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OBITUARIES

Elin Brekke Vanderlip dies at 90; grande dame of the Palos Verdes Peninsula

Vanderlip founded Friends of French Art, which helped restore the country's art and architecture by making small donations that were matched by the French government.

August 17, 2009|Valerie J. Nelson

Elin Brekke Vanderlip, the Norwegian-born grande dame of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and founder of a Los Angeles group that raised millions of dollars to help rescue France's cultural riches, has died. She was 90.

Vanderlip, who was a member of the family that once owned much of the peninsula, died July 20 of heart failure at her home in Rancho Palos Verdes, said her daughter Narcissa.

In 1979, Vanderlip founded Friends of French Art, an organization that helped restore the country's art and architecture by making relatively small donations -- $10,000 or $20,000 -- that over the next 21 years were matched dollar for dollar by the French government.

"What we really do is shame the French into helping preserve their own patrimony," Vanderlip told The Times in 1996. "When they see what we can do with a little money, they invariably pick up the ball."

She was inspired to start the organization after meeting the curator of the Pissarro Museum in Pontoise, France, who begged her to help save the mill where the artist had worked. Vanderlip raised $31,000.

Soon after, she was asked to help restore a crumbling balcony, painted by such luminaries as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, at a home on an island in the Seine River. Again, she raised $18,000, and the balcony was saved.

Upon returning home, she set up the nonprofit Friends and devised a novel approach to fundraising -- those who gave a sizable tax-deductible donation were taken on exclusive tours of France, which cost extra. With Vanderlip as tour guide, the well-heeled patrons gained access to private chateaux, castles and art collections rarely open to the public.

By 1999, Friends of French Art had raised $6 million, helping to restore such treasures as a theater curtain painted by Pablo Picasso, Empress Josephine Bonaparte's nightgowns, aging staircases and hundreds of works of art.

Vanderlip was the first non-French woman to be given one of France's highest cultural honors, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, The Times reported in 1996.

Rosamond Bernier, who founded the art magazine L'Oeil, once wrote: "Mme. Vanderlip is making conservation chic."

She was born Elin Regine Brekke on June 7, 1919, in Oslo, one of three children of Guttorm Brekke, a structural engineer, and his wife, Ragnhild.

The family moved to Berlin and, when she was 7, to the U.S., where she grew up in several states. She graduated from high school in Iowa.

During World War II, Vanderlip worked at Norwegian embassies in Washington and London. After becoming a U.S. citizen, she joined the Red Cross and was sent to India.

On a whim, she moved west after the war and was a Warner Bros. secretary when she met Kelvin Vanderlip. He was a son of Frank Vanderlip Sr., who headed a consortium that paid more than $1.5 million in 1913 for 16,000 acres on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, with an eye toward development.

The couple married in 1946 and lived at Villa Narcissa, the Italianate estate her father-in-law built in Rancho Palos Verdes. They had four children before her husband died of cancer at 44 in 1956. She took the children to Europe, moving between Gstaad, Switzerland, and Paris.

After returning to California in the mid-1960s, she became involved with Lehman "Lee" Katz, a movie executive with whom she traveled to far-flung film locations. She remained his companion until he died at 89 in 2003.

At Villa Narcissa, where she lived until her death, Vanderlip created an Italian Renaissance garden on more than 11 acres and could host 50 garden tours a year. Proceeds benefited Friends of French Art.

Vanderlip also played a key role in securing family land for the Norwegian community to create Nansen Field in the late 1940s, her family said, which is now often used for soccer.

When a garden writer called her "eccentric, obstinate and fabulous," Vanderlip delighted in the description, and used it as the title of her 2008 self-published autobiography, her daughter said, written as a gift for her children.

In addition to her daughter Narcissa, Vanderlip is survived by her three other children, Kelvin of London; twins Katrina of Rowayton, Conn., and Henrik of Greenwich, Conn; and five grandchildren.

A memorial celebration will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 4 at Nansen Field, 15 Hidden Valley Road, Rolling Hills Estates.

Memorial donations, to be used for a garden at Nansen Field, may be made to Nansen Field Foundation, P.O. Box 1492, San Pedro, CA 90733.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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latimes.com/obituaries

Recent obituaries and accompanying photo galleries are on The Times' website.

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