Absolutely Farbulous

When Carolyn Farb threw her latest society fundraiser, the stars came out: to write checks, perform for free, and pay homage to Houston’s party girl.

October 1996By Comments

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 ball chairwomen asking me for details about the party,” says Arthur Zehnder, the associate director of catering at Houston’s Hyatt Regency, where the party was to be held. “They wanted to know about the table decorations, the flowers, the menu. Many wanted to know if there was any way I could get them in at the last minute.” By August 1, however, the 1,040 seats at the 102 tables were spoken for.

And at seven o’clock on the night of the party, forty valet parkers—wearing white wigs in honor of Zindler—were working at full speed to accommodate all the sleek automobiles pulling up to the Hyatt. Mingling in the lobby was everyone from Houston mayor Bob Lanier to pint-size Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu and Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale, the manic Houston furniture mogul who stars in his own TV commercials. Zindler himself was so bowled over by all the attention that he seemed to be in another world. When I approached him and asked for an interview, he turned to me and boomed, before I could even get out a question, “I’m a Leo—a true Leo—but sadly, Leo has passed, so we’re celebrating my birthday on a non-Leo day! Thank you!” Don Henley was nearly struck dumb by the sight of Zindler. He leaned toward me and said, “Do you realize that man has got the biggest hair in the room?”

Of course, Nellie Connally and Barbara Hurwitz were on hand to see whether Farb could break their record. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Connally said, clearly relishing the face-off. Still, on this night, Farb could do no wrong. Other society women, simultaneously respectful and jealous, showered her with air kisses. Whenever she made the slightest move, someone took her picture. At one point she crouched down in her blue taffeta ball gown so a photographer could get a shot of her next to a miniature horse, which for some unfathomable reason was one of the items available at the silent auction (opening bid: $1,100). Farb smiled while the horse stared longingly at some hay.

As the guests entered the ballroom, Farb ordered a technician to keep the lights low during dinner. “It must look very spiritual,” she said. Indeed, the spiritual light shined on one and all, including Charles Hurwitz at table 27 and Henley at near-by table 12. Some in the crowd speculated that the eco-friendly Henley, who has called Hurwitz “a cancer on the environment” because of his threats to cut down a forest of redwoods in California owned by his Pacific Lumber Company, would say something tacky when it came time to perform. But Henley ignored Hurwitz and instead went after Robert Shapiro, whose lunch-and-tie auction item was offered for an opening bid of $5,000. “You don’t need to spend five thousand dollars to eat with Robert Shapiro,” Henley told the crowd. “All you have to do is murder somebody.”

During his set, the droll Lovett got off a good line of his own. He told the partygoers that he enjoyed being back in Houston, then added, “You know, people you haven’t seen in a while change in ways you don’t expect. Usually, their breasts have gotten bigger.”

When Farb took the stage, she looked like a contestant who had just won the Miss Universe pageant. “Tonight,” she declared, “my greatest dream has come true.” When the ticket sales, corporate underwriting, and top auction bids were tallied, she had raised more than $1.3 mil-lion. Connally and Hurwitz still had the record, but who was complaining? Considering that Farb had gotten an astonishing $567,000 in products and services donated to the event, only 13 cents out of every $1 raised would cover the cost of putting on the party—so 87 cents would actually go to M. D. Anderson. (Typically, 50 cents of every $1 raised at a fundraising gala goes to pay party costs.)

But if Farb couldn’t win the money war, at least she had the vision thing. At the end of the party, she asked her guests to grab pairs of blue sunglasses off their banquet tables—the same type worn by Zindler. She then asked Henley, Lovett, and Zindler to join her onstage. “Let’s put on our sunglasses and sing Happy Birthday to Marvin,” Farb said. Without hesitation, the partygoers—some of the most sophisticated people in the state—donned the sunglasses and jubilantly rose to their feet to sing. It was one of those moments that are so utterly Texan: completely ridiculous and sort of glorious at the same time.

When the song ended, Zindler didn’t know what to do. For a moment, he looked around. Then he moved to the microphone, took a breath, and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Marvin Zindler, Eyewitness News!”

“You have to admit,” Farb told me later, her voice hushed and serious, “it was a moment you will never forget.”

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