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Jennings Osborne and the eye of the needle 

His worldly possessions went under the hammer last week. The collection of a lifetime, scattered to the winds.

click to enlarge Mitzi Osborne image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Mitzi Osborne, outside the real estate auction of her home.

"Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece."

— "Citizen Kane," 1941

Here is the one, hard truth of life, my friend: Out there, somewhere — no matter how much money you have, or how many people you know, or how big your house or car is — the moment of your death is always winging toward you, second by second, even now, as you read this. It's an idea that can either swallow you or set you free, depending on how you look at it. The downside is: It's coming, and no amount of clean living is going to stop it. The upside is: Until it gets here, there's always time.

There is, however, a way to beat the reaper. If you give enough of yourself, if you touch enough lives and make people remember more about the good things you did than the bad, you can live on, with little pieces of your soul passed from lips to ears and lips again.

Which brings us to the life of William Jennings Bryan Osborne Jr.

If you've lived in Central Arkansas for more than even a few years, you know the name Jennings Osborne: big man of big appetites; resident of the white house with the wall around it on Cantrell Road, that once glowed red as the nose of Rudolph every Christmas until the courts stepped in and made him turn out the lights; thrower of free barbecues and fireworks displays; redneck-made-good; enthusiastic caller of the Hogs; wheeler, dealer; a man whose name — along with that of his beloved daughter Allison "Breezy" Osborne and wife Mitzi — is cast at the feet of the brass eagle whose wings stretch at the entrance of the Clinton Presidential Center.

Osborne, once a millionaire 50 times over thanks to his Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center, which did some of the first human trials on drugs like Viagra and Motrin, passed away in a Little Rock hospital on July 27, 2011, from complications of heart surgery he'd had the previous April. He was 67 years old, but had lived enough by then to satisfy any three men.

By the time Osborne died, thanks to a deal to sell his testing company that went south and the pricy startup of a new operation called The Osborne Research Center, his estate was millions in debt. Numbers vary from source to source, but those close to him say the amount is in the realm of $3.5 million, plus the interest that has compounded every day since.

Those who knew and loved him said he'd given away millions by then, the money spent on funerals, clothes for burnt-out families he read about in the newspaper, donations, free barbecues at Razorback games and in tornado-flattened towns, the Christmas lights that eventually left Little Rock and went to Disney World in the mid-1990s, and more.

All the lights are dimmed now. Last week and into the weekend, the estate of Jennings Osborne auctioned over two thousand items — from his big white house on Cantrell, all the way down to framed photographs of people he never really knew — in order to satisfy his creditors.

Walking through it all, seeing the wondrous horde he collected in garages, barns, closets, and dresser drawers, one can't help but wonder: What did he really want when he was buying all those things?

Slideshow
Jennings Osborne auctions
Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions Jennings Osborne auctions

Jennings Osborne auctions

Houses, cars, furs, ventriloquist dummies--snapshots from the grandest estate sale Arkansas's ever seen.

By Brian Chilson

Click to View 266 slides

$265,000, plus 10 percent

The house where Jennings Osborne lived on Cantrell Road is hard to miss, even for an out-of-towner, encircled as it is by a high concrete wall that would look right at home ringing the compound of a Columbian drug lord. That's the kind of wall that means business; that says the person inside values his privacy and security, and will spend any amount of money to keep it.

Pulling into the gates the day before the house sold at auction, Osborne's cash-flow problems of recent years became immediately apparent. Everything in sight looked like it needed a coat of paint, with vines creeping up the inside of the wall and rust beginning to appear on the bars that line most of the windows of the house. On the front lawn, the bricks around the fountain are cracked, and the plank seats are gone from the iron-framed swing set where Breezy Osborne used to play.

We met James "Bubba" Wood in the home's nine-car garage. A long-time family friend who met Osborne through Breezy years ago, he had been helping Mitzi Osborne get the house ready for sale.

With the property auction less than 24 hours away, the huge garage was still stacked back to front with personal items, most of which were headed to storage. Parked just outside was a giant dumpster, almost full. It was the fourth they'd filled since they had started getting the house ready for sale six weeks earlier.

Wood led us through the garage and into the house. Even after several years of not getting the upkeep it deserved, the place was still something: officially 11,559 square feet, though some will tell you that is a lowball figure for the taxman.

