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.

Page 6 of 8

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.


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