Orchestra Leader, Wife Grieve Their Drowned Son, 1 1/2


Orange County’s close-knit classical music world was in mourning Tuesday over news that the toddler son of Pacific Symphony conductor Carl St.Clair drowned in a swimming pool while his mother was incapacitated by a seizure.

Cole St.Clair, 18 months, apparently slipped into a neighbor’s Laguna Beach swimming pool late Monday afternoon after Susan St.Clair suffered a diabetic seizure and lost consciousness in an adjacent hot tub, authorities said.

The two were found by the wife’s father, who was staying with the family and became worried when the mother and son did not return to the St.Clair home. Both were taken to the hospital, where the boy was declared dead. His mother was later released.

Susan St.Clair, 33, has suffered from diabetes since she was 16 and has had seizures before, said Laguna Beach Lt. Danell Adams. Emergency crews were called out twice in 1998 because of her seizures, Adams said.


The owners of the home, friends of the St.Clairs who regularly made their pool available to the family, were not home at the time of the accident. Carl St.Clair, 47, was in Colorado rehearsing for a summer music festival; he flew home Tuesday morning.

The family was in seclusion Tuesday. Friends said the St.Clairs doted on their son--whom they named after songwriter Cole Porter--and took him to his first concert last week.

“He was the pride of their lives. It’s a horrible loss for them,” said John Forsyte, executive director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

Carl St.Clair recently marked his 10th anniversary as conductor of the Pacific Symphony, which boasts the third-largest budget among California orchestras after the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony.


A Texas native, St.Clair was a dark-horse candidate for Pacific Symphony music director in 1989. But, as an assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony at the time, he won over orchestra officials with his blend of musical ability and social grace.

Since then, St.Clair has developed a reputation as a rising star in the music world, guest conducting at some of the most prestigious orchestras in the country, including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But the birth of his son brought a dramatic change: St.Clair drastically cut back on his traveling, friends and orchestra officials said.

“Cole was their whole life. Carl changed his whole lifestyle and life plan to be able to be with his son more often,” said Barbara Johnson, vice president of development for the orchestra. “He cut his career as a conductor to the bare minimum . . . and Cole was always there when he was working with his music,” she said.


“Cole and Carl had an extraordinary relationship; they were so close,” said Mark Johnson, former board chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center and husband of Barbara Johnson. “The tragedy is compounded because I have never known a couple who wanted and loved their son more than these two.”

Louis Spisto, a former Pacific Symphony executive director who was best man at the St.Clairs’ wedding and godfather to Cole, flew in from Detroit on Tuesday to lend his support. He said Susan has struggled with her diabetes.

“Over the years, I have seen Susan not well. She becomes very weak and sometimes passes out. They have to get insulin . . . or go to the emergency room,” he said.

Managing diabetes is a lifelong task, said diabetes instructor Jane Hannah, who sits on the board of the American Diabetes Assn.'s Orange County chapter.


“We tell people you need to learn to live with your diabetes. They just have to pay attention to their meals, exercise and medication. The main thing is to check your blood sugar frequently. For some people, for certain activities like driving, you should check more often,” she said.

Spisto said the St.Clairs’ friends and colleagues are grieving with the couple.

“It is a tragic loss--an unbearable experience for Carl and Susan to go through,” he said. “They have an enormous love for each other, and I know that’s what’s going to get them through this.”