Our Laguna: Flip through the pages of Connie Morthland's life

Connie Morthland celebrated her 100th birthday this year, and the milestone was commemorated in a book by her younger daughter, Joan Hutchins.

The Grand Dame of Moss Point lives now at Crown Cove in Corona del Mar, but during her decades in Laguna Beach, local newspapers were filled with stories by and about her.

Her friends read like a "Who's Who," from Brooke Astor in New York to Athalie Clarke in California, and her accomplishments like "Who Did What," from working in a Hollywood studio to reviewing Laguna Playhouse productions.

Starting in 1958 after Hutchins went off to college on the East Coast, Morthland became more active in Laguna's community affairs, for which she was honored in 1999 as the Patriots Day Parade Citizen of the Year.

The Laguna Playhouse was Morthland's first love, according to Hutchins, who chronicled her mother's life in "The First One Hundred Years of Constance Gordon Grant Morthland."

Morthland edited the Playhouse newsletter, "Callboard," for more than 40 years, reviewing every play and profiling visiting actors. She encouraged Nellie Gail Moulton to donate funds to build the theater next to the Festival of Arts.

Her contributions were honored in 1992 at a high tea at the Ritz-Carlton that included tributes from the elder President George Bush, Gov. Pete Wilson and the British consul–general. Christine Rhoades chaired the event.

Morthland was a founder with Muriel Reynolds of Designing Women, for many years the only support group of the then-new Laguna College of Art & Design. Designing Women hosted the official opening ball held at the Ritz-Carlton.

Athalie Clark, Joan Irvine Smith's mother, encouraged Morthland to take an interest in the House Ear Institute and UC Irvine Medical School research associates, for which Morthland served as secretary and president. She also was a board member of South Coast Hospital and its first woman president in the hospital's then 24-year history in 1983.

Pitzer College, which began as women' college in the Claremont Colleges group but soon expanded, was another beneficiary of Morthland's time and energy. She was elected with her friend Jane Ward to the board in 1964.

Her name was listed in the 1981-82 "Who's Who of American Women."

Connie Morthland and her husband, the dashing Andrew Morthland, moved to Laguna Beach in 1948, first living in rented homes, then in the home she dubbed Cotswold by the Sea. That home was later incorporated into the Moss Point estate, which included gardens, tennis courts, the oceanfront Point House and the Vintage House nearer South Coast Highway.

Family friend Donnie Crevier now owns the home Morthland so loved.

The Morthlands allowed the property to be used for a variety of fundraisers on the tented tennis courts, book launches for the late John Weld and a meeting to recruit local Republicans that drew about 400 people.

One event was canceled when the Rev. Jerry Tankersley objected to a fundraiser planned by the Playhouse that included magic and sorcery.

"Having completed the process of going through all of Mother's papers in the library of Cotswold by the Sea, her Moss Point home since 1963, I am stunned at the breadth of her interests and skill of which she gave unstintingly to the community and was warmly loved in return," Hutchins wrote in her book.

The documents are included in about 12 albums, kept in the Vintage House at Moss Point — the record of an amazing life, well lived.

It began March 31, 1911, in British Columbia.

Constance Amelia was the third child and second daughter of Edith Maud Smith and Douglas Gordon Grant, who met in Canada, both members of prominent English families, which included Admiral Sir Arthur Mostyn Field and other British military figures.

Extensive family ties are still maintained with Canadian and British relatives and connections.

Grandmother Amelia Barnes Smith, who brought London musicals, exerted a strong influence on the young Constance, perhaps the source of her granddaughter's lifelong love of theater.

The Gordon Grants moved to Seattle in the early 1920s. The family later relocated to warmer, drier Southern California, to benefit their older daughter, Aileen, who suffered from tuberculosis, and Douglas, whose health had been compromised in the Boer War.

Constance Gordon Grant graduated from Glendale High School and then paid her way, using stenographic skills, to a degree with honors from Stanford University in the class of 1935.

She met her beloved "Drew" at Stanford, marrying him in 1937 upon her return from the first of her numerous trips to England, the last in 1986.

They were the model of the modern couple. They both worked, and they both played. Both had pilot's licenses and at one time they owned three planes. He loved fast cars, and she loved luxurious ones — certainly the Cadillac limousine in which she drove her friends until she was about 90.

In later years, even after Andrew Morthland began to decline, Connie Morthland said his great gift to her was his ability to make her laugh.

In the early years of the marriage, the young couple took up residence in Malibu, although they spent time in Laguna. She was working in the research department of Paramount Studios, and he was writing screenplays at MGM.

Their first child, daughter Patti, was born in 1938; Joan in 1940.

Andrew Morthland joined the U.S. Navy in 1941 as the world descended into World War II. He commanded six ships during the war, one of them blown up off of Anzio. His wife continued to work on films that entertained military and civilian audiences and her parents took care of the children.

Her job at Paramount ended in 1947 and the family, including her widowed mother, moved to Laguna Beach in 1948.

While her husband took up commercial tuna fishing and later worked in the family business, Compotite Corp., owned by his father, Connie Morthland played golf and tennis and volunteered her services to local theater, educational and medical institutions.

The Morthlands bought "Cotswold by the Sea," at 2261 S. Coast Hwy. in 1963 for about $125,000, helped out by a loan from Andrew's father.

Access to the home was from Moss Street, through a narrow drive between the fenced-off, oceanfront Point House and the dusty highway parcels, including the Vintage House.

The Point House came on the market in a probate sale, and the Morthlands snatched it from the clutches of a developer who had plans to build six houses on the property, according to Hutchins' account.

At the same time, the highway-fronted parcel that contained Vintage House came on the market, zoned for multi-residential development, but again the Morthlands prevailed and they became the owners of five lots that comprised the estate.

"Mother loved being the Grande Dame of the Moss Point estate," Hutchins wrote in her book.

And that she was.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 380-4321 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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