Almost from the day he made his arrival in Houston in the early fifties from Harvard’s MBA program, he was known as the Sphinx. Fayez Sarofim, the son of a prosperous Egyptian landowner, dressed in suits tailored in London and spoke in a baronial, perfectly modulated voice. To the monied old guard of the city, he was an exotic, almost mysterious figure, taciturn, restrained, and formidably intelligent—a financial genius with an uncanny ability to pick stocks that were about to soar. When he opened his downtown money-managaement firm, at the mere age of thirty, some of the most prominent men in Houston began pulling their money out of banks and brokerages and giving it to him to invest. He made millions for his clients and in the process made even more millions for himself—first tens of millions, then hundreds of millions.
The Sphinx intrigued not only Houston’s businessmen but also their daughters, including the elegant, slim, Grace Kelly lookalike Louisa Stude, the young heiress of the Brown and Root fortune. Their 1962 marriage was a reenactment of the kind of turn-of-the-century romance that Henry James wrote about, a match between an old-world prince and an American debutante. They bought a mansion in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood, the state’s most famous enclave for the affluent. They had two children. They donated milions to museums and charities, and they collected magnificent art for themselves. For his own office, Fayez purchased one of El Greco’s famous sixteenth-century paintings of the Crucifixion.
The Sarofims seemed to lead lives the rich are supposed to lead—very proper, very private, very cultured. Then, in 1979, as he was approaching middle age, Fayez met a clerk in his office—a chain-smoking, booze-swilling divorcée named Linda Hicks. And suddenly, it was af if Jackie Collins had arrived, tapped Henry James on the shoulder, and said, “Scoot over, honey. Let me finish this.”
Just when you thought Texas was no longer Texas, just when you thought the state’s super-rich were no longer that interesting, along comes the very kind of story that once made Texas so irresistable, involving the multiest of millionaires, his jewel-laden mistress, vicious lawyers, private investigators, and shady characters lurking in the margins. And what better setting could there be than River Oaks, Texas’ Peyton Place for millionaires, where behind the air kisses and good-ol’-boy handshakes lay secret reservoirs of knowledge about clothes, art, hotels, cuisine, and of course, divorce law.
River Oaks marriages have always made great copy. Here, one man successfully sued his wife for custody of their Doberman pinscher named Satan. Here, socialite Carolyn Farb made the unprecendented—and successful—pre-Ivana Trump maneuver in the early eighties to challenge the prenuptual contract she had signed with her husband, real estate developer and part-time night club singer Harold Farb. (She won more than $20 million instead of the mere $1 million stipulated in the agreement.) River Oaks was the home of oilman J. Collier Hurley and his four ex-wives, one of whom fell to her death from a high-rise apartment, leading a grad jury to wonder if Hurley might have helepd her fall. (He was no-billed.) And then there was the marriage between the handsome Dr. John Hill and oil heiress Joan Robinson Hill. Thomas Thompson’s national bestseller published in the mid-seventies, Blood and Money, told this story: Hill, in love with another woman, apparently decided the best way to end his marriage was to give her minimal care after inducing an acute illness, as her friends speculated at the time. All hope of ever getting to the bottom of the mystery came to a sudden halt when Hill himself was shot to death by a hired killer, most likely paid off by Joan’s father, oil millionaire Ash Robinson, who was never arrested due to a lack of evidence.
Today River Oaks is a quieter place. Mansion-lined River Oaks Boulevard is no longer home to some of Houston’s great personalities. Oscar and Lynn Wyatt, the oilman and couture queen whose marriage has always been the subject of River Oaks gossip, have moved off the Boulevard, as has Carolyn Farb. The gloriously egocentric Boulevard residents Baron Enrico “Ricky” diPortanova (an heir to the Hugh Roy Cullen fortune) and his wife, the Baroness Sandra, a local girl, recently died. Arriving in their place has been an assortment of what oil-money Houstonians disdainfully label as “new new money,” the dot-com millionaires and high-tech executives who like big houses and lots of toys but who, for better of worse, have yet to develop a flair for the dramatic.
In all fairness, no one ever expected the elegant Fayed Sarofim to develop such a flair either. But what heppened to Sarofim, who turns 72 next month, and his family turned into drama so sordid, so comic, and then so shockingly tragic that it seemed impossible to believe that it could really be happening. Indeed, for the past decade, Houston society has been atwitter and often aghast at the latest revelations regarding the Sarofims, ranging from Louisa’s record-setting $250 million divorce settlement from Fayez to his sudden marriage to Linda Hicks and her tumultuous arrival into Houston society, where she would get so drunk at black-tie charity balls that she had to be carried from ballrooms; to her scandalous divorce from Fayez and then her equally scandalous new marriage to a red-cheeked, innocuous-looking young felon named Mason Lowe, who had met Linda when they both happened to be patients at a psychiatric-treatment unit.
If that isn’t enough, the spectacle has produced a number of riveting sideshows, including alleged extortion plots, claims of false inprisonment, and charges of devious maneuvers by ruthless divorce lawyers hoping to obtain millions of Sarofim dollars for themselves. Sarofim’s eldest son, Christopher, a heretofore quiet, industrious executive in his father’s company, has even gotten into the act, staging a very public divorce fight of his own. Earlier this year he was caught having an affair with his wife’s close friend, the stepdaughter of former Houston mayor Bob Lanier. Christopher claimed that his wife, Valerie, one of