Oscar Wyatt

Oil’s well that ends well: Oscar Wyatt and Michel Halbouty say the wildcatter’s world is gone. So why is Houston thriving?

September 2001By Comments

A particular kind of self-confidence radiates from the diners at Tony’s, a self-satisfaction that, if you’ve been in Houston long enough, reads as vestigial. It’s visible in the way the men conspicuously palm fat tips to the tuxedoed maître d’, and the way the women, just slightly overdressed in tight, sparkly ensembles, promenade to the ladies room. Unlike so many of the hot new restaurants in town, where spareness rules, Tony’s still hums to the tune of excess. The china sparkles; the wine goblets glisten; the over-the-top chandelier illuminates a seemingly infinite number of captains, waiters, and busboys folding napkins, whisking chairs, pouring wine, and just generally fussing over customers in a way that doesn’t much happen anymore.

Once, Houstonians needed Tony’s to tell themselves that they’d made it, that they were rich enough and sophisticated enough to deserve a restaurant that the owner, Tony Vallone, had created in the mid-sixties with the fanciest, most exclusive New York restaurants in mind. But while he dreamed of a place that featured the best of “21,” Lutèce, and La Caravelle, his clientele converted Tony’s into a private carnival that perfectly reflected the mood of oil-boom Houston, circa 1976-1981. Lynn Wyatt sat front and center with her houseguest of the week, Princess Grace or Mick Jagger or Bill Blass. Developer Harold Farb eschewed beef Stroganoff for chicken-fried steak. Cullen Oil heir Baron Enrico di Portanova tossed his own pasta with tin after tin of beluga. And almost every night, Houston Chronicle society reporter Maxine Mesinger held court at her regular spot in the front of the dining room, spinning a glamorous world of “bigwigs” and “celebs” and “swankiendas” for those who could never afford Tony’s prices. Maxine spoke in a whiskey-and-cigarettes growl and had an unfailing eye for social foibles, but you’d never have known it from reading her column. Everyone wanted to be a part of that particular Houston, Miss Moonlight included.

The frenzy—or the fantasy, as it was not called at the time—was all predicated on the notion that the price of a barrel of oil, $34.65 in January 1981, would never go down. But, of course, it did, to $9 a barrel by July 1986. That the boom was followed by a devastating economic collapse now seems more important to Houston history than the battle of San Jacinto or the construction of the Astrodome. The bust gave lie to the myth that Houstonians had a lock on the future, and the Houston that came out of those hard times, it’s said repeatedly, is more circumspect and more chastened. (Or, as the New York Times wrote around that time, “a more sober, modest, and mature city with lowered expectations.”)

Almost twenty years later, oil is at $27, and gas sells for about $1.50 a gallon, but caution is a part of the Houston gestalt. A lot of the celebrated eccentrics are gone: Maxine and Baron Ricky died in the past year or so; Farb, who is again big in commercial real estate, is divorced from his former wife, Carolyn, and married to a society realtor who lacks his passion for spectacle. Tony’s, like Houston, is the same only different: On a recent summer night, the old guard was there but not in the old numbers. The fabled dessert cart was lighter on quintuple-layered confections. Ties are no longer required. In place of Maxine, there was Shelby Hodge, the Chronicle’s dependably sedate replacement. And at Lynn Wyatt’s fabled Station One were two chic African American couples who seemed to know everyone in the place. “Things are better,” Vallone told me a few days later. “There’s a lot of money in this town none of us know. New money. Younger money.” He paused. “It’s wonderful.”

That pause had a lot in common with a scene I’d witnessed that same night, when I’d spied a wiry, wizened diner whose face, even behind thick glasses, was unmistakable. At 92, Michel Halbouty was having dinner with his third wife, Billye, who, in her seventies, looked almost girlish in a smart pink suit. Few paid the couple any mind. There he was, the last living wildcatter, and no one had a clue. If you were looking for a way to contrast Houston then with Houston now, that pretty much said it all.

“In 1931 there were thirty-eight major oil companies,” Halbouty said. “Today we have four.” Behind his glasses, his eyes went flinty, and the corners of his mouth tightened; even his four raised fingers looked vexed.

Just as his office in the Halbouty Center across from the Galleria is a time capsule of oilman chic—the autographed pictures of Reagan and Bush I, the dashing Gittings portrait, the Italian mosaics copied from French Impressionists—Halbouty still sounds like a wildcatter. In the space of an hour, he barked, snapped, and whelped about our continued dependence on foreign oil, our need to drill in Alaska, and the majors’ insensitivity to their most loyal employees. (“The geoscientists are the most important element for the welfare of the world. Without them, nothing of any value would be found.”) Twenty years ago, everyone in town was saying these things. Now Halbouty is the only one.

