The morning after True Treasures caught on fire just over a year ago, owner Elena Johnson was out in front of the North Palm Beach antiques and consignment shop planting flowers.
Only a few hours had passed since firefighters responded to the 3:05 a.m. call, and the Italian grand dame — with flawless hair and makeup, trademark bold-framed glasses and manicured nails — was down on her knees, digging in the dirt.
“You have to start somewhere,” she recalls. “I couldn’t go inside because they were still investigating, so I did what I could do right then. I figured that by the time the store reopened, the flowers would be ready to bloom.”
Just shy of 85, Mrs. Johnson has never waited around for fresh starts. She creates them. Constantly.
By the way, she’ll ask you to call her Elena, gold Bulgari bangles bouncing around her wrists as she talks with her hands. But this would be like addressing the queen of England as Liz. If there’s anybody deserving of a courtesy title, for both regal presence and relentless work ethic, it is Mrs. Elena Rova O’Brien Johnson.
From teenage war bride and widowed mother of five to sought-after interior designer for luminaries such as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the former first lady of China, and movie stars Debra Paget and Gene Tierney, Mrs. Johnson is propelled by a fuel that few understand and many wish they could replicate.
She toils 10 hours a day, six days a week, overseeing both True Treasures locations (there’s also one in Palm Beach Gardens), comes home and swims, cooks dinner for her husband and then often reads business books till bedtime.
“I never worked as hard in any other job as I did working with her,” says Howard “Scrappy” Johnson, 95, a fighter pilot in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and former cattle rancher whom she married in 1990. The couple opened True Treasures shortly thereafter because Mrs. Johnson, then an interior designer, frequently donated clients’ pre-owned décor to charity and realized there was a market for resale.
“We went to talk to a business adviser who said we were too old, we didn’t have enough money, the economy was against us, and we didn’t have any business experience,” she recalls. “I thanked him for his advice, and during dinner that night, I said to my husband, ‘Let’s go look for a place.’ ”
When asked if his wife is optimistic, the retired Air Force colonel replies: “Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say determined, very determined. Whatever the obstacles are, she will overcome them.”
After extensive smoke and water damage were repaired — the sprinkler system had snuffed out the blaze, which investigators determined was set by a former employee — True Treasures reopened at Crystal Tree plaza with freshly painted coral walls and flowers blooming out front.
Appearances are very important to Mrs. Johnson, who, for example, started sporting fashionable glasses nearly 50 years ago not because she needed them to see but because they hid tired eyes. Eyes that were weary from late nights studying while she put herself through interior design school with only a sixth-grade education. Eyes that were red from grieving while she raised five young children alone after losing her first husband, Walter O’Brien, an Army sergeant major, to lung cancer in 1966 when she was just 37.
“You never want people to see that you’re not at your very best,” she says, referring to her signature accessory’s double duty as a disguise. “Lightly tinted lenses are your friend.”
EARLY YEARS IN ITALY
DURING WORLD WAR II
Mrs. Johnson’s father, Antonio Rova, a police chief under Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, had a firm hand and a roving eye. Like his mother, the elegant Delfina Leonardi Rova — “a contessa by birth,” Mrs. Johnson emphasizes — Antonio Rova was the dashing epitome of poise and sartorial prowess.
“He was very style conscious and wasn’t the type to drink out of plastic or have a paper napkin on the table,” says Margaret O’Brien-Molina, Mrs. Johnson’s oldest daughter, who lives in Houston. “He had a real appreciation for the finer things, and he demanded them. He was a huge influence on my mother.”
In 1943, the same year Mussolini was deposed, Rova left Mrs. Johnson’s mother to live with another woman. There was no divorce provision in Italian law back then, so ending a marriage was especially scandalous and complex. Mrs. Johnson was 14 at the time, and the family lived in Udine, a city in northeastern Italy.
“The second wife was a professional,” O’Brien-Molina says. “She was a doctor — beautiful, intelligent and refined — whereas my grandmother was devoted to her children. She loved my grandfather, although it was an arranged marriage, but she didn’t have that sense of style, and her family didn’t have titles or money. After he left, she went to pieces. Mom never wanted to be like that.”
