A California Wild Fire Destroys the Home of IOC President Avery Brundage 18 Days Before the Opening of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: Brundage’s Heavy Heart at the Immeasurable Loss of Asian Art

Avery Brundage_cover of The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage
Avery Brundage, from the cover of the book, The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage

The dry weather and powerful winds of California combine to threaten America’s most populous state with frightening wildfires that seem to appear out of nowhere, taking on a violent and devastating life of their own. The fires that suddenly broke out in Northern California on October 9, 2017, have resulted so far in dozens of deaths, and untold financial loss – one of the worst fires in recent memory.

Unfortunately for Californians, wildfires in summer are a potential threat to life and property every year.

On September 22, 1964, a brush fire broke out in the mountains east of Santa Barbara, a city north of Los Angeles. It is also where the then-President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, lived. Only weeks prior to the commencement of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Brundage was actually in San Francisco, getting ready to leave for Tokyo when the fires began their assault. By the time Brundage got to his home in La Piñeta, the damage to his mansion was done. Here is the September 25 report from AP:

Santa Barbara, Calif. (AP) – A massive, uncontrolled brush fire yesterday killed one firefighter, burned 34 others and left scores of homes destroyed, including the mansions of educator Robert Maynard Hutchins and the Olympic Games’ Avery Brundage.

Some 1,800 firefighters braced for the predicted return of hot wind form the interior – the so-called “devil wind” of California lore. Wednesday night it whipped the fire to spreading fury and caused mass evacuations of more than 5,000 from their homes.

The Forest Service, after helicopter surveys yesterday, reported 78 homes destroyed. They ranged in value from $12,000 to the $100,000 – $200,000 residential palaces in the exclusive suburb of Montecito.

The fire that destroyed the Brundage home_The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage
The fire that destroyed the Brundage home, from the book, The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage

Brundage’s home was likely at the $200,000 range. But what caused him particularly heartache was the loss of his art collection. Famed for his expertise in Asian art, Brundage had such a huge collection that he needed to find new homes for it. A good part of it ended up in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which is fortunate, because around a thousand pieces were destroyed in the fire.

As explained in the book, The Games Must Go On – Avery Brundage and The Olympic Movement, by Allen Guttman, staff from the nearby Montecito Country Club, which Brundage owned, were able to save only a few items of his collection, “but the house and almost all of the art treasures in it were destroyed.”

When he surveyed the ruins in person the day after the fire, he told reporters “the whole house was filled with irreplaceable treasures Mrs. Brundage and I collected from all over the world. There were dozens of pieces she particularly liked. And there were ancient Greek and Japanese pottery, Etruscan works, Japanese swords and Roman and Egyptian sculpture.” He was quite naturally, “sick at heart.”

Guttman explained that Brundage’s wife was already in Tokyo awaiting her husband, and that Brundage’s friends in Japan were doing everything they could to keep the news of the fire and their home from her.

Brundage arrived in Tokyo, filled with ambivalence, keeping the sadness at bay from his wife, and preparing himself for the opening of Asia’s first Olympiad.

Guttman wrote of Brundage’s appreciation for Asian philosophies and poetry. This one is by Lao Tzu in his collection of poems The Way of Life:

How can a man’s life keep its course

If he will not let it flow?

Those who flow as life flows know

They need no other force:

They feel no wear, they feel no tear,

They need no mending, no repair

The first home_ of Avery Brundage_The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage
The home of Avery Brundage destroyed by the fire, form the book, The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage