EDITOR’S NOTE: The is another in a series of occasional stories titled “The Grownups” about West Hollywood residents 75 years old or older who have been active in civic life.
She’s been called the Grand Dame of West Hollywood. Her dedication to the city is unparalleled. She has attended more WeHo City Council meetings than any other resident, except for John Heilman. Her advocacy helped shape the city and its policies, contributing significantly to West Hollywood as it exists today.
At 97, Jeanne Dobrin is still a force to be reckoned with in West Hollywood. Although she’s been absent from city events in recent months while recovering from a fall, she still keeps up on City Council meetings and other happenings about town. She’s exceptionally proud of the contributions she’s made.
“I think I’ve made a difference in this city,” says Dobrin. “I love West Hollywood. It’s a wonderful place, and I’m glad I could contribute to making this into a truly great city. I think I changed some of the laws of the city because I felt they needed some shaping up.”
Longtime friend John Altschul admires her dedication to the city and the issues she believes in.
“Jeanne has spent decades being relentless and indefatigable as one of the city’s primary boosters for its core values and everything that she believes to be righteous and good,” observes Altschul. “She’s done a tremendous amount to shape the city.”
Meanwhile City Councilmember John D’Amico, a long time friend, admires her tenaciousness
“Jeanne’s commitment to making the city what it is is irreducible,” says D’Amico. “There’s evidence of Jeanne’s knowledge and passion for West Hollywood everywhere.”
Friend Elyse Eisenberg calls Dobrin (who is 4’10” tall) “larger than life in a little package.”
“Jeanne’s contribution at city meetings and to the city over the years is invaluable,” says Eisenberg. “Her level of integrity and her attempts to keep the integrity of this city is second to none. She’s trying to keep this city on course. Her passion for this city has never wavered.”
A Greek Chorus of One
Jeanne Dobrin is exceptionally opinionated and is not afraid to speak up during city meetings, often disrupting the proceedings by speaking, very loudly, out of turn.
She’s been chastised frequently from the dais for that habit. Many residents h
ave rolled their eyes at her, if not said a few curse words about her. Despite the irritation she can cause, D’Amico thinks she’s serving an important function by acting as a Greek chorus, saying, loudly, what other people are often thinking about the arduous bureaucracy of city government.
“Jeanne sometimes expresses her frustration about how complicated government can be,” says D’Amico. “Bureaucracy engenders frustration for a lot of people, but the process does not allow people to always express their feelings in a timely manner. Jeanne does express her feelings, and because it comes from a 90-something-year-old woman, it has a particular resonance.”
D’Amico first met Dobrin in the mid 1990s when he joined the city’s Human Services Commission. Dobrin introduced herself at the end of his first meeting and they became fast friends. They still visit frequently and D’Amico now routinely gives her a ride home from City Council meetings.
Resident Larry Block, who befriended Dobrin five years ago, recognizes she can come off as abrasive and stubborn during Council meetings, but he says there is more to her than that.
“You don’t get an accurate impression of anyone in a two-minute public comment [at a city meeting],” says Block. “She has all this history, and she is going to give you her opinion, but she’s in the game to help mold the city, shaping the identity and culture of the city. There’s a lot to respect about her.”
Wide Breadth of Knowledge
An expert on land use and land policies thanks to a long, successful career as a real estate agent, Dobrin studies city reports and researches issues thoroughly. When she speaks at meetings, she knows what she’s talking about.
“She has forgotten more than any of us will ever know,” says Eisenberg, chuckling. “What she still remembers is also more than most of us will ever know.”
D’Amico believes that her breadth of knowledge is both inspiring and intimidating.
“Jeanne can run circles around any developers who come to town and don’t know their Ps and Qs,” D’Amico says. “She will teach them the whole alphabet very quickly.”
If she speaks up and people ignore her, Dobrin has been known to take them to court. In 2007, when the city approved the “Palm Project,” a five-story retail-residential development at 9001 Santa Monica Blvd. (beside the Pavilions grocery store), Dobrin, joined by Allegra Allison, filed a lawsuit over the project. The city approved it at a height of 62 feet when the zoning code only allows five-story buildings to be 55 feet tall. Dobrin believed those seven extra feet of height, if left unchallenged, could open the door to many other developers trying to exceed the maximum height. The developer quickly reduced the height to 55 feet, and the lawsuit was settled.
Dobrin is a regular at Planning Commission meetings and frequently reminds the commissioners, “the use runs with the land,” which means if a lot is approved for a particular use, the property will forever carry that entitlement. For example, if a lot is approved for a nightclub, but the club later closes, another nightclub can open in that space without needing Planning Commission approval.
