The Blood of the Farentholds

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

students in her class. Thus steeled by death and doubters, 42-year-old Frances Tarlton Farenthold again overcame her handicaps, and in November 1968, she became the first woman ever to represent Nueces and Kleberg counties in the Legislature.

The 1969 House roster consisted of 149 males and Sissy Farenthold. Unlike her sole female counterpart in the Senate, Barbara Jordan—who took pains not to ruffle conservative feathers while she prepared for a U.S. House candidacy—Farenthold refused to play it safe. She stood alone in her opposition to a 1969 resolution commending the performance of former president Lyndon Johnson. When she found herself locked out of House Constitutional Amendments Committee meetings—which were held at Austin’s all-male Citadel Club—she did not sulk privately but rather took the matter to the media and forced a public apology from her colleagues.

In Farenthold’s mind, her own predicament as the token House female was reminiscent of the inequalities she had seen as legal aid director. There was a rottenness to the institutions themselves, a tendency to favor a few and exclude the rest. Reform became her passion, and by 1971 it made Sissy Farenthold a household name in Texas. That year, she and 29 disaffected House Republicans and liberal Democrats—“the Dirty Thirty”—crusaded against corruption in the Legislature, focusing on House Speaker Gus Mutscher, who was accused of conspiring to take bribes to pass bills benefiting powerful Houston banker and developer Frank Sharp. Mutscher’s subsequent conviction ended the so-called Sharps-town Scandal, but to Farenthold the reform movement was barely beginning.

In 1972, with the strong encouragement of her admirers and the approval of her family, the Dirty Thirty’s self-styled “den mother” set her sights on the Governor’s Mansion. Farenthold ran as a reform candidate, positioning herself against a corrupt system and contaminated opponents. She bumped off Governor Preston Smith and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes in the primary, when scandal-weary voters turned on incumbents, and trailed only Dolph Briscoe, a wealthy rancher. Briscoe won the primary runoff with 55 percent of the vote, but the defeat seemed to have no effect on Sissy Farenthold’s burgeoning celebrity. At the Democratic National Convention, she became the first woman ever nominated for vice president, receiving 407 delegate votes to finish second behind Thomas Eagleton. A few months later, she posed with Shirley Chisholm for the cover of Ms. magazine.

Sissy Farenthold had ascended, surpassing the feats of her forefathers. But all of her successes could not prevent her offspring from repeating the ritual descent of their ancestry.

THOUGH SISSY FARENTHOLD BLAZED trails for women everywhere, none left scorch marks as deep and lasting as her struggle to balance her political and parental responsibilities. As the only female member of the Texas House, Farenthold was faced with a stark choice. She could either come running whenever her children needed her and thereby suffer the derision of her male colleagues, who already guffawed whenever she spoke of the deep influence her children had on her thinking, or she could vow never to miss a vote or a committee meeting and thus be taken seriously but face serious consequences at home. As a candidate for governor, she could stay at home with the children and ensure her defeat, or she could take them on the campaign trail with her and hope that they would be able to bear the limelight. As was the way of the world in 1972, the father was exempted from the child-rearing equation. George had his pipeline business to attend to, and indeed a family of six could not scrape by on a state representative’s income.

Sissy Farenthold’s choice to be a serious politician took its toll subtly at first. Two of the children shared Sissy’s reading disorder and needed more help with their schoolwork than she could give. Jimmy’s dyslexia was most acute, and with Sissy no longer nearby to keep his fondness for wandering in check, it became a familiar sight to behold the youngest Farenthold, frail and dark-haired and grinning as he wandered the streets of Austin, a pre-teen urchin in search of who could say what.

When Sissy ran for governor in 1972, she did so with Dudley, George Junior, and Emilie in tow. The three were enthusiastic campaigners and even cut their long hair so as not to be a political liability; yet they were also of college age, and all of them had dropped out to assist their mother. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Jimmy was deemed a troublemaker by the authorities at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin and prohibited from living on campus. Not knowing what else to do with her youngest during the campaign, Sissy sent him to live with her friends Liz and John Henry Faulk. Three days after Sissy’s loss to Briscoe in the runoff, the body of her stepson, George’s 32-year-old son, Randy, washed ashore on Mustang Island. Chains were wrapped around his chest, along with a forty-pound concrete block around his neck. Years later it would emerge that he had been murdered for threatening to testify against four individuals who had swindled him out of $100,000.

Randy had possessed little in the way of ambition or common sense, but he was roundly regarded as a good-hearted fellow. Sissy and her offspring had been close to Randy. His bizarre death recalled all the old family demons and cast a pall of vulnerability on the Farenthold household, which by nature was already fragile. The family members rotated residences in Austin, Houston, and Corpus Christi, with the father and mother almost always living apart after Sissy’s election. Sissy and George’s marriage, never terribly amorous to begin with, now seemed to be purely an accommodation. The children were feuding with their father and forsaking their education to bolster their mother’s career. Sissy Farenthold saw the family’s demise in glimpses. Privately she fretted to political aides and friends and at times to reporters. To one of the latter, she let the fatalism flow: “You try to hold on to the family thing,” she said, “and you probably fail.”

The family’s failure was spurred on,

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