If you were lucky enough to live in Houston during the boom years of the late seventies and early eighties, and even the rough bust years that followed, the name Fayez Sarofim has a certain resonance, conjuring up all kinds of mystical, magical stories of wealth and glamour, which is odd, because although he was a billionaire-plus, Sarofim was not particularly glamorous. Nor would he be mistaken for, say, Oscar Isaac. He was a portly man with a receding hairline and narrow eyes surrounded by square, thick-rimmed glasses. He always wore a suit and tie, even on hunting trips. But Houston then was a place where oilman Oscar Wyatt was another major character in the narrative, so you didn’t have to look like a movie star to find yourself at the top of the social and economic heap. And now that Sarofim has left us—he died at home in River Oaks at the ripe old age of 93 on the morning of May 28—you can pretty much close the book on a story that has just started to gather dust on the shelves of younger generations of Houstonians. The loss is profoundly theirs; it’s not financial—though he sat atop his eponymous Fayez Sarofim & Co., which managed something on the order of $31.6 billion—as much as it is historical. The Houston that Sarofim was a part of, where anyone could come into town, marry well, make a fortune, and act any which way, to the astonishment of the hoi polloi—well, its days are going fast, if they aren’t gone already.
Even after Houston settled into its more grown-up years, Sarofim remained a figure of note: you could find him hanging out at the Coronado Club in the old Bank of the Southwest building downtown, lunching in a back room with CNBC playing on a big-screen TV, the stock ticker running continuously on the chyron. His clients would stop by to pay homage, gleaning bits of Sarofim wisdom, such as “Nervous energy is a great destroyer of wealth.” During the Enron frenzy, when so many of his clients were desperate to buy in, Sarofim was one of the few to refuse: “I can’t understand their balance sheets,” he explained, which infuriated some at the time, but provided great relief to others when, later, the old fuddy-duddy was, of course, proven right.
Hence, Fayez—that was how he was referred to, another personage who earned first-name-only status here, even (maybe especially) among those who did not know him. In brief, he was the money manager to Houston’s elite—the son of a wealthy Egyptian aristocrat who owned large cotton estates in North Africa. Sarofim landed here in the fifties, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in food technology and earning a Harvard MBA. He took a job at Anderson, Clayton, an old cotton firm, but by 1958, at the age of thirty, had opened his own investment firm. Along with smarts, he had enough Europoise to wow an upper class that had a thirst for just that. Sarofim went on to prove his skill at the one thing that mattered even more to that group: taking their money and making more of it for them (and, of course, he did the same for himself). “Fayez cared about two things,” one of my favorite Houston observers once said to me. “Money and women. In that order.”
There was the storybook marriage to the lovely Louisa Stude, who had been adopted by the very rich Herman Brown (of the megalithic Brown & Root construction company) and his wife Margarett Root, after Louisa and her brother Mike were orphaned. The Sarofim-Stude nuptials in 1962 were “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,” in the words of my great colleague Skip Hollandsworth. That merger was very good for business: by the early 1960s, the very well-connected Sarofim was managing Brown & Root’s corporate retirement fund and the Rice University endowment, worth $63 million at the time. The mansion in River Oaks followed, as did the lavish and obligatory charitable donations (the Houston Ballet, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Houston Grand Opera, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, etc). He amassed a private art collection, with its Coptic carvings and masterpieces by Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Henry Moore, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol, that nearly rivaled that of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His old-money clients produced new old- and new-money clients, in the way these things go.
Then, to quote Hollandsworth again, “it was as if Jackie Collins had arrived, tapped Henry James on the shoulder, and said, ‘Scoot over, honey. Let me finish this.’” That period involved the (again obligatory) major divorce costing him on the order of $250 million, complete with a second family hiding in the shadows. The marriage to the matriarch of that family, Linda Hicks, a former employee of Sarofim & Co., lasted from 1990 to 1996, before a second, even tawdrier divorce. (Earle Lilly, a name that once struck terror and gloom in the hearts of opposing attorneys, was Linda Sarofim’s attorney.) Then there was the mysterious, much-discussed death of Linda, who had won a settlement of $12 million the River Oaks mansion (Fayez moved into an extra one), and $960,000 a year for life, tax-free. She never got to enjoy the proceeds because she died while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with her new husband Mason in 2000.
Finally, there was a third marriage in 2015 when he was 85 to the decades-younger Susan Krohn, a wealthy divorcée who escaped Katrina-ravaged New Orleans for the wilds of River Oaks. “Houston billionaire weds son’s mother-in-law at his Hawaii retreat with lavish New Year luau,” was the headline for society writer Shelby Hodge’s scoop for CultureMap. Indeed, Sarofim’s son Phillip (of family number two) was then married to Krohn’s eldest daughter, Lori. “For the record,” Hodge stated, “We have photographed Fayez Sarofim for years and never once did he smile in the photos. Not until Susan Krohn came into his life. In every photo that CultureMap has taken of him since then, the man is smiling.”
RIP Fayez. Thanks for the memories.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Fayez Sarofim’s last name in the headline. We regret the error.