Mr. Johnson, who married Mrs. Johnson when she was 60, believes that this fuels his wife’s devotion to daily swims, mandatory makeup and a flattering wardrobe. “Her mother didn’t take care of herself,” he explains, “and she didn’t want what happened to her mother to happen to her.”
On Christmas Day 1944, Rova returned to Udine to visit his three children — Mrs. Johnson had a brother and sister — and the high-profile police chief, who later would be jailed for his ties to Mussolini, asked young Elena to go back with him to Verona. She lived there for three months until the war ended.
“We were not allowed to speak to him, but only to listen,” she recalls. “But at the same time, he was my father, and I loved him. Two days after I arrived in Verona was the biggest bombing. We used to go to the shelter every day. Even now when I hear fireworks, I think of this.”
Mrs. Johnson remembers witnessing horrific scenes as she went to and from the shelter. Airplane pieces plunging from the sky after a fighter pilot was shot down. Terrified people running. Soldiers dying in the streets. The memories are clearly painful to her, yet safely tucked away in a place that allowed a frightened teenager to survive. “I tried to see the sense of humor in the tragedy,” she says.
FROM UNDER $20
TO OPRAH’S THINGS
Onlookers often marvel at Mrs. Johnson, who continuously and meticulously oversees nearly 25,000 square feet of furniture, flatware, china, crystal, artwork and antiques in her two True Treasures stores. Pieces change daily, and prices range from modest (a $14.99 white ceramic basket, a $19.99 leopard print mini sofa suitable for Barbie) to thousands of dollars for exquisite chandeliers, custom sculptures, Chinese Coromandel screens and more.
Price tags are attached with red yarn, a homespun touch, and staff are in constant motion moving décor from here to there and polishing things. If Mrs. Johnson sees a crooked picture on the wall, she’ll stop midsentence and midstride — she rarely sits for long — to correct it.
“In the beginning, my husband and I did everything by hand, the ticketing, everything,” she says. “But I had a dream that I could do it because what I’d done in the past wasn’t right for me anymore, so I stepped into something else. When this isn’t right for me anymore, I’ll keep moving, hopefully to open a charity thrift shop to help veterans, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. You have to always have a dream, and you have to make it happen.
“That’s the wonderful thing about the United States. In Italy, by the time you get a permit to open a shop, they shoot you down before you even get a chance. Here, you have an opportunity, you go get a permit, you put down a deposit and you get going. What you put in is what you’re going to get out of it. It’s like any endeavor.”
True Treasures sells items on consignment — the owner and the store each receive a percentage of the sale price — or Mrs. Johnson will buy an entire estate at one time. (It’s more lucrative for the seller, she explains, to consign items individually rather than offload everything at once for a single price.) The new owners of the Fisher Island condo formerly owned by Oprah Winfrey, in fact, recently sent two truckloads of pieces to be consigned. Among items are a $6,000 burl wood Louis XV dining table with 12 chairs, sold separately starting at $699.99; two antique high-back oak armchairs, $3,600.99 each; and, if you don’t have thousands but covet something once owned by Oprah, throw pillows covered with Fortuny fabric from Venice, starting at $499.99.
Although there are many antique and consignment shops between Fisher Island, an exclusive enclave south of Miami Beach, and True Treasures’ flagship store in North Palm Beach, the new condo owners relied on referrals and chose Mrs. Johnson, who also has sold items belonging to Celine Dion; Perry Como’s wife, Roselle; authors Elmore Leonard and James Patterson; numerous business bigwigs and several sports stars. One of her top advisers and closest friends, by the way, is Joseph Vittoria, former chairman and CEO of Avis, whom she calls “the prince in my life.” He and his wife, Luciana, have a home in Palm Beach and are frequent True Treasures customers.
Mrs. Johnson not only fetches top dollar for what she sells, but she also has navigated elite clientele before, including doing interior design in Texas in the 1980s for the eccentric and reclusive millionaire, Louis Kung, nephew of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and husband of movie star Debra Paget. Kung, who founded Westland Oil in Houston, trusted Johnson not only with multiple residential and commercial projects, but also with his privacy.
