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Molly Lyon, 74; Patron of the Arts in Orange County and Liberal Activist

February 04, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Molly Lyon, a patron of the arts and an outspoken liberal in conservative Orange County, has died. She was 74.

Lyon, one of the founders of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and a board member of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, died Sunday of complications from lung cancer in her Newport Beach home.

Born in British Columbia, Lyon plunged into politics in 1964, six years after she moved to Orange County. Angry that a black minister was barred from buying a house in Fullerton, Lyon joined the Fair Housing campaign and continued to campaign for liberal causes -- and encourage others to join her.

"I don't think it would be overstating it to say that Molly was the heart and soul of the women's rights movement in Orange County," said Jon Dunn, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Orange and San Bernardino Counties.

One of Lyon's most successful ideas, the "Great American Write-In," will celebrate its 18th year in March. The one-day event at UC Irvine, which is organized by the advocacy group Women For: Orange County, generates 1,500 letters on issues from civil rights to environmental conservation.

Friends praised Lyon's political tact and passion, which often clashed with conservatives in Orange County -- and with her husband, Leon, a Republican.

Molly and Leon Lyon agreed on art, however, favoring post-World War II California painters. They actively supported the Orange County Art Museum and other cultural organizations.

With her love of art and liberal ideals, Lyon also actively supported artists who in the early 1990s were denied grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for producing works that violated "general standards of decency." In 1992, Lyon helped underwrite an exhibit of one of those banned performance artists, Karen Finley, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"The thing I like about giving money is that it's an extension of how I feel politically about freedom of speech and [reproductive] choice. And access to ideas," Lyon said when the exhibit opened. "I have a mission to change our society. I want us to live up to the legacy that was started when this country was born -- the democracy that we talk about, that we give lip service to."

Besides her husband of 55 years, Lyon is survived by her sons, Bruce of Santa Barbara and Curt of Newport Beach; daughter Linda Othenin-Girard of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Monday at the Orange County Museum of Art. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Molly Lyon Fund, Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties.

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