Jennings Osborne: Generous to a Fault (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Jun. 11, 2012 12:00 am  

Gwen Moritz

I've heard the phrase "generous to a fault" all my life, but I'm not sure I ever understood it until I saw the wreckage of Jennings Osborne's former fortune.

I had never heard of Osborne until 1993, when the lawsuit filed by neighbors inconvenienced by the traffic generated by his Christmas light display made national news while I was living in Nashville, Tenn. I assumed he was a nouveau riche megalomaniac, an impression reinforced by his donation of Christmas light displays to Walt Disney World and Graceland.

I was back in Little Rock as editor of Arkansas Business by the time he threw that over-the-top wedding for daughter Breezy back in 2003, complete with 9-foot wedding cake and Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the sitting governor officiating.

But by then I knew that Jennings Osborne's profligate spending wasn't limited to showy self-aggrandizement. That was just the stuff that made news outside the state. At home he was sponsoring world-class fireworks displays and hosting community barbecue feasts and making a thousand smaller gifts and donations that no one ever heard of.

I never knew him well, but as a business owner, he was naturally a reader of Arkansas Business. He would email me occasionally about this or that, and he "friended" me on Facebook. I grew to appreciate that he was not the one-dimensional cartoon character I had initially assumed, that he enjoyed doing for others as well as for himself and his family.

But only since his death last July have I appreciated another misconception about Jennings Osborne: He was not nearly as rich as he seemed to be. Yes, he made a lot of money operating his drug testing business, and he made millions by selling it. But he spent more than he made, and he counted on making more than he ever did.

Last week's auctions made it clear that he enjoyed buying things - all kinds of things - apparently just for the joy of owning them. Osborne was clearly a complicated soul.

We know that his Little Rock houses weren't worth at auction as much as he paid for them, and not nearly as much as he owed on them. We may never know whether his slot machines, jewelry, autographs, juke boxes, crystal, artwork and the rest qualified as good investments, but I doubt it. I go to a lot of estate sales and occasional auctions, and the market value of nonessentials has taken a beating in recent years.

So it turns out that Jennings Osborne was a talented money-maker and a generous husband, father and philanthropist. But he was a lousy financial planner who ran out of time to make things right. I have to hand it to his widow, Mitzi, for making what had to be hard and embarrassing decisions to straighten out family finances more tangled than any string of Christmas lights.

And I especially hand it to Breezy Osborne-Wingfield, a young woman I assumed - wrongly again - was spoiled beyond redemption by the lavish lifestyle she was brought up in. On Facebook, she spilled her guts about suddenly not being the rich girl she had always been:

"Purging every ounce of materialism I ever had was more simple than I had ever imagined," she wrote.

And, "Can I tell you how long I would have to live on this earth to be able to repay my parents for what they've done for me? ... As I say to Mom, we are in this together. Blood, sweat, tears ... more and more tears."

After my last column, in which I wondered whether J.P. Morgan or Wall Street in general had learned anything at all from 2008, a reader informed me that I was just too dumb to understand that the transactions that cost as much as $3 billion were like "quantum mechanics," representing "a very specific point in time." Given more time, he assured me, "the results could have been dramatically better or worse."

My reader is correct: I don't understand. The idea that J.P.Morgan's trading losses could have been even worse didn't make me feel better. But what do you expect from a journalist?  

Far more disturbing is the realization that the Comptroller of the Currency just doesn't get it either. Last week, Thomas Curry told the Senate Banking Committee that J.P. Morgan had "inadequate risk management" and acknowledged that his office's 65 on-site regulators could have fallen down on their jobs as well.

I hate it when simple quantum mechanics get so politicized, don't you?

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @GwenMoritz.)



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