September 12, 1977 12:00 PM

Growing up a tomboy on the family ranch, she used to sing a favorite ditty that went: “I’m rough and I’m tough and I’m full of fleas, and I never wash below my knees.”

She learned early to ride, to shoot, to play poker. After a brief skirmish with higher education, she ran off at 19 to marry a lifeguard. For the “dazzling blond heiress,” as newspaper stories dubbed her, that was the first of four marriages, each ending in divorce.

Her life-style is more than comfortable—a seaside home in California just north of Laguna Beach and a 250-acre horse farm in Virginia. Tall, suntanned, an active sportswoman, she might easily slip into the pampered—if desultory—existence that a multimillion-dollar inheritance can provide.

She could, but if she had, she would not be Joan Irvine Smith, who combines the looks of a Golden Girl of the West with the iron will of true grit. For nearly half of her 44 years she has fought a tenacious, often lonely battle to reclaim what she believes to be her birthright: a voice in deciding the future of the land that was the scene of her childhood ramblings.

The Irvine Ranch sprawls over some 77,000 acres, reaching from the Pacific coast 22 miles inland to the Santa Ana range, but it is no mere setting for sagebrush sagas. The ranch sits smack in the middle of California’s booming Orange County, at the edge of the land-gobbling Los Angeles metropolitan area. Still largely undeveloped, the Irvine Ranch is one of the biggest, most expensive chunks of privately held real estate in the United States.

The climactic struggle for control of this prime turf came earlier this year in a war of megabucks that left the business community agog. On one side was the mighty Mobil Corp., America’s fifth largest company; on the other, a hastily assembled consortium of banks and wealthy investors that included Joan Irvine Smith. By April the bidding had passed the $300 million mark. By May it was going up almost daily in $1 million increments, until Mobil finally folded its hand and Joan’s group took it all. The winning bid: $337.44 million.

Though rarely one to mince words, Joan Irvine Smith graciously declined to gloat. Still, a struggle that has all but consumed her over two decades has left bruises. “The biggest insult in this entire thing,” she says, “was to have people try to take advantage of me because they thought I was too dumb to know what was going on.” But if “they” had doubted her business acumen, “they” don’t anymore.

“I never set out to be a career woman,” says Mrs. Smith. And the circumstances that started her on her passionate crusade are a tangle of gothic threads—of frontier empires and rugged individualism, of greed and a mysterious death—that would do justice to an Edna Ferber epic.

It begins with the land, originally acquired by James Irvine, an immigrant of Scotch-Irish stock who arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush days. He established a highly successful grocery and dry-goods business. With his profits he bought up three old Spanish land grants to assemble eventually a range spread over 110,000 acres, or more than seven times the size of Manhattan.

His son, James Jr., who was Joan’s grandfather, transformed the barren sheep ranch into an agricultural empire. “As a young man my grandfather planted many of the orange trees that went in on this ranch by hand himself, thousands of trees,” Joan says. “He was a hard worker who lived the ranch 24 hours a day, and he was a hard man. He ran his house and his company like a feudal court. When he snapped his fingers, everybody clicked their heels.”

Known to all by his initials, “J.I.,” he grew crusty and eccentric, increasingly so after his wife, Frances Anita, died in 1909. Even on formal social occasions, he insisted on bringing along his pack of hunting hounds, none of them house-broken. J.I.’s hope was that his elder son, also named James but called “Jase,” would continue the dynasty. But Jase (Joan’s father) died of TB in 1935. Largely ignoring his other son, Myford, whose taste ran to things like music, J.I. carried on in cranky splendor until his death during a fishing trip to Montana in 1947.

With the exception of 2,300 acres requisitioned by the federal government to build El Toro Marine Air Station, J.I. had fought off all major encroachment on his domain. Ten years before he died he sought to insure that the ranch would remain intact. He established the James Irvine Foundation, a charitable trust, and staffed it with handpicked associates to serve as lifelong trustees. To it J.I. also willed the controlling interest—eventually 54 percent of the stock—in his Irvine Company.

To his favorite granddaughter, Joan, J.I. bequeathed 20 percent, making her his largest individual heir. But while J.I.’s arrangements saved everybody a bundle in inheritance taxes (and thus headed off the possibility that some land would be sold to pay those taxes), he turned his own family into minority stockholders in the Irvine Company. In doing so he unwittingly sowed the seed for a tempestuous feud that would keep California’s newspaper readers engrossed for years.

At birth Joan was named Athalie Anita. She was an only and a lonely child. When she was 4 she was captivated by a Mother Goose rhyme about “Little jumping Joan…I’m all alone.” Headstrong even then, she decided “Athalie” was too hard to pronounce; henceforth, she decreed, she would be called “Joan.”

