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Contentious Wedding Only Part of Irvine Family Feud : Society: Joan Irvine Smith and ex-husband discuss son's estrangement, which he says cost him $100 million.

October 02, 1994|KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — To hear Morton Irvine Smith tell the story, he gave up $100 million for love.

The young Huntington Beach mutual funds salesman, a presumed heir to one of Southern California's wealthiest founding clans, would not be denied the "love of my life" even if Mom couldn't deal with his fiancee's working-class Boston roots.

So, when young Morton would not cancel his date at the altar with Marianne Campbell two weeks ago, Orange County's Joan Irvine Smith--according to Morton--simply voided her son's inheritance.

The story, according to Morton, mirrors King Edward's celebrated abdication of power and wealth to marry the love his life, actress Wallis Warfield Simpson.

But behind the very private walls of his parents' estates in San Juan Capistrano and Middleburg, Va., they are telling a much different story.

In a rare interview, Joan Irvine Smith confirms only one element of the story: "that it (the marriage) will be a continuing cause of estrangement of Morton from the rest of the family."

"The fact that she comes from a middle-class family has nothing to do with it," said Smith, comfortably sunk in a living-room chair with bare feet propped up on a puffy ottoman. "It was how she conducted herself over the 10 years I've known her. She was very antagonistic toward my relationship with my son."

As for the remainder of the tale, she says, "I trust that many will put as much credence in this story as in the periodic rumors that 'Elvis lives'. . . ."

And she takes particular umbrage at the fact that Morton invited the National Enquirer to cover his wedding.

"Morton's actions have now created the public spectacle of talk show debate and continued media attention, which have caused even greater strain on family relationships than his marriage to Marianne Campbell."

According to Morton's father, Morton Whister (Cappy) Smith, the real story could be taken straight from the script of the movie "Arthur," with young Morton playing the lead role of a carefree, carousing party-animal who has done his best to embarrass the family.

It is a role, his dad suggests, that Morton has played better than Dudley Moore did on the big screen.

"The kid is nothing more than a bum," the elder Smith said, adding that "the boy" struck a fatal blow in their father-son relationship when a wedding guest told the National Enquirer that Cappy Smith did not attend because he feared being cut off from his ex-wife's payroll.

"When you act common, you are a commoner," said the legendary, 79-year-old horseman who runs his own horse breeding operation. "Nobody with an ounce of sense would do that to his family. As far as I'm concerned he's not my son. I don't love him. I think he's a s---."

For a family whose members closely guard their privacy, the public airing of such family matters is unusual but far from unprecedented.

For decades, Joan Irvine Smith has fought very public battles with the Irvine Co.--the vast barony founded by her great-grandfather--in attempts to protect her inheritance. In her last legal bout with the company, she won a $149-million judgment for the family's share of the real estate empire sold in 1983.

Perhaps the family's most intriguing drama, however, played out in 1959 but still remains a mystery in some quarters. The death of Myford Plum Irvine, then president of the Irvine Co., is known as the "double-bullet suicide." His body was found in the family ranch house with shotgun blasts in the abdomen and head.

Thirty-five years after the fact, rumors continue to circulate that Irvine had rung up large Las Vegas gambling debts at the time and that they might have been somehow related to his death. State Assemblyman Gil Ferguson, a former Irvine Co. executive, said the prominent executive's death became the subject of national speculation, particularly after a coroner ruled it a suicide.

"You're talking about a family who owned one-fifth of an entire county," Ferguson said. "No one's ever written the real story about them. If it were, it would be one of the most interesting stories ever written about life in California."

After all, this is a family whose patriarchs and matriarchs have schmoozed with Presidents, foreign dignitaries and movie stars, while largely avoiding the glitz and other trappings of celebrity, not to mention the unflattering focus of the tabloid press.

But all that concern for discretion and decorum appeared to go out the window last month, when Morton set off a full-scale family feud by proceeding down the aisle with Campbell, a Long Beach nurse, trailed by Enquirer photographers and reporters.

Morton said he doesn't regret the decision to allow the tabloid to cover the event. He said he received no payment for the story, which Enquirer reporter Dani Cestaro described as having "romance and everything our readers are interested in."

"I thought it would be fun to have them there," Morton said of the paper. "I wasn't looking for the cheap shot. . . . I thought middle-class America would eat this up."

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