Audrey O’Brien Griffin: 1936 – 2019Columns | Tue Jul 30, 2019 | 10:30pm
On Friday morning, July 12, Audrey Griffin did two of her favorite things. She celebrated Mass at the nearby San Lorenzo Seminary and then got on her horse to work cattle. It was like any other day, except on this day, Audrey would take a different trail, riding up over that far, far ridge and into God’s waiting arms. She passed away in the saddle, doing what she loved.
Horses were a centerpiece in Audrey’s world, along with her family, her faith, and her friends. If you met Audrey, you were her friend — and she had many, many friends.
Audrey was born in 1936 in Santa Monica to parents Ray and Hazel O’Brien. Her father was the head of the prop department for MGM Studios in Culver City, close to where she and her brother, Doug, would grow up in neighboring Mar Vista. Her mother was a hairdresser and worked with many celebrities of the era. But even with Hollywood glamour a part of her life, Audrey would have none of it, as horses captivated her at an early age.
She would tell a story about how she’d be in the car when her mother drove her father to work. “There was a little pony ride on Venice Boulevard,” she recalled, “and I’d jump up and down and say I wanted to ride the ponies. I think I was born with the passion of horses, and I still have that passion.”
Audrey was a talented child who excelled at many activities, including tap dancing and piano playing. But at the age of 11, her father took her to the Los Angeles Ranch Stables in Culver City, an experience that would solidify the direction in which her life would take. It was at the Ranch Stables that Griffin met 10-year-old Zera “Sis” Smith, who took Audrey and her father on a trail ride. The two girls got along, and Smith asked her to come back and spend the next day with her. The two remained fast friends, and Audrey credited Smith for her life in horses.
“Everyone there called Zee ‘Sis,’ and she taught me how to Roman ride and drive wagons and tie a bowline knot.” Her first time to ever ride Roman — standing up, driving a team of two to six horses with one foot on the back of one pair — Audrey loped and jumped the team with ease. “It was not hard at all,” she remembered recently. “Either you’re a natural and you can do it and you have the will to do it, or you can’t do it at all. You have to be gutsy to jump those big jumps.” (Zera Smith would go on to marry Jack Varian of the V6 Ranch in Parkfield, California.)
The ranch became her second home, and Audrey and Sis provided the specialty act for the Sunday rodeos the ranch put on. She started working regularly at the stables, giving riding lessons and driving hay wagons for birthday parties. “I think I got paid 25 cents an hour,” she said, “and I got a dollar for harnessing the team and a dollar for driving the hay wagons.” Hard to believe, but she even drove a route from Culver City to UCLA when she was 16 to give wagon rides at the fraternity houses: “I would stop at the frat houses, driving right down the thick of Wilshire Boulevard and up Veteran Avenue. It was 1952, and I would get home at about midnight, but everything was so safe then.”
Audrey’s life with horses took a new turn when she was invited to perform with The Flying Valkyries, a troupe of three girls and six white horses who traveled throughout the United States and Canada, performing in rodeos and horse shows. Audrey performed with The Flying Valkyries from 1956-1957. When she returned home to California, she went to work at Campbell’s Clothing Store in Santa Monica, where she met Dick Campbell.
The following year, she and the other Flying Valkyries were invited to perform in the Wild West Show and Rodeo starring Casey Tibbs in Brussels, Belgium. After that, she returned to work at Campbell’s Clothing Stores and married Dick Campbell in 1960. They had six children: Molly Ayala, Megan Buhring, Melinda Hage, Maureen Russell, and Maggie Winther; their son, Kevin, passed away as an infant. They lived in Malibu and built a life until their divorce after 29 years.
She gained strength from friends and her brother, Doug, who also lived in Malibu. And she continued riding other people’s horses, helping to exercise them, all the while feeding her riding passion. She was often asked how she raised kids and rode too: “I was a full-time mom, and I would take my kids riding. I didn’t have my own horse until I was 50. I would take my youngest with me,” she said, “and I would put a pillow in front of me and they’d sit on the pillow. When they got older, they’d sit behind me.”
When she met Gary Griffin, a dentist from Santa Monica with seven children of his own, her life changed again. They would marry, and in 1991, they moved to the Santa Ynez Valley. They were married for 12 years until Gary passed away from cancer in 2000.
Her children grown, Audrey returned to her first love and started team penning and sorting. She excelled in overall horsemanship and worked with local ranchers, helping them with their cattle. In 2008, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame for “living the cowgirl life with tenacity, generosity and passion.”
Throughout her life Audrey was devoted to her faith and to her community in the Catholic Church, daily attending Mass at the San Lorenzo Seminary close to her home. All who knew her loved Audrey. Her shining blue eyes and glorious smile had a magnetic attraction for all who came in contact with her.
She leaves behind five children and seven stepchildren, along with numerous sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and an uncountable number of friends. Her dear friend, rancher Jerry Williams, may have put it best: “She was one in a billion.”
A Celebration of Life for Audrey Griffin is planned for Friday, August 9, at 5:30 p.m. at Montanero Farms, 2531 Grand Avenue in Los Olivos. In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made to the San Lorenzo Foundation at sanlorenzofoundation.org.
* Lead image by Lauren Maeve Photography