February 08, 1988 12:00 PM

His political career ended years ago with a failed presidential bid, and his real estate ventures fell flat as a johnnycake, but there’s no denying one thing about Big John Connally, former Governor and cabinet member, and Texas personified. The man is still one brave cowboy. Sheathed in a gray silk suit, the 6’2″ septuagenarian is standing ramrod-straight in a Houston auction house that smells of furniture polish. In the face of financial disaster, this is Connally’s gallant last stand. His $10 million fortune lost in the wreckage of the late, great Texas oil boom, the once-powerful lawyer, businessman and politician has chosen to witness a final, mortifying rite of personal bankruptcy, the sale of his treasured possessions to the highest bidders. All around him, a sumptuous collection of chairs, tables, armoires and footstools, ranging from Chippendale to Louis Quatorze, fills the vast, block-square hall. Lining the walls are 200 paintings. Many depict Western themes; others are deft copies of Modigliani, Van Gogh and Picasso by the noted art faker Elmyr de Hory. There are finely wrought Winchester rifles, ceremonial saddles inlaid with gold initials, elephant tusks Connally brought back from a safari in Tanzania, a 19th-century statue of St. Andrew that once stood sentinel at Westminster Abbey, and display cases of gleaming silver and china. Beyond categorization, yet priceless for the memories they evoke, are such knick-knacks as the Baccarat shoe brought back from a coming-of-age tour of Europe by one of the Connallys’ two sons. (The couple also have a married daughter, Sharon; their eldest child, Kathleen, died in 1959, an apparent suicide.) Slowly scanning the awesome display, Connally draws a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabs at his nose. “It’s just his sinuses,” says Nellie, his effervescent wife of 47 years, gently taking his hand in hers.

It took six trailer trucks to transport this Texas-size treasure trove, and the 1,200 items displayed constituted the acquisitions of the Connallys’ life together. Days later it was no longer theirs. Every last article, from the silk Persian rugs and the wedding-gift silver right down to the Santa Claus cookie jar and the desk Connally sat behind as Governor from 1962 to 1968, went under the hammer in a four-day auction that brought in $2,678,000.

Connally, one of the more prominent casualties of the ruinous economic slump in which Texas has been mired since 1985, declared Chapter Seven bankruptcy last July and arranged the auction in an effort to pay off at least a portion of his debt, estimated at somewhere between $25 and $48 million. Rather than exit the stage in dismal obscurity, he went public with his dilemma and succeeded in getting top dollar for his worldly possessions. “It’s an embarrassing and humiliating event,” he conceded before the gavel’s first fall. “In a way, we are going to see our life cross that auction block. It won’t be comfortable, but I’ll be here. We are going to conduct ourselves with dignity and decorum.”

From the moment the auction began, Big John and Nellie did just that. They sat quietly in the audience while thousands of people a day paid $15 apiece—the money went to charity—to peruse the evidence of their lavish life-style. “Occasionally I wanted to touch something one more time,” Nellie admitted, “or straighten the paintings on the wall. But I don’t feel the same way about these things that I did when they were in my house. Now that they are here, I have crossed some road.” As the bidding proceeded, Nellie jotted down the names of buyers and prices into her program. A pair of bronze, marble and crystal candelabra went for $2,500. The cocktail table with the wrought iron base and the frosted glass top went for $16,000. Two giant, Chinese, blue-and-white porcelain palace vases went for $4,500 each, and a painted panorama of Texas history brought in $70,000 from Houston businessman Frank Horlock. Bud Adams, owner of the National Football League’s Houston Oilers, spent $33,500 on three paintings and a cumbersome Khyber rifle. Insiders suggested that some of the finer pieces were being purchased by Connally loyalists and would find their way back to the couple in the future. The bidding was so hot that veteran auctioneer Jerry Hart, a longtime Connally friend, went hoarse after the third day and substitutes alternated in his place. Connally spent some time signing one-dollar bills that already bore his imprinted signature from his days as Secretary of the Treasury under Richard Nixon. Three thousand of them went for $20 each.

