The Unsinkable Lisa Blue

Four years ago she lost her husband, famed Dallas lawyer Fred Baron, to cancer just as the details of his role in the sordid John Edwards sex scandal came to light. But instead of disappearing from public view to raise her three small children, she decided that her life had to go on, one lavish party at a time.

December 2012By Comments

Photograph by Van Ditthavong

One afternoon in early September, I pulled up to the gates of a nine-acre estate in North Dallas. I waited for them to open, then drove down a long, curving lane to a 15,254-square-foot mansion that looked like a country home for England’s royal family. I rang the doorbell, and a voice over the intercom said, “Please, come in.” But when I opened the door, there was no one to greet me.

I stood for a few moments in the foyer, which featured marble floors, Asian vases the size of Gemini rockets, and a gilded chandelier, and then I ambled toward the living room, which contained thirteen chairs, two couches, two benches, and a grand piano. A couple of semi-priceless portraits hung on the walls: one of George Washington, painted by James Peale, and the other of Benjamin Franklin, painted by Joseph Duplessis. In the distance were the kinds of hushed sounds you tend to hear only in the homes of the very wealthy: a vacuum cleaner humming in a faraway room, a lawn mower purring over a back lawn, the solemn ticking of a clock. A gray cat that must have weighed twenty pounds walked across the room, paused to look at me, and padded away. “Hello?” I called out meekly.

Then there was a new sound: tennis shoes squeaking over the floor. And suddenly, whipping around a corner, came the mansion’s owner, 59-year-old Lisa Blue Baron, dressed in tourniquet-tight workout clothes, her brunette hair bouncing off her shoulders as she strode toward me, grinning like a cheerleader. “Hey, you!” she exclaimed, leading me past the kitchen and into the breakfast room, where papers and two cellphones were strewed across a large table. The lights on both phones were blinking as the voice mails piled up. Someone had called with details about her upcoming trip to the Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was scheduled to attend a party with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and someone else had called about a speech she was scheduled to give to a group of trial attorneys in Austin. A couple of lawyers had called to discuss a lawsuit, a representative from a charitable organization had called to ask for a hefty donation, and her assistant had called to discuss a fundraiser Lisa was throwing at her home later that month for incumbent senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, and Senate hopefuls Rich Carmona, of Arizona, and Martin Heinrich, of New Mexico. 

“Oh, and we’ve got my own sixtieth-birthday party in October to put together,” she cheerfully said as she picked up a glass filled with murky, pungent-smelling wheatgrass juice and took a swig. “It’s going to be a three-thousand-dollar-a-ticket dinner for a foundation that I’m helping Larry Hagman start. Larry and the entire cast of Dallas will be there, and all the money we raise will go to Dallas arts programs for underprivileged kids.” The cat wandered by again, his tail sticking imperiously into the air. “Hey, Mr. Gray!” chortled Lisa, leaning down to pet him. “You big fat cat!”

I could not help but stare at her in amazement. Not long ago, few people in Dallas had known anything at all about Lisa Blue Baron—her friends call her Lisa Blue—except that she was a lawyer who was married to Fred Baron, the backslapping Dallas plaintiff’s attorney who had made a fortune filing lawsuits on behalf of workers who’d claimed they had been sickened by toxic substances, especially asbestos. Fred was a major player in the Democratic party, contributing millions to candidates around the country. Politicians flew to Dallas to attend his swank fund-raising parties, which were often thrown under gleaming white tents on the grounds of the estate. Lisa was always with him, politely shaking hands with the guests, but she said very little. He was definitely the star—the King of the Toxic Torts other lawyers admiringly called him. Rumor had it that he was bound for Washington, D.C., to take a cabinet position or an ambassadorship in a Democratic administration.

