Rose from rough start in life to philanthropic success
Animal advocacy and spay/neuter philanthropist Erika Devore Brunson, 86, died in Los Angeles, California on May 17, 2022.
Maria Erika Knab, her original given name, was born on September 4, 1935, “in the small fishing town of Konigsberg in East Prussia,” according to an October 16, 2013 blog post by her much younger friend, actress Jolene Blalock, whose married name is Rapino.
“As a young girl,” continued Blalock, “all she knew was her small family in this quiet town. She spent her summers running along the seaside as the ocean lapped salt and seaweed over jagged rocks and the birch trees stretched out their long trunks toward the heavens. The seals bobbed their heads, the dolphins played as dolphins do, and the whales seemed to hold court in the ocean.
“It was a postcard setting,” Blalock alleged, “until the Red Army came in and viciously forced her, her family and friends out of the only world they ever knew.”
The Blalock account, unfortunately, is as fictional as her best known screen role, as the Vulcan first officer and science officer T’Pol in the science fiction television series Star Trek: Enterprise.
Reality is that East Prussia when Maria Erika Knab was born was a part of Nazi Germany, bordering on Poland and Russia.
Konigsberg, the East Prussian capital, now the Russian city of Kalingrad, was then a city of more than 372,000. There were no dolphins, few seals if any, and the only whales were brought in dead by Nazi whalers.
Nazi purges of Jews and speakers of Polish as a first language had already begun. Only about 120,000 residents survived the Holocaust and World War II, though the city was rapidly repopulated by displaced persons.
Orphaned during the war, Maria Erika Knab may have been among the German-speakers who were evacuated ahead of the Red Army advance in 1945.
Alternatively, Maria Erika Knab might have been among about 60,000 German-speaking civilians who were deported to Russian-occupied East Germany in 1946, or about 24,000 more who were deported to East Germany in 1947, after as many as 75,000 starved to death, died of typhoid fever and other epidemics, and/or died in revenge killings by other war survivors.
Film career led to smuggling Volkwagens
Shortening her name to simply Erika Knab and finding her way to West Berlin, she debuted as an actress in 1955 with a bit part in the German film Eine Frau genuegt nicht, released in English as One Woman Is Not Enough.
Altogether, Erika Knab played in 21 Berlin-made films, but earned her living chiefly by dubbing the voice of Mickey Mouse in translated versions of U.S.-made cartoon features.
Apparently married for the first time in Germany, possibly to a U.S. citizen, Erika Kanb arrived in Hollywood in 1957 as Erika Peters, while still under contract to the Berolina film studio in West Berlin.
Erika Peters “kept commuting between West Berlin and Hollywood, bringing in Volkswagens,” recounted New York Times Hollywood correspondent Charles Whitbeck in 1962. They were new Volkwagens, but because she drove them to the ships bringing them to the U.S., Erika Peters reputedly declared them to U.S. Customs as used.
The woman in the suitcase
“Since Miss Peters didn’t have a used car lot or an agency license, she was soon forced to give up the practice,” Whitbeck continued. “With her imported car money, Erika jumped into the automatic coin laundry business in Los Angeles,” before “moving into real estate, about to put up an apartment house on hustling Wilshire Boulevard.”
Whitbeck wrote her mini-biography, however, because Jack Webb’s True television series “needed a limber actress with a German accent who could fit into a normal sized suitcase,” for an escape-from-East Berlin episode entitled “Man With a Suitcase.”
Erika Peters fit the part.
Also playing roles in the films G.I. Blues and Heroes Die Young, and House of the Damned (1963), Erika Peters left the acting business after her August 1964 marriage to Beverly Hills clothing designer Sy Devore, who at age 55 was 26 years older.
Mrs. Sy Devore for 23 months
Devore, with stores in Palm Springs, Hollywood, Las Vegas, and Sherman Oaks, came originally from Brooklyn, New York, “attended New York University, and got his start in the clothing business with a shop called Leed’s in Manhattan’s theatrical district,” his Desert Sun obituary recounted.
“He came to Southern California in 1946 and opened his first store in Hollywood. His clientele included comedian Jerry Lewis, who reputedly spent $75,000 a year with Devore, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., William Holden, Milton Berle and many other entertainment world figures,” the obituary said.