A Democrat when he was elected Governor of Texas in 1962, Connally was felled by the same gunman who killed President Kennedy during their motorcade through Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. After serving two years in the Nixon cabinet, he turned Republican in 1973, protesting the Democrats’ nomination of Sen. George McGovern. Following a dismal showing for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination (he got only one delegate vote in the primaries), Connally headed back home to Houston, acknowledging his defeat with a grin. “I have felt the heat,” he said, “and now I see the light.” As always, he kept his dignity, but his pride was hurt, friends say. Forced into retirement from his law firm at age 65, Connally plunged into business with the urgency of a man who had something to prove. Worth an estimated $10 million at the time, he formed a partnership with Ben Barnes, 49, a former Texas Lieutenant Governor, and set up Barnes/Connally, a high-stakes real estate development venture. Using his fame, his clout and his persuasive presence, Connally charmed millions of dollars from banks, savings-and-loan institutions and insurance companies to finance the construction of office buildings, apartment houses and shopping malls. “He could make you believe day was night,” an associate has said. But when oil prices collapsed, sliding from $40 to $10 a barrel, the Texas economy nose-dived. Lenders wanted their cash back, and Connally’s charisma was no substitute. Because they were not incorporated, Connally and Barnes, who has also filed for bankruptcy, were personally responsible for their massive debt.

“It was all interdependent,” Connally says of the Texas recession. “When one thing collapses, the whole thing collapses.” It became apparent that drastic measures would have to be taken if the company was to stay afloat. In 1984 Connally sold about 700 head of his prized Santa Gertrudis cattle. Three years later he auctioned off 130 horses on his 3,400-acre ranch south of San Antonio and cleared $400,000. He sold his stocks and bonds, a ranch outside Santa Fe, N.Mex., where the Connallys vacationed, a home in the upper-crust Houston suburb of River Oaks and another in Austin. “For the last four or five years we have been caught up in trying to keep anything like this from happening,” said Connally of the auction that placed his and Nellie’s most personal possessions on the block. “We tried to do everything we knew, but nothing worked. It has been a miserable experience; sleepless nights, worrisome days.” Outwardly as stoical as her husband, Nellie was deeply worried. “We both knew that unless a miracle happened this was going to be the inevitable end of it,” she said afterward, her eyes sweeping over the cluttered warehouse. “And no miracle happened. And here we are.”

As they faced the painful process of ridding themselves of so much of their past, it was clear that the Connallys’ personal partnership was in no danger of bankruptcy. Whenever her husband’s spirits seemed to be sinking, Nellie was quickly at his side, administering a gritty, tough kind of love. On the sad day when the last loads of furniture were being carted away from their ranch home, Connally asked peevishly just where he was supposed to put his bedside clock now that his bedside table had been hauled off. Nellie had some words with one of the movers and came back brandishing a cardboard box. She placed it by the bed, put the clock on it and gave Big John a peck on the cheek.

There are over 40 pages of creditors demanding paybacks from Barnes/Connally. Aside from millions owed to banks and insurance companies, an Austin newspaper wants $26.91 for a classified ad. A sign company is owed $1,162. The electric company wants $5,857. A pizza delivery firm says Connally’s company owes $9,600. Nonetheless, Connally insists his personal finances are in order. “Nellie and John Connally do not have any creditors,” he maintains in a stentorian tone. “All our personal bills are paid.”

Under the terms of the Chapter Seven bankruptcy law, the Connallys are permitted to keep $30,000 worth of personal property, as well as their ranch homestead and 200 acres of its rangeland. Connally auctioned his $20,000 gold Rolex watch and chose instead to keep some bedroom and dining room furniture and the kitchen appliances. While some friends offered to buy items and give them back to the Connallys, others said they’d feel “too ghoulish” attending the auction at all. In general the public has been sympathetic. “We’ve received hundreds of letters,” says Connally. “They are very touching, and I intend to answer every one.”

The last gavel has fallen, and Connally, having surrendered practically everything of value, will soon be free of the bankruptcy stigma. Claiming no desire to re-enter politics, he says he is ready to “enjoy life.” He is working on an autobiography and would like to do some traveling. “We’ve been to over 80 countries,” he says. “I’d like to do that again.” Big John says that he’ll be financially solvent in no time. “We are not by any manner or means going to be destitute,” he says. “Two or three years from now, we’ll be back. I am going to be making money.”

“And I,” says Nellie brightly, “am going to be spending it.”

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