But in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, his reputation went up in flames. Fred was serving as finance chairman for an old friend, North Carolina senator John Edwards, when reporters caught wind of the story that Edwards had gotten his mistress pregnant. It was one of the most sordid sex scandals in recent political history: Edwards had been carrying on the affair while his wife was fighting terminal breast cancer. It turned out that Fred himself had been involved, personally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for Edwards’s lover to travel around the country to stay out of sight. 

The worst news, however, was yet to come. Just as the details of Edwards’s affair hit the front pages, doctors told Fred that cancer was rapidly spreading through his body. In October 2008 he died at his home with Lisa by his side. People in Dallas were shocked by his sudden downfall and death. Just about everyone, including many of their friends, assumed that his grieving widow would sell the estate and move to another city to quietly raise the couple’s three young daughters, who had been born through surrogates after his initial cancer diagnosis, in 2002. 

Instead, Lisa did the opposite. She revved up her law practice, working on a batch of toxic tort cases, and she began contributing millions to Democrats running for office. She also started throwing thirty to forty parties a year at the mansion, all of them fundraisers for charities and her favorite political causes. At a couple of the parties, she danced on a stage with her friend former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, who had competed on the television show Dancing With the Stars. “Her transformation has been nothing short of spectacular,” said Roger Mandel, a past president of the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association. “It isn’t like a flower blooming. It’s like a star exploding and going supernova.” 

Indeed, in a city that loves to celebrate wealthy, flamboyant women, few people are more talked about these days than Lisa Blue Baron. Veteran Dallas society columnist Jeanne Prejean explained it to me this way: “You remember that scene in The Great Gatsby where people stand around at Gatsby’s party asking one another what they’ve heard about him? Well, at Lisa’s parties, people always stand around and stare at her and ask each other what she’s like. And they always want to know what she’s going to do next. Lisa has become Dallas’s female Gatsby.”

As we sat at Lisa’s breakfast table, I told her about this comparison. “A female Gatsby?” she asked as she leaned back in her chair and chuckled. “I just assumed people came to my parties to get a look at me because they thought I had gone off the deep end.”

Fred Baron loved being on top of the world. A 1971 University of Texas law school graduate who had worked briefly for Ralph Nader before hanging out a shingle in Dallas, he was raking in tens of millions of dollars from settlements and awards from guilty verdicts. He was a big talker who loved telling stories about his underdog courtroom victories for blue-collar clients against powerful corporations. Fred ran off a string of successful lawsuits, including a highly publicized settlement for a case he filed on behalf of more than two hundred families from Dallas’s largest public housing project who’d claimed they’d been poisoned by a lead smelter. 

In the mid-nineties Fred used his money to buy property off Preston Road in the heart of one of Dallas’s most Republican neighborhoods—right across the street, in fact, from the home of billionaire investor Harold Simmons, one of the biggest financial backers of the Republican party—and he hired New York architect Robert Stern to build his dream house. Valued at more than $17 million, the mansion includes three kitchens, six wet bars, a billiards room, a conservatory, a library, a tennis court, terraced gardens, indoor and outdoor pools, and two offices adjoining the master bedroom. One reporter described it as “one of Dallas’s most audacious,” which, he added, was “no small affair in a city in which audacity is never in short supply.”

Besides buddying up to national politicians—Bill Clinton attended several events at the Baron mansion when he was president—Fred pumped nearly $6 million into the Texas Democratic Trust, a political action committee he helped start to get more Democrats elected statewide. His candidates rarely won, but he kept giving them money. Former congressman Martin Frost told one reporter that Fred was a Democratic politician’s dream—a wealthy idealist who “believed in electing the right kind of people to public office and had the financial wherewithal to make that happen.”

He met Lisa in early 1980, just as he was separating from his first wife, and the couple married eleven months later. She didn’t exactly have the standard legal résumé. Raised in Atlanta, she received two master’s degrees from the University of Virginia (in counseling and educational psychology) and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of North Texas, in Denton. She trained for a couple of years at the Masters and Johnson Institute, in St. Louis, to become certified as a sex therapist, teaching patients various techniques to overcome impotence or premature ejaculation. She later worked at a psychiatric hospital in Houston, counseling mostly upper-class kids with drug problems. When she decided to pursue law in the late seventies—she had gotten interested in a legal career after meeting lawyers at her practice—she made money on the side by hypnotizing her fellow students at the South Texas College of Law, in Houston, to help them deal with the stress of exams. 

