Book, Exhibit Savor Life of 'First Lady' Athalie Clarke

"The paintings selected for the show are filled with sunlight and warmth--both words that remind me of Athalie. . . . Mrs. Nixon was my First Lady. Mrs. Nixon and I always agreed that Athalie was our First Lady."

-- Richard Nixon, Feb. 4, 1994, "Reflections of California."

Gathering in the private room at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace where the Presidents and First Ladies were received after Nixon's funeral, about 90 library supporters celebrated last week's launch of the facility's new art exhibit, "Reflections of California, The Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Memorial Exhibition" sponsored by the Irvine Museum.

The sit-down luncheon, underwritten by Judie and George Argyros of Newport Beach, marked the first social event staged at the Yorba Linda library since Nixon's burial there on April 27.

Guest of honor at the not-to-be-missed affair for Orange County's social-political set was heiress Joan Irvine Smith, daughter of philanthropist and political activist Athalie Clarke (a personal friend and booster of Nixon, who, until her death last May at age 90, was considered Orange County's grand dame.)

During the lecture that preceded the Presidential Reception Room luncheon, Smith stood before hundreds of spectators in the library auditorium to touch on the highlights of her mother's life via a slide presentation of family photographs and the exhibit's California Impressionist paintings.

"I wanted to create a memorial to my mother that would make her live in the hearts of those who knew her and introduce her to those who had never known her," said Smith, speaking of the exhibit and "California Reflections," the art/history book she has published about Clarke's life. "I hope, through this book, I have been able to achieve this."


Smith has published a 185-page volume that will keep Orange County society buzzing for months. In the book, Clarke, who was always quiet and ultra-private when she moved in social circles, shares never-before-revealed secrets of her life.

There's candid talk of how Clarke, before her marriage in 1929 to James Irvine Jr. (Jase) was threatened by his ex-wife, Madeleine: "Only one thing marred that beautiful day," she wrote. "The awful letter Jase had received from Madeleine. It stated I would never reach the altar alive. I would have a bullet through my head before the service began."

(On the following page is a picture of the intrepid bride, resplendent in Belgian lace, smiling as she stood on the altar. They would honeymoon for three months at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach.)

The book also contains a lively account of the antics performed by her father-in-law, Irvine ranch owner James Irvine II, during a 1929 Fourth of July celebration at Irvine Cove: "As fast as he could break off a half or dozen or more (firecrackers), he would light them and toss them under the ladies' chairs. Some of the women were so startled they jumped out of their chairs. Others just fell out. My father-in-law was convulsed with laughter."

And mention of a harrowing dinner party that involved James Irvine II and a fireplace: Her guests were enjoying coffee in the living room, Clarke wrote, and suddenly her father-in-law came through the front door with "four or five pointers" in tow.

"They were a lively bunch until Mr. Irvine took a seat in his favorite chair. He stroked each one . . . (then) produced a tennis ball wound around with very strong string and . . . threw the ball into the fireplace.

"Each one of the dogs tried to retrieve the ball from the fire. One of them did and brought it to Mr. Irvine. The others barked, yelped and shook their ears. Some of them were badly singed."


One of the book's most poignant passages recalls the time when the newborn Smith--named Athalie Anita until Smith changed it to Joan when she was 4 years old--was critically ill. A blood transfusion saved her life.

"I knew it was nothing but a miracle that she had lived," Clarke wrote. "It was then I promised my father I would always do whatever I could for the medical profession for as long as I lived. I have been asked many times why I have so much interest in anything medically oriented. I have not shared the real reason before."

Smith's words are interspersed with Clarke's throughout the book (which is available at the library for $40 per copy). On one of the final pages, Smith wrote of her mother's peaceful death, which occurred during one of Clarke's daily naps in her art-filled Belcourt home: "When I reached her home, I went to her bedside and looked down into her sleeping face. To my amazement, the years and the pain had vanished from her countenance and she was once again my beautiful young mother I remembered when I was a girl."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World