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The Art of Duplicity

Twenty-seven years ago I promised a convicted felon I would store her art collection until her son would take for it for her.

This collection is not some small assembling of prints or photos. The collection includes seven oil paintings, some as large as a doorway.  There are wall-size Georgia O’Keefe-type flowers bursting in reds and orange magnificence.

The most interesting piece is a United Press International photo of Jackie Kennedy walking on the beach in Hyannis Port, MA, taken in 1972. On the back of the frame is the original type written report from the press photographer.

How this photo got into the hands of a potential presidential assassin is curious? I wish I knew. The story of the Jackie photo and the history of many other pieces of the art collection are still unknown to me.

The story of how I became the “keeper of the art” began on October 15, 1975. I received a handwritten note from Sara Jane Moore, the woman who shot at Pres. Gerald Ford, and missed his head by six inches.

She invited me to visit her in prison. The note was sent to me in care of the Los Angeles News Journal, where I worked. She read an article I had written about a class-action suit against Sybil Brand Institute, Los Angeles County’s women’s jail.

Before her assassination attempt, Sara Jane lived in Danville before moving to San Francisco. During those years she had purchased a number of paintings by unknown artists. When she was arrested, Greg Dunning, who lived down the street from her in the Mission District, rescued some of her art before her entire apartment was looted when news of her arrest became public.

Dunning wrote to Sara Jane in prison about the art he had saved.

In a letter to Sara Jane seven years later, Dunning said that it was expensive and difficult to maintain the collection carefully and properly, and he could no longer afford those costs. He proposed to sell the collection and give the proceeds to her son Frederic.

Sara Jane was outraged that Dunning would liquidate her collection and called an attorney to initiate a “grand theft” lawsuit against Dunning, because, she said, Dunning would not relinquish her art. Dunning was furious at the accusation. He said that was the thanks he got for going into debt taking care of her art for seven years. He wrote that she valued her art more than she valued “the human life you tried to shoot away.”

In September 1982, Sara Jane called me in Pollock Pines, California, 150 miles east of San Francisco, up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She asked me if I would mind storing a few pieces of art for her, just until her son Frederic was old enough to take them. She said this art collection was all she had left. She added that if she were ever released, she would take it back. I agreed and became the new storer of the art.

Frederic was nine when Sara Jane went to prison in 1975 and turned 21 in 1987. I asked her if Frederic had my contact information and if she knew when he might want to pick up the collection?

I asked again in 1988 and again in 1989. It was always the same answer from her: She would wave her hand as though brushing an imaginary fly away in the air and declare that Frederic told her he was too busy, or than he didn’t have room, but would collect it once he moved to a larger space. I offered to call him for her, but she insisted she didn’t want me to bother.

Finally we just didn’t talk about it any longer.

In 1991 I moved to Washington, D.C. schlepping the collection with me. I put it in storage, as the job I moved for disappeared with rising unemployment. I barely survived on a part time administrative assistant job with a tiny PR firm. It was all I could get and I was happy to have any income.

My dreams of being a political reporter on the streets of the nation’s capital were pulverized with every step back and forth to the Metro for my admin job.

Things did not improve quickly.  It took another two years before I regained my former level of professionalism, but the years in-between were brutal.

I was able to move up to a better position at the local business weekly.  I accepted the job after repeated attempts to get an assistant to the assistant editor job at the Washington Post resulted in an exasperated reply that they were laying people off! Didn’t I know that?

The $50 a month to store the art collection was a barricade keeping me from going to the dentist or getting my car fixed.  However, I was at a loss as to what to do with the art? I came to the same conclusion and realization Greg Dunning had: sell it and give the money to her son.

I wrote to Sara Jane, just the way Greg Dunning had, and explained my circumstances. Her response was different in that she didn’t threaten to sue me. However, I was chastised for keeping it in storage instead of hanging the oils over my doors and the flowers on my ceiling.

Somehow I managed to keep the art in storage, not lose my teeth and I got my car fixed.

On December 31, 2007, Sara Jane Moore was released from prison after 32 years I was sure my years as the “art keeper” would soon be over, but I waited in vain like a jilted lover. She never wrote and she didn’t call.

I tried to find her, but I was up against the U.S. Parole Commission. They would not act as a “go between” and were not sympathetic.

The storage payments continued.

When I finally heard from the errant owner it was through my book publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. Sara Jane called my editor to inform them she wanted her art back, but would not leave any contact information.

Again, she left me floating in the San Francisco fog without a horn. No word.

I sought legal counsel as there had to be a solution now that she was free and had storage room of her own? I was manic to find her make her take the art back. But, I was foiled again.  I learned my legal obligation were not on my side. I could not dispose of it until I gave her fair warning to retrieve it.

How do you make a request to someone you can’t find?

Finally, I am released from my self-imposed obligation.   I got an E-mail from her new lawyer two months ago. He told me that unless I return her art immediately, which is rightfully her property, he said, he was authorized to sue me.