After law school she worked as a prosecutor in the Dallas County district attorney’s office, and in 1986 she joined her husband’s firm and went to work trying primarily asbestos cases. Although she suffered from dyslexia—when she would make presentations on an office whiteboard, for example, she would often write “trail” instead of   “trial”—she had a knack for selecting jurors who were sympathetic to her clients. She once picked a female insurance adjuster because of a colorful necklace she wore, telling skeptical members of her legal team, who could not imagine an insurance adjuster siding with them, that a woman with jewelry like that surely did not follow the “straight and narrow.” (According to Robert Hirschhorn, a lawyer who helped Lisa pick the jury, the insurance adjuster not only sided with her but later said she wished the jurors had given a bigger award to the plaintiffs.) Lisa always wore bright-red dresses during jury selection to keep the potential jurors focused on her instead of the other side’s lawyers, and she’d change to blue dresses once testimony began because she wanted the jurors to be focused on her witnesses. “She was very dogged and very competitive,” recalls Brent Rosenthal, a former head of the firm’s appellate division. “And it wasn’t long before Fred made her one of his lead trial lawyers.”

Lisa was definitely well-known within legal circles: in 2001 she was named one of the top fifty women litigators in the U.S. by the National Law Journal.But when it came to public attention, she remained in Fred’s shadow. “And you know what? I liked being in his shadow,” she told me. “I liked standing there at his parties, not saying much, slipping away early and going upstairs. It was Fred’s show, and believe me, it was a great show that I wanted everyone to see.”

Then, in 2002, Fred injured his shoulder during a law firm ski trip to Colorado, and while he was undergoing treatment, his doctors discovered multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow. Although no one could say how long he had to live, the couple decided to have a talk about what they wanted to do with the rest of their time together. They had already made their mark in the legal world, and they had done just about everything with their money that they could imagine. They had flown around the country on their private jet, and they had taken holiday vacations to Paris.

Fred told his wife that what he really wanted to do was help his old friend John Edwards get elected president. Like Fred, Edwards was a personal-injury attorney, and Edwards’s belief in “two Americas”—an underclass fighting for economic and social justice in a world run by the wealthy and powerful—resonated with Fred. He sold his law firm to his partner, Russell Budd, and went to work as the chairman of Edwards’s campaign finance committee for the 2004 Democratic nomination. After Edwards came in second to Massachusetts senator John Kerry in several of the primaries, he was named Kerry’s running mate for the general election. Kerry and Edwards narrowly lost to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but Edwards had made his mark. When he decided to run for the 2008 Democratic nomination, he was considered a front-runner, and Fred stayed on as his finance chairman, this time buying a home in North Carolina. 

Meanwhile, Lisa, who was then 50 years old, told her husband that what she wanted to do next was have children. “I wasn’t particularly maternal, and I had never thought I would like to have children,” she explained. “But I said, ‘Fred, if you die, I don’t want to be alone.’ ” She purchased eggs from a donor (a scientist at the RAND Corporation), had one fertilized with Fred’s semen, and found a surrogate to carry the embryo. In October 2006 the Barons’ first daughter, Alex, was born. Lisa was 53 years old and Fred was 59. 

Not long after Alex’s birth, Lisa flew on their jet to an Edwards campaign appearance. On the plane that day was Edwards’s campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, a former aspiring actress and New Age spiritualist. Lisa told me she was amused by Hunter, whom she described as “very kooky” but also as someone who had “a really interesting perspective on life.” The two of them met again for lunch in late 2006, in Washington, D.C. “It was clear to me that Lisa had no idea about the extent of my relationship with Johnny,” Hunter wrote in her autobiography, What Really Happened, “but she did like how Johnny behaved around me. She said more than once that she believed I brought out the best in him.”

