The Fab Flacks
Becca Cason and Holly Moore stage the play of Houston's new cafe society. And the stars are—themselves.
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If Cason and Moore Public Relations could create a flawless version of Houston’s first-ever Flower Ball, it would go something like this. The vague desire of a Post Oak—area shopping center owner to commemorate thirty years in business would be set in a lush garden with what the PR firm would call “a Greco-Roman twist.” Attractive young people from the finest families—not just from Houston but from around the world—would make glorious entrances. They would be dressed in the best; they would drive Mercedes or Maseratis. And there, at the center of it all, would be Cason and Moore themselves—brash Becca Cason, her small but bountiful frame embraced by a form-fitting French creation, and Holly Russell Moore, long, lean, and more reserved than her partner, wearing something understatedly chic. The next day the partners would return to their plush offices and the melody of constantly ringing phones, prelude to the hymns of ever-grateful partygoers. The partners would count up the gala’s profits and discover that they had raked in plenty for their cause—beautifying Houston streets in time for the Economic Summit in July. It would be another triumph for Houston, another triumph for Cason and Moore. They would be the perfect public relations firm to define a new Houston for a grateful populace.
But in the world of PR, illusion is the guest of honor, reality the dreaded party crasher. And 48 hours before the start of the Flower Ball, the latter has arrived and the former has taken a powder. “Frankly,” Becca Cason says, locking me in on a cozy girl-to-girl frequency, “this has been a tough one.”
“This,” of course, is the ball itself, about which the partners have discovered something as dark as their casual but fashionable office-wear of black leggings and black T-shirts. (Becca has topped hers with a boss-lady burgundy jacket by Jean Paul Gaultier and enough clunky costume jewelry to add five pounds to her weight; Holly has opted for an ascetic French twist and nothing more.) For whatever reason—a shopping center anniversary is not automatically cause for jubilation, the Summit is not an automatic social draw, few people want to help beautify Houston’s ritziest streets—the acceptances have not come in as planned. The party that was supposed to celebrate not just the anniversary of Fashion Square but the existence of a whole new segment of post-bust society is beginning to look like the party nobody wants to come to.
It is time for desperate measures, time to cease all regular business. This is not the moment to thank reporters for the “marvelous coverage” of last week’s juvenile diabetes fundraiser. Tomorrow will be soon enough to track down Armando Palacios, a restaurateur-client booked to cook breakfast fajitas on a local radio show. The friendly schmoozing that so often smooths the flow of business—Becca’s low-fat diet tips gleaned from a bible called the T Factor—must today have one purpose and one purpose only: to persuade two hundred more friends and acquaintances to cough up the cash for those $85 tickets. Directed by their amazonian assistant, Peg Patterson (also dressed in black leggings), the partners perform a kind of phone fugue, pushing the party and cutting costs at the same time:
Becca (softly): “Let me walk you through it …”
Holly (surely): “Well, it’s going to be an old Greco-Roman tumbledown-Tucson-garden type of effect …”
Becca (firmly): “The party starts at seven-thirty …”
Holly (sternly): “George and Annette Strake will be there for pictures between six and six-thirty …”
Becca (gushily): “Anything on you will be divine …”
Holly (helpfully): “You’re going to see a lot of strapless dresses …”
Becca (smartly): “How much can we save? Five hundred dollars? Let’s do it!”
The bust years often set people to wondering what effect that savage blow would have on Houston’s legendary self-confidence. People wondered too how the bust would change the order of things; the boom, after all, had produced a cast of characters given to a casual seat-of-the-pants style. No one cared what Houston looked like, as long as everyone shared in the bounty. Society was open but orderly. The oil companies and families with oil or construction related fortunes—the Browns, Blaffers, Cullens, and Menils—took care of the place. Maxine Mesinger defined cafe society in her column in the Chronicle; her characters shopped at Sakowitz and dined at private parties in Tony’s wine cellar. Those who needed a publicist came to depend on Hal Foster, who shrewdly—and invisibly—taught them how to behave.
For a PR master invents nothing less than a world: Every selection, from clients to caterers, from press coverage to party themes, telegraphs a message about class and values. For many years, Foster’s counsel—for Tony’s and the opera, among others—has shaped Houston’s sophisticated image. His friends have been eternally grateful—the late Winifred Hirsch recently bequeathed him $100,000.
