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Caroline Leonetti Ahmanson, 83; Philanthropist Supported the Arts

June 23, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Caroline Leonetti Ahmanson, a leading philanthropist in Southern California who supported art institutions and school programs with equal fervor, has died. She was 83.

Ahmanson, the widow of financier Howard F. Ahmanson who founded Home Savings & Loan and the Ahmanson Foundation, died Tuesday at her home in Beverly Hills of complications from Alzheimer's disease, said her daughter, Margo O'Connell.

In addition to her philanthropic work, Ahmanson was one of the first women to chair a Federal Reserve Bank. Appointed in 1981, she oversaw the San Francisco Federal Reserve and recommended changes in the Federal Reserve's discount rate. She served until 1984.

Through much of her life, Ahmanson was a vigorous supporter of causes ranging from education to conservation to the arts. She was especially proud of her efforts to start the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. It opened in 1985 after Ahmanson lobbied friends in education and state government to authorize funding for the school and find a permanent home for it on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Ahmanson obituary -- An obituary of Caroline Leonetti Ahmanson that appeared in Thursday's California section said she was 83 when she died. She was 87.

"Caroline Ahmanson always had time for others," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who helped bring the high school from dream to reality. "She was always willing to help, with a gracious smile."

Ahmanson contributed her energies on the national level as well. She was appointed by Ronald Reagan to a post on the president's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Starting during the Nixon administration, she served as a delegate with the Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

A close friend of Nixon, and later of Reagan and their families, she served for several years as chairwoman of the President's Council of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation.

"If Southern California had a godmother, it was Caroline Ahmanson," said Nixon library executive director the Rev. John H. Taylor, in a statement on Wednesday. "She helped so many people, causes and institutions."

Over the years, she was a board member of some of the largest companies and arts institutions in Southern California including the Walt Disney Co., the Fluor Corp., the Carter Hawley Hale Stores and the Music Center.

A warm and friendly woman, Ahmanson kept a busy social calendar that took her from opening night suppers at the Music Center to private previews at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she was a member of the board of trustees.

She moved in the company of bank presidents, corporate executives, arts educators and government leaders, including former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. She used her contacts to improve life in the region.

"Caroline Ahmanson's personal support and commitment ... contributed greatly to building LACMA's collections," said Walter L. Weisman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's board of trustees, in a statement Wednesday. Ahmanson served on the museum board for 37 years, Weisman said. "She helped to position the museum as a vibrant institution that serves the public."

She often held dinners at her home in the penthouse apartment of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where she relocated after her husband died in 1968. Hotel proprietor Hernando Courtright arranged a long lease for the wife of his longtime friend.

A dining table that seated 16, a living room as large as many in Bel-Air and a rooftop garden with a view of the city made an impression on visitors. Yet, "it was no big show," said Helen Chaplin, the hotel's promotion director from 1951 to 1987. "Mrs. Ahmanson was a go-getter but she was very low-key."

Ahmanson's longtime fascination with China began after several trips there in the early 1970s. She helped to found the Los Angeles-Guangzhou (Canton) Sister City Committee for Bradley, a group that continues to promote business ventures in both cities.

She also became a member of the board of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the group that sponsored a visit here by Chinese table tennis champions in 1972. That event was one of the early efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Communist China.

"Caroline opened many doors for us in Los Angeles," said Jan Berris, vice president of the U.S.-China group.

Calling on contacts in the head offices of Hollywood studios and arts organizations, she would arrange educational and social events for delegations of as many as 150 Chinese visitors at a time, Berris recalled.

She was also a financial benefactor of the group.

Born Caroline Leonetti in San Francisco, she attended UC Berkeley before she became a fashion expert, featured regularly on Art Linkletter's program both on radio and television. She commuted to Los Angeles, where the show was televised, and eventually moved to L.A. during her 20 or so years with the program.

She founded Caroline Leonetti Ltd., a charm school and modeling agency in Los Angeles.

She married Ben Heim in 1940 and they had one child, Margo, before they divorced.

She married Howard Ahmanson in 1965.

She is survived by her daughter; her stepson, Howard Ahmanson Jr.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in her name may be made to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Foundation, c/o Kathleen Ulinski, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032.

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