Lisa insisted to me that she did not suspect that Hunter and Edwards were having an affair. When I asked her what rumors she had heard about Hunter’s pregnancy, in 2007, she said that she knew only what Fred had been told by Edwards: the pregnancy was the result of a relationship Hunter had been having with Edwards’s longtime aide Andrew Young, who was married with children. (Young initially went along with the tale and claimed paternity of Hunter’s daughter when she was born, in February 2008.) “I believed John’s story, and I know Fred believed the story too,” Lisa said. 

A lot of people, however, think that Fred had to have known everything that took place between Edwards and Hunter. Why else would he have reportedly paid as much as $400,000 out of his own pocket to cover Hunter’s expenses after she quit her job as campaign videographer, putting her up in a home he owned in Aspen and then secretly relocating her and the Young family to a luxurious hacienda in Santa Barbara, for which he paid a whopping $20,000 a month? Why on earth would Fred have spent so much money simply to help out two Edwards staffers who had gotten themselves in trouble?  

For those close to him, the motivation was clear. Fred saw the possibility of an Edwards presidency as his last great hurrah before cancer overwhelmed him. And it is hardly far-fetched to believe that Fred would have done everything in his power to help cover up the affair just as the primaries were approaching and the reporters from the National Enquirer were closing in. According to Young, even after Edwards’s campaign faltered, Fred continued to pay to keep Hunter and the Youngs out of sight because he believed Edwards could still get picked as a running mate or, at the very least, be nominated for a cabinet position in a Democratic administration.

What’s more, at Edwards’s trial last May, his former campaign spokesperson, Jennifer Palmieri, testified that during a heated meeting at an Iowa hotel in October 2007, Lisa explained to Edwards’s wife that the reason she and Fred continued to visit Hunter and support her financially was because it was better to keep her on their side. “Lisa was saying that you’ve got to hold your friends close and your enemies closer,” Palmieri explained.

Lisa told me that she couldn’t recall the specifics of her conversation with Elizabeth Edwards. “But I certainly wasn’t worried about Rielle, because I didn’t think she had a story to tell,” she said. “And neither did Fred. He believed that she and the Youngs were being hounded by tabloid reporters who were trying to ruin John Edwards by publishing a completely false story. That was Fred’s nature, to help out his friends, and he never mentioned it to John.”

On July 11, 2008, the Barons’ twin daughters, Nathalie and Caroline, arrived through another surrogate. Less than two weeks later, the National Enquirer ran its now infamous photo of Edwards holding the daughter he fathered with Hunter in a hotel room in Beverly Hills. Fred was then at the Mayo Clinic, going through another round of treatments. “The cancer had moved into his brain, and he was so weak, with IVs in both of his arms,” Lisa said, and for a moment, her eyes drifted away from mine toward her breakfast table. “But what I remember most was the disappointment in his face. He had believed so deeply in John and his vision. And it was all gone.”

Or perhaps what truly devastated Fred was the fact that Edwards had taken such a gamble to visit Hunter and the baby. Whatever happened, Fred found himself, for the first time in his life, publicly humiliated. In a headline about his role in the scandal, the Daily Beast described him as the “Mystery Man of the Edwards Affair.” The Wall Street Journal labeled him the “Man Who Moved John Edwards’s Mistress.” When I asked Lisa what, in retrospect, she thought her husband should have done differently, she said, after a pause, “Maybe he should have dug deeper to find out the truth and then persuade John, for the sake of John’s own family, to get out of the race. Maybe that would have given him some peace in his last days. But my Fred was fiercely loyal. That’s one thing you can never take away from him.”

