HOW ONE OF THE LARGEST PRIVATE COLLECTIONS OF JUDITH LEIBER HANDBAGS TO COME TO AUCTION IS HELPING FUND OVARIAN CANCER RESEARCH
By Barbara Tunick
Susan and Ron Morrow lived life side by side. Whether they were spending time with friends and family in one of their homes in Montecito, California, or Spring Island, South Carolina, or traveling the world for work or fun, the adventure-loving couple were always together. And that never changed, even after Susan was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ron remained right next to her throughout her two-year battle.
“It all started during the peak of COVID. We were in the mountains in North Carolina when Susan started having trouble breathing,” Ron recalls. “We thought she had COVID, but when we went to the doctor, he took some X-rays and discovered she had fluid around her lungs. After more tests, we learned she had ovarian cancer. We couldn’t believe it.”
The diagnosis was both devastating and shocking since Susan’s ovaries had been removed years before. The Morrows later learned the cancer had spread from her fallopian tubes, which she still had after a partial hysterectomy. Determined to help her beat the odds, they sought care from the world’s best doctors at Vanderbilt University, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Mayo Clinic.
“Almost immediately Susan began to document every step of the process, all of her tests and treatments, all of her emotions from hope to despair,” Ron says of his wife, who passed away last September at the age of 75. “She sent a ton of emails to her friends and family so they could learn about and benefit from her journey. That was Susan. She was always thinking about other people, always wanting to help.”
Helping others has long been second nature to the Morrows. Years before Susan’s diagnosis, they established the Morrow Legacy Foundation to help fund several charities close to their hearts, including organizations for children, animals and veterans, as well as cancer research. After Susan was diagnosed, the foundation took on new meaning for the family, and Susan had a specific promise she asked Ron to keep. Over the decades, she had amassed an impressive assemblage of fine jewelry and evening bags, including the third-largest Judith Leiber collection in the world, and she wanted Ron to assure her that after she was gone, he would sell her collections to fund their foundation.
“She wanted to make sure that the things she loved would be used to help other people,” Ron says. After she passed, Ron changed the name of their foundation to the Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation.
On December 4, Heritage Auctions will assist the Morrows in achieving their philanthropic goals when it presents The Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation Collection. One hundred percent of the auction’s proceeds will benefit the Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation.
“When we started our foundation, we wanted to create a format so our children, grandchildren and other family members could learn about philanthropy,” Ron says. “We wanted everyone to choose organizations they believed in. Now, obviously, ovarian cancer research, education and prevention is of utmost importance to us. That’s why we’re funding the same research hospitals that treated Susan. How great would it be if we can help develop tests for early detection or, better yet, find a cure for ovarian cancer?”
Susan wanted to make sure that the things she loved would be used to help other people. How great would it be if we can help develop tests for early detection or, better yet, find a cure for ovarian cancer?”
According to the American Cancer Society, when ovarian cancer is found early, about 94% of patients live more than five years after diagnosis. Tragically, today only about 20% of ovarian cancers are detected at an early stage. “We’re determined to help find new ways to test so women don’t have to wait to be diagnosed at Stage 4,” says Jennifer McFarlin, Susan’s niece and a foundation board member. “We need to make people feel comfortable talking about ovarian cancer the same way that breast cancer has become normalized.”
In Heritage’s December auction, Susan’s love of collecting and her dedication to philanthropy and cancer education will come together in one crystal- and diamond-studded event featuring more than 60 of her precious jewels and 57 of her Judith Leiber minaudieres.
“I remember the very first Judith Leiber bag she bought,” Ron says. “We were in New Mexico and saw the Humpty Dumpty purse. It had such a great backstory. Somehow it was recovered after Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. It was retrieved and cleaned up. Susan absolutely loved it. After that, she was determined to collect all the bags in Judith Leiber’s book.”
