HOUSTON -- Watching rich men fall from on high is a popular spectator sport in oil-depressed Texas these days, but John B. Connally's descent is freighted with more than the usual symbolism.
The tenant farmer's son from the brush country south of San Antonio rose to be governor, a Cabinet officer and presidential confidant. While he never attained the legendary status of his mentor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Connally, with his silver hair, regal bearing and authoritative voice, was the quintessential Texas big guy. The sound of his fall now, at the end of his 70th year, is the final resounding thump of a time, place and way of life.
Eight years ago, after spending $12 million in a presidential campaign that netted one delegate to the Republican National Convention, Connally decided he would use his money the old-fashioned Texas way: to make more of it.
He has failed spectacularly, not just going bankrupt but accumulating at least $48 million in debts, forcing him to sell the glorious house atop the hills west of Austin, his many businesses, his condominium in Houston, his stable of horses and a lifetime's worth of possessions. In the end, he was reduced to watching movers haul so much soon-to-be-auctioned furniture from his Picosa Ranch house that they had to construct a makeshift nightstand for him out of cardboard.
"Money in and of itself was not the goal," Connally said recently, after all three of his residences had been stripped clean. "Success was the goal, and that's what is so galling about this. I failed."
And so what once were symbols of his success are now incarnations of his failure. All the material things that used to surround and comfort John and Nellie Connally -- from an English silver-plated roast beef cart on a fluted wooden trolley to a mid-19th century ebonized, bronze dore-mounted side cabinet with semiprecious stones arranged in floral designs -- now sit in the showroom, warehouse and back office of Hart Galleries, the Southwest's premier antique auction house. They will be put up for bid at four auctions later this month, beginning the evening of Jan. 22.
This is the golden anniversary of Hart Galleries. During its half-century in Houston, the family has handled some of the great estates in Texas history, including those of Judge Roy Hofheinz, the former Houston mayor who built the Astrodome, and Miles Frank Yount, whose family owned Spindletop, the first great Texas oilfield.
But nothing the gallery has done, said Jerry Hart, the proprietor, compares with the imminent auction of The Collection of the Hon. and Mrs. John B. Connally, which is expected to raise $2 million to $3 million and attract 2,000 bidders from places such as London, Vienna, Hollywood and New York. Each will pay $15 for the privilege of being there.
"In terms of name identification, this has got to be the ultimate auction sale," Hart said.
"John Connally is Texas. He is known throughout the world as the Texas man. Think about it. He has humbled himself unmercifully. Here is a man who would be president, a man on top of the world, negotiating deals like a shuttle diplomat, and now here's a man of great bearing and dignity whose entire life's accumulations are taken away from him, tagged with identification numbers. At this auction there will be an unusual combination of valuable items, history and emotion. I shall never see another like it."
Hart was seated in his office on one of 1,100 objects in the Connally collection, a carved and gilded 19th century walnut chair with velvet upholstery. The chair, which might sell for as much as $40,000, is a reminder of life's symmetry.
Connally bought it at the same gallery during the Yount auction 24 years ago, back when he seemed invincible, a bright and ambitious governor who had survived the assassin's bullets that killed President John F. Kennedy. Now it is tagged for resale, Item No. 159 in the inventory of a man who tried to turn millions of dollars into tens of millions of dollars through investments in oilfields, shopping centers, luxury housing developments and resorts.
Perhaps he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Some old acquaintances, friend and foe, say he has made a habit of that: Connally switched parties, from Democrat to Republican, in May 1973, just as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, an act that former Texas senator Ralph Yarborough, as liberal as Connally was conservative, called "the only case on record of a man swimming toward a sinking ship.") But there was also in Connally's decline a certain willfulness, as though he could not possibly fail.
In business jargon, he and his disciple, Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor who also abandoned politics in pursuit of fortune, chose the route of contrarians, investing in oil even after the price slump and pumping more money into real estate as that industry, too, was taking a dive.
