SAN ANTONIO, JULY 9 -- In the Old West she might have sold hunting licenses to the Indians and derby hats to the Texas Rangers. In the kinder, gentler New West she sells George Bush to Republicans and culture to San Antonians.
The Texas media call Jocelyn Levi Straus "indisputably the most influential woman in San Antonio." And anyone who can raise $4.4 million in 11 months to renovate an abandoned theater in a down-at-the-heels part of town can also call George Bush out of a Cabinet meeting.
At least that's the story on this 58-year-old patroness of the arts, whom Barbara Bush tapped to host a private luncheon Tuesday for herself and 17 other economic summit spouses.
"Joci" (pronounced Jahsi) Straus got the first hint that San Antonio might be on Mrs. Bush's itinerary the night of the Bushes' state dinner for Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. She and her husband, businessman Joe Straus Jr., were houseguests of the Bushes.
While some San Antonians think Houston "stole" the summit away from them, Joci Straus says George Bush indicated to her over an Oval Office breakfast last fall that that city had a virtual lock on the event.
"I said, 'Well, I understand that but I have a couple of reasons you ought to consider San Antonio,' " she recalled in a recent interview here. "When we went to the outer office he told John Sununu that 'my good friend Jocelyn has been in there lobbying me for the summit.' "
The lobbying didn't work, and neither did San Antonio's comprehensive proposal pointing out its history and facilities. While Barbara Bush's plan to bring summit wives here is regarded by some as a token gesture, her good friend Joci Straus doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think Barbara's decision is anything less than her desire to give her guests a real side trip and a look at a multicultural Texas city," she says.
Straus has known George Bush since he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970. "I really hate to relate George Bush to a product, but I like sales and I want a good product. Some of us saw the potential was there. It was just a matter of projecting it -- George and Barbara have grown so much."
She says politics fascinates her not because of power but because "you can make so many wonderful things happen behind the scenes. I'm really interested in seeing results. I don't care what party you belong to now that I've got a two-party system in Texas. I'm very good about saying, 'Just go to either one.' "
Her long years of raising money for Republican candidates and supporting the arts on the state and local levels were rewarded in 1988 when Ronald Reagan appointed her to a six-year term on the National Council on the Arts, the advisory arm of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Little did she expect to be embroiled in a controversy that would eventually rock the entire arts establishment. The furor over the Robert Mapplethorpe photographs precipitated what Straus calls "the council's biggest challenge, trying to keep our funding intact and our freedom of expression in place and assure the Congress we will do anything possible ... to try to improve the way we operate."
She thinks she is among a council majority in believing it must guard against awarding grants to art that is "out-and-out debasing. I would be opposed to supporting a grant that I feel was so controversial in a negative way, because all we're doing is hurting the opportunity for others."
Mapplethorpe's work told a story of today's society, she says, adding, "we can't run from that." But his "overnight" fame has prompted others "to create what they think they can get away with," she says, and "I think we're being used as a whipping boy."
Here in San Antonio, her biggest challenge in the arts was raising $4.4 million to renovate the Majestic Theatre, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1974. For nine months she put the bite on suspecting contributors at elegant little onstage lunches and was turned down only once.
She is a stylish and petite woman with jet-black hair framing a cameo complexion, and her soft Texas drawl is like a finely honed knife -- effectively persuasive. Born in Pennsylvania to a factory owner restless for the wide-open spaces, she grew up on a ranch her father bought during the Depression about the same time he bought a book on cattle, a Stetson hat, a pair of boots and a wood-paneled station wagon.
She married into San Antonio's wealthy Straus family, raised two daughters and a son and got into fund-raising on the neighborhood level by collecting for local causes.
In her Majestic Theatre crusade, she personalized her pitches to suit her prospects. For instance, she told a prominent San Antonio bird-hunter she had found him the perfect donation -- the price of 50 stuffed birds, from parrots and wild Texas turkeys to preening peacocks, that would be perched along the interior balconies. And it worked. Today he tells everybody they're his birds.
The Majestic, considered by experts to be one of the most atmospheric theaters still standing anywhere, has a 2,500-seat auditorium that is a fantasy Mediterranean village at twilight. The "sky" twinkles with electric stars, and "clouds" are created by machines.
Racing the calendar to complete restoration in time for the San Antonio Symphony's 50th anniversary last fall, Straus bucked an economic downturn brought on by the decline in oil prices.
Instead of being turned away by San Antonio contributors, however, she found that the 60-year-old Majestic touched a nostalgic and responsive chord. "People were psychologically drained, dropping out of business right and left, and they needed something to believe in," she says. "This theater became that, connecting people's pasts with the present and making them feel good."
But the pressure on her, she says, was "scary"; she knew that if she didn't succeed the symphony would have no home and probably would go under.
The long-range plan of Las Casas Foundation, the umbrella group she started and chairs, is a cultural arts district that will serve as catalyst for revitalizing the downtown area. Next on the list for restoration is the nearby 800-seat Empire Theatre, which would be used by repertory and other smaller groups.
Meanwhile she doesn't miss a trick in raising money for unfinished projects at the Majestic. Tuesday Straus will add a special commemorative touch by informing Barbara Bush and her summit guests that to commemorate their visit, name plaques are being installed on the seats they occupy. Normally Straus asks for donations of up to $200 a seat from San Antonio benefactors, but Tuesday's are on the house.