A Promise Kept: The Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation Collection


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, 2023, Heritage Auctions assisted the Morrows in achieving their philanthropic goals when it presented The Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation Collection. One hundred percent of the auction’s proceeds benefited the Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation. (- edited to reflect past event.)

“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?”

–Ron Morrow

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 2023 auction, Susan’s love of collecting and her dedication to philanthropy and cancer education came together in one crystal- and diamond-studded event featuring more than 60 of her precious jewels and 57 of her Judith Leiber minaudières. (-edited to reflect past event.)

“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 AstorScottie 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.”

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.

To make a donation to the Susan Morrow Legacy Foundation, click HERE.

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