It’s because of the use staying with the land that Dobrin is especially concerned about the proliferation of businesses that serve alcohol in West Hollywood. She points out the city has the highest concentration of liquor licenses per square mile of any place in Los Angeles County. Although the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control grants the alcohol license, the city must approve a particular piece of land for sale of alcohol before the license can be granted. Thus she wishes the Planning Commission and the City Council would think carefully before granting alcohol entitlements.
Not Driving, But Meeting New Friends
About a decade ago, Dobrin finally had to give up her driver’s license and subsequently sold her Cadillac. Now she’s dependent upon taxis and friends to get around, but the need for rides has brought many new people into her life.
Resident Manny Rodriguez recalls his first significant encounter with Dobrin in 2012 at the opening ceremonies for the newly renovated Hayworth House, the affordable housing complex on Hayworth Avenue (near Norton). When Dobrin didn’t have a way home, she approached him asking for a ride. The two had a pleasant chat during that ride and soon struck up a friendship. Rodriguez now frequently takes her shopping.
“I agree with her opinions on many things, but certainly not everything,” says Rodriguez. “Nonetheless, I respect her for her age. I respect the continuity of her advocacy for West Hollywood. These are things that are really, really commendable and deserve respect.”
It frustrates Rodriguez when people dismiss Dobrin because of her hearing impairment (she began losing her hearing in her 20s).
“Jeanne is a tough cookie” Rodriguez says. “It hurts me when people treat her badly, especially because of her [hearing] disability. She’s an elder statesman in this city and you’ve got to give her a little bit of slack. She’s earned it and she deserves it.”
Mentor and Inspiration
Dobrin’s persistent dedication to issues she believes in has inspired many an activist. Longtime friend Allegra Allison notes that Dobrin seems to seek out new activists as they start coming to city meetings concerned about a project or issue.
“She has a knack for befriending even the toughest of activists,” says Allison.
Elyse Eisenberg credits Dobrin as the mentor who taught her about city politics. The two became instant friends in 2007 when Eisenberg began fighting the large Centrum Sunset retail-office project proposed for the Tower Records lot on Sunset Boulevard at Horn Avenue.
“I watched in awe at this tiny little woman with the big voice, speaking with such knowledge about everything,” recalls Eisenberg. “She’s so knowledgeable and articulate on issues like EIRs [Environmental Impact Report], something which I was just learning about when I met her.”
Eisenberg notes it was Dobrin who first pointed out traffic studies in the Centrum Sunset EIR, the crucial argument which Eisenberg’s WeHo Heights neighborhood ultimately used to defeat the Centrum Sunset project after a five-year battle.
Likewise, resident Victor Omelczenko also considers Dobrin a mentor, as well as a close friend. He first met Dobrin during meetings concerning the city’s new General Plan, where she asked insightful questions about updating those guidelines for development in the city.
“Jeanne Dobrin is the consummate community advocate,” says Omelczenko. “I was impressed that she spoke not only about issues in her neighborhood but also about issues citywide. I particularly remember her helping me decipher city zoning maps, and driving around with her to scope out new development sites and their parking needs. Her vocal support for the Sheriff’s Department reminded me how important it is for the city to ensure – and provide funds – for the public safety.”
Involved Before WeHo Was a City
Even before West Hollywood was incorporated, Dobrin was actively involved in shaping it. She first moved here in 1977 when she bought a condo in a then-brand-new building on Cynthia Street in the Norma Triangle neighborhood.
Because she understood land-use issues, then Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman appointed her to a regional planning task force that included dealing with the unincorporated area of the county that would became the city of West Hollywood.
Longtime friend Ruth Williams reports Dobrin would frequently go to meetings of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in downtown Los Angeles and speak fervently about issues that concerned her, the same way she now does at WeHo City Council meetings.
“If you think she’s a force now, you should have seen her in the early ‘80s when I first met her,” says Williams. “She had quadruple the energy and intensity. When she believes in something, she comes out fighting and always sticks to her guns.”
When cityhood was on the ballot in 1984, Dobrin ran for election to be part of the first City Council. Out of 40 people on that ballot, Dobrin finished in 16th place, earning 975 votes.
Despite losing, she remained dedicated to the city. She was a regular at City Council meetings, but also found time to attend board and commission meetings as those bodies were gradually created in the first years of cityhood.
“I was curious how these different commissions were going to operate, what exactly they were going to do,” recalls Dobrin.
The council members offered her seats on the various boards and commissions, but she declined them all. However, in 1989, when the city created a Transportation Commission, she accepted then Councilmember Steve Schulte’s appointment because she was particularly concerned about parking issues in the city.
Also in 1989, the city created a Public Safety Commission to act as a sort of Police Commission overseeing the sheriff’s department and other safety issues. John Altschul was one of the original commissioners, and it was at the very first Public Safety Commission meeting that he met Dobrin for the first time.
