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San Antonio philanthropist Flora Cameron Crichton entertained notable friends such as Sen. John Tower, Nelson Rockefeller, members of the Bush family, and other prominent figures for more than 50 years at her home in Alamo Heights.
Through socializing, her purpose was to forge strategic alliances in support of politics, education, and other civic passions, said Catherine Nixon Cooke, who is married to Crichton’s stepson. Those passions will live on even after Crichton’s death in March at age 94, through a foundation that bears her name.
Before she died, Crichton asked that her personal effects – a wide range of jewelry, furnishings, decorative art pieces, and other items – be sold to benefit the Flora Cameron Foundation, which she created in 1952 after surviving a serious illness. Also on the market is her home in Alamo Heights, as well as a property in Hawaii.
A sale last week of Crichton’s jewels at Sotheby’s New York City auction house yielded proceeds that could expand the size and impact of the foundation.
“It was pretty wild,” said foundation President Grace Labatt of the auction. “This will allow the foundation to fulfill its obligations from the past, but also the board will meet to determine how it will grow and change in the future.”
The foundation supports the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation at Texas A&M University, Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo, the Art Center of Waco, the Bishop Jones Center, and other institutions.
Crichton’s style was legendary, from her appearance and home to her dinner parties.
“She had a great love of beauty, and that was evident in the things she supported,” said Cooke. “And Flo was always immaculately turned out. She was very glamorous and very smart until the day she died.”
Chief among these was Crichton’s desire, from the time she could first vote in 1948, to create a two-party system in Texas at a time when the state had only one Republican representative in Congress.
“She answered the call of President Eisenhower to be involved in writing the party’s national platform and then on to the breakthrough election of U.S. Sen. John Tower,” former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said in an email.
“The Republican Party in Texas was built piece by piece by some fiercely competitive and committed women, and Flo was right there in the vanguard and was very much responsible for its earliest successes.
“She was most proud of her decades of friendship with Barbara and George Bush and was by their side in every one of their campaigns in Texas and nationally. Flo was an indispensable Republican pioneer who was loved and respected for her generosity, loyalty and effectiveness.”
One of Crichton’s last dinner parties was an intimate gathering honoring former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Crichton moved to San Antonio from Waco with her mother, Helen, at age 15 after the death of her father, William Waldo Cameron, who built a fortune in the lumber industry. She graduated from Sweet Briar College, where her foundation supports a teaching residency, and served as a Trinity University trustee from 1965 to 2004, becoming its first female chair from 1976 to 1978. She endowed the Flora Cameron Lecture in Politics and Public Affairs at Trinity, which brings international leaders to San Antonio for free, public lectures.
Crichton’s eye for quality was evident in all areas of her life, even extending to making suggestions to artist Juan O’Gorman as he created the Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas mural, Cooke said. Crichton underwrote the mural, located on the facade of the Lila Cockrell Theatre, while serving as a member of the executive committee of HemisFair ’68.
“She always had a final hand in decisions,” said Cooke, who wrote a book about O’Gorman and how the mural came to be. “She told O’Gorman, ‘The woman you’re depicting is so beautiful, but I think her beauty would be enhanced if you made her dress lavender, not white.’”
While most artists would brush off such advice, he changed the mosaic color.
On Dec. 7, the third and last day of an estate sale at her home, shoppers were still spotting treasures such as a sequined cocktail dress, a double poolside chaise lounge, and a Nambé pewter bowl that a sharp-eyed collector picked up for $22.50.
The value of the estate sale is not yet been determined.
Crichton’s 1959 home was designed by local architect Phil Carrington in modern style, complete with a sunken living room with wall-to-wall carpeting in chartreuse. Even though the room was full of randomly placed furniture and objects at the sale, it was easy to picture it full of friends sipping gimlets and discussing how to circumvent LBJ’s policies.
Dinner parties were never large and always traditional, said Mel Weingart, former general manager of the Argyle Club, which catered many of them.
“There might be three tables of eight with different china,” he said. “She would have pretty flowers, nothing flashy. She was very conservative, very proper.”
A final preview and auction of Crichton’s furniture and decorative arts will take place at Lark Mason Associates in New Braunfels, 210 W. Mill Street, from Dec. 19 to Jan. 14, 2020. The sale will include pieces from Cartier and Tiffany & Co. as well as a Venini Fulvio Bianconi glass vase, a Louis XV inlaid gray marble-top commode, and ceramic works by San Antonio artists Nancy Pawel and Harding Black.
For Labatt, seeing Crichton’s belongings sold off is bittersweet.
“It’s a very sad time, but we’re trying to focus on what Flo wanted her legacy to be and not get too caught up in how much we miss her,” she said. “Now she can be remembered through her foundation, and her desire that it be enjoyed by the community.”