AUBURN, Mich. — When Suzanne Ambrose lounged on her living room couch in Bay City as a teen in the early 1950s, sketching a photo of a beautiful socialite she found in a magazine, little did she know more than 60 years later her daughter would introduce the two of them.
Ambrose, now 76 and a piano teacher in Auburn, said the series of events that brought the three women together has been a “revelation.”
“It’s like the Lord’s having fun with all of this,” she told The Bay City Times of Michigan. “I think God likes humor.”
When Ambrose was about 14 years old, she drew incessantly in a sketch book her parents bought her. Her artistic talents evolved over the years with sketches ranging from spiritual – the Virgin Mary and scenes from the Bible, to whimsical – a woman dancing with cats and a woman wearing a dress in a Mexican desert. While looking through her mother’s magazines one day, Ambrose came across a photo of a woman from Grosse Pointe who caught her attention with her dark, curly hair and a kind smile.
The magazine was Better Homes and Gardens and that woman was Martha McClintock.
“I thought, ‘She has a nice face; I think I will draw her,’ ” Ambrose said. “I don’t remember reading the article about her, but this Martha Lee McClintock was a fine lady who had a wonderful home that Better Homes and Gardens was writing about.”
Ambrose mistakenly labeled the drawing “Martha Lee McClinton,” and signed it using her maiden name: Thibault.
The 8-by-10-inch sketch book traveled with Ambrose for the next 60 years of her life until her daughter, Anne Klida, of Burbank, asked for the sketch book for Christmas in 2011 so she could frame some of the drawings.
“I didn’t want them to be forgotten or destroyed,” Klida said.
Klida, who works in advertising for Walt Disney Studios, met Martha McClintock – now Martha Moody Rourke – at a restaurant through a mutual friend in 2011. Rourke created and produced the Seasons Beverly Hills magazine supplement for the Los Angeles Times with her second husband, TV producer Jack Rourke, for 35 years before his death. She now produces an online version of the magazine at SeasonsBeverlyHills.net. Their chance meeting would later bring together the women who had a decades-old connection unbeknown to them.
Klida and Rourke quickly became friends when they learned they had similar interests in art, music and cats, and both Rourke’s mother, Ruth McClintock, and Klida were born in Bay City. Rourke’s grandfather, George Lewis, established the first bank in Bay City as well as Lewis Manufacturing Co., which built homes in the region. More than 2,000 miles west of the Great Lakes State, Klida and Rourke realized they lived only a few miles apart in Burbank, Calif.
“They became friends, and Anne looked up to her as if she was family,” Ambrose said. “Martha was an artist like Anne, and they shared about their families.”
Rourke, who owns a summer home at Pointe Aux Barques, offered to let Klida, her sister, Mary Banaszak, and Ambrose vacation there in May 2012. The topic of the sketch came up on the way to the cottage when Klida revealed her friend’s maiden name was Martha McClintock. Ambrose wondered if she could be the same woman she had sketched several decades earlier, but the spelling error in the last name caused her to doubt the similarities. Klida said she thought the name was an “odd coincidence,” but didn’t believe it could be the same person.
“You’re probably right,” Ambrose said to her daughter, “but I somehow feel it could be her.”
Ambrose, a member of the organization Presto Piano, based in San Diego, traveled with Banaszak to San Diego more than a year later in August 2013 to play with other musicians. Klida arranged for her family to meet Rourke at her home and practice on her piano in preparation for the recital.Rourke spent the weekend with Ambrose and her family in San Diego, and the women bonded over their shared love of the arts. Rourke’s mother even had performed some of the same piano pieces as Ambrose, including “Etude Op. 10, No. 3″ by Frederic Chopin and “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy. She said Ambrose is a talented pianist with an “otherworldly peace about her.”
“She’s a lovely gal with a laid-back personality, but she has to be a showman, too,” she said.
Rourke said she was struck by the fact that both her mother and Ambrose were pianists from Bay City.
“She must be my mother reincarnated,” Rourke joked.
Ambrose described Rourke as a classy and gregarious woman with a passion for art and making new friends.
“She’s very interested in everything,” she said.
Ambrose studied the sketch book once more at Klida’s home and wondered again if her daughter’s new friend was her old muse. The more time she spent with Rourke, the surer she became.
“She had the same high eyebrows and big brown eyes that were in the picture I drew,” she said. “Even though the name I had wrote on the sketch was ‘McClinton,’ and Martha’s name was really ‘McClintock,’ the resemblance of Martha and the sketch made me wonder if it was her.”
The family planned a small, informal dinner party for the visitors’ recently in California, and the sketch book was left open on the table to the drawing of the mystery woman. When Rourke arrived, Ambrose couldn’t wait any longer to show her.
“I just kind of felt inside me that was her,” she said. “I had to prove it that that was her.”
Ambrose asked Rourke for her birth middle name, and when she said it was “Lee,” Ambrose was ecstatic. She showed her the sketch, and Rourke immediately recognized the face as her own.
“She was so excited, and I was so excited, and my daughters were still skeptical,” Ambrose said.
Rourke searched for the original photograph after the party, and, sure enough, the sketch matched the portrait she had taken for an engagement announcement in 1952. She showed the photograph to Klida and emailed it to Ambrose for her to see.
“I was blown away,” Rourke said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Rourke said she knew Ambrose’s sketch must be real because it included her middle name: Lee. She said the engagement announcement hadn’t included her middle name, so Ambrose would have seen it in the magazine.
“How did you know a thing like that?” Rourke recalled her surprise. “I never use my middle name.”
Klida said she was stunned to learn her mother’s sketch was really of her friend, and being the person who connected the two women after so many years was an amazing experience. She said she knows her mother loved meeting Rourke.
“It’s one of those things where you realize that people are connected more than they realize,” she said. “It was all meant to be.”
Rourke and Klida said they still talk regularly and plan to spend the holidays together, and Klida added the sketch has made their friendship even stronger. Klida calls Rourke one of her dearest friends, and said getting to talk to another person from Michigan while living in California is her “home away from home.”
“We’ve always adored Michigan and where we came from, and we have other mutual friends here who are from Michigan as well,” she said.
Banaszak said she is astonished her family was able to connect with Rourke after all this time.
“I was just amazed that this came full circle after so many years, and that we would have an encounter with her,” she said. “I’m still kind of speechless.”
Ambrose still draws on occasion when inspiration strikes her. Along with a stack of yellowed sketch books, she is happy to share photos and stories of the students she’s taught over her 40 years as a piano teacher. She beams with pride as she lists their accomplishments and describes the individual music styles they developed. Ambrose has shared her love of music and art with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Art kind of runs in our family,” she said.
In addition to her two daughters, Ambrose has three sons: Anthony Ambrose of Missouri, and Chris Ambrose and Greg Ambrose of Auburn.
Ambrose said she hopes to keep in touch with Rourke, and perhaps the women can reunite in Michigan one day. She said she believes the three women must have a spiritual connection because the coincidences that led her to solve the mystery of Martha McClintock were too bizarre to have happened unaided.
“I think God organized all this, because I didn’t, and neither did Anne,” she said.