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Elizabeth Segerstrom exclusive

Carrying on her husband's legacy

Elizabeth stands on the second floor of the concert hall with a view of the center.

If you have lunch with Elizabeth Segerstrom in her office, she will feed you filet mignon in a room where white flowers fill the centerpiece on a white marble table, where works by grand masters like Matisse grace alabaster walls. Along with your Fiji water you will drink in the view of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the first stainless steel high-rise erected in the county, the towering Richard Serra sculpture “Connector” arching toward the sky. All of it reminds her daily of her late husband’s sweeping vision. He died in February 2015.

In English accented with traces of her native Polish — and perhaps Russian and French too, the other languages in which she is fluent—she will regale you with story after story of the gentleman she fell hard and fast for, whom she says was “one of a kind.” A World War II hero who earned a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge, the entrepreneur who created South Coast Plaza, patron of the arts who was awarded the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence, a great dancer — Henry Segerstrom was all this and more.

But talking about herself is not something Elizabeth does easily. A minute, maybe two, then the conversation will return to the man she loved. “My husband …” she will begin. Much about his personal journey and professional triumphs is not widely known, but should be, she believes, which is why she is thrilled PBS SoCal has completed the documentary, “Henry Segerstrom: Imagining the Future,” which premieres on September 22. It’s what led her to override her reticence and ask a journalist to lunch. “It is even extremely uncommon for me to grant an interview,” she concedes, “but I believe so passionately in supporting the legacy of my husband and our family in the arts, philanthropy and the business of retail.

“As his wife, I know what a great man he was during his lifetime, and how incomparable and positive his imprimatur was on Orange County. But it makes me prouder than ever to see others recognize and confirm it,” she says.

Elizabeth especially enjoys telling the tale about how Henry’s mother once asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He supposedly replied, “Mother, I want to have a cashmere sweater.” The thing is, he was 4 years old at the time. He was the son of lima bean farmers, living in a ranch house in Santa Ana. Where did he get that idea?

She laughs. “If there was one thing Henry loved more than art, it was luxury.”

“Men like him don’t exist anymore. They broke the mold,” and when she says this she will look straight into your eyes as if to underline the point.

In interviews, Henry often referred to Elizabeth, his third wife, as his “muse,” but she believes it was the other way around. In nearly 17 years together, she says, she learned from him that “arts, beauty, excellence — they come with difficulty, but the fight for what is the best is worth everything.”

Since his death, Elizabeth has stepped into the role of co-managing partner, along with Henry’s niece, Sandy Segerstrom Daniels, of C.J. Segerstrom and Sons, which owns South Coast Plaza. “I was very fortunate that throughout our marriage, Henry spent a lot of time coaching me about the business at South Coast Plaza, his philosophy, dreams and approach, but I did not know that he was preparing me to step into his shoes,” says Elizabeth.

“He, like I, viewed clothing and accessories as an art form or a high-end craft in and of themselves. This is why South Coast Plaza has hosted numerous exhibitions focusing on the artistry of fashion.” (The impeccable fit of her Max Mara brocade dress underscores the point.) “It’s important to maintain the brilliant legacy that he’s left behind — and also take it further. There’s no doubt that South Coast Plaza is what it is now because Henry had foresight and executed a particular vision with the family.”

As South Coast Plaza approaches next year’s 50th anniversary, it shows little signs of age, with annual sales approaching $2 billion. “We are fully leased, we had a record year in 2015 and are well on our way to exceeding that for 2016,” she adds.

The “muse” is also following her husband’s footsteps as a leading arts patron at home and beyond OC’s borders. A member of the leadership council for Pacific Standard Time LA/LA, Elizabeth says passion for the arts “was in my husband’s DNA, and in the family’s as well, and I truly believe it is an important responsibility to uphold what he and our family believed in.” She points to the relationship forged with Carnegie Hall, which has brought programs to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts over the years. In May, she served on the gala committee for the 125th anniversary of the famed New York concert hall.

Another notable anniversary is this year’s 30th for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, but the 10th anniversary of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on September 15 is particularly poignant for her. She was chairwoman — “thanks to Henry’s encouragement,” she says – of the gala opening, where one of the highlights was a memorable performance by Plácido Domingo.

Elizabeth, a clinical psychologist, met Henry in New York in 2000. She was dining alone at the St. Regis Hotel restaurant reviewing paperwork, and he too was eating alone. The rest, as they say, is history. “I didn’t know the full extent of his role in Orange County when I met him,” she adds, admitting with a laugh that she thought he was talking about Orange, N. J.
As she spins her tales, Elizabeth uses the present tense when talking about Henry, as if he will walk through the door at any moment. “He’s very much a part of me, and always on my mind as I carry on the work he began many years ago. It’s what he would have wanted — but it’s also what I believe in and what I want to do with my life.”

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