Almost from the day he made his arrival in Houston in the early fifties from Harvard’s MBA program, he was known as the Sphinx. Fayez Sarofim, the son of a prosperous Egyptian landowner, dressed in suits tailored in London and spoke in a baronial, perfectly modulated voice. To the monied old guard of the city, he was an exotic, almost mysterious figure, taciturn, restrained, and formidably intelligent—a financial genius with an uncanny ability to pick stocks that were about to soar. When he opened his downtown money-managaement firm, at the mere age of thirty, some of the most prominent men in Houston began pulling their money out of banks and brokerages and giving it to him to invest. He made millions for his clients and in the process made even more millions for himself—first tens of millions, then hundreds of millions.
The Sphinx intrigued not only Houston’s businessmen but also their daughters, including the elegant, slim, Grace Kelly lookalike Louisa Stude, the young heiress of the Brown and Root fortune. Their 1962 marriage was 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. They bought a mansion in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood, the state’s most famous enclave for the affluent. They had two children. They donated milions to museums and charities, and they collected magnificent art for themselves. For his own office, Fayez purchased one of El Greco’s famous sixteenth-century paintings of the Crucifixion.
The Sarofims seemed to lead lives the rich are supposed to lead—very proper, very private, very cultured. Then, in 1979, as he was approaching middle age, Fayez met a clerk in his office—a chain-smoking, booze-swilling divorcée named Linda Hicks. And suddenly, it was af if Jackie Collins had arrived, tapped Henry James on the shoulder, and said, “Scoot over, honey. Let me finish this.”
Just when you thought Texas was no longer Texas, just when you thought the state’s super-rich were no longer that interesting, along comes the very kind of story that once made Texas so irresistable, involving the multiest of millionaires, his jewel-laden mistress, vicious lawyers, private investigators, and shady characters lurking in the margins. And what better setting could there be than River Oaks, Texas’ Peyton Place for millionaires, where behind the air kisses and good-ol’-boy handshakes lay secret reservoirs of knowledge about clothes, art, hotels, cuisine, and of course, divorce law.
River Oaks marriages have always made great copy. Here, one man successfully sued his wife for custody of their Doberman pinscher named Satan. Here, socialite Carolyn Farb made the unprecendented—and successful—pre-Ivana Trump maneuver in the early eighties to challenge the prenuptual contract she had signed with her husband, real estate developer and part-time night club singer Harold Farb. (She won more than $20 million instead of the mere $1 million stipulated in the agreement.) River Oaks was the home of oilman J. Collier Hurley and his four ex-wives, one of whom fell to her death from a high-rise apartment, leading a grad jury to wonder if Hurley might have helepd her fall. (He was no-billed.) And then there was the marriage between the handsome Dr. John Hill and oil heiress Joan Robinson Hill. Thomas Thompson’s national bestseller published in the mid-seventies, Blood and Money, told this story: Hill, in love with another woman, apparently decided the best way to end his marriage was to give her minimal care after inducing an acute illness, as her friends speculated at the time. All hope of ever getting to the bottom of the mystery came to a sudden halt when Hill himself was shot to death by a hired killer, most likely paid off by Joan’s father, oil millionaire Ash Robinson, who was never arrested due to a lack of evidence.
Today River Oaks is a quieter place. Mansion-lined River Oaks Boulevard is no longer home to some of Houston’s great personalities. Oscar and Lynn Wyatt, the oilman and couture queen whose marriage has always been the subject of River Oaks gossip, have moved off the Boulevard, as has Carolyn Farb. The gloriously egocentric Boulevard residents Baron Enrico “Ricky” diPortanova (an heir to the Hugh Roy Cullen fortune) and his wife, the Baroness Sandra, a local girl, recently died. Arriving in their place has been an assortment of what oil-money Houstonians disdainfully label as “new new money,” the dot-com millionaires and high-tech executives who like big houses and lots of toys but who, for better of worse, have yet to develop a flair for the dramatic.
In all fairness, no one ever expected the elegant Fayed Sarofim to develop such a flair either. But what heppened to Sarofim, who turns 72 next month, and his family turned into drama so sordid, so comic, and then so shockingly tragic that it seemed impossible to believe that it could really be happening. Indeed, for the past decade, Houston society has been atwitter and often aghast at the latest revelations regarding the Sarofims, ranging from Louisa’s record-setting $250 million divorce settlement from Fayez to his sudden marriage to Linda Hicks and her tumultuous arrival into Houston society, where she would get so drunk at black-tie charity balls that she had to be carried from ballrooms; to her scandalous divorce from Fayez and then her equally scandalous new marriage to a red-cheeked, innocuous-looking young felon named Mason Lowe, who had met Linda when they both happened to be patients at a psychiatric-treatment unit.
If that isn’t enough, the spectacle has produced a number of riveting sideshows, including alleged extortion plots, claims of false inprisonment, and charges of devious maneuvers by ruthless divorce lawyers hoping to obtain millions of Sarofim dollars for themselves. Sarofim’s eldest son, Christopher, a heretofore quiet, industrious executive in his father’s company, has even gotten into the act, staging a very public divorce fight of his own. Earlier this year he was caught having an affair with his wife’s close friend, the stepdaughter of former Houston mayor Bob Lanier. Christopher claimed that his wife, Valerie, one of Houston’s most charming blond party girls, was herself having affairs with such notables as an Olympic skier and a tennis pro, which Valerie hotly denied.
By the spring of this year, it was hard to imagine how the soap opera could get any more sensational. But in May, while climbing 19,380-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with her new husband, Mason Lowe, Linda, who was worth at least $30 million and possibly as much as $100 million as a result of her divorce settlement from Fayez, collapsed and died under questionable circumstances. “When I got the call that Linda was dead, I almost laughed at the irony of it all,” said her divore attorney, the flamboyant Earle Lilly, who had been accused of having a secret romantic relationship of his own with Linda. “What was a woman who smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, who constatly drank, and who had no nutritious diet doing on the upside of that mountain? It would be like me jumping through my sixth-floor office window without a parachute. I know in my brain that something was afoul.”
To the rich Houstonians who invest with him (a minumum of $5 million is required to open a personal account with Fayez Sarofim and Company), Sarofim continues to be known as the Sphinx. He spends most of his days at his office on the twenty-ninth floor of Two Houston Center, dressed as always in a tailored three-piece suit, silently smoking a cigar, his owlish face contemplative, as if he might never speak again but gradually turn into a monument. He rarely talks to the media except for select financial journalists, and his appearences on Houston’s social circuit are rare. His own close circle of friends remains tight-lipped about his life, and even his lawyer of thirty years would not speak to me on the record about the simplest of matters (such as Sarofim’s educational background).
What is known about him is that he can reel off the price-earnings ratio and earnings of dozens of companies he’s following. He knows their balance sheets down to the decimal point. His feel for the stock market, say other well-known money managers around the country, is as good as Warren Buffett’s, and major investors clearly agree. As of June, Sarofim and his staff of 21 principals and associates were managing $45.2 billion of other people’s money, much of that coming form a slew of pension funds (including those of Mobil, General Electric, and Ford) and from university endowments (including those of Houston’s own Rice University and the University of Houston). According to Forbes magazine, Sarofim is the richest man in Houston. His net worth, say insiders, is between $2 billion and $3 billion.
Yet what most fascinates Houstonians about such a man is not so much his money as why he would ever be drawn to Linda Hicks. To this day, River Oaks’ women—beautiful, vivacious, guileful, their skin as tight as a surgeon’s glove—scrutinize Fayed and Linda’s life together the way military analysts review horrific battles. They cannot understand what she did to captivate the great sphinx and take him away from his striking, dignified first wife. And they cannot undertsand why Linda impulsively decided to throw away her life with Sarofim and marry some unsophisticated boy, really, who had been convicted for the theft of $369,000 worth of computer parts from a Compaq computer plant. Here was a woman who had gained access to more wealth than she could ever have dreamed about, who became the chalataine of one of the greatest estates on River Oaks Boulevard—and who in the process perhaps destroyed herself. “I think everyone knows that money doesn’t make you happy,” says Houston attorney Donn Fullenweider, who worked on two of the Sarofim divorce cases. “What they don’t know is how sometimes money can make you so unhappy, which I think is exactly what happened here.”
