Hedda Bolgar

The therapist in the garden of her Brentwood home. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times / September 10, 2008)

In 40 years of interviews as a journalist, I've never met anyone quite like Hedda Bolgar.

The pioneering psychoanalyst, who attended lectures by Sigmund Freud as a young woman and fled Vienna for the United States when the Third Reich entered Austria, was teaching and seeing patients at the age of 99 when she told me:

"I'm so far behind, I can never die."

Three years later, the Brentwood resident was still a working therapist at age 102, when she received an Outstanding Oldest Worker Award in the nation's capital. When I called to congratulate her, she talked about a lecture she was preparing, among other projects she was juggling.

Several of the therapist's friends contacted me Monday with the news that Bolgar, who once told me she didn't fear death but didn't want it to be too "undignified or painful," died peacefully Monday morning at the age of 103 in the home where she dazzled me with her intellect, spunk and grace.

"It's probably not a coincidence that she held on to life until Mother's Day, as she was indeed the mother of a generation of psychologists, psychoanalysts, and an entire community of mental health workers and patients," said Janet Woznica, a longtime friend and director of the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies.

Woznica said Bolgar, a founding member of that organization, lectured just three weeks ago on the traumatic effects of forced migration.

"She was wisdom," said Allen Yasser, co-founder with Bolgar of the Wright Institute of Los Angeles, which trains psychotherapists and offers low-cost treatment.

Yasser noted that Bolgar also helped establish the California School of Professional Psychology in 1969 and was chief psychologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in L.A. beginning in 1956.

Yasser said that even as her health failed in the last month, Bolgar kept rallying.

"Her mind was completely undiminished. Until the end ... you could ask her what happened in '38, or what happened in sixth grade," said Yasser, and there'd be a lively conversation about it.

Bolgar "could spark plug things like no one I've ever met," said Yasser. Four years ago, she got to thinking about the relationship between psychoanalysis and social justice and organized a wildly successful three-day conference called The Uprooted Mind.

She was also fond of hosting salons in her home, where she was never bashful about speaking her mind, such as when she called out the sadly misguided "lemmings" who dared threaten institutions like public education, Social Security and Medicare.

"I've lived through revolutions, famine, war. Things like that," Bolgar once told me, as if to explain the origins of her undying activism and penchant for candor.

Bolgar's husband, economist Herbert Bekker, died in 1973. But as Yasser put it, "She was never alone," living in a world of ideas and friends and new experiences. At 100, she discovered the Internet and began devouring catalogs on psychoanalytic research.

Bolgar told me her commitment to social justice came in part from her father, a historian and Hungarian ambassador to Britain, and her journalist mother, one of only two female war correspondents during World War I.

"What I grew up with was, if there's an unmet need in the world, you try to meet it," said Bolgar. "And if there's a problem, you try to solve it."

Hedda Bolgar, a true original, was an inspiration. She will be missed by many, and remembered for a life well-lived.