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Curtis Zahn

Poet and playwright Curtis Zahn (1912 – 1990) may not be a well-known name, but his legacy lives on through the work of the Pacificus Foundation, a literary arts group he founded in 1959 that not only preserves his work but offers financial support to emerging talent in the fields of poetry, short fiction and drama.

Born on November 12, 1912, he was the son of Oswald and Edith Zahn. His paternal grandfather had been a doctor serving Southern California prior to the Civil War, and his father was a businessman. Raised in Los Angeles and Coronado, Zahn briefly attended the University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State College (now University) and the Williams Institute and School of Authorship in Berkeley. Inheriting his father’s love for sailing, he served as an able-bodied seaman on an oceanography expedition in 1938 and parlayed that experience into writing a fish and game column for the San Diego Tribune-Sun . He served at that paper throughout World War II, except for one year during which he was incarcerated in a federal penitentiary for declaring himself a conscientious objector to the war.

Zahn began his literary career concurrent to his journalistic work, founding a group of short story writers in San Diego. In the mid-1940s, he moved to Los Angeles, and began contributing poems and plays to various publications like Cross Section, 1945 (L.B. Fischer, 1945) and Experiment Theatre Anthology (University of Washington Press, 1950). By 1951, he had acquired oceanfront property in Malibu, California, on which he built a villa-like home of his own design along with adjacent studios that served as a venue for writers’ workshops attended by such notables as Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and Christopher Isherwood. Around the same time, Zahn became a professional painter and collagist and served as chairman of the Malibu Art Association. In 1959, he founded the Pacificus Foundation and he dispensed typewriters or small amounts of cash to assist new writers.

By the 60s, Zahn was earning attention for his stage plays, many of which were first produced in Los Angeles. His one-act satire, Conditioned Reflex, was produced Off-Broadway in 1967. Like many, Zahn lost his home in the Malibu fires of 1969, but undeterred he found a new location for his writers colony, designing and building a redwood home in a hillside near Los Angeles. That dwelling, which contains Zahn’s original furnishing, framed family pictures and his art work, serves as the headquarters for the Pacificus Foundation, which annually presents the Curtis Zahn Poetry Prize in its founder’s honor.

Curtis Zahn died at age 78 on September 24, 1990.