Margaret Thatcher took Orange County by storm on Wednesday.
The former British prime minister who came to California in early February to celebrate former President Ronald Reagan’s 80th birthday, was all diplomacy and grace as she toured South Coast Plaza and later dined with local dignitaries.
Today, she plans to visit Camp Pendleton to talk to Marines at the School of Infantry. Tonight, she will address members of the Industrial League of Orange County during a $125-per-person dinner at the Anaheim Marriott hotel.
During her quick tour of South Coast Plaza on Wednesday, Thatcher dismissed apologies about the rain, declaring her preference for “nice, clear air” as she stood outside near Bullock’s department store.
Inside the mall, Thatcher was whisked from shop to shop and stopped briefly to finger clothing and receive the gift of an enamel box from Tiffany & Co. Vice President Jo Qualls.
She declined an invitation by Nordstrom saleswoman Maureen Ross to try on a pair of stiletto heels, but Ross, 39, was clearly thrilled at meeting Britain’s first female prime minister.
“Oh, she’s wonderful. She’s so approachable,” Ross said as security men from Scotland Yard pushed aside shoppers to clear a path.
Onlookers cheered as she sailed by, drowning out a shout by an Irish exchange student for Thatcher to use her influence “to get out of (Northern) Ireland.”
In a formal ceremony at Jewel Court, Thatcher told the audience she was impressed. “In America, you’re the optimists and the can-do people,” she said to loud applause.
About the Persian Gulf War, Thatcher said, “Of course we were your most reliable friend and ally.”
Thatcher then received a key to the city from Costa Mesa Mayor Mary Hornbuckle, who declared Wednesday “Margaret Thatcher Day.” Henry Segerstrom, a managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons–owners of South Coast Plaza–presented her with a crystal vase.
There was a more private side to Thatcher’s visit to Orange County.
After her whirlwind tour of South Coast Plaza, Thatcher was whisked by car to the Center Club in Costa Mesa for a private dinner for 32 guests co-hosted by Segerstrom, his wife, Renee, and the British consulate.
Security was tight for the event. While Thatcher, who wore a purple brocade suit, dined in one room, representatives of the State Department, Scotland Yard, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department dined nearby in the Board Room West, frequently used for high-powered arts committee meetings.
In addition, representatives from each of the security forces ate at a separate table in the room where Thatcher dined.
Renee Segerstrom, a well-known Orange County hostess, planned every detail of the dinner. Champagne-colored linen was spread over a huge rectangular table in the Chairman’s Room, which is frequently used by leaders of the Orange County Performing Arts Center to entertain arts patrons. Crystal beakers filled with white tulips, orchids and calla lilies provided the centerpiece.
During the festivities, Thatcher was presented with a bronze bust of former President Reagan by Thomas Fuentes on behalf of the Orange County Republican Party. After a brief reception–where Piper Sonoma sparkling wine was served–white-gloved waiters served salmon on toast points, filet of beef tenderloin, watercress and red grapefruit salad, and chocolate Grand Marnier souffle. California wines, a Napa Valley Chardonnay and an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, accompanied the courses.
Thatcher was flanked by Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez and Henry Segerstrom during dinner. Other guests included Sir Eldon Griffiths, president of Orange County’s World Affairs Council, and Lady Griffiths, and Jim Henwood, South Coast Plaza general manager.
The VIP party for Thatcher marked the third time in the Center Club’s five-year history that a European dignitary has been feted there.
In April, 1987, the Segerstroms presided over a champagne luncheon for Swedish King Carl Gustaf and his wife, Queen Silvia. Last October, Princess Alexandra, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II, attended parties there relating to the Festival of Britain.
Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this story.