But a new order, with a new ethos, is in the making. Many of the great patrons are gone or their fortunes diminished. The stars who survived the boom no longer have the stage to themselves: Tony Vallone cannot leave his Post Oak restaurant without catching sight of the cars crowding Robert Del Grande’s Cafe Annie nearby. Maxine must compete for scoops with the Post‘s Betsy Parish. The latest fashions are no longer bought at Sakowitz but at a sprawling fashion emporium called Tootsies, owned by Mickey Rosmarin, who started out in the seventies with a hip recycled-clothing store on the Westheimer Strip. The scions of old and not-so-old money—youngish Wyatts, Cullens, and Taubs, for instance—now keep company with a vid-kid’s version of cafe society, hobnobbing with people who may or may not have contact with controlled substances, people whose charitable contributions are directed toward fashion rather than the arts or medicine (e.g., the Costume Institute). They eat along Kirby or Post Oak and take their Tex-Mex lo-cal, served up at Armando’s just outside River Oaks. Maxine has Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra; this crowd has rock stars and other video celebs. (“Charming folks at Armando’s Saturday were Julian Lennon, Jessica Hahn, and Gene Simmons,” noted Betsy Parish.)
Cason and Moore are perfectly placed to legitimize the crowd. Neither of them was rich to begin with—Becca comes from a modest family in Harlingen, Holly from less than lavish surroundings in southeast Houston. But both made the right friends at the right times: Beginning as a dowdy copyeditor at Houston Home and Garden, Holly spruced up her personal style through her friendship with Rosmarin and the River Oaks homeowners she encountered. Later she became editor of Ultra. Becca, forever battling a weight problem, opened a PR firm in 1981. Representing Tootsies and nightclub owner Mike Steinmann, she hooked up with the Europeans flooding into town during the boom.
Joining forces in 1988, the partners showed a knack for attracting attention to themselves, something an earlier generation of flacks had deplored. The Chronicle featured Holly as a member of Houston’s new society; the Post blabbed when Fergie crashed Becca’s dinner for Steve Wyatt. Their numerous faux pas added to their legend, as when they sent a press release to a Chronicle music critic who had died some time back, or their chronic habit of packing gala committees with people who lend nothing to the occasion but their names. (They listed Museum of Fine Arts director Peter Marzio as a host for a benefit at a C&W bar.)
Essentially, Cason and Moore found a way to make their lives their work. They represent the places where they and their friends shop (Tootsies, Fourticq), eat (Armando’s, Cafe Annie), and volunteer (the Costume Institute). Every client and every friend and every boyfriend soon becomes a cog in their perpetual PR machine. When French designer Isabelle Allard came to town to show her collection at Tootsies, for instance, a Cason and Moore tip appeared in Betsy Parish’s Post column that she had dined at Armando’s. Then it was on to a fashion show benefiting the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (press coverage arranged by C&M). Adriana Banks (Cason’s pal and Tootsies’ cosmetic counter lessor-to-be) gave a dinner. Shop owner Greg Fourticq, a Moore pal and a C&M client, appeared in newspaper party pics the next day. Allard’s date for the evening? Becca’s onetime beau, the blue-eyed, white-haired Mike Steinmann—”Our client!” says she.
Of course, since Becca and Holly propel this world, Becca and Holly get to be its stars. They’re the people teaching this brand-new Houston how to behave.
“Anybody want a yogurt?” Becca asks, heralding a break from her party pushing. In Cason and Moore’s world, someone always seems to pick up part of the tab so that someone else can keep up appearances. This offer of a low-fat snack from the Houstonian Club’s hopelessly health-conscious cafeteria is no exception: Becca’s ex-husband foots the bill for her $1,000-plus club fees. There’s a stage-set quality to these two that is ubiquitous in Dallas but still striking in Houston. Even their office isn’t entirely theirs—it’s a portion of a suite owned by a former client, which they’ve prettied up with muslin swags. Theirs is a more self-conscious Houston—one that looks and acts a little less Texan and a lot more like the people in fashion and design magazines.
Putting the Flower Ball aside for a few hours, the partners devote the afternoon to advancing this trend. At Sfuzzi for instance, they love the nuvo-Italian restaurant’s plan to honor a different country’s cuisine each night of the Economic Summit—sausage and sauerkraut pizza on German night, for instance. They aren’t so wild about having the waiters speak in the accent of featured countries. (“I don’t think the Japanese would appreciate it,” the manager concedes.) At the Mansion, a club owned by Mike Steinmann, they love his plan to give a bandanna to each summit dignitary visiting his country and western club. They look stricken, however, when they learn Steinmann hopes to pack the place with authentic cowboys and cowgirls. “Oh, no,” Becca warns, her voice thick with fistfight fear, “you can’t have any of your regulars in there.”
