Cruising the black-tie gala, Jody Powell spotted his ex-boss and shook hands exuberantly. “I was looking for a country ham,” quipped the former First Flak, “but I wound up with you.” Country ham was close enough. Winging into Manhattan with four chairs he’d crafted last summer in Georgia from a single hickory tree, former President Jimmy Carter indulged in some tuxedoed show-and-tell (at $50 a ticket) and put the slatted-back seats on the auction block at Sotheby’s. Along with nearly 300 other donated lots, they raised $320,000 for the Carter Presidential Library and the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta. Willie Nelson’s well-trod New Balances and red bandanna garnered $250, Andy Warhol’s silk-screen proof of Carter $800, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s Art Deco silver tea service $5,250. Poor Brenda Lee! Her purple leather pumps pulled in just $20.
Some thought the morning auction should have been held at night. “People buy better over cocktails than after bacon-and-egg breakfasts,” noted a Sotheby employee. Still, two unidentified buyers shelled out $41,000 for the Carter chairs, which came with down-home scrapbooks documenting their making (Rosalynn helped weave the bark seats). The photos were annotated in Jimmy’s own hand. Confiding that he had “dreaded” raising funds for his library, Carter spoke at length about his “lifetime hobby.”
“Working with wood is like a vacation for me,” he said, describing his use of drawknives and other “primitive tools” to assemble the chairs without a nail or screw. Explaining such arcana as slat-bending and the relation between seasonal sap flow and the ease of bark removal, Jimmy held most of his audience rapt. But you can’t please everybody. Groused one neck-craning gala guest, “Gee, if this were Reagan, Frank Sinatra would be here.”