Historical records matching Werner Gunther Scharff
About Werner Gunther Scharff
Werner Scharff, 90; Arts Patron, Clothier Helped Dress Up Venice
By Valerie J. Nelson
Times Staff Writer
August 27, 2006
Walking along the Pacific Ocean shore in Venice in the late 1940s, Werner Scharff couldn't imagine a more dilapidated piece of beachfront property.
No one believed that the area "would ever amount to anything," he recalled decades later, and few wanted to invest there except Scharff, who had made his name and fortune as the designer of Lanz flannel nightgowns.
Businessman Abbott Kinney had won the property that is now Venice in a coin toss in the early 1900s and created a West Coast version of Coney Island there. But it had long since lost its allure when Scharff decided that any beachfront property had to be a good investment.
"Werner was extraordinarily committed to it way before anyone else recognized a lot of the value there," said Jack Hoffmann, a real estate broker who met Scharff about 20 years ago. "His participation made Venice what it is today."
Scharff, who became a major Venice landowner and a patron of the arts who commissioned many of the area's murals, died Aug. 17 at home in Santa Monica, said a son, Christopher. He was 90 and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.
In 1989, artist Rip Cronk asked Scharff's permission to install a mural on what was then St. Mark's Hotel on Windward Avenue.
Scharff agreed but with a caveat: "Venice Reconstituted" could grace the side if the artist threw in something for the front. So Cronk also gave him "Lost Art," a trompe l'oeil continuation of bricks with a girl painted in a window.
"He had all these wonderful walls available on the beach in Venice. They had such good exposure and after I put the murals up, I became 'the famous muralist,' " Cronk told The Times last week. "I owe my career to him."
Recognizing the value of other people's success was "the greatest thing" Scharff did, and he often invested in others, especially restaurateurs, Hoffmann said. "What was good for Werner was good for Venice."
His Venice properties included the Cadillac Hotel on the Boardwalk and the Beach House on Ocean Front Walk; L.A. Louver, an art gallery he had built on Venice Boulevard; the studio of artist Robert Graham; and the structure that launched the now-defunct West Beach Cafe, a focal point of the 1970s California art scene.
These and hundreds of other buildings, mainly in Venice but also in other parts of Los Angeles and California, caused Christopher Scharff to estimate his father's net worth at $100 million.
"He was a real risk-taker," his son said. "He used to say, 'If 51% of the things I try work, I come out ahead.' "
Born July 7, 1916, in Landau, Germany, Werner G. Scharff was the youngest of three brothers. His father died before he was 10, forcing Scharff to end his education before high school so he could work in the family's grocery business.
To escape the Nazis, Scharff and his brother Kurt moved to New York in 1937, where they met Sepp Lanz, an Austrian emigre-turned-retailer who came with the brothers to California a year later.
The three men set up shop at 6160 Wilshire Blvd. — a location that stayed open until 1993 — and began selling their Austrian-inspired ski clothes and sleepwear, which reportedly were popular with such movie stars as Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford.
A nightgown designed by Scharff became the Lanz company's signature product. Known as "the granny gown," it was based on a dress that Scharff's landlady had worn and was made of inexpensive cotton flannel.
During World War II, Scharff worked the night shift, building warships, and served in the Army, while the Lanz business would grow to include more than 30 retail stores and a dress manufacturing division.
"In the early 1950s, Lanz had one of the hottest dress lines," Christopher Scharff said. "Any woman in her teens or early 20s had a Lanz dress. It was like having to have a Gucci handbag."
In 1996, the family sold the business to San Francisco Mercantile Co., and today Lanz of Salzburg nightgowns are still made — by Eileen West, a San Francisco-based sleepwear designer.
Divorced twice, Scharff is survived by his third wife, Simone, whom he married about 40 years ago. In addition to his son Christopher of Bel-Air, Scharff is survived by his children Peter and Alexis Scharff, both of Bend, Ore.; Christopher and Angela Hormel, both of Ojai; Gregory Hormel of Hoboken, N.J.; and six grandchildren.
Known for being hard-charging and outspoken — his son said "he loved everyone but not everyone loved him" — the businessman did not shy away from oversized displays of affection for his wife. He had "Werner loves Simone" incorporated into murals on several of his buildings.
Cronk created at least half a dozen murals for Scharff, including the Van Gogh tribute "Homage to a Starry Knight" on Ocean Front Walk. The artist also painted a portrait of himself rappelling down the Beach House.
Scharff, who nurtured the funky side of Venice along with his business deals, asked Cronk to come up with a lasting tribute to Abbott Kinney, whose spirit Scharff embodied, his business partners said.
The mural on an apartment building at 55 N. Venice Blvd. was completed last year.