After studying at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Business School, Sarofim took a position in Houston with Anderson, Clayton, a large cotton company, for $200 a week. One of his first Houston friends was Meredith Long, who would marry a Houston heiress (Cornelia Cullen) and open a prominent art gallery. When I asked Long if some of the more old-fashioned, Texas-born Houstonians initially had trouble accepting a young Egyptain in their midst, he said, “Some did; some didn’t. And those who did lost their chance to make a lot of money.”
For all his brilliance, it’s unlikely that Sarofim would have made his connections around Houston without the assistance of Louisa Stude, who is an amazing story in her own right. Louisa is Houston’s Little Orphan Annie. According to information that Louisa once provided to Houston author Marguerite Johnston, she and her little brother were put in orphanges as small children when her own mother became too ill to care for them and her father decided he could not handle them on his own. As Louisa’s mother lay dying in a hospital, a woman named Margarett Root Brown, who was unable to have children, heard about Louisa through friends and asked the little girl if she and her brother would like to stay with her. It so happened that Margarett’s husband was Herman Brown, the founding partner of Brown and Root, the megaconstruction company that is forever identified with the political career of Lyndon Johnson. Before long, Louisa and her brother, Mike (who now runs a Houston radio station), found themselves living on Inwood Drive in River Oaks. She became an Allegro debutante in 1956, went to Smith College in Massachusetts to study literature, and returned to Houston, where she immediately became an arts patron. (“You have to eat and breathe the arts,” she once said in a rare interview. “It’s a very important ingredient in everyday life.”) When people met her, it was hard for them to believe that she was not to the manner born. When she sat in 1956 for Robert Joy, an artist who painted Houston dignitaries, she wore a beige, laquered sheath, her honey-blond hair swept back, her arms folded, her expression reserved, slightly distant, with just a hint of a smile on her lips. She did not wear a single piece of jewelry. It was the classic portrait of a young woman of privelege.
Perhaps the refined Louisa was drawn to Fayez because he was so un-Texan—no boots, no oily knuckles, no Holstein-cowhide chairs in his office. In turn, Fayez had to appreciate Louisa’s ability to introduce him to the men of the legendary suite 8-F of the Lamar Hotel. Suite 8-F, leased by Louisa’s adoptive father, was the gathering spot for Houston’s powerbrokers of the era, everyone from Hugh Roy Cullen to Jesse Jones to Judge James Elkins. They came to drink, play cards, and cut deals. Herman Brown was so impressed with young Sarofim that he trusted him to invest the entire Brown and Root pension fund and later the money of the Brown Foundation.
When he got his chance, Sarofim performed. Except for a few brief periods in the early seventies and the early eighties, the investments of Fayez Sarofim and Company outperformed the Dow Jones industial average every year. From the end of 1983 until 1992, the firm did better than 94 percent of the nation’s other money-management firms, according to one study. Sarofim’s strategy was deceptively simple. He put his clients’ money into big blue-chip companies with strong franchise niches or well-known brand names. “He’d walk around grocery stores in his suit and ask people why they were buying something like Reynold’s Wrap instead of a cheaper kind of foil,” a Sarofim insider told me. “And they’d answer, ‘I don’t know, because it’s Reynold’s Wrap.’ Fayez realized that people would buy the brands just because they were brands.” He invested in companies that themselves were brand names, such as Time, Inc., Philip Morris, and Coca-Cola. He did make mistales: he stayed too long in energy stocks, and he missed the beginning of the technology boom. But this “buy-and-hold” brand-name strategy could not be faulted. “Most people have the idea of finding a needle in a haystack,” he once told a New York Times reporter. “I buy the haystack.”