For this Connally makes no excuses. "We were trying to move too far too fast," he said. "We were not conservative enough in consolidating our position with each project. But that is hindsight, and even if we had been more cautious, we might have owed a little less money, but we might have ended up at the same place anyway -- in bankruptcy court."
Barnes and Connally formed their investment partnership late in 1981, when Texas was still booming, or as Jerry Hart put it, "when money wasn't money, but just a means of keeping count." By the end of 1983, they had $200 million in developments: strip shopping centers, office buildings, condominium projects on South Padre Island and in Ruidoso, N.M., a medical tower in McAllen, single-family houses in Austin and Houston, an airline hangar in Austin and extensive land holdings. Connally backed many of the deals personally and, as they turned sour, exhausted all of his cash resources until, last summer, he had no choice but to file for bankruptcy.
While few Texans weep for Connally, there is a consensus here that his decline and fall has been a class act. Unlike the Hunt brothers in Dallas, he did not try to hide his troubles under a stack of lawsuits or recede from public view. Before Connally declared bankruptcy, he occasionally tried to avoid the news media, but since then he has made himself available even in the most painful of circumstances, such as when the movers went to empty his houses in Austin and Floresville.
At the Austin house, which was sold to a corporation for more than $600,000, Connally asked the movers to wait a minute before hoisting the final item onto the truck. It was the early 19th century carved limestone life-sized figure of St. Andrew, a statue that had stood outside Westminster Abbey for nearly 100 years. Since 1983, it had dominated a corner of the Connallys' living room and a corner of Big John's heart. It was about to pass from him forever. As the movers waited, Connally put his arm around St. Andrew, right out there in the driveway, and carried on idle conversation with the workmen for a while.
Hart said it was the one time he saw Connally display emotion during the clearing-out process, which had the feel, in a sense, of a rich man's eviction. At the Picosa Ranch in Floresville, where the Connallys will reside, it sometimes appeared that Connally was dabbing tears from his eyes, but he made a point of saying that he had sinus problems.
"I felt a deep sadness at seeing so many things I'd treasured for so many years leaving," Connally said. "Everything that went out carried a little bit of our heart. But at the same time, I felt I guess a sense of decency, that we were sacrificing everything we had in a good-faith effort to pay off the debts."
According to Hart, about 50 items in the Connally collection will be of interest to world-class dealers. The most expensive is a painting, "Indian Chief and Pony," by Oscar Berninghaus, one of the founders of the Taos school of western art. Hart is hoping it will sell for $250,000. A mural of Texas history by Peter Hurd and Peter Rogers may go for $100,000.
There are dozens of lesser things -- the desk Connally used as governor of Texas in the 1960s, another desk from his law office in Houston (also purchased at Hart Galleries), inscribed watches, presidential blazer buttons, bronze door plaques, saddles, even an egg timer. All should sell for at least double their value because they once belonged to John Connally, Hart said. Every purchase will include a signed letter from Connally attesting that it was part of the collection.
Even though the sale's proceeds will not go far toward reducing Connally's massive debt, he decided to do everything possible to maximize the auction profits. He and Nellie plan to be on hand for all four auction sessions, what Hart described as "a final act of great courage." Many of their friends will be there, some of whom are planning to buy items only to give them back to the Connallys.
In all likelihood, Connally would have attended the auction even if it were for some other bankrupt millionaire. He and his wife were avid collectors who, in Hart's memory, never missed a major sale.
As Hart was preparing the collection's sale catalogue, Connally went over it item by item, offering several detailed suggestions and corrections. He even examined the Sotheby's catalogues to see the going price of various items this year and noticed an antique chest going for $400,000, a price that made him think that the rich are different.
The key to handling a bankruptcy sale, said Hart, who has taken part in many of them in recent years, is "adapting to the attitude that all of these things are just that -- things." Connally, he said, has adapted better than most. Possessions come and possessions go, but not even a bankruptcy court can take away the memories.
Now that the things are gone, Connally hopes to spend the next year writing his autobiography. "This," he said, with the tone of a man who plans to be back on top someday, "seems to be a natural, short break in my life."