“She came up to me afterward and introduced herself,” recalls Altschul. “She later sent me a letter and we began communicating. It gradually became obvious that the city’s well-being, as defined by her, was the passion of her life.”
If Jeanne Dobrin sounds like she would make a good character for a novel, she already is one. In 2004, local author John Morgan Wilson set his murder mystery, “Moth and Flame: A Benjamin Justice Novel,” in West Hollywood and featured a character who is a thinly disguised Jeanne Dobrin.
Born Jeanne Barton on Aug. 23, 1920 in New York City, her father was of Swedish descent, raised in Latvia and Estonia, which were then a part of Russia. His family’s name was Barrockson, but he changed it to Barton upon arrival in the United States. He managed business affairs and travel arrangements for premier Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and her famous dance troupe. While in that job, he met and married a troupe ballerina of Portuguese descent. The couple had two children, Jeanne, and a son, Daniel Barton, who became an actor and later moved to Australia (he died in 2009 and the WeHo City Council adjourned in his memory).
Her childhood was divided between New York City with her parents and the San Francisco Bay Area with her grandmother, who raised her while her parents were touring with the dance troupe. When her parents separated, she moved to Hollywood with her mother, who got a job as a secretary to a movie producer. After high school graduation, Dobrin worked for makeup mogul Max Factor, earning $10 a week. Later, she worked at the Beverly Hills Hotel as a manicurist. Eventually, she got a job as a dental assistant. In the 1950s, she began working as a real estate agent.
“A lot of women were becoming real estate agents during that period,” says Altschul. “She got into real estate at a time when 5% for a house in Beverly Hills was just $5,000.”
She was married for a few years to Norman Dobrin. Even after divorcing, the two remained friends. She was also especially close with her two sisters-in-law, who owned a bookstore in Hollywood called Books and Art.
Although she never went to college (few women did in those days), if she had, Dobrin likely would have majored in art and/or art history. Art has fascinated her since an early age; she voraciously read art-related books as a child. She is also an accomplished painter.
Friend Allegra Allison notes that her condo is filled with framed paintings that she made.
“I think you can actually see who Jeanne is when you see her art,” says Allison. “It’s colorful and lovely. Most people don’t ever get a chance to see her paintings or that side of her.”
Friend Tracey Benson calls Dobrin a “unique” person, but adds that she is incredibly generous and compassionate, in her own way.
“She may not be able to do big things for you, but she finds small ways of thanking you,” says Benson.
The two met about six years ago when Benson was a volunteer at Jewish Family Foundation and assigned to help Dobrin while she recovered from an illness. The two hit it off well and Benson, who lives a few blocks away, now stops by daily to check on her, often bringing her meals. “We’ll go to movies together. She joins my family for holidays,” says Benson. “I really enjoy her and have learned so much from her, especially about city politics.”
Politics and Pets
Altschul notes that Dobrin was born in August 1920, the same month that women got the right to vote in the United States thanks to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. He feels that is appropriate since politics has been such a major part of her life.
In addition to local politics, she has been active in state and national politics throughout her adult life and often hosts fundraisers for candidates she likes.
While she’s accomplished a lot on the city level, one thing on her agenda has remained elusive – getting an animal shelter in the West Hollywood city limits.
“We’re a city that has strong animal rights laws,” says Dobrin, a cat lover. “Why don’t we have an animal shelter here so people can adopt dogs and cats?”
Prim and Proper
Born at a time when ladies did not leave their home without looking their best, Dobrin still follows that prim-and-proper philosophy. She won’t leave her condo without putting on her makeup. Over the years when she has been hospitalized, the first thing she wants to do upon release is get her hair done.
Although she has some wrinkles on her face, her porcelain skin does not reveal a woman who is 97 years old.
“Jeanne always carries herself like the beautiful woman that she is,” says Elyse Eisenberg. “She still cares about her appearance. As beautiful as she looks in her 90s, she must have been stunning when she was in her 20s.”
Eisenberg notes that Dobrin’s favorite colors are “beautiful pinks, corals and peach,” colors that fill her apartment and wardrobe.
Larry Block agrees that her appearance is still important to her.
“She’s a lady first,” says Block. “She likes to make sure she looks pretty before she goes out. If I take her someplace, she likes to grab my hand when we walk in; she likes holding a man’s hand.”
Block frequently takes her shopping at the 99 Cent Store, something he considers a fun “adventure.”
“It’s amazing watching her as she meticulously goes down each aisle,” he says. “She knows exactly what she wants and finds it.”
He notes she has a strong feminine side that many people don’t get a chance to see.
“She’s very loving, she’s very sweet, she’s very feminine,” says Block. “When you spend time with her, you begin to notice it. I was enchanted by her femininity as I got to know her. That’s something that gets lost when she’s yelling at a City Council meeting.”