An Appreciation: Athalie Clarke

Constance Morthland will miss the phone calls every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11 a.m.

Those were the times when her dear friend of 40 years, Athalie Clarke, would call to chat. "We would talk forever about what she was doing, what I was doing, just share with each other," says Morthland, who lives at Moss Point in Laguna Beach. "Oh, and we would talk about flowers--what she was planting, what I was planting. Athalie loved flowers."

When Clarke, who had been in failing health for the past year, died in her sleep on Saturday in Newport Beach, Orange County society lost its grande dame. Clarke, who was 90, was a humble woman of great dignity and accomplishment.

"I used to call her the Brooke Astor of the West Coast," said Morthland on Monday. "She was so humane, so thoughtful of other people. She had this wonderful way of making everyone feel good about themselves."

Morthland and Clarke met at a Beverly Hills dinner party. "I was amazed at her intelligence, her commentary on political things even then," Morthland said. "She had a very high IQ. Her legacy to Orange County is that she probably did more for people than any other single person."

Clarke liked to work behind the scenes. You'd get a friendly phone call from Athalie--mother of heiress Joan Irvine Smith--telling you about her latest project. Or a handwritten note explaining the worthiness of a cause.

And you'd pay attention. The name Athalie Clarke conjured up strength and influence as well as gentility. Clarke's social circle extended to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

When Richard M. Nixon was President, Clarke helped raise money to refurbish the White House.

As an active member of the Committee to Preserve the White House, Clarke "adopted" the Vermeil Room by donating funds for restoration and maintenance. The ground floor room is designed for use by the First Lady for entertaining small groups.

"She has made a contribution to the nation with her work," said Clement Congers, former White House curator. "She was a generous financial donor and she's gratefully remembered as really one of the most charming, gracious women I've ever known."

She founded the Associates, the support group of the House Institute in Los Angeles. Institute founder Dr. Howard House--otologist to President Ronald Reagan and Athalie herself--was a close friend. (At his 85th birthday bash at the Balboa Bay Club last week, House took the stage to speak lovingly of Athalie and lamented the fact that she was too ill to attend the party.)

Gus Owen, chairman of the Orange County Lincoln Club, recalled that, in the early '60s, Clarke became the first woman member of that Republican Party contributors group. He met her at a reception for Nixon.

"She was such an outstanding lady. So gracious," he said. "She felt it was part of her responsibility to take an active role."

Along with Renee Segerstrom, Athalie founded the Research Associates, a support group of UC Irvine. And for the past several years, she has presided with Joan over the Oaks Classic, a horse-jumping competition and brunch that has become the centerpiece of Orange County's spring social season.

When you were lucky enough to catch Athalie alone, she'd tell you the most wonderful stories. One of her favorite tales was about how Joan, whom she had named Athalie, changed her name when she found "Athalie" difficult to pronounce. (The story goes that when Joan Irvine Smith was 5 she named herself after the nursery rhyme: "Here I am, little jumping Joan; When nobody's with me, I'm always alone.")

And then there was the romantic account of her honeymoon with James Irvine III (son of James Irvine Jr., founder of the Irvine Co.), the 35-year-old she married in 1929 when she was 25. "We honeymooned at the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach for two months," she would say, her pale blue eyes beaming. And then: "I lost him when he was 41 to tuberculosis."

Left unfinished by Clarke's death is the book she was writing about her famous father-in-law and the vast family business he started; it was titled "Mr. Jim: A Story That's Never Been Told."

A family spokesman says it is hoped that other family members will finish the book.

Athalie was so charming that people could never say no to her. "She asked me to become president of Research Associates, and I said yes because I knew I would have her help, her advice," Morthland said.

Gloria Osbrink, president of the Orange County chapter of the Associates support group of the House Ear Institute, called Athalie a person who believed in "the goodness of people."

"She would always say to me: 'Just believe; You have a lot of love and warmth to give--just keep on giving it.'

"She made me feel like I was the only one she was saying those things to. I knew she soothed others, but I felt it was just for me."

Morthland and Osbrink will be among a small group of friends and family who will attend private services for Clarke on Thursday at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.

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