Elizabeth Segerstrom was married to Henry Segerstrom for 15 years, during which time she devoted herself to her husband, traveling with him around the world as he wooed retailers to his South Coast Plaza, and standing by his side as he opened cultural institutions at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Now, two years after his death, Segerstrom is continuing her late husband’s legacy as comanaging director of the family-run company C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, pushing its retail, civic and cultural vision into the future on its 50th anniversary.
In fact, the PBS documentary that will make its East Coast debut this month is also called “Henry T. Segerstrom: Imagining the Future.” “I was pushing Henry to do it, but I think it’s the artists who did it,” she said of the film. “I think it is that relationship to the artists and the arts, that we can make a difference with. I don’t know any other retail center that does that,” she said.
Segerstrom is sequestered in the presidential suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, having made a two-day trip up to Los Angeles from her home in Newport Beach for a 50th anniversary celebration in Malibu for Los Angeles friends of South Coast Plaza. “You know, it’s nice to travel from Orange County. I love Malibu and Beverly Hills,” she said in her lilting Polish accent, which she jokes is so thick that “I hope they use subtitles for my parts in the documentary.”
The former Elizabeth Macavoy was a New York clinical psychologist when she met the recently widowed and decades-older Segerstrom in 2000. They had a whirlwind, three-week courtship, engagement and wedding in New York (she still wears her giant emerald Van Cleef & Arpels engagement ring).
Producer Maria Hall-Brown, who first met Henry in 1997 before making the documentary, observed, “He said in the oral history, ‘She is the love of my life and we promised we would never be apart a day,’ and they weren’t. She gave me photographs of their wedding, which no one had ever seen. They were so sweet very casual. I asked her what was he like and she said, ‘We danced, we laughed, he was fun, he was funny.’”
Elizabeth came to California for the first time as the new Mrs. Segerstrom. “I think the driver who picked us up from LAX had a heart attack when Henry said, ‘Please John, meet my wife.’ And then he recuperated and Henry said, ‘Please John, get yourself together. Let’s go show Mrs. Segerstrom Segerstrom Hall. That was the first stop. And the second was South Coast Plaza.”
She didn’t know what to make of the concert hall. “I said, ‘What the…’ I’m not going to use any inappropriate expressions, but I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s a hall’ and I said, ‘What type of a hall?’ and he said, ‘It’s an opera house. Do you know what defines an opera house?’ I said, ‘I think by how tall they are,’ and he said, ‘Very good answer. We kill Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [in Los Angeles] because we are 10 inches higher, and this is your hall.’ I said, ‘What else is mine?’ and that’s when we went to the Westin Hotel and walked through the Unity Bridge to South Coast Plaza. He called it his baby. He said, ‘There are many incredible things about South Coast Plaza you are going to find but the most important one is it’s powerful.’”
Indeed, the million-square-foot center is nearing $2 billion in annual sales. Apart from its revenues, the retail center and its adjacent cultural campus have turned the once sleepy suburb of Costa Mesa into an urban hub.
Noted Segerstrom, “Henry was a Stanford business graduate but one of the most incredible things to me was that he always studied all civilizations. He studied what made cities of the moment and capitals of the world survive, and it was always: the arts had to be at the center. Henry always felt that whatever he could build commercially, that the arts had to be at the center. So that’s what makes that legacy special. We should realize how visionary he was about giving back to make sure there is a little cocoon of the world between art, fashion and philanthropy because they are all connected. The future has to be about the arts absolutely.”
Both Elizabeth and Anton Segerstrom, also comanaging director of the family company, are next hoping to bring to fruition a fine arts museum on the campus, which is also currently undergoing a renovation of its plaza. She is building an online archive and putting up an exhibit in the old courthouse in Santa Ana, Henry’s hometown.
During their marriage, Henry would call Elizabeth “the perfect partner” to help him maintain relationships with brands, and she continues to do so. “Henry was all about the relationships. Every single time we were in Paris and London he would go to those stores he would leave his card and I would cringe. He would say, ‘Are you the manager? Can I talk to the owner? Would you call them and please tell them that Mr. Segerstrom is sitting here waiting for them?’ And you know what? They could come and call. In the meantime, I’d be sitting outside like, ‘Oh my god, how the man can do it?’ But he did it with elegance, with grace, it was never honestly each sale in the end. It’s a give-and-take, never a grab. It has to work for all of us.”
She exalts the company culture, as well. “You don’t have too many companies in America where people stay for so many years. All those people are like Henry’s children multiplied. He groomed them. They would kill for Henry. I can fuel that fire, but I am just a humble messenger for my husband’s vision. I could not do it unless I had this family.”
She’s also realistic about the challenges all retail centers face. “I think retail is so difficult. To be cutting-edge we look at what are new trends online. There are all those young 20 to 30 or whatever name you give them, and we study them,” she said of Millennials. “They don’t even want to go shop. They want to leach off of their parents, take the phone date at night and have a good dinner, but we also need to be appealing to them, so whether it’s a mixed-use urban development environment, we keep them there so they can actually go to the store and touch the fabric and have the experience of luxury. We need to look into all those new things. It’s a little scary but if you want to be the best you need to reinvent yourself. We have to have the courage and guts and maybe we will fail but at least we tried.”
Segerstrom also travels the world to get inspiration from other cultures. “I think it’s very important not to get caught up in your head with my husband’s legacy and vision. I think Henry would want to make South Coast Plaza something people can come and enjoy no matter how many designers we change, because Gucci will have a fantastic designer this year, but it might change next year. But again, it’s the experience of being able to come in, have that little coffee, sip of drink, check the designers, meet your girlfriend and do nothing but have a wonderful look at the ocean and the air and just enjoy it.”