At the Mayo Clinic, Fred received experimental treatments, but they were ineffective. Lisa took him back to his beloved mansion, where he died on October 30, 2008. Edwards flew to Dallas for the funeral but kept a low profile. “He walked in with his head down, took his seat, sat through the service, and then left,” recalled Steve Wolens, a former law partner of Fred’s. “I just remember looking at him and feeling angry and betrayed.”

Lisa scattered her husband’s ashes at the estate, and in December she hosted the annual Baron holiday party, held under the gleaming white tents. (Just before he died, Fred had begged her not to cancel the event, telling her he wanted his friends to celebrate his life.) The Moody Blues played, and Lisa told the crowd, “Fred would have loved seeing all of you here.” She was pale, and her smile seemed forced. “I think everyone would have understood if that had been her last party,” said Carolyn St. Clair, a well-known Houston plaintiff’s attorney. “No one would have blamed her if she decided to move or stay in seclusion, raising her girls.”

Lisa did spend months inside the mansion. She told me she drifted from room to room, holding her daughters. She read books on grief, and she saw a psychiatrist. Terrified about dying before her children were grown, she began exercising with a vengeance. She woke up at three o’clock in the morning to run through the neighborhood, passing all the homes of her Republican neighbors, who must have been swapping stories at their dinner parties about the downfall of the great Fred Baron. 

Then one day she found a photo of her husband with Edwards and put it on her desk. “I wanted it there to remind me of one of life’s most important lessons,” she said. “When you get to the top, it’s so easy to fall. And people want to watch you fall. They want to define you by how you fall. I kept staring at that photo, and I found myself saying, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not going to let other people define me. I have nothing to be ashamed of.’ ”

Lisa began tooling around Dallas in a Smart car that her husband had given her before he died (the bumper stickers read “Texas Democrat” and “J.R. for President”). She took on a variety of legal cases, from an inheritance fight involving members of Dallas’s prominent Hunt family to a testy dispute between her hairdresser and his landlord over the lease of the hairdresser’s salon. She joined a team of plaintiff’s lawyers representing more than five hundred patients who claimed that a defective transvaginal mesh had caused internal bleeding, incontinence, and infections. Late one night, she was seen at the Dallas County jail, where she posted bail for one of her housekeepers, who had been arrested for shoplifting at a grocery store. “I refused to fire her,” she told me. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

She didn’t throw a holiday party in 2009, but the following year she had a change of heart. She invited 1,800 guests to sip champagne under the tents. Accompanied by Emmitt Smith, she walked onstage wearing a blue, beaded, off-the-shoulder dance costume. “I want you to know I’ve been taking dancing lessons,” she announced to the crowd as she and Smith began waltzing to Frank Sinatra’s “Come Dance With Me.” As soon as that song ended, MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” boomed over the loudspeakers, and the couple broke into a series of frenetic hip-hop moves. Halfway through the song, as part of the routine, Smith ripped off Lisa’s skirt as she shimmied like a teenager. The partygoers gasped and, perhaps because they weren’t sure what else to do, burst into applause. “Is there anyone like Lisa Blue?” shouted pop star Sheryl Crow, the evening’s featured musical act, when she later took the stage to perform.

Lisa was just getting started with her new life. She ordered the managers of her mansion (mansions don’t manage themselves, after all) to buy chickens and rabbits and put them in converted playhouses in the backyard so that her daughters could learn how to take care of animals. She placed cages for two floppy-eared bunnies, Vanilla and Vanilla Bean, around the corner from the breakfast room, underneath racks of expensive wine, so that she could watch them eat lettuce whenever she wanted. She also brought in a pot-bellied pig named Bumblebee and a white miniature horse named Tucker. One morning a group of Dallas socialites attended a private yoga class and luncheon at the internationally renowned Rachofsky House—the Richard Meier–designed residence that is home to the art collection of Cindy and Howard Rachofsky—which is next door to the Baron estate. While doing a downward dog, one woman looked across the pond that the two homes share, saw Tucker trotting across the yard, and shouted, “My God, Lisa Blue owns a donkey!”