Above the garage, with a bay window overlooking Cantrell and French doors overlooking the pool and tennis courts out back, was Osborne's office suite. It's really a home inside of a home, with a full bath, bedroom, office, and a huge tanning bed that looks like a hibernation pod from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Most of the time when he was home, day or night, Osborne was there, Wood said. It's where he kept most of his collections, from the precious to the mundane.

"Jennings didn't sleep very much," Wood said, "so most of his time was spent working. Even at 3 or 4 in the morning, he always wanted the fax machine and the computer wherever he was, to communicate."

While we're talking, Thomas Blackmon, one of the owners of Blackmon Auctions, which handled the sales of both the property and personal items, entered the room and remarked that he didn't know the tanning bed was in there until that moment — that it had been wholly buried with other objects.

The things that were still in the office speak to the kind of man Osborne was, and what he valued. There were, for example, literally thousands of loose photographs in boxes, most of them just candid snapshots of regular Arkansans who came to his barbecues or fireworks displays over the years. Wood said that Osborne had a photographer on staff who did nothing but shoot pictures any time Osborne had a function. All those photos were developed and brought here to be filed away.

In the garage of the house next door (Osborne bought out his neighbors, lock stock and barrel, both in one hour, while Mitzi was gone to Mass, during the height of the legal actions over his Christmas light displays in the early 1990s) there was a sizeable stack of huge scrapbooks, and each of those scrapbooks was filled with newspaper clippings. Any time Osborne's name was mentioned in the newspaper, ever, an employee carefully clipped the notice and glued it down. Thousands on thousands of entries. Osborne, Wood said, never threw anything away.

"I think he liked that at any point in time, he could go back and dig a memory out," Wood said. "He could find it ... any time he did a barbecue, or a Razorback game or a fireworks show, he'd have a corresponding book."

At Osborne's office downtown, Wood said, they found large binders full of e-mails that had been sent to him. "If he got an e-mail from anybody — say he got an e-mail from somebody saying, 'My name is Tom, and we've been going through some hard times' or whatever — he'd have all those e-mails printed out," Wood said. "When he'd go on vacation, he'd have that book and he'd open it up and he'd answer every one of them."

Osborne liked watching Home Shopping on cable TV, and when he bought something, he'd buy multiples. "If he saw something he liked, he'd buy five of them," Wood said. "He couldn't do one. Because if he liked it, he wanted to be able to give you one. If you walked in the house, whatever was the latest deal, he'd say, 'Take one of those home and try that.' "

As many things as Osborne had and as much room he devoted to holding on to it all, Wood said that memories always meant more to Osborne than possessions. "He looked at everything the same, whether it cost him $20,000 or whether it cost him $2," Wood said. "He kept a lot of his father's stuff, and his grandfather's stuff. We've found a lot of that stuff in boxes: an old fishing lure that him and his granddad went fishing with. It's in a box, and it's labeled. History was there, and he liked history. Every day was a memory."

Even two days before the personal property auctions, Blackmon said there was already intense interest from those looking to bid on items from the Osborne estate. He said it showed how respected Osborne was in Arkansas.

"He was a good person," Blackmon said. "I've done auctions for people that no one shows up for the auction, and later on you asked them why and they'll say, 'He was an asshole.' This one is just the opposite. You have so many people who want to support it and want to be there because Jennings was such a good person and helped out so many people over the years."

We moved from the office suite into the main living room of the house, and it was another shocker: 1,500 square feet under one ceiling, hung with gold-and-cut-crystal chandeliers (including one that slowly rotates at the flip of a switch), the floors covered with mauve carpeting so padded it felt like standing in sand. If John Deere ever makes a riding vacuum cleaner, it will be for a room like that.

Leaving the living room, Wood led us downstairs, then upstairs, then through the narrow original house of 4,200 square feet that the Osbornes bought in April 1976, then added to and added to and added to. We went through the tiled game room, where Wood said Osborne once kept slot machines filled with real quarters, past the pool, into the pool house.

Somehow, thoroughly turned around, we wound up in Osborne's old master bedroom, another big, big room. It was mostly bare by then except for a few things, chief among them an ornately-carved rocking horse and a full sized dummy in a straw hat, sitting on a chair. In Osborne's walk-in closet, many of his clothes had been unceremoniously piled on the carpet: suits, silk ties, imported loafers, a fortune's fortune of beautiful and expensive things.

