Reversal of Fortune

When did Houston’s obscenely rich become so insanely boring?

December 2007By Comments

It is a rarely acknowledged but indisputable fact that Houston has always been home to some of the planet’s most entertaining rich people. Open and lacking self-consciousness, they play to all the various myths of Big Rich Texans. This is the city, after all, where legendary developer Harold Farb built a supper club so that he could headline with his own show tunes, where natural gas wheeler-dealer John Thrash put a glass ceiling in his kitchen through which male guests could accidentally on purpose look up the skirts of female guests on the party floor above. The economic bust of the eighties may have trimmed some of our wildest sails, but recently, with oil pushing $100 and (yes, here too) the hedge- and private equity—fund markets booming, the city has felt poised on the verge of another outbreak of nuttiness, the kind that has always accompanied great leaps forward in local prosperity. “There’s a lot of money in this town” is the awestruck way Louis DeLone, the publisher of Houston Modern Luxury, put it to me recently, and hearing this newcomer echo this familiar phrase, I had that here-we-go-again feeling.

Only nothing cuckoo seems to be happening this time around, and I can’t figure out why. It isn’t that the rich aren’t spending—because they are—but rather that their spending doesn’t seem to be quite as fun, or funny, as it used to be. There could be any number of good reasons for this, what with the growing gap between rich and poor, the still-toxic air, the gargantuan Houston Independent School District still in serious need of an overhaul. Maybe having a neo-Calvinist mayor has tamped down the rich. Maybe the resurrection of Houston as an international city has made the populace too sophisticatedly self-aware. Is the fall of Enron responsible? The deaths of some of our more florid characters, like Farb and consumer reporter Marvin Zindler? The chance that Oscar Wyatt might actually do time? Or maybe I’m just getting older and losing my sense of humor as my income fails to increase exponentially like everyone else’s.

In the old days, you didn’t have to be rich to matter—unpretentiousness always seemed to be in Houston’s DNA. Until fairly recently, it was an Urban Cowboy, blue-collar town that ignored pedigree in favor of talent and ability; residents, rich or otherwise, felt an obligation to make their own modest contributions to the city’s reputation as one of the great capitals of eccentricity and good humor. Jett Rink, the fabled wildcatter of Edna Ferber’s Giant, was a role model not because he was ignorant but because he understood that there wasn’t much point in being rich if you couldn’t enjoy the hell out of it. His role model may well have been someone like “Silver Dollar Jim” West, who earned his nickname during the city’s first boom by flinging coins out the window of his limousine to less fortunate pedestrians. Decades later, during the seventies and eighties, Hugh Roy Cullen heir Baron Ricky di Portanova showed off by mixing his own caviar pasta at his table at Tony’s. It was a more innocent time, when Houston Chronicle columnist Maxine Mesinger got all excited about a visit to town by Ernest Borgnine and his skin cream—pushing wife, Tova (see, the movie stars are coming!), or when the Saudi royals built a faux embassy on Kirby Drive so they’d have a place to stay when visiting the Medical Center (see, we’re international!). Parties were an opportunity to display creativity in the extreme, as when society hostess and diplomat Joanne Herring (soon to be portrayed by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War) celebrated her thirtieth birthday with a Roman orgy theme party, complete with over-the-top reenactments—a Christian burned at the stake, underage boys pouring libations, and a slave auction. Now, that kind of behavior was why you lived in Houston.

Don’t get me wrong—the march of wealth and progress across the past few decades has resulted in a number of happy improvements. I can now get a pizza that tastes almost as good as one from Naples. I can ogle—if not afford—the latest from Balenciaga. I can miss museum shows just as prestigious as the ones people miss in Manhattan. Yet in our haste to be just as sophisticated as Manhattan—and Los Angeles and London and Dubai—we have exchanged our inner Jett Rink for something far less colorful and far more conventional.

In part, I blame Enron—not because of the collapse but because of the insecurities of its carpetbagging executives. While the company was flying high, no one seemed to notice that many of the execs were so intent on aping their Wall Street brethren that they filled the town with dull, world-beater-approved accessories like Porsches, cigar bars, pseudo-lofts, and McMansions that, for all Enron’s talk of innovation, were just like every other rich person’s. (Everything on the market today in West University seems to have had the same interior designer, who loved cabbage rose upholstery.) At the same time, CEOs toiling out of state began to take credit for the creative spending strategies that were once the sole province of crazy Texas wildcatters: It wasn’t a Houstonian, for instance, who spent $6,000 on a shower curtain (that was Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski), nor could we claim the $3 million sixtieth birthday party (that was the Blackstone Group’s Steve Schwarzman).

Paradoxically, the decline in rich eccentrics may stem from the fact that there seem to be more rich people in town than ever before. Historically, Texas has always been a relatively poor state, which made the rich a novelty, and they seemed to understand this and behave accordingly. It was a perfect system. The fact that they did silly things with their money made the rest of us feel better about not having as much—at best, we were entertained; at worst, we were consoled by the thought that if we were that rich, we’d know what to do with the money. Nowadays, there may not be substantially more prosperity in Houston than there’s ever been—average income is only $46,000 a year—but as Robert H. Frank noted in his book Falling Behind, there are suddenly lots of people who aren’t rich spending themselves into oblivion trying to act the part. Years ago, one of the wealthiest men in town told me, “I love Houston because its cheap,” by which he meant that, unlike other world-class cities, anyone and everyone could afford to live here and that economic diversity was one of the things that made it great.