Sarofim was unusual a business titan as Houston had ever seen. The hushed offices of Fayez Sarofim and Company looked more like a private museum than an investment firm. He had hired a full-time art curator, Mimi Kilgore, to care for the art at his company. The north hallway of the office alone contained a Robert Motherwell painting, a fourth-century female bust, a Coptic sculpture of a lion’s head, a nineteenth-century Native American blanket, and a twentieth-century Frank Stella sculpture. Sarofim’s personal office had more than sixty works of art, among them a Picasso and a Rothko to go along with his priceless El Greco.
Sarofim was such a formal man that he kept on his coat and tie even when he came home. His son Christopher has often told a story at dinner parties about the time the two of them went on a hunting trip years ago with some other River Oaks fathers and sons. True to form, the elder Sarofim wore a camouflage suit with camouflage tie, and he drove to the hunting lease in a Mercedes while the other fathers drove Suburbans or pickups. (Besides Christopher, who looks very much like his father, Sarofim and Louisa had one other child, Allison, a stunning brunette who now co-owns Vandam, a trendy Manhattan restaurant.)
If Fayez or Louisa were unhappy in their marriage, they kept it to themselves. Fayez spent much of his time focused on his company. Louisa had her own life as a major supporter of Houston’s ballet and art museums, and she became a protégé of Dominique de Menil’s, Houston’s preeminent modern art benefactor and the founder of the internationally renowned Menil Collection, the Houston museum. She was usually seen at museum shows and gallery openings with her closest friend, Mary Porter, whom she met in New York, and perdsuaded to move to Houston, where Porter was given a job as an executive at Fayed’s company.
Perhaps Fayez and Louisa’s life together lacked intimacy, but it did have elegance. Well, at least it did until about 1979. That’s when a 26-year-old woman named Linda Hicks, who has just separated from he husband, a former Vietnam helicopter pilot, took the elevator to Fayed Sarofim and Company to apply for a job.
She was an army brat, daughter of a career officer who lived everywhere from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She certianly had ambition, graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, marrying at seventeen, and then enrolling at the University of Alabama, double majoring in political science and English. After graduating from college, she moved to Mississippi, where her husband was stationed in the Air Force. But she stayed there only a short time before deciding she was tired of him. In her Ford Granada, she drove to Houston with her three-year-old son to start a new life, got a small apartment, and landed an entry-level job as a clerk at Sarofim’s office.
After nine years of marriage, Linda was clearly ready to live it up. Although she was not someone whom a stranger would be inclined to describe as beautiful, she was feisty, the kind of young woman who knew how to hold a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. She also seemed to have two primary emotions: hot and bothered. One woman who knew her during those years said that Linda enjoyed “visiting” on her lunch breaks in her car with a couple of the male Ivy league staffers Fayez had hired to work for him.
It was hard to imagine that the boss would find Linda appealing. According to one story told by Sarofim insiders, he got to know Linda when he put up a notice in the office that he was looking for a baby-sitter. Linda volunteered in part because he was paying a whopping $25 an hour for two hours of work every night. But it wasn’t long before she became more than a baby-sitter. In 1981, Linda said later in a legal deposition, she and Fayez began meeting at a downtown hotel to have sex. “I think what might have drawn Fayez to Linda was that she didn’t kiss his ass,” said someone who knew both of them well. “She flirted with him. She talked to him like he was a real man. You know the story.”
For Linda, this was the affair of a lifetime, a chance for her to be somebody other than the divorcée of a helicopter pilot. There was no doubt Linda had felt a need to bolster her pedigree. When she came to Houston, she told people that she had a graduate degree in English from a Mississippi university. (A registrar from that university said Linda had been enrolled there for only a couple of months.) Obviously, she saw her relationship with Fayez as something akin to a job promotion. In a later deposition, she claimed that Fayez had wanted her to come with him to business meetings because “he just wanted me to listen… just to kind of size people up.”
