THE EVENT SOUNDED LIKE A PARODY OF A SOCIETY PARTY: Marvin’s Million Dollar Dream, a $1,000-a-plate gala celebrating the seventy-fifth birthday of that disturbingly loud Houston TV personality, Marvin Zindler. It would be held in late August, the sweatiest month of the year—precisely when people of money and taste scrambled to get out of town. Had chairwoman Carolyn Farb lost her mind? God, no one held black-tie parties in August.
But Farb, one of Houston’s most elegant blond swans, was determined to make history. She even predicted in a press release that the party—a benefit for the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center—would “set a new fundraising record” for a one-night event. Old society hands were skeptical. There was no way, they said, that Farb was going to beat the $1.56 million raised at a 1991 gala for M. D. Anderson by Nellie Connally, the widow of John Connally, and Barbara Hurwitz, the wife of controversial Houston industrialist Charles Hurwitz. “Honey, I’ll tell you, we put the screws on that year,” Connally told me before the Farb fete. “We just went out and told everyone they had to give us money. We sold a couple of tables for one hundred thousand dollars apiece. We brought in Gerald and Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and that movie guy, Jack Valenti. This other woman isn’t going to knock us off.”
Among women of Texas society, of course, charity fundraising is a fiercely competitive sport. When I repeated Connally’s remarks to Farb over lunch at her River Oaks mansion, she abruptly put down her tuna salad sandwich. “They had an entire year to plan and find money for their event, and as I understand it, they also recruited several men to help them raise money,” she said, trying to keep her voice soft and dignified. “We didn’t come up with the idea for Marvin’s Million Dollar Dream until six months ago. And it was up to me alone to find underwriters and sell the tables.”
Of all the charity fundraisers in Texas, few are more famous or more formidable these days than Farb. Initially known in Houston for her marriage to and divorce from real estate king Harold Farb, she gained her own measure of fame in the early eighties when she turned her talents to throwing parties to benefit nonprofit groups. In the past 25 years Farb has raised nearly $10 million, chairing everything from the Houston Ballet ball to Houston’s first AIDS benefit; she has even published a book, How to Raise Millions Helping Others, Having a Ball! “To be a fundraiser,” she writes, “it helps to be a visionary.” As part of her vision for a 1990 cerebral palsy benefit, she arranged for the Goodyear blimp to hover over the Galleria and blink cheerful welcome messages to arriving partygoers. For her Ham It Up party to combat poverty, she introduced a pig as her “hambassador.” “I look at these events as my works of art,” she told me, “and I think the Million Dollar Dream will be remembered as something unique.”
On that point, she was right on the money. The idea for the party came together last February, when the general manager of Channel 13, Jim Masucci, asked Farb to chair a birthday bash for Zindler, the station’s consumer reporter. In a snobbier city, like Dallas, Chanel-clad society women would be nervous setting foot in the same room with someone like Zindler, who wears a white wig and blue sunglasses on the air and ends each of his segments by screaming, at the top of his lungs, “Marvin Zindler, Eyewitness News!” But Farb sensed that in freewheeling Houston, the Zindler event would be one-of-a-kind. And since his birthday is in August, she had a chance to strike early—to throw a party so spectacular that Houston’s beautiful people would not be able to stop talking about it, no matter what happened at the more established charity balls held in the fall.
To attract interest from both men and women, Farb suggested that the money raised be split evenly between M. D. Anderson’s prostate cancer and breast cancer research programs. She also arranged for the party to salute retiring M. D. Anderson president Charles A. LeMaistre, a local favorite. But what really got the buzz going in Houston was the news that Farb had persuaded Texans Lyle Lovett and Don Henley to perform for free. Then she announced that one of O. J. Simpson’s defense attorneys, Robert Shapiro, had agreed to take part in the event’s silent auction: Not only would he have lunch in Los Angeles with the highest bidder, but he would also autograph a tie that he wore during the Simpson trial. Charity ball veterans, accustomed to such mundane auction items as weekend trips to Paris, were thrilled. But that wasn’t all. There was a two-hundred-square-foot mural to be painted inside a lucky bidder’s home by artist Jan Parsons, a trip in a Lear jet to the Montana set where Robert Redford is shooting his new film, The Horse Whisperer, and the badge worn by Sharon Stone in the Western flick The Quick and the Dead.
Meanwhile, Farb was cajoling everyone she could to buy tickets to the gala. She called Michael Milken, the eighties junk-bond junkie who today funds a foundation devoted to fighting cancer, and persuaded him to contribute $10,000 and fly in from L.A. for the event. When she ran into former governor Mark White one night at Houston’s Redwood Grill, she spoke so passionately about Marvin’s Million Dollar Dream that he pledged $10,000 on the spot. Ex-governor Dolph Briscoe bought an entire table for $75,000, as did Houston-based Continental Airlines. And so did Compaq Computer Corporation, whose handsome, silver-haired CEO, Eckhard Pfeiffer, just happens to be Farb’s boyfriend.
When word spread through Houston that the party was selling out, there suddenly was as much clamoring for tickets as there was for seats on the last helicopters out of Saigon. “I received calls from probably twenty other prominent