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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Chapter and Verse on Flora Thornton

March 23, 1997|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people who have ever brushed up against Los Angeles society--at opening nights of the opera, at Music Center Blue Ribbon luncheons, or at untold numbers of black-tie fund-raising dinners around town--know her, or at least know of her.

Flora Laney Thornton, regal, immaculately coiffed and manicured and dressed, seemingly unapproachable to those not among her inner circle, has been one of the city's social fixtures for some 40 years.

Perhaps that's why, now that she's admittedly a "senior, senior citizen" of 83, a great-grandmother who could presumably putter with the orchids growing at her Bel-Air estate, she appeared an unlikely candidate to become the grande dame of that most egalitarian of institutions--the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library.

Oh, she'd hate that description. Flora Thornton loathed the whole notion of being interviewed. Yes, she agreed, if only to talk up the library. Then she said she wanted to back out. When she finally does sit down, she blurts out midway, as if the whole exercise were fruitless: "Why don't you write about Caroline Ahmanson?"

"Flora is a modest person," says Evelyn Hoffman, executive director of the Library Foundation.

"She's very quiet about giving," says Lod Cook, chairman emeritus of Arco and founding chairman of the Library Foundation.

After the Central Library fire of 1986, when funds were being raised to rebuild and enlarge the building, Thornton was asked to make a substantial donation.

"They weren't asking for a little bit, they were asking for a lot," she recalls. The request was for $25,000, and she promptly declined. She hadn't even entered the building for 20 years, maybe longer. She gave a few hundred dollars.

When Thornton attended the library's opening gala in October 1993, she got a feeling for the beauty of the building and its vast resources.

A few months later, the Blue Ribbon, the Music Center's premier women's support group, of which she is a founding member, planned a luncheon at the library. Thornton offered to sponsor it. "I'm so happy you came today, because I consider the reopening of the Central Library of the same importance to the city as the opening of the Music Center," she told the participants. That same day, Thornton told Hoffman she thought the library deserved its own support group of women modeled after the Blue Ribbon. Educated, influential women from different parts of the city should be involved, she thought, and she volunteered to get the group going.

So Thornton founded the Council of the Library Foundation, and tapped Joni Smith from the Blue Ribbon board as president. Now the council is taking on its first major fund-raiser to mark the library's 125th anniversary. On Nov. 17, some 50 to 75 private dinner parties will be held at the homes of supporters (including Thornton's) with an array of authors.

"She's the person you don't want to say 'no' to," Smith says. "She really is an inspiration to me. You sort of put people like her on a pedestal because of their accomplishments. They don't have to do anything, and they do everything and do it well."

*

Thornton doesn't seem like the woman-behind-the-man type. Yet she maintains that her role as wife of 41 years to the late Charles B. "Tex" Thornton, owner and CEO of Litton Industries and a larger-than-life corporate visionary, was traditional. She raised two sons, was a Cub Scout mom and entertained.

The Thorntons arrived in Los Angeles in 1948 to find a city where industry was booming but cultural institutions were just getting started. When the couple was asked to join those who were founders of the Music Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where there is a Charles B. and Flora L. Thornton Gallery), Tex was indisputably the presence.

"I was very much a homemaker because of my husband being so busy. He was involved in things, and I felt one was enough," she explains.

The Thorntons became social friends of the Ed Carters, Norman Chandlers and Henry Salvatoris.

"I loved being a hostess," Flora says. "We were in the inner circle, but I was not involved in fund-raising."

Before Tex died in 1981, Flora did something on her own "as a sort of fluke" that changed her life: She enrolled in a two-year series of humanities colloquia at Claremont Graduate School.

"They called it 'updating your liberal arts education,' " says Thornton, who hadn't completed her studies at Texas Technological University in Lubbock.

"I was motivated to find a focus for the rest of my life," she says. "The children were grown. It seemed to me I needed expansion in my life. The world was changing, and I wanted to know what was really going on. It seemed my friends were all reactionary and status quo."

A course on problem-solving particularly stimulated her. When the hypothetical problem was global food supply, Thornton says she became aware of progress made in nutrition at a time when practically no one had heard of cholesterol.

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