Maybe it was the bag’s whimsical nature or the fact it had been recovered from Hurricane Katrina that drew Susan to it. More likely it was a combination of the two: The bag’s joyful resilience foreshadowed Susan’s own journey. Whatever the reason, it led to a lifelong passion for collecting the eye-catching pieces of wearable art.
Loren Booth, Susan’s closest friend, recalls Susan’s fascination with Leiber’s creations: “She was absolutely giddy the first time she met Judith and her husband and was invited to exhibit her collection as part of a retrospective at the Leiber Collection,” Booth says. “She loved the incredible detail and intricacies of the crystals and the way they caught the light. She viewed each one as a piece of art.”
In fact, it takes up to two years and 20 artisans to handcraft each of the vibrantly beaded bags. Each one is meticulously sculpted, molded, painted and cut before the semiprecious stones and crystals are set over five days by a single artisan. The sought-after creations are frequently displayed as objets d’art and have been compared to Tiffany stained glass and Fabergé eggs. They’ve been carried by first ladies, royalty, fashion icons and celebrities ranging from Greta Garbo to Lady Gaga. They’ve been exhibited in museums around the world, including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, and they are part of the permanent collection in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to offer Susan’s exceptional collection,” says Diane D’Amato, Heritage Auctions’ Director of Luxury Accessories, Private Sales & The Boutique. “This is the greatest private collection of Judith Leiber’s minaudieres to come to auction, with most in pristine condition. Many of the bags are incredibly rare, and some, like Lion Astor, Scottie Schnauzer, the Dolphin and Camel, have never been offered at Heritage before. Judith Leiber is a true American inspiration and success story, and her minaudieres are loved around the world.”
The auction also features many stunning jewels, a collection that highlights what Ana Wroblaski, Heritage Auctions’ Director of Fine Jewelry, calls Susan’s “exquisite, cultivated eye for wearable couture.” Standouts include a clover leaf-inspired Van Cleef & Arpels Magic Alhambra necklace featuring 488 diamonds weighing a total of 16.93 carats, as well as a 6.25-carat Graff diamond and platinum ring. Not only are Graff diamonds known for their extraordinary quality and brilliance, but Graff also adheres to the Kimberley Process, which means the brand actively avoids buying or trading rough diamonds from areas of conflict.
Also of note is Susan’s Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace, the epitome of innovation, imagination and inspiration. Wroblaski describes the 18k white gold necklace – which is encrusted with approximately 13.00 carats of round, square and emerald-cut sapphires and 6.10 carats of diamonds – as a modernized, sleeker version of the original created in 1950.
“The necklace was inspired by the Duchess of Windsor, who was intrigued by the invention of the zipper,” she explains. “It took almost 12 years for Van Cleef & Arpels to create the working Zip. This stunning iteration has a much more tapered and streamlined silhouette. It can be worn as a necklace, zipped as high or low as you prefer, or, equally spectacular, worn down a bare back.”
Then there is the diamond and 18k white gold Van Cleef & Arpels Pont des Amoureux – or Lovers Bridge – watch, a sweet and sentimental piece that both Susan and Ron held dear. “We first saw the Lovers Bridge watch when we were in Russia,” Ron says. “As it counts the hours and minutes, the figures go up the bridge. The man is carrying a rose. They finally meet at the top for a kiss at midnight and noon. Then they fly back down. We both loved the entire idea of it.”
McFarlin says her aunt would be thrilled to know that the things she loved are going to help something she loved even more – her foundation.
“Susan was one of those people who always made you feel like you were the best person you could possibly be when you were with her,” McFarlin says. “The foundation continues to do that to this day. It’s an amazing thing she’s given us. She’s left us with a gift to teach our kids the importance of helping others, not just by writing a check, but by figuring out what’s important and then how to best help the person in front of you. For my kids to see that they can really make a difference in someone’s life is just amazing. It’s a gift that she gave all of us. You can’t wrap it up in a box and put a bow on it. It’s life changing.”
BARBARA TUNICK is a contributor to Intelligent Collector.