Those who knew Fayez chortle at the idea that he saw Linda as a professional asset. They assumed his affair with her was only a temporary, meaningless dalliance. In fact, by 1983, the relationship seemed to have fallen apart. A furious Linda filed a lawsuit claiming Sarofim had “knowingly and intentionally assaulted her” and that the company helped cover up what he had done. She later described the assault as “rape” that led to a pregnancy, which she had aborted. Fayez’s attorneys heatedly denied Linda’s claim, but soon they arranged an out-of-court settlement in which Fayez gave Linda and her lawyer $460,000 to be divided 60 percent to Linda and 40 percent to her lawyer in return for dropping the suit. Fayex had escaped a potentially embarrassing situation, but to his friends’ astonishment, he then reconciled with Linda, and they resumed their affair. Had Linda forgiven him for whatever he had done to her? Or, as many people thought, had he forgiven Linda for perhaps making up the assault story? It was no secret that Linda could be unpredictable, especially when she drank. Yet, for some reason, Fayez remained enchanted by her unpredictability.
She stopped working at Fayez Sarofim and Company and moved into a house he bought her just outside River Oaks. Fayez had paintings sent over from Meredith Long’s gallery to put on the walls. As opposed to Fayez’s wife, who hated any sign of ostentatiousness—when Louisa saw a two-seater Mercedes that she liked, she bought a used one because she thought a new Mecedes would make her look nouveau riche—Linda relished the flashy lifestyle. She used Fayed’s money to buy a Jaguar. She became a regular at Neiman Marcus, and at one Galanos trunk show, she bought almost every dress offered for sale.
By 1984 she was pregnant again, and this time she had the child—a son named Andrew. Linda testified later that her ex-husband had called Sarofim demanding $250,000 to keep quiet about the pregnancy. It is unknown whether the threat was ever made—or if any money exchanged hands—but Fayez was able to keep news of his second family quiet, a remarkable feat in the gossipy world of upper-crust Houston.
All that changed when Linda had a second son with Fayez, Phillip, in 1986. In fact, birth announcements for a Phillip Sarofim were sent anonymously to parents of students at St. John’s, a prestigious Houston private school that the two children from Fayez’s first family had attended. River Oaks being what it is, some speculated that Linda had spread the glad tidings. Years later, when asked about the event by lawyers, she denied that she had anything to do with the announcement and said Louisa was the culprit. Yet it is hard to find anyone who believes the very discreet Louisa would do anything to cause embarrassment to her own children. In fact, Louisa has told many of her friends that she too recieved a birth announcement, which is what finally made her suspicious that Fayez was having an affair. (One person close to her told me, “I think she was the last person in Houston to know about Fayez’s second family.”)
But for reasons of her own, Louisa stayed in the marriage. The affair continued between Fayez and Linda, and it got stranger and stranger. In 1989 Linda had another son, and yet this son didn’t have Fayez’s swarthy features. Linda later admitted in a deposition that the boy was not sired by Fayez but by another Houston man with whom she had been having an affair. Nevertheless, Fayez was so committed to keeping Linda and his second family intact that he took legal action to make the child his own, then he and Linda’s lawyers created an extrordinary document called a cohabitation agreement that offered Linda $7,500 a week tax free to remain his mistress.
By then, the gossip about Fayez and Linda was raging throughout Houston. They had been seen at Tony’s restaurant, the exorbitantly priced hangout for Houston’s millionaires. A society columnist was confronted by a woman in the restroom at a charity fundraiser, the Cattle Barons’ Ball, and asked why she didn’t write the real story about Sarofim.
Louisa finally decided she had to act. One reliable source connected to the family says Louisa told Fayez she would stay in the marriage if he would move Linda and her boys off Texas soil. He did not. It was hard to believe, but Sarofim seemed to be in love.
Louisa filed for divorce, using one of Houston’s most feared divorce attorneys, Donn Fullenweider, who was often hired for big-money split-ups. (He had represented Cullen Davis of Fort Worth, then one of the richest men in Texas, when Davis was divorcing the very wife whom he had been accused of trying to murder.) As Louisa wished, Fullenweider kept everything out of a public courtroom, but the $250 million settlement he negotiated turned Louisa from a very rich woman into an extraordinarily rich woman. (“Think of the money Fayez would have saved if he had just moved Linda and the boys off Texas soil,” a friend of Louisa’s said.)