Other Devore clients included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and pianist Władziu Valentino Liberace.
Erika Knab, later Peters, became Erika Devore, but Sy Devore died of a heart attack in July 1966. She then fought, and won, a year-long court battle against Devore’s previous wife, Mary Lou Laramore, to retain custody of Sy’s 14-year-old adopted daughter, Lisa Devore, who was heiress to most of the half-million-dollar Devore estate.
Lisa Devore reportedly made clear throughout the case that she had no relationship with Laramore and preferred to live with Erika Devore.
Becoming Erika Brunson
Erika Devore, according to gossip columnists, in November 1968 began dating her eventual third husband, Century Fast Foods mogul Robert M. Brunson. Robert M. Brunson had previously been married to actress Cathy Downs (1924-1976) from 1955 until their divorce in 1963.
Erika Devore by mid-1969 was Erika Devore Brunson, or simply Erika Brunson, the name she used for the rest of her life.
Her public record in animal advocacy began with her June 1972 appointment to the Los Angeles Board of Animal Regulation by Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty.
In that capacity Erika Brunson told a March 1973 public hearing that the then-Los Angeles practice of turning animals over for biomedical research use after only five days of impoundment was an insufficient time for owners to retrieve their pets. Pressure from Erika Brunson and others led eventually to Los Angeles discontinuing releasing animals for laboratory use altogether.
Interior decorator for Saudi royals
But her most intensive and influential work on behalf of animals was still far ahead.
First, Erika Brunson founded and developed her two most successful businesses, as an interior decorator and furniture maker.
Explained Associated Press Newsfeatures writer Barbara Mayer on March 20, 1991, “Brunson,” who had no formal training in interior design, “began as a royal decorator in 1978 by finding and furnishing a house in Los Angeles for Prince Khalid, a business associated of her husband’s and a nephew of King Fahd.”
Recalled Brunson, “He visited our house, liked the way I’d decorated it, and gave me a budget and a year to do the job.”
Resumed Mayer, “Her next assignment––a 100,000-square-foot palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for Prince Khalid’s mother––took her three years and led to more jobs in Saudi palaces as well as houses for royal family members in Houston and Paris.”
Preferring to furnish homes with antiques, but finding a scarcity of antiques she liked that were still sturdy enough for frequent use, Brunson soon started her own parallel furniture manufacturing company.
“A line of 45 reproductions is now marketed in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego,” Mayer said.
Erika Brunson put the profits from her two businesses into donations to animal charities, including ANIMALS 24-7, as a subscriber from our debut, in 2014.
Most of all, though, Brunson funded her own Coalition for Pets & Public Safety (COPPS), “an organization that provides free or low-cost spay and neuter services in Los Angeles,” recalled Ed Boks, director of Los Angeles Animal Services from 2005 to 2009.
IRS Form 990 filings indicate that the Coalition for Pets and Public Safety put as much as $220,000 a year into spay/neuter services in recent years.
“She also served as a Commissioner for the Department of Animal Services twice,” Boks wrote. “Whether decorating palaces in Dubai, Riyadh, or Versailles, Erika exuded a joyful assertiveness that never stopped pushing the envelope in the design industry or animal welfare. She was a kind and wonderful human being. I was honored to know her as a friend.”
Defense of Wayne Pacelle
A longtime member of the board of directors of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Brunson’s last public act in the animal advocacy field was a furious last-ditch defense of 13-year HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, after Pacelle in early 2018 came under intense public scrutiny for alleged sexual harassment of subordinates and ineffective response to complaints about other senior staff engaging in sexual harassment of their subordinates.
Erika Brunson in various media statements called the allegations against Pacelle “ridiculous” and “nonsense,” even after many current and former staff members came forward with similar complaints and testifying as witnesses.
Insisting that Pacelle had “done nothing wrong,” Erika Brunson told fellow HSUS board members that “We didn’t hire him to be a choir boy.”
Erika Brunson then asked “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?”, contended that “Women should be able to take care of themselves,” and asserted that “We’d have no chief executive officers and no executives of American companies if none of them had affairs.”
Pacelle reportedly survived a board-funded investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him, but resigned less than 24 hours later, effective on February 1, 2018.
Erika Brunson resigned from the Humane Society of the U.S. board hours later.