Then it’s on to Fourticq, where early in the week Holly had set up a Flower Ball promotional display. The store is owned by client Greg Fourticq, who is a party sponsor. The promo is an HG-inspired arrangement, a table and chairs sprouting live grass and flowers. Unfortunately, no one thought to water it, so distinct signs of floral demise require Holly to return, bearing a flat of replacements. That the sun-washed store is empty save its stock of Venetian fabrics, hand-painted furniture, and etched glassware—tshatshkes irresistible to the disposable-income crowd—should not reflect poorly on Cason and Moore’s skills. Arriving from Liberty with family money and an eye for both interior design and social advancement, Fourticq attached himself to Holly. The two photographed beautifully—so tall, so handsome, so superbly styled—but the relationship, like Holly’s floral arrangement, suffered from failure-to-thrive syndrome. Still, it lasted long enough to turn not just Greg but also his parents into fixtures on the post-bust society scene.
Back at the office after five, the partners launch one last phone assault, their heads crowned with identical career-girl DKNY sunglasses. The room has a hushed, intent air, like a university library before finals. “I hate to catch you at home,” Becca purrs into the receiver, “but we’re working on the Flower Ball, and it’s going to be so much fun, and I wondered … I just thought it was something you’d enjoy … Oh! You’re such a doll!” During a lull, Becca tries to plan an early dinner. She is stopped by her partner’s stern look.
“It’s our last chance,” Holly pleads.
“Do you think it looks like a tumbledown palazzo yet?” Holly asks me the next morning, as a small army of workers busily attempts to turn a tented corner of Fashion Square’s Post Oak parking lot into a romantic corner of northern Italy. They are moderately successful, thanks partly to help from the Cason and Moore clique. Polo-shirted young men wrap the tent poles in tulle lent by Tootsies. A vase for tropical flowers is courtesy of the Mansion. The gold-leafed candelabra are rented for $16 apiece from penny-pinching socialite Mari Papadakis. Holding down the decorating budget to $1,000 has caused low-cost innovations such as a border of painted ivy woven around potted plants.
The day gets off to an early start. Becca, still in a leotard from her morning workout, gets into a testy dispute with the caterer, who has switched the color of the tablecloths from white to pink. “We’re going to keep it white,” Becca says tightly. “We’ve got a lot of greenery … a lot of grapes … We’re going to keep it white … Tell her I appreciate it, but we’re going to keep it white.”
Next, there are tips to fax to Betsy Parish. Every day, a portion of her column is made up of people spotted on the town (“sightems”), a venue that Cason and Moore use to promote their clients. They review the people they’ve seen in the last 24 hours. “Who else was at Armando’s last night?” Becca asks. “How ‘bout that table with all those handsome guys?” They submit the names of an oilman who was having a meeting at Cafe Annie and Annie Amante, the party photographer they dined with at Armando’s.
As the afternoon dwindles, Holly grows sanguine about the party. “We made three hundred phone calls in the last two days,” she says. “A lot of people are coming as favors to us, and a year from now we’ll be totally broke because we’ll have to pay these people back.”
Arriving at the site, there are more negotiations: The bar arrives brown instead of black. The valet parkers—one battalion for the Flower Ball and one for Cafe Annie in the same shopping center—brief one another in Farsi. Port-a-cans must be inconspicuous, but obvious enough to keep party guests from seeking relief elsewhere. “The men aren’t going to use them unless they see ‘em,” Becca warns.
Grapes, dipped in gold powder, are positioned around the rented fern centerpieces. “Y’all should break those grapes apart,” thrifty Becca advises. “You’ll get more mileage out of them.” Workers lay the black-and-white dance floor, while models emerge from dressing rooms in the fusty Esther Wolf store at the far end of the shopping center. They’re here not for a fashion show but for a fashion shoot—another Cason and Moore twofer, using the Flower Ball as a backdrop for a feature in client Ultra magazine. Wearing the style of the day—dangly earrings and mile-high hair—the models have been transformed, thanks to Holly, from gawky gamines to baby Bardots.
