The Blood of the Farentholds

The mysterious disappearance of Sissy Farenthold’s youngest son is only the latest chapter in a tragic family history.

the bartender, and buying a few rounds for newfound friends, his sweetly fiendish face locked in a state of glee. It is a pretty thought, but today pretty thoughts only invite more anguish. Her experience tells her to fear the worst. She speaks of him in the past tense.

He took chances,” she says. “He took chances all the time. You know, he was a very sweet person. Charming too, but more basic than the charm was that he was very sensitive. He could be hurt. The Vincent thing had been so painful that I probably didn’t talk about it to him as openly as would have been helpful. But I thought I was shielding him. Just like when I moved him into a different bedroom. You know, you’re just feeling your way—there are no rules.”

She slumps against the back of the couch in the living room of her Houston high-rise apartment and stares furiously at her clasped hands. For whatever else 65-year-old Sissy Farenthold might be, at this moment she is a grieving mother, small and alone and powerless. The posture does not become her, for Farenthold is not the self-pitying sort. The days of cleaning up the Texas Legislature and mounting a quixotic campaign for governor are two decades behind her, but her activist barnstorming continues. These days she travels from Washington to Brownsville all in the same week, lobbying for progressive causes, picketing missile bases, spearheading think tanks on federal government reform. As a speaker she remains in high demand: This very morning, a Saturday, she addressed a delegation
of high school students at a United Nations Model Congress.

In her discreetly fashionable dress and black stockings, her feathery white hair lending a light touch to her morose and narrow face, Sissy Farenthold cuts an elegant figure of almost brutal composure. Evidence of her age is strictly physical—and for that matter she wears her years well, insofar as her older face reveals the essence of the woman in a way the more youthful face never did. Now her determination and intensity of belief are highlighted by wrinkles that are impossible to miss, just as her battles against corrupt institutions are a matter of public record. Yet it has remained a matter of mystery that both her face and her crusades have always betrayed a complete absence of joy. For all of Farenthold’s public life, reporters have observed her gloomy aura without knowing what to make of it. “A melancholy rebel,” the Texas Observer tagged her; “She seems to have a great capacity for inner sorrow,” wrote author Myra MacPherson. In the heat of the fight, Farenthold could be heard bemoaning the cruel conditions—corruption, bureaucratic insensitivity—that made the fight necessary; with triumph in her grasp, she would ruminate on the price of success. Hers was, and still is, the quintessential bleeding heart.

All of the moods and themes that preoccupy Sissy Farenthold can be traced to her family, which has played a visible role in Texas history for well over a century. Her Alsatian great-great-grandfather, Peter Bluntzer, brought forty families to settle the South Texas county of DeWitt in 1843. Her Irish great-grandfather, Robert Dougherty, helped settle San Patricio and founded the first boys’ academy in South Texas. Great-grandfather Nicholas Bluntzer, a Nueces County pioneer, served as Robert E. Lee’s scout during pre–Civil War punitive expeditions against the Comanches. Her paternal grandfather, Benjamin Dudley Tarlton, Sr., spent several years as chief justice on the state’s highest court before becoming a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, whose library bears his name.

The Bluntzer-Dougherty-Tarlton-Farenthold family tree abounds with all the requisite characters for a Texas dynasty: Civil War officers, oil and cattle men, lawyers, and landholders. Substantial wealth remains in part of the family, and the surnames retain a certain cachet. But three features distinguish Sissy Farenthold’s clan from others that sprawl across Texas. First, it is a family in which women have never quavered in the shadow of their husbands. Lida Dougherty, Farenthold’s great-aunt, was the first woman in Texas to become the superintendent of a school district. Farenthold’s aunt Genevieve Tarlton Dougherty, a well-known philanthropist, was conferred the Lady of the Grand Cross of the Holy Sepulchre by Pope Pius XII, one of the highest honors the Catholic church accords a laywoman. Other female antecedents were educators and community leaders; there was even one adventurer of sorts, Farenthold’s great-great-aunt Theresa Bluntzer Hasdorff, who at the age of four was kidnapped by Indians and returned a year later, decked out in native headdress, speaking the tongue of her captors.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a family of such strong female figures, Farenthold’s kin have also stood prominently to the left of the state’s most famous families. Her father was a Klan-baiting lawyer and lifelong Democratic activist. While other Texans were admonishing their children at the dinner table, “Think of the starving children,” Farenthold’s relatives were donating enormous sums of money to feed Biafran and Mexican orphans.

There is a third aspect to this great family, a feature more often associated with the characters in William Faulkner novels than with real people. Beneath the public facade, the prim liberal sheen, lurks a disquiet—perhaps genetic in nature, perhaps owing to a series of unfortunate coincidences. But it has endured through generations, spreading across the Bluntzer-Dougherty-Tarlton-Farenthold family tree like an unseen fungus. It has given rise to alcoholism, drug addiction, and manic depression. It has saddled descendants with disorders ranging from the mildly disabling to the fatal. Still others have fallen to diseases such as cancer, and others still have died freakishly—shot with their own hunting rifle, drowned in their own swimming pool. Rustling within Sissy Farenthold’s family is a severe capacity for self-destruction.

IN 1950, 24- YEAR-OLD VASSAR COLLEGE and UT law graduate Frances “Sissy” Tarlton was wedded in a Corpus Christi Catholic cathedral to George Edward Farenthold, a furry-browed, bull-bodied Belgian who had received his U.S. citizenship in 1940 and subsequently became a decorated Air Force captain. The great-grandson of

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