saints Episcopal Day School and was on the vestry of All Saints Church in Carmel.

Daly is survived by her husband of 32 years, Wilfrid A. Daly; a sister, Michelle Amon; her three children; and two grandchildren. (Her mother, actress Gloria Swanson, died in 1983 at the age of 84.)

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to All Saints Episcopal Day School, 8000 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel, CA 93923, or to a charity of the donor's choice.

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