At the same time, George Strake, a co-chairman of the Economic Summit Committee, arrives with his wife, Annette, who is the chairman of the Flower Ball. Though he can’t stay for the entire party—Strake is being honored at an event downtown—readers of tomorrow’s papers will think he did: Becca poses the couple for candids to run in tomorrow’s Chronicle. A handsome pair with matching just-back-from-the-ranch crow’s feet, they seem dazzled by Holly’s fashion fantasy. “Holy mackerel,” Strake murmurs wistfully. “I might want to borrow a camera.”
“I feel like a grape,” Becca announces on her way to the party. She looks exceedingly robust in a dress by Tootsies’ own Isabelle Allard, an electrifying violet creation that appears to have been stitched on. Allard is doing double duty tonight—Becca has loaned another dress to photographer Amante.
As the sun sets, the party gears up to the Ed Gerlach Orchestra’s swing tunes. Status-conscious valets expel a Mercedes from a prominent parking place and trade up to a Maserati. The fashion shoot adds a degree of glamorous tension, heightened by the paparazzi rhythms of the photographer’s flash. There are not many of the old crowd here, except for Carolyn Farb, who wears a screaming yellow floral. The new party fixture, transvestite contractor Katherine McGuire, arrives in polka dots by Moschino. Betsy Parish puts in an appearance, as does Channel 11. There is some confusion about the purpose of the evening: “HelloHowareyouWhyarewehere?” is one jaded partygoer’s greeting.
Since Holly is occupied with the models, Becca grabs the ball and charges down the field. “You look fabulous!” she cries to a bejeweled woman who could set sail in a voluminous organdy blouse. “Truly! You look like a Vogue model!”
The crowd is smaller than the five hundred expected. “Mixed” is the description most frequently applied: scions of a few River Oaks families, the Fashion Square merchants, a drive-time disc jockey, and enough handsome men of varying sexual persuasions to form a stag line stretching all the way to Sharpstown. The foreigners give the party an exotic edge. One earnest young European in white pants and a blue blazer tells me he recently left Acapulco because it was not “the right society.” “Is this the right society?” I ask him. He pauses, taking in the crowd. “Not exactly,” he says.
As always, there are the clients. The gray-haired manager of the local Fred Joaillier store cuts a rug with one of the Ultra models. Steinmann searches for his date, who is gossiping with Armando, who sears a sullen expression with his Italian suit. Standing next to them, Fourticq, his long hair brushed back Apache-warrior style, shares a moment with his parents. Rosmarin, strangely nerdish in a black suit and spectacles, holds court inside at the bar at Cafe Annie.
Holly appears, wearing a just-photographed Ferre-designed jumpsuit borrowed from a model. She spins through the party like a glorious black-and-white top. Eyes bright, chin raised, head cocked, her smile broad and perpetually delighted, she strikes a pose suitable for attentive listening, air kissing, and party-pic posing. Becca, on break, is deep in conversation near the potted cedars with bespectacled Shah relation, Prince Kamyar Pahlavi. “How much do you want to bet,” murmurs a man next to me, “that she’ll marry well?”
By eleven the party ebbs. A set by a sixties girl group called the Taffetas is politely attended, but afterward the crowd thins. “How could I have missed this?” one party boy says to Becca. “You called me five times!”
The spring night is unseasonably cool, and the stragglers comfort themselves inside a teeming Cafe Annie. Holly wraps herself in a tablecloth shawl and joins a crowded banquette. Becca orders dessert for the gang—three slices of pound cake, each with three scoops of ice cream and chocolate syrup on the side. “My diet is fixin’ to go down the tubes,” she declares.
The usual suspects fill the table: Rosmarin and Steinmann, among others. It’s late and people are a little peckish. Rosmarin chides Steinmann’s date, a blonde tumbling out of her strapless chartreuse dress, for not buying from Tootsies. She in turn reaches across the table and helps herself to my pound cake. Holly winces when a society psychiatrist graces the table with a dirty joke. Becca frets that the party was not successful enough. “This was a tough one,” she tells me again. But then Rosmarin puts an arm around her shoulder, and Steinmann delivers a one-liner. Becca smiles, and her blues vanish. What is there, really, to be sad about? After all these years, there is Mickey, there is Mike, there is Holly, there is Becca. Laughter lights the table. It’s all too funny—that a parking lot can become palazzo, that a pair of plain Janes can become party princesses, that in post-bust Houston, everything old can become practically new again.