While we were standing in the bedroom, chatting with Wood and a few others, Mitzi Osborne appeared. She was still in residence there, though she's lined up a house in Hillcrest. They'd been looking for a house for her for awhile, Wood said, when Breezy called on a rental in Hillcrest a few weeks back. Once the man who owned the property found out it was for Mitzi Osborne, he offered, without even being asked, to let her live there rent free for six months.

Though we'd never met, Mitzi immediately came across as one of the nicest people I've ever had the chance to talk to: warm, funny, upbeat, risqué at times, wonderfully self-deprecating. She and Jennings are both from Fort Smith, born three days apart at St. Edward's Hospital. They met again after high school, and were married in November 1965, getting engaged after just a few dates. Some people are born for one another.

Everything in the house had a story attached to it, and Mitzi is the keeper of those stories. The dummy, for instance, is "Safeman," built to accompany single women on long car trips to make it look like they have a male companion, purchased as a gag at long-gone Service Merchandise. The rocking horse they bought at a charity auction in Las Vegas, the Osbornes bidding against the wrestler Hulk Hogan. Hulk, she said, was not pleased when he lost.

Mitzi said getting rid of things over the past few weeks was not easy. She'd stayed up until 5 a.m. that morning, vacuuming the acres of carpet in the house. She was allowed in recent weeks to pick some things she wanted to keep. They didn't, she said, stand behind her with a whip while she did it.

"It's hard," she said. "Bubba helps me. I'm getting better at it, though. I hauled six bags out to the garage last night. I keep everything. I'm not a hoarder, but I keep stuff. I've got Breezy's stuff that she did for me when she was little and learning to write. I kept it."

After awhile, I asked her why, when so many rich folks are content to invest their money, she and her husband gave so much of theirs away.

"It's like this," she said. "You just keep giving until God stops giving to you. This is a no-brainer, don't you think? That's the way I had to look at it. Sometimes we gave when we didn't have it — a lot of times."

She seemed, I told her, amazingly composed for a woman going through such a trauma.

"Well, I leak a lot," she said. "Must be some kind of pressure release. I cry at the drop of a hat. I almost did it a minute ago, but I said: 'Nah, I'm not going to do that.' I'm trying. I can be very trying, and I can be even more trying at times."

At that, she waved her hand as if shooing away the present. The next morning, the big house we were standing in would sell at auction for the fire-sale price of $265,000, plus a 10 percent buyer's premium. That's a little over $25 per square foot.

The sale was still in the future though. Soon, Mitzi launched into a story about how her husband once decided he wanted to buy a lion to pace back and forth in a barred cage in front of the house, but backed out when he was told the cat's urine was so concentrated and smelly that it would kill the grass. Before long, everybody was laughing, tomorrow forgotten for the moment.

Rosebud

The auction of the personal effects of Jennings Osborne was held June 8 and 9 at a 15,000-square-foot warehouse near Prothro Junction in North Little Rock, the warehouse stacked half full. Blackmon opened the doors at 7 a.m. every day, to give the bidders a chance to walk through and inspect things before the first hammer at 9 a.m.

Like the money from the houses on Cantrell, and a lake house in Hot Springs, and a horse farm on Kanis Road that sold on Thursday, all the money raised at the Prothro sale would be going to the banks.

It's nearly impossible to describe some of what was up for sale there, so ostentatious that it seemed like the set-dressing of a dream. It's wholly impossible to list it all in the space we have. There were cookbooks, books on magic, and books signed by presidents. There was a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of a mermaid, swimming down to touch the bottom of the warehouse sea, her hair flowing out behind her. There was a giant, stained-glass window that once advertised a bar called "The Brass Bottle." There were couches by the dozen, chairs by the score, and too many tables to count. There was a fantastical, cut-crystal Lalique table, which gleamed behind velvet ropes for two days (and which I heard was once kept covered in a tablecloth and Osborne's Razorback memorabilia). There were skee-ball ramps, air-hockey tables, three juke boxes, six pinball machines, a vintage Coke machine, and enough classic arcade games to start your own arcade, circa 1986. There were knick-knacks — a 5-inch porcelain canary, sitting on a porcelain branch, the canary's eyes black as onyx. There were two fireman's helmets, gleaming red, both appointed in brass. There was a 5,000-pound jade ship, the sails intricate pierce-work, and the rigging all done in yards of tiny chain, each link carved from the stone. There was Disney memorabilia by the truckload. There was a four-by-four pallet, stacked four feet deep, each of the boxes filled with nothing but framed, signed photos of Razorback cheerleaders. There were toy cars by the dozen. There was a sled. There were sixteen pairs of binoculars, ranging in size from opera glasses to "that German U-boat is out there, and I'm going to find it."

