It is a rarely acknowledged but indisputable fact that Houston has always been home to some of the planet’s most entertaining rich people. Open and lacking self-consciousness, they play to all the various myths of Big Rich Texans. This is the city, after all, where legendary developer Harold Farb built a supper club so that he could headline with his own show tunes, where natural gas wheeler-dealer John Thrash put a glass ceiling in his kitchen through which male guests could accidentally on purpose look up the skirts of female guests on the party floor above. The economic bust of the eighties may have trimmed some of our wildest sails, but recently, with oil pushing $100 and (yes, here too) the hedge- and private equity—fund markets booming, the city has felt poised on the verge of another outbreak of nuttiness, the kind that has always accompanied great leaps forward in local prosperity. “There’s a lot of money in this town” is the awestruck way Louis DeLone, the publisher of Houston Modern Luxury, put it to me recently, and hearing this newcomer echo this familiar phrase, I had that here-we-go-again feeling.
Only nothing cuckoo seems to be happening this time around, and I can’t figure out why. It isn’t that the rich aren’t spending—because they are—but rather that their spending doesn’t seem to be quite as fun, or funny, as it used to be. There could be any number of good reasons for this, what with the growing gap between rich and poor, the still-toxic air, the gargantuan Houston Independent School District still in serious need of an overhaul. Maybe having a neo-Calvinist mayor has tamped down the rich. Maybe the resurrection of Houston as an international city has made the populace too sophisticatedly self-aware. Is the fall of Enron responsible? The deaths of some of our more florid characters, like Farb and consumer reporter Marvin Zindler? The chance that Oscar Wyatt might actually do time? Or maybe I’m just getting older and losing my sense of humor as my income fails to increase exponentially like everyone else’s.
In the old days, you didn’t have to be rich to matter—unpretentiousness always seemed to be in Houston’s DNA. Until fairly recently, it was an Urban Cowboy, blue-collar town that ignored pedigree in favor of talent and ability; residents, rich or otherwise, felt an obligation to make their own modest contributions to the city’s reputation as one of the great capitals of eccentricity and good humor. Jett Rink, the fabled wildcatter of Edna Ferber’s Giant, was a role model not because he was ignorant but because he understood that there wasn’t much point in being rich if you couldn’t enjoy the hell out of it. His role model may well have been someone like “Silver Dollar Jim” West, who earned his nickname during the city’s first boom by flinging coins out the window of his limousine to less fortunate pedestrians. Decades later, during the seventies and eighties, Hugh Roy Cullen heir Baron Ricky di Portanova showed off by mixing his own caviar pasta at his table at Tony’s. It was a more innocent time, when Houston Chronicle columnist Maxine Mesinger got all excited about a visit to town by Ernest Borgnine and his skin cream—pushing wife, Tova ( see, the movie stars are coming!), or when the Saudi royals built a faux embassy on Kirby Drive so they’d have a place to stay when visiting the Medical Center ( see, we’re international!). Parties were an opportunity to display creativity in the extreme, as when society hostess and diplomat Joanne Herring (soon to be portrayed by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War) celebrated her thirtieth birthday with a Roman orgy theme party, complete with over-the-top reenactments—a Christian burned at the stake, underage boys pouring libations, and a slave auction. Now, that kind of behavior was why you lived in Houston.
Don’t get me wrong—the march of wealth and progress across the past few decades has resulted in a number of happy improvements. I can now get a pizza that tastes almost as good as one from Naples. I can ogle—if not afford—the latest from Balenciaga. I can miss museum shows just as prestigious as the ones people miss in Manhattan. Yet in our haste to be just as sophisticated as Manhattan—and Los Angeles and London and Dubai—we have exchanged our inner Jett Rink for something far less colorful and far more conventional.
In part, I blame Enron—not because of the collapse but because of the insecurities of its carpetbagging executives. While the company was flying high, no one seemed to notice that many of the execs were so intent on aping their Wall Street brethren that they filled the town with dull, world-beater-approved accessories like Porsches, cigar bars, pseudo-lofts, and McMansions that, for all Enron’s talk of innovation, were just like every other rich person’s. (Everything on the market today in West University seems to have had the same interior designer, who loved cabbage rose upholstery.) At the same time, CEOs toiling out of state began to take credit for the creative spending strategies that were once the sole province of crazy Texas wildcatters: It wasn’t a Houstonian, for instance, who spent $6,000 on a shower curtain (that was Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski), nor could we claim the $3 million sixtieth birthday party (that was the Blackstone Group’s Steve Schwarzman).
Paradoxically, the decline in rich eccentrics may stem from the fact that there seem to be more rich people in town than ever before. Historically, Texas has always been a relatively poor state, which made the rich a novelty, and they seemed to understand this and behave accordingly. It was a perfect system. The fact that they did silly things with their money made the rest of us feel better about not having as much—at best, we were entertained; at worst, we were consoled by the thought that if we were that rich, we’d know what to do with the money. Nowadays,