“I remember when Fortune magazine called, and I thought they wanted me to buy a subscription,” she says, laughing. “But it was the editor, and I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ She wanted to do a write-up about Mr. Kung’s private club at the oil company, but I couldn’t do it. I told her I really wished I could. I would’ve given anything to be in Fortune magazine.”
A HOUSTON HIGH
TO OIL CRISIS LOW
Mrs. Johnson was nearly 40 when she left Italy for the United States as a single mother with five children after the death of her first husband, an American soldier she’d met in Italy on her 18th birthday. She started in small-town Louisiana, where his family lived, then settled in Houston, which she felt had more to offer.
“I had been a housewife and mother for many years, but when I realized we had to have an income, I decided to become a designer,” she says, adding that she’d always been a skilled seamstress with a keen eye for transforming plain items by adding a ribbon, updating the fabric or otherwise being creative. In fact, when she was a young teenager, she made and sold purses during the war to help support her family, which is one of the reasons she left school early. “I didn’t speak English very well when I came to the United States, and I had stopped at sixth grade, but I put myself through interior design school in New York (while family members kept the children), and after two years I was hired by Suniland, the best design firm in Houston.”
Mrs. Johnson worked for Suniland from 1969 to 1979 — she recounts names, dates and other details from decades past without pause — then opened her own firm, Rova Interiors, when she was 48. “So many people, especially women, think of themselves as old at 50, but that’s the start of your life! You know yourself, you’ve learned from your mistakes, and you’ve got so much to give.
“I did very well, but when the oil crisis happened, we all went down like rocks. I had a lot invested in real estate, too. Millionaires were auctioning off pots and pans, and the last thing anybody needed was an interior designer.”
A NEW BEGINNING
AT EVERY DECADE
In 1987 at age 60, Mrs. Johnson closed Rova Interiors in Houston and moved to Palm Beach for a fresh start. “When I first came here, I was supposed to marry Scrappy, my present husband, but I decided to wait and do things on my own for a while because of the losses I’d been through. I went to live with an interior designer who had space for me, and I didn’t sit there and say, ‘My God, I’m living in one room!’ after having had the best of everything. I stayed faithful, and I got up every morning knowing I could do it if I worked hard and believed. Here I am at almost 85 years old, and I’m still going.”
Indeed she is. She recently worked a seventh day straight at True Treasures, and she was none too pleased about missing her Sunday off, a day that she tends plants in her yard and plays with her beloved companions, a West Highland White Terrier named Molly and a loquacious parrot named Alice. Her home is filled with eclectic mementos of a life well lived, including the little rabbit statues she collects and a picture of then Vice President Richard Nixon presenting the Robert J. Collier trophy to Mr. Johnson for setting an altitude record in an F-104A Starfighter jet in 1958. A needlepoint pillow perched on a chair reads: “It Ain’t Easy Being Queen!”
Mrs. Johnson almost always poses with her pets in store ads and commercials because she’d read long ago in an advertising book that audiences respond to animals and children. She’s also savvy enough to know that consistency counts. “People come in asking about the bird and the dog,” she says with a smile. “And then they buy things.”
Although Mrs. Johnson has the full-bore energy of a locomotive and the tireless drive of a child who went without during a war, she knows that it may soon be time to leave True Treasures. Mr. Johnson is 95 years old, after all, and the couple just bought a house in Palm Beach Gardens that they plan to renovate. Her eyes light up when she talks about it because not only did she score a sweet deal, which she loves to do, but she can’t wait to get started on the décor. And then there’s the charity thrift store she wants to open to benefit veterans and military families.
“There comes a time when you realize that you’re not able to stay on top of things like you once did, and you don’t want to sacrifice your health,” she says. “You have to know when to pass the baton, but first, you must have something else lined up, something that gets you really excited. Good health comes from being happy within yourself, and a big part of that is to keep getting up, no matter how hard you’ve been knocked down, and to keep going after your dreams.”