His story remains a great romance: The son of poor Lebanese immigrants, he put himself through Texas A&M University, got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology and petroleum engineering, and fell in love with what he calls “the intrigue of a challenge in the earth.” Halbouty loved the chase so much that he lost two fortunes and in the process molded himself into the archetypal oilman: shrewd, wily, a man whose word was his bond, an eternal optimist hooked on risk. “I could have retired completely when I was thirty-nine,” Halbouty said. “Hell, I had no more intention of retiring than the man in the moon.”

That admission sent him bounding into an outer office for a framed photograph of himself in 1946: He still wore his Army jacket; his first wife was in denim capris and a T-shirt. The slightly dazed young couple flank the Christmas tree capping his first well. Halbouty dusted the picture affectionately for about two seconds and then put it aside. Like most people, he was probably more enthralled with a photograph that ran with a 1996 Chronicle profile headlined “Oilfield Legend Michel T. Halbouty Still Working, Still Living It Up at 87.” It showed him waltzing through an oil field with Billye; both of them wore evening clothes. Once your well came in, that picture promised, the only way to go was up.

That’s what everyone believed until OPEC flooded the world with oil. “Houston never recovered from the depression of the eighties,” Halbouty told me, reciting local gospel. What is said less frequently is that those who recovered best were those who figured out how to survive on $15-a-barrel oil. Instead of wiles and intuition, they relied on technology to find oil where it hadn’t been found before. They streamlined their businesses and raised sums that were inconceivable to their irascible, independent predecessors; an “independent” now is more likely to be a global, multibillion-dollar corporation like Apache or Anadarko Petroleum. The buzzword in the oil business today is “discipline”; risk is scorned as steady profits have trumped the big score. It wasn’t just the oil business that changed Houston during the eighties either: Those long-despised Washington politicians, who started deregulating the price of natural gas in the seventies, transformed the city from an oil capital to an energy capital. It’s newest multimillionaires come not from Shell or Tenneco but from energy giants like Enron, which specializes in trading energy instead of drilling for it.

When Houston’s passion for the myth collided with its passion for the future, the Wildcatter’s Club was shuttered. “I’ll tell you, but don’t say I said it,” Halbouty confided. “I am the last one. The last wildcatter.” He wasn’t sad. In fact, he was laughing.

“I don’t want to talk about Harold,” Carolyn Farb said, referring to her ex while displaying the selective amnesia common to the most successful of Houstonians. We were having lunch at Ibiza, a spare, trendy restaurant close to downtown. In the old days we might have met at Tony’s, but he stopped serving lunch in 1996 (“We were getting the ladies who lunch, and they were sitting there with their crabmeat cocktail,” he told me). Just as she did in the late seventies, Farb made an entrance. She breezed into the restaurant, long yellow locks streaming under a straw hat the size of a small Pacific atoll. She had on a chartreuse blouse and chartreuse pants, and a gossamer, leopard-print chartreuse jacket. The manager bounded across the cement floor to divert her to a better table right away.

The case could be made that Farb’s life today is better than it was during the boom. Indeed, few in Houston have ridden out the ensuing years as shrewdly as she, who was once dismissed by old money—such as it was in Houston—as a parvenue. Carolyn Freedman was actually the granddaughter of a predictably flamboyant gambler named Jakie Freedman, who left his Domain Privee casino on the outskirts of Houston to start the Sands in Las Vegas. Growing up suitably starstruck—“Cary Grant used to take my grandmother to dinner,” she said—she met her soulmate in Harold Farb, a native with Broadway dreams. Because Harold’s day job then was owning more apartments than almost anyone else in the world, the couple soon became the oil boom’s poster children. They supersized the myth, starting with the mansion on River Oaks Boulevard. They founded Ultra, a Town & Country clone, and opened the Carlyle, a fancy supper club where Harold performed show tunes and competed, unsuccessfully, against Tony Vallone. The obligatory Texas divorce coincided with the oil bust, during which Carolyn told interviewers that when she and Harold met, “He didn’t know a Chloé from a flavor of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.”

Like many self-made people, Carolyn was relentless about fulfilling her destiny. So in 1983, as the bust settled in, she won a court ruling that invalidated her prenuptial agreement and gave her a settlement worth $20 million. Spoils included the River Oaks mansion, two Rolls-Royces, a Jaguar, and $8 million in cash.