I thought of his words a few weeks ago when I read an advertisement for a new condo project near the Galleria called the Cosmopolitan. Billed as the “Trump Tower of Houston,” it features a 24-hour concierge, a movie theater, a “world class lobby,” private garages for penthouse owners, Míele appliances, “built-in state-of-the-art coffee-cappuccino makers,” “Origami ‘air bath’ tubs,” and so on. According to the promotional materials, the location on Post Oak Boulevard—near Saks, Neimans, and Hèrmes—placed it on “Houston’s version of Rodeo Drive.” Prices for this slice of Manhattan crossed with a bite of Beverly Hills mixed with a dash of Europe range from $475,000 to $3.4 million. Meanwhile, the pine-shaded, once-understated neighborhoods of Tanglewood and Memorial are crammed cheek by jowl with Mediterranean villas, Tudor castles, and Middle Eastern palaces suitable for Prince Bandar. This frenzied race to the top—or away from the middle—has even afflicted my formerly working-class neighborhood, with “historic” shotgun shacks and bungalows starting at half a million. It is easier these days to drill in the Arctic slope than find new middle-class housing inside Loop 610.

The increase in the number of glossy local magazines for the rich or would-be rich is another example of the abandonment of our native eccentricity in favor of a generic national (or global) image of wealth. For eight or so years, there was only PaperCity, an assiduous confection of style, society, and service for Houston’s gazillionaires. (Where to vacation in Sardinia! Where to buy a French soaking tub!) One of the (perhaps) unintended pleasures of PaperCity has always been the stark contrast between the impossibly glamorous people in the ads and fashion spreads and the socialites with sagging jowls, expanding midriffs, and too many sequins in the party pictures. Like all the best magazines, PaperCity is about a particular world—the socially prominent and prosperous and the retailers, interior designers, and cosmetic surgeons who cater to them. Because the magazine is locally produced, it has a flawless understanding of the folkways of this crowd and also reflects Houston’s always-room-for-one-more social scene. Sure, fashion plates like Lynn Wyatt and Becca Cason Thrash might show up multiple times in a single issue—à la Where’s Waldo?—but a friend of mine once spied her therapist’s mom, who’s not a red-carpet regular, in a photo from a party celebrating the opening of a new restaurant.

Now, along with PaperCity, we’ve got Brilliant, Icon, Gloss, Modern Luxury, and (the prizewinner for honesty in my book) Envy, all of which feature the same ads ($20,000 watches, $100,000 cars), recommend the same products (Jimmy Choos, Restylane), and feature the same local society types wearing the same designer clothes you see on the rich and famous in New York or Los Angeles. It’s a little like the Academy Awards, where everyone has a stylist so that they never make a wrong move. These magazines mostly serve as instruction manuals for how to be a proper rich person no matter where you are.

And like the luxury store openings that have replaced old-fashioned Houston parties where people would get together for no reason at all, everyone now has something to sell. Readers learned in a recent issue of Gloss, for instance, that a local plaintiff’s lawyer and his wife had traveled to Italy on a shopping trip for their yacht. “A trip to the stone yard on the Italian shore of Lake Lugano resulted in magnificent finds—including the yellow onyx with pink highlights in a master bath as large as some apartments,” read the story, which also mentioned, just in passing, of course, that the yacht was available for rental.

Sometimes the painstaking effort to keep up with the Trumps can backfire hilariously, as it did in Icon’s photo tribute to Mother’s Day, titled “Haute Mamas.” Here was one socialite poised near the water’s edge—a bayou? Her swimming pool?—under a white parasol, in a “replica of vintage Chanel,” while her golden retriever guarded her eleven-month-old scion—also in white—and her daughter (yes, in white too) sipped from a silver tea service while riding in a canoe. Another spread featured a society type who “enjoys leisurely walks up and down Kirby with her double-stroller” in stilettos, a minidress, and sunglasses, with her two small Chihuahuas in tow. A third social star was pictured grocery shopping at a Rice Epicurean Market in a black evening gown wearing $153,000 in Bulgari, while her two daughters wore an additional $857,000 worth of jewels. They both looked to be under eight and had on black evening gowns that matched their mom’s. The photographer, I figured, was either an idiot savant or a brilliant social satirist.

In contrast, there is Kristi Schiller, an ample beauty in the up-from-nothing tradition who in leaner times worked as a steamy gossip columnist under the name Lucy Lipps. Well-married now to an oilman, she gave her daughter, Sinclair, an important lesson in Houston history at the ripe old age of one. Sinclair’s birthday party earlier this year had a Mother Goose theme. In the backyard of her River Oaks mansion, Schiller offered face-painting, balloon artists, clowns, a moonwalk, a petting zoo, swimming, and a New Orleans transplant who passed out cupcakes dressed as the Muffin Man. As if that weren’t enough, the 250 guests were kept cool in an air-conditioned megatent. Oilman John Mecom’s collection of racing cars served as yard ornaments. Someone else threw in a Formula One Ferrari. It’s true that in lieu of gifts, guests were urged in that PC way to give to charity—but you can bet everyone there knew that sharing the wealth meant more than just sharing their money.

In other words, if you’ve got it and you’re going to flaunt it, please keep in mind that Chanel couture and Míele appliances are a lot less fun for the rest of us than personal supper clubs, see-through floors, and ersatz Roman orgies.

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