In a big room lined with tables, each table stacked six inches deep, there were literally hundreds of photographs and dozens of pieces of memorabilia, all signed by famous people: politicians, movie stars, criminals, astronauts. Heather Locklear, Buzz Aldrin, Al Capone, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Jack Nicholson, the entire cast of "Seinfeld," the entire cast of "Steel Magnolias," the entire cast of "All in the Family," the entire cast of "Beverly Hills 90210." There were autographs from Alfred Hitchcock, every president going back at least to Truman, Monica Lewinsky, and a pair of underpants signed by the Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. There was a yellowed baseball signed by Babe Ruth, a bat signed by Hank Aaron, and a framed, canceled check from the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. There was a case, no bigger than a breadbox and watched at all times by a uniformed cop, that contained the Osborne jewels: pins, broaches, Rolex watches, rings — another fortune's fortune.

Just outside the room, on a table, there was a row of a dozen ventriloquist dummies, including an ape in tennis shoes. On a shelf a few rows over, there was a snake-pit tangle of at least a half dozen amazing, hand-made bullwhips, any of which would have done Indiana Jones proud. There were dozens of beautiful, custom-made stationery books, each covered in creamy leather and full of vanilla paper. There was a box of 8-track tapes, heavy on Hank Williams, Charlie Rich and Elvis. There were enough furs to carpet a good-sized apartment wall to wall. There was a pallet of high-end goodie bags, each including a turned wooden pen, an Osborne cup, a tiny clock, and a book of quotations called "The Rich Are Different."

Friday and Saturday, with over a hundred people in attendance both days, the auctioneers rolled on and on, taking turns when their voices grew raspy. The lots came and went, each item projected on a huge screen hung before the crowd. Mitzi and Breezy Osborne were there for much of it, sitting with friends over to one side, Mitzi sometimes walking through the warehouse, chatting, smiling and pointing out things with particularly good stories.

On Saturday, when the auction moved from furniture and knick-knacks and into the memorabilia and more personal items, the word passed through the warehouse that Breezy was coming that day, because she wanted to buy something: a gold-and-diamond encrusted pin, no bigger than a nickel, in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. Her friends, I heard, had agreed to help her pay for it, because it was sure to go high.

I'd talked to her a few days before the auction about her father and the sale; what he meant to Arkansas and what the state had meant to him. She talked about how moderation was not in his vocabulary, and how he believed in the idea of giving effortlessly — about how that philosophy had gotten him into financial trouble at the end.

"He's a giver," she said. "And there's a time when you're a giver and a provider, that's all you know to do. That's what you feel that your vocation is. That's what he continued to do. He didn't want to let anybody down."

She's pregnant with a daughter who will be born in August, and she wondered aloud how she was ever going to be able to describe her father to the child — the magnitude of him, she called it, using a word I'd only ever heard to describe stars in outer space.

Their jewelry had been held by one of the banks as collateral, meaning Mitzi and Breezy hadn't had a chance to get the pin before it went into the auction. When she arrived on Saturday, I asked Breezy why, out of all the things there, she wanted it. He wore it every time he wore a suit coat, she said, which meant almost every day.

"It was his favorite thing," she said. "He wouldn't really leave the house without it. He always had a little pouch he carried with some close items inside, and that was one of the things. Out of all the items here, it's the one item I really want to take back."

So here, at last, was something like Rosebud, but not quite — a symbol of incredible wealth, but also a symbol of the abject joy Jennings Osborne spent his life chasing.

I left soon after I talked to Breezy, mostly because I needed to get writing on this story — there were still over 100 lots to go before the pin — but partially because I couldn't bear to be there if she lost the only thing she wanted. Later on, though, I heard she'd won. In the end, there was no big showdown between Breezy Osborne and some phone bidder who wanted to pry out the diamonds and melt down the gold. In the end, I heard, the pin came up, the Blackmon auctioneer immediately called it sold, and they placed it in Breezy's hands, with thanks. The crowd, I heard, applauded.