While Harold was trying to fill more than a million square feet of new office space, Carolyn proved that she possessed the skill most valued by Houstonians. She was entrepreneurial. If her gift for fundraising went unappreciated during the boom, during hard times her tirelessness was such that people forgot that she’d once saddled the Houston Ballet’s ball with an antebellum theme. She raised $1 million in a single evening for cancer research in 1983 and signed on for AIDS fundraising before it was chic. She had a corporate approach that was comforting to money-conscious donors: Here was a socialite who could tout her “zero-budget philosophy” and who sold fundraising software from her own Web site, carolynfarb.com. As Houston recovered and diversified, she did too: Her escort during the nineties was not an oilman or a developer but techie Eckhard Pfeiffer, the CEO of Compaq Computers.

Farb relocated to an understated street in River Oaks and started citing local heroines like Nina Cullinan and Dominique de Menil as her role models. Chairing the Houston Grand Opera’s “A Night at the Alhambra,” she raised the usual million and was praised by the CEOs of Enron and Continental Airlines. In other words, Farb’s recovery is complete, as is Houston’s. As local energy giants like Dynegy and Reliant dodged charges of price gouging last summer, the city bid for the 2012 Olympics. (“I think that’s as optimistic as a person can be,” Halbouty asserted.)

When I asked Farb to describe the difference between her life—and Houston’s—then and now, she was a little stumped. “Would you say we’re more cautious? More corporate?” she asked. “A loss of spontaneity?”

Then she got it. “I’d just say we’re mindfully watching where we tread.”

“Everyone is getting out of the oil business,” Oscar Wyatt told me. He was calling on his cell phone on his way to the villa in the South of France that he shares with his wife, Lynn. His gravelly voice was free of regret. “A lot of people in the oil business are doing something completely different.” Certainly that is true in his case. Wyatt retired from his oil company, Coastal, in 1997, and started buying produce farms in the Valley. He’s now in frozen-foods, which is so impossible for some Houstonians to accept that they have started the rumor that he is running guns across the border. It’s an understandable response: Wyatt was the man who left San Antonio without heat during the 1973 energy crisis, who over the years cut deals with Libya and China, who flew to Baghdad to free American hostages in 1990. A Houston without Wyatt threatened to be a Houston without drama. But the Wyatts put their storied River Oaks Boulevard mansion up for sale in 1999—the one that had belonged to oilman Hugh Roy Cullen—and sent the message that they were ready to cede the stage.

The Wyatts were the Farbs’s polar opposites. Lynn, the daughter of the city’s toniest merchant, became, like her self-made husband, global, sophisticated, as authentically powerful in society as Oscar was in the oil business. (Her family’s store, Sakowitz, was a casualty of the bust.) The Wyatts proved that “Texan” and “sophisticate” weren’t mutually exclusive terms. That you could be rich and successful in the way of people in Manhattan or Los Angeles or even St. Louis as opposed to anyone in Giant. This Houston is more willing to go along to get along. Its nineties boom came not from oil but from the stock market, just like everywhere else. Residents blithely shop at the Old Navy store on the site of Sakowitz’s once-grand Galleria emporium, willfully throw off their suburban McMansions for Manhattan-like downtown lofts, casually consume food from Istanbul and South Korea, brazenly do business around the globe, and don’t even think about the novelty of it all. “Since we’ve sent so many of our children off to the East Coast to study law, it takes a lot more to do what we used to do in three-page contracts,” Wyatt griped, but he didn’t expect anyone to take him seriously.

The Wyatts had a party in their River Oaks mansion just before the movers came, and the guest list that night was strictly local. Tony Vallone, having diversified like everyone else, catered the affair, offering omelettes at eleven o’clock and cookies in the shape of houses and moving vans. The scions of the oldest oil families were there—Alkeks, Blaffers, and Wiesses—but the hostess had also invited a newer crowd that included pretty youngish things desperate to become the Next Lynn Wyatt. Her spirits were good; she told her guests that she’d been happy in the house, but that she wanted to move on, and you could almost believe, then, that Houston had shed its old skin completely.

But not entirely. Wyatt had invited the mansion’s new owners to the party, a husband and wife in their late-thirties. He was an independent oilman from Louisiana. In the ensuing years, the couple have honored one of Houston’s grandest traditions: conspicuous consumption. They added a substantial new wing. They built a small hill to hide the swimming pool, which they moved from its original location. And they bought the mansion next door. It will serve as a guest house.

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