Ghislaine “Gigi” Iliff, a Belgian princess who helped launch the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific with her husband, Warren, died Saturday. She was 88.
Gigi, whose maiden name was Ghislaine de Bergeyck, died at the Alamitos Belmont Rehabilitation Hospital from complications resulting from a fall. She broke her wrist while tending roses at her home, according to her neighbor and close friend, Deborah Burroughs.
“You could call Gigi the First Lady of the Aquarium,” former Mayor Beverly O’Neill said Monday. “She had a charming, gracious demeanor that won people over — just what we needed in those difficult financial times.”
O’Neill put a team together in 1994 to find ways to fund and build an aquarium, then considered a major piece of the strategy to develop the city’s waterfront. The multi-tiered plan aimed to invigorate the city, reeling after the 1991 announcement that the Long Beach Naval Station would be closing.
Warren Iliff, a zoo executive in various U.S. cities, was hired in 1996 as the founding president of the Aquarium of the Pacific. He supervised construction of the aquarium and ran the facility when it opened its doors to the public in 1998. Iliff retired in 2002 and died four years later.
Jerry Schubel, who succeeded Iliff as president and CEO of the coastal attraction and environmental center, said Monday that the Iliffs were “instrumental in the creation of the Aquarium of the Pacific.”
Today, more than 1.7 million people visit the aquarium each year, one of the region’s most significant entertainment centers, educational venues and tourist attractions.
“They were both kind, generous, fun-loving people,” Schubel said, “who added vitality to the life of the aquarium and who integrated the aquarium into the life of Long Beach.”
One of the Iliffs’ more visible creations, Schubel added, is the 88-foot-long fiberglass replica of a blue whale and her calf suspended from the ceiling of the Great Hall of the Pacific, a striking sight for guests as they enter the Aquarium.
Gigi Iliff was born on Sept. 8, 1929 and grew up in Cortewalle, a castle in Belgium. She traced her lineage to Belgian royalty, Burroughs said.
Gigi met Warren in Washington, D. C. in 1967 when she was an economist working for the Belgian Embassy — and he was director of the Washington Zoo.
“On their first dinner date, Warren received a message that there was an emergency at the zoo,” Burroughs said. “They left their dinner and rushed over and found a chimp was having some form of panic attack. Warren went into the cage to soothe the chimp. When he put out his hand, the chimp promptly bit off Warren’s finger. Instead of worrying about his finger, Warren was worried that the chimp would be upset about hurting him.”
That moment deeply impressed the future Mrs.Iliff. “Gigi knew then that this was the man for her, her Prince Charming, and they got married,” Burroughs said. “Theirs was a love story like no other.”
Friends said her home was like a museum, with artifacts from all over the world that she and her husband had collected.
She was especially proud of one item: a commemorative aquarium scarf given to her by then-Mayor O’Neill when the attraction opened.
She also weathered many medical problems, including cancer and the loss of an eye after a failed operation, Burroughs said, calling Iliff “a bionic woman who just kept going and going.”
She was a voracious bridge player, a great cook, an avid reader with her neighborhood book club and, of course, an animal lover. She had two Belgian sheepdogs, Fido and Brugeot.
Burroughs said she was like a mother to her.
“She called me her daughter, and I loved her like a mother,” Burroughs said. “At the hospital Saturday I squeezed her hand and told her she would soon be walking with Warren and Fido. I was holding her hand until her last breath.”
Burroughs added: “She was one of a kind.”
A memorial service is being planned.