If Cason and Moore Public Relations could create a flawless version of Houston’s first-ever Flower Ball, it would go something like this. The vague desire of a Post Oak—area shopping center owner to commemorate thirty years in business would be set in a lush garden with what the PR firm would call “a Greco-Roman twist.” Attractive young people from the finest families—not just from Houston but from around the world—would make glorious entrances. They would be dressed in the best; they would drive Mercedes or Maseratis. And there, at the center of it all, would be Cason and Moore themselves—brash Becca Cason, her small but bountiful frame embraced by a form-fitting French creation, and Holly Russell Moore, long, lean, and more reserved than her partner, wearing something understatedly chic. The next day the partners would return to their plush offices and the melody of constantly ringing phones, prelude to the hymns of ever-grateful partygoers. The partners would count up the gala’s profits and discover that they had raked in plenty for their cause—beautifying Houston streets in time for the Economic Summit in July. It would be another triumph for Houston, another triumph for Cason and Moore. They would be the perfect public relations firm to define a new Houston for a grateful populace.
But in the world of PR, illusion is the guest of honor, reality the dreaded party crasher. And 48 hours before the start of the Flower Ball, the latter has arrived and the former has taken a powder. “Frankly,” Becca Cason says, locking me in on a cozy girl-to-girl frequency, “this has been a tough one.”
“This,” of course, is the ball itself, about which the partners have discovered something as dark as their casual but fashionable office-wear of black leggings and black T-shirts. (Becca has topped hers with a boss-lady burgundy jacket by Jean Paul Gaultier and enough clunky costume jewelry to add five pounds to her weight; Holly has opted for an ascetic French twist and nothing more.) For whatever reason—a shopping center anniversary is not automatically cause for jubilation, the Summit is not an automatic social draw, few people want to help beautify Houston’s ritziest streets—the acceptances have not come in as planned. The party that was supposed to celebrate not just the anniversary of Fashion Square but the existence of a whole new segment of post-bust society is beginning to look like the party nobody wants to come to.
It is time for desperate measures, time to cease all regular business. This is not the moment to thank reporters for the “marvelous coverage” of last week’s juvenile diabetes fundraiser. Tomorrow will be soon enough to track down Armando Palacios, a restaurateur-client booked to cook breakfast fajitas on a local radio show. The friendly schmoozing that so often smooths the flow of business—Becca’s low-fat diet tips gleaned from a bible called the T Factor —must today have one purpose and one purpose only: to persuade two hundred more friends and acquaintances to cough up the cash for those $85 tickets. Directed by their amazonian assistant, Peg Patterson (also dressed in black leggings), the partners perform a kind of phone fugue, pushing the party and cutting costs at the same time:
Becca (softly): “Let me walk you through it …”
Holly (surely): “Well, it’s going to be an old Greco-Roman tumbledown-Tucson-garden type of effect …”
Becca (firmly): “The party starts at seven-thirty …”
Holly (sternly): “George and Annette Strake will be there for pictures between six and six-thirty …”
Becca (gushily): “Anything on you will be divine …”
Holly (helpfully): “You’re going to see a lot of strapless dresses …”
Becca (smartly): “How much can we save? Five hundred dollars? Let’s do it!”
The bust years often set people to wondering what effect that savage blow would have on Houston’s legendary self-confidence. People wondered too how the bust would change the order of things; the boom, after all, had produced a cast of characters given to a casual seat-of-the-pants style. No one cared what Houston looked like, as long as everyone shared in the bounty. Society was open but orderly. The oil companies and families with oil or construction related fortunes—the Browns, Blaffers, Cullens, and Menils—took care of the place. Maxine Mesinger defined cafe society in her column in the Chronicle; her characters shopped at Sakowitz and dined at private parties in Tony’s wine cellar. Those who needed a publicist came to depend on Hal Foster, who shrewdly—and invisibly—taught them how to behave.
For a PR master invents nothing less than a world: Every selection, from clients to caterers, from press coverage to party themes, telegraphs a message about class and values. For many years, Foster’s counsel—for Tony’s and the opera, among others—has shaped Houston’s sophisticated image. His friends have been eternally grateful—the late Winifred Hirsch recently bequeathed him $100,000.
But a new order, with a new ethos, is in the making. Many of the great patrons are gone or their fortunes diminished. The stars who survived the boom no longer have the stage to themselves: Tony Vallone cannot leave his Post Oak restaurant without catching sight of the cars crowding Robert Del Grande’s Cafe Annie nearby. Maxine must compete for scoops with the Post‘s Betsy Parish. The latest fashions are no longer bought at Sakowitz but at a sprawling fashion emporium called Tootsies, owned by Mickey Rosmarin, who started out in the seventies with a hip recycled-clothing store on the Westheimer Strip. The scions of old and not-so-old money—youngish Wyatts, Cullens, and Taubs, for instance—now keep company with a vid-kid’s version of cafe society, hobnobbing with people who may or may not have contact with controlled substances, people whose charitable contributions are directed toward fashion rather than the arts or medicine (e.g., the Costume Institute). They eat along Kirby or Post Oak and take their Tex-Mex lo-cal, served up at Armando’s just outside River Oaks. Maxine has Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra; this crowd has rock stars and other video celebs. (“Charming