“That’s not a donkey,” exclaimed another socialite. “It’s a unicorn!”

And then there were her parties, which she threw for a hodgepodge of charitable organizations: the Retina Foundation, the Caddo Lake Institute, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. One event I attended at the mansion was a book signing for Dan Rather. Lisa was wearing a form-fitting royal-blue jumpsuit, designed by Dallas’s Abi Ferrin. “Dan the Man!” she said, introducing him. Rather looked around the room with a baffled expression on his face, as if he thought she was an uninvited guest who had grabbed the microphone.

Everyone who knows Lisa has an opinion about what has happened to her. Several think she is going through some sort of delayed midlife crisis. Others are convinced that her grief over her husband’s death has made her a tad crazy. Still others think she is determined to restore her and Fred’s name. Maybe that is why this summer she ran for vice president of the powerful American Association for Justice, the national plaintiff’s lawyers’ organization consisting of 60,000 members. In July I went to watch her campaign at the AAJ’s national convention in Chicago, where she gave a barnstorming speech, vowing to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support politicians who will advocate legislation beneficial to plaintiff’s lawyers. After she was elected, lawyers surrounded her and eagerly handed her their cards. “It would be my highest honor to do a major tort with you,” one of them said—apparently the ultimate compliment that one plaintiff’s lawyer can give another. 

Lisa still begins her day at three in the morning, drinking a cup of coffee, taking a fish-oil capsule, and downing a glass of wheatgrass juice, followed by a concoction of apple cider, vinegar, and a purplish liquid full of antioxidants. She heads out the door for an hour-long run or power walk, and when she returns, she swims in her indoor pool, works out in her gym on the third floor, takes a Pilates class, or exercises with a personal trainer. She drives her daughters to school and spends the rest of her day working on legal cases with her clients or other lawyers (she gives away all her fees to charities) or co-writing legal textbooks on jury selection with Robert Hirschhorn. She also oversees her philanthropic foundation, which donates at least $500,000 a year to charities that support the homeless.

A couple of times a week, she has tutors work with her daughters, who are already fluent in Spanish and are now learning Mandarin. (Lisa herself is fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian.) This past summer, the family lived for three weeks in a small town in China, where the children attended a local school. “When it comes to my girls, I don’t have the luxury of time,” she said. “I’ve got to prepare them to be independent adults by the time they are eighteen, because by then I’ll be close to eighty years old.”

Despite all her interests, there’s one thing she hasn’t yet done: get involved romantically. She told me that since her husband’s death, she’s dated only one man, a former professional football player (no, it wasn’t Emmitt Smith). But that relationship didn’t last long because, she said, “I go to sleep so early there’s never any time to take me to dinner.” In fact, she rarely makes the social scene in Dallas. If you want to see her, you usually have to go to one of her parties.

In October of last year, Lisa threw herself an over-the-top affair for her sixtieth birthday, though, in a twist her friends have come to expect, she had only turned 59. “Why not?” she told the crowd of 1,200 partygoers. “It just feels right!” Don Henley and ZZ Top performed, and Lisa danced again with Emmitt Smith, whose children’s charity received the proceeds from the party. 

For her actual sixtieth-birthday party, which took place on October 12 of this year, she had a more subdued affair for three hundred guests. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings gave a nice speech, Larry Hagman thanked her for raising money for his charity, and she took the stage for only a couple of minutes to reassure the crowd that she was not going to throw a third sixtieth-birthday party the following year. From a distance, several guests, friends of the Dallas cast who had never before met Lisa, stared at her curiously. At one point, a blond woman in her early forties who goes to all the city’s grandest parties sidled up to me and said, predictably, “What’s she really like?” 

The party ended almost at the stroke of midnight, and Lisa headed upstairs, passing by her desk and the photo of her husband and John Edwards. She later told me she decided to give herself a birthday present and sleep in the next morning. She didn’t wake up until five o’clock, but then she rose, as usual, to work out and start planning what she wants to do next.

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