The eye of the needle

As the auctioneers worked through the personal items in the warehouse near Prothro Junction on Friday and Saturday, Bryant "Bear" Morris and his wife, Shretta, set up a table and sold auction-goers the famous barbecue that Osborne gave away by the ton: pulled pork, hot dogs and soda — $3 for an enormous, smoked pork sandwich, wrapped in aluminum foil.

Bear started working for Osborne 17 years ago, doing what he calls "The Cookout." A friend who worked for Osborne told him he needed some extra help on a cook in the southern part of the state, so Bear tagged along. That's where he met Jennings Osborne, and where his life changed.

"We did a cookout in Warren, Ark.," Bear said. "That's where I met him. I picked up a big ol' case of water, and he said: 'You're strong! I'll call you Bear.' From that day forward I've been right there with him. It's been a life."

Bear and Shretta had only been married a year then. Though Bear worked for Osborne full time from then on, both he and his wife eventually wound up working the Osborne cookouts, tending the big smokers through the night and dishing up the 12-pound plate that everybody who came through the line got whether they needed that much or not. Bear, who spent over a decade as Osborne's head barbecue cook, doing dozens of Osborne's no-limits barbecues all over, can still reel off the contents of those plates from memory: whole chicken, turkey leg, pulled pork sandwich, beef brisket, sausage, beef ribs, plus sides. He's walked up the stairs of Air Force One twice to deliver barbecue to two presidents, and once fell 27 feet from Jimmy Carter's roof to hard ground while putting up Christmas lights on the former president's house in Plains, Ga. Carter, Bear said, visited him every day he was in the hospital. A life, indeed.

The Osbornes, Bear and Shretta Morris said, were very good to them. On Thursday, before the Prothro auction, Bear said he'd gone to Osborne's grave and had "a breakdown moment." It clearly hurts them to see Mitzi and Breezy going through the pain of the auction. Bear calls Breezy his sister. Not "like a sister," not "loved as a sister," just "my sister."

"His wife and daughter," Shretta said, "they're heroes of mine. Some people can't take public embarrassment, but to be able to take it on this level and still smile and still be encouraging to others is something."

Though Bear said Osborne didn't come across to the average person who met him as a cheerful man ("There was probably only 10 people in the whole world who ever saw his teeth," he offered), he said that Osborne did have a legendary sense of humor to go along with his bottomless well of generosity once you were accepted into his circle of trust. Standing outside the auction in an Osborne Family apron and yellow kitchen gloves, dishing up pulled pork sandwiches, Bear told the following story:

One night, he and Osborne were in the process of getting several hundred chickens ready to go into the smoker when they started to chat about God. Being a preacher as well as a barbecue cook, Bear proceeded to tell Osborne about his personal walk with Jesus, and impressed upon him the need to be saved.

"I know, Bear," Osborne said, surveying the big tables full of gutted hens. "I just hope that when I get to heaven, God is not a chicken."

After we all got through laughing at that — the image of Jennings Osborne standing guiltily before an enormous, scowling rooster clothed in light — I asked them if they thought God worked His will through Jennings Osborne. They said they know He did.

"He taught us humility," Shretta said. "He taught us that things weren't everything, and that if you're not making a difference in someone else's life, then what are you doing? ... I believe God put on shoes and came down and showed us, in the form of a man, how to give love unconditionally."

Shretta Morris thought awhile, then began to speak of Matthew 19:24, the passage in which Jesus told his followers it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven — how maybe Jesus was really talking about something other than St. Peter turning away a man like Osborne.

She didn't get it all quite right as I have heard it, but I knew what she was talking about: the idea that the verse is actually a parable; that in Jesus' day, there was a low, narrow gate in Jerusalem called "The Eye of the Needle," and in order to enter the city, camels laden with treasures after their journey across the desert had to be divested of their riches in order to slip through. For a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, the idea went, he had to be stripped of his finery — to come as naked to The Lord as when he had been sent into this world.

As Shretta Morris spoke of wealth beyond this place, the auctioneers inside the warehouse and out of our earshot rolled on and on in their quick, sing-song rhythm, paring away — lot by lot, thing by thing, treasure by treasure — the vast burden of riches from the ghost of Jennings Osborne.

"I believe," Shretta said, smiling, "that rich man is in heaven now."

Look for a slideshow from the auctions on Wednesday morning.

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