One afternoon in early September, I pulled up to the gates of a nine-acre estate in North Dallas. I waited for them to open, then drove down a long, curving lane to a 15,254-square-foot mansion that looked like a country home for England’s royal family. I rang the doorbell, and a voice over the intercom said, “Please, come in.” But when I opened the door, there was no one to greet me.
I stood for a few moments in the foyer, which featured marble floors, Asian vases the size of Gemini rockets, and a gilded chandelier, and then I ambled toward the living room, which contained thirteen chairs, two couches, two benches, and a grand piano. A couple of semi-priceless portraits hung on the walls: one of George Washington, painted by James Peale, and the other of Benjamin Franklin, painted by Joseph Duplessis. In the distance were the kinds of hushed sounds you tend to hear only in the homes of the very wealthy: a vacuum cleaner humming in a faraway room, a lawn mower purring over a back lawn, the solemn ticking of a clock. A gray cat that must have weighed twenty pounds walked across the room, paused to look at me, and padded away. “Hello?” I called out meekly.
Then there was a new sound: tennis shoes squeaking over the floor. And suddenly, whipping around a corner, came the mansion’s owner, 59-year-old Lisa Blue Baron, dressed in tourniquet-tight workout clothes, her brunette hair bouncing off her shoulders as she strode toward me, grinning like a cheerleader. “Hey, you!” she exclaimed, leading me past the kitchen and into the breakfast room, where papers and two cellphones were strewed across a large table. The lights on both phones were blinking as the voice mails piled up. Someone had called with details about her upcoming trip to the Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was scheduled to attend a party with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and someone else had called about a speech she was scheduled to give to a group of trial attorneys in Austin. A couple of lawyers had called to discuss a lawsuit, a representative from a charitable organization had called to ask for a hefty donation, and her assistant had called to discuss a fundraiser Lisa was throwing at her home later that month for incumbent senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, and Senate hopefuls Rich Carmona, of Arizona, and Martin Heinrich, of New Mexico.
“Oh, and we’ve got my own sixtieth-birthday party in October to put together,” she cheerfully said as she picked up a glass filled with murky, pungent-smelling wheatgrass juice and took a swig. “It’s going to be a three-thousand-dollar-a-ticket dinner for a foundation that I’m helping Larry Hagman start. Larry and the entire cast of Dallas will be there, and all the money we raise will go to Dallas arts programs for underprivileged kids.” The cat wandered by again, his tail sticking imperiously into the air. “Hey, Mr. Gray!” chortled Lisa, leaning down to pet him. “You big fat cat!”
I could not help but stare at her in amazement. Not long ago, few people in Dallas had known anything at all about Lisa Blue Baron—her friends call her Lisa Blue—except that she was a lawyer who was married to Fred Baron, the backslapping Dallas plaintiff’s attorney who had made a fortune filing lawsuits on behalf of workers who’d claimed they had been sickened by toxic substances, especially asbestos. Fred was a major player in the Democratic party, contributing millions to candidates around the country. Politicians flew to Dallas to attend his swank fund-raising parties, which were often thrown under gleaming white tents on the grounds of the estate. Lisa was always with him, politely shaking hands with the guests, but she said very little. He was definitely the star—the King of the Toxic Torts other lawyers admiringly called him. Rumor had it that he was bound for Washington, D.C., to take a cabinet position or an ambassadorship in a Democratic administration.
But in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, his reputation went up in flames. Fred was serving as finance chairman for an old friend, North Carolina senator John Edwards, when reporters caught wind of the story that Edwards had gotten his mistress pregnant. It was one of the most sordid sex scandals in recent political history: Edwards had been carrying on the affair while his wife was fighting terminal breast cancer. It turned out that Fred himself had been involved, personally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for Edwards’s lover to travel around the country to stay out of sight.
The worst news, however, was yet to come. Just as the details of Edwards’s affair hit the front pages, doctors told Fred that cancer was rapidly spreading through his body. In October 2008 he died at his home with Lisa by his side. People in Dallas were shocked by his sudden downfall and death. Just about everyone, including many of their friends, assumed that his grieving widow would sell the estate and move to another city to quietly raise the couple’s three young daughters, who had been born through surrogates after his initial cancer diagnosis, in 2002.
Instead, Lisa did the opposite. She revved up her law practice, working on a batch of toxic tort cases, and she began contributing millions to Democrats running for office. She also started throwing thirty to forty parties a year at the mansion, all of them fundraisers for charities and her favorite political causes. At a couple of the parties, she danced on a stage with her friend former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, who had competed on the television show Dancing With the Stars. “Her transformation has been nothing short of spectacular,” said Roger Mandel, a past president of the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association. “It isn’t like a flower blooming. It’s like a star exploding and going supernova.”
Indeed, in a city that loves to celebrate