Her father had died when she was 2, and she quickly became Granddaddy’s girl. “He gave me an old horse, Eagle, when I was 5 or 6 so I could ride with him, and he always took me fishing,” Joan remembers. “I was strictly a tomboy. Even at 12 or 13, the only time I wore a dress at the ranch was to come to dinner—my mother insisted.”

Joan recalls that J.I.’s attention could be as painful as it was reassuring: “He loved to roughhouse with me. He’d get me down on the floor and then step on my fingers. It hurt, but the longer I wouldn’t cry, the more he liked it. As far as he was concerned, the tougher I was the better. So that’s what I tried to be, because I wanted to please him.”

Joan attended a girls’ private school and then took halfhearted stabs at being a student at Berkeley and Marymount in Los Angeles. “I was one of those kids who just didn’t like school—so I got married,” she explains. Her first marriage, to Charles Swinden, lasted two years (one son). Then she married ex-Navy flyer Russ Penniman. Despite a well-publicized sporting honeymoon through South America by private plane, her second marriage also crashed in two years (also one son).

But those who thought she might become nothing more than a flighty heiress were in for a surprise. For years she had harbored a distrust of J.I.’s old associates who, in effect, ran the interlocking Irvine Foundation and Company. She accused them of mismanagement for their own personal gain. “I was an inexperienced kid, 24 years old, but I told my mother, ‘I think it’s time I went on the board of directors. We’ve got to clean this up.’ ”

It proved easier said than done. Though she forced the resignation of the ranch’s manager, the old guard treated her, she says, “like dirt under their feet.” All, that is, except her Uncle Myford, then nominally the foundation and company head. But in 1959 Myford Irvine was found shot to death. The official verdict was suicide, but Joan believes he was the victim of an underworld-connected murder involving Las Vegas land negotiations.

By herself Joan blitzed the Irvine executives with lawsuits. She rarely won, but when the old guard balked at the idea of donating 1,000 acres to establish a new campus of the University of California at Irvine, Joan orchestrated a media campaign that, she says, “boxed them into a corner where they had to make an offer.” To develop the Irvine land, she pressured the foundation into retaining a leading architect, William Pereira, to draw up a master plan—a concept that eventually won scads of favorable national publicity.

She scored a major breakthrough in 1969 when, in large part because of her testimony, Congress tagged on an amendment to a tax reform bill forcing the tax-exempt Irvine Foundation to sell the bulk of its holdings in its profit-making land company. When the foundation responded with hush-hush talks with Mobil, Joan charged a “sweetheart deal” in the making (Mobil’s original offer was $200 million), and went to court to force the bidding out in the open. She got the backing of New York financier Charles Allen Jr., who in turn brought in Detroit shopping center magnate A. Alfred Taubman, who in his turn marshaled a force that included Henry Ford II among others. In the end they came on like well-heeled cavalry riding to the rescue.

Relaxed and barefoot in her beachfront home overlooking Emerald Bay, Joan Irvine Smith picks up the ringing telephone. The long-distance call is from Morton (Cappy) Smith, a noted Virginia horseman and Joan’s fourth ex-husband. “I’m still good friends with all my former husbands—all nice fellows,” she later explains. “It was very hard to be married to someone like me—a woman involved in litigations that took up a great part of her life.”

Her obsession with the ranch, she admits, played a role in ending her third marriage—to a California contractor, Richard Burt—which like her two previous marriages lasted two years, but was childless. With Cappy Smith she spent 13 years, and their 12-year-old son now attends a military school in nearby Santa Ana.

Would life have been simpler if she had been content just being an heiress? “Yes,” Joan concedes, “but I like competition. I mean, money is only as good as what you do with it. There’s a lot more satisfaction in being creative than just spending it.” None of what she has done, she insists, would seem so unusual were she a man. (In 1961 Joan was named Orange County’s “Man of the Year,” prompting her attorney to note wryly: “You are an inspiration to the entire male gender.”)

Critics have suggested that her long fight with the Irvine Foundation was motivated less by Utopian visions than by self-interest, aimed at enhancing the value of her inheritance. Some cynics now predict a scenario in which Joan tends her farm in faraway Middleburg, Va. while her consortium pushes development on Irvine land to maximize profits.

Joan snaps back that she and the other investors are all “wealthy individuals who don’t need a high level of returns in order to exist. We’re in it strictly on a long-term basis.” Far from permitting the ranch to become an extension of any ticky-tacky urban sprawl, she is insisting on a return to the Pereira master plan of carefully designed communities, with the new University of California, Irvine, as the cultural nucleus.

“I know what we’ve got and—intuitively—I know what we can do with it,” says Joan Irvine Smith. “It can be such a fantastic development if properly handled. Our job is to conserve and utilize it to the best of our ability. I’ll be more involved in this now, and that makes me feel confident. It makes me feel good.”

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