An NAACP Image award. A Gianni Versace cashmere topcoat, one of at least a dozen. A pair of art deco tub chairs. The sheet music to "If Only for One Night."
For Mary Ida Vandross, the prospect of auctioning her son's things brought with it a heartrending finality.
"At first, I did my share of boo-hooing," she admits.
But she had long since resigned herself to the fact that her son, Luther Vandross, the unparalleled R&B balladeer who died in 2005 from complications after a stroke, belonged to his fans.
So don't look for Mary Ida Vandross to be crying for him from her high-rise on the Parkway. Yes, she misses him, the son who so favored her, who shared her wicked sense of humor. But all she has to do is turn on the radio and hear that unmistakable silky tenor. Which, to borrow from the title of a famous Luther tune, is never too much.
Though it's been almost three years since his death, "listeners ask for Luther all the time," says WDAS (105.3) radio host Patty Jackson. "Luther's songs always show up on our top 105 songs of all time every year. There will never be another singer like him."
So what better gift, his mother says, than to offer a piece of Luther's life to the fan base he worked so hard to sustain during a remarkable decades-long career?
Elegance on auction
Tomorrow and Thursday, more than 500 lots from the Vandross estate will be auctioned at Dawson & Nye Auctioneers in North Jersey. Appropriately titled "Elegance on Stage, Elegance in Life," the auction catalogue includes collectibles, fine art, furniture, designer clothing, personal mementos - everything one could possibly imagine from someone who decorated residences in Beverly Hills and Greenwich, Conn., and was in the process of decorating a third - a Fifth Avenue penthouse overlooking Central Park.
"Decorating was his other love," says Max Szadek, Luther's personal assistant. "Seeing the auction gives you the complete story of the music, the homes, the design. There was such a synergy."
You don't have to be a Luther fan to appreciate the quality of his style. The man with the lush voice lived a lush life.
"My son loved beautiful things and beautiful people," says Mary Ida Vandross, who recently celebrated her 84th birthday.
I first met her in 2003 in her apartment at the Phoenix Building that Luther decorated himself in muted earth tones with animal-print accents. Eight months earlier, Luther, who struggled with his weight for years, had suffered a stroke attributed to high blood pressure and diabetes, maladies that strike African Americans with frightening regularity.
A transplanted New Yorker, Mary Ida Vandross has lived in Philadelphia for more than 10 years. After Luther's death at 54, she and her sister, Helen Evans, moved to the Parkway.
"I think my son had a premonition that something was going to happen to him," she says. "It was like there was this anxiety in him. He'd say, 'Mama, you're getting kind of old. You don't need to be by yourself.' "
It was Luther who suggested that his mother move to Philly to be closer to family and another vocal powerhouse, Patti LaBelle, whom she calls her surrogate daughter and sees "every chance we get."
"Patti's another Luther. I have to tell her to slow down. I've had enough misery in my life."
That's an understatement. Her mother, husband, two sons, a daughter and a grandson, all diabetics, all dead. Another daughter gone from complications from asthma. Only Luther made it past 50.
Though she undergoes dialysis for her failing kidneys three times a week, she is one of the few in her family who isn't diabetic. When she can, she travels the country to raise diabetes awareness.
She doesn't need the extra money the auction is sure to bring. And she certainly doesn't need any more "things."
"There is nothing in this apartment that my son didn't give me," she says. The most treasured items are the ones they shared a laugh about - like the three custom Versace dresses (size 18-20) that Luther commissioned for her for Whitney Houston's wedding.
"Mama," Luther would tease her, "Versace never made a dress that big in his life!"