The divorce was final in June 1990, and soon the lawyers drew up a new contract for Linda titled “Agreement in Contemplation of Marriage,” in which Fayed agreed to pay her $8 million if she’d marry him ($2 million within six months of the wedding date, then $2 million a year for the next three years) and in which he also agreed to pay her, if they ever divorced, $1 million a year for every year they were married. Their surprise marriage in September 1990 was the Houston equivalent of the Duke of Windsor marrying the cigarette-wielding commoner, Wallis Simpson. Fayez threw a coming-out party for Linda, inviting more than 150 of his friends. An orchestra played Frank Sinatra tunes while platoons of waiters poured expensive wine. “We sat and stared at Linda,” said one woman who was there. “It was the kind of dinner where no one ate because everyone was watching her.”
According to various friends, Fayez married Linda to make the three boys legitimate. “I think he also wanted to always be able to watch over the boys,” said one friend, “especially if Linda went on one of her drinking binges.” No one believed the marriage would last long. In fact, within a year of the wedding, word spread that Linda had already called the two great pit bulls of the Houston divorce profession, partners Robert Piro and Earle Lilly. She had told the lawyers she was furious that Sarofim had had her admitted into a detox facility. The two lawyers quickly filed a divorce petition, but then, in typical fashion, Linda and Fayez reconciled and the petition was withdrawn. It happened so quickly that Houston reporters covering the courthouse never learned about it.
Meanwhile, Linda drank—and drank. Some people who got to know Linda assumed she drank at parties because it helped her feel more comfortable around socialites who knew Louisa and who perhaps thought Linda was of lesser caliber. Her drunken shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus became the stuff of myth. “She would literally drop $100,000 in a day at Neiman’s,” said one person who accompanied her to the store more than once, “then she’d come home with all this merchandise and never wear it again.” At society events, people started keeping one eye on her just to see what she might do. At a party to benefit the Nature Conservancy, right in the presence of Fayez, she stuck her tongue in the ear of a gay waiter. At a ball for Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, she arrived having forgotten to brush her hair after she had pulled out the curlers. With a drink in her hand, she staggered between the tables, her hair Medusa-like, before she became too inebriated to walk any longer.
Fayez kept trying to make her happy. He purchased one of the most spectacular estates on River Oaks Boulevard, the Regency-style, 22,000-square-foot mansion built in 1938 by John F. Staub, Houston’s greatest residential architect. The popular interior designer Richard Holley was hired to renovate the home, and at least $15 million worth of paintings and sculptures were brought in, including works by Winslow Homer, Donald Sultan, and John Singer Sargetn, whose Portrait of Two Children, worth an estimated $1.75 million, was the centerpiece of the living room.
Fayez would take Linda and the boys to the Ritz in Paris and Claridge’s in London. On the trips, Linda usually brought along the three single Houston men she adored and who did business with her—her interior designer Holley; her caterer, Jackson Hicks; and jeweler John Walzel. For his own companionship, Sarofim often brought along his two running buddies, Meredith Long, the art dealer, and a wisecracking investor named Morty Cohn, who had also married a Houston heiress, the daughter of oil and land titan R.E. “Bob” Smith.
But as time passed, it seemed as if Linda had been happier being a mistress who led a kept woman’s life rather than being the new Mrs. Sarofim. She never became a patroness: She made no huge gifts to the arts or to hospitals. Some women, trying to become friends with her, took her to lunch, but she would say little. Conversing with her was like getting damp logs to burn. “Here she was, wearing a kings’ ransom in jewels, wearing the most expensive clothes money can buy, and she was enjoying none of it,” one person who knew her said. “It didn’t matter how wonderful the item was or what the price tag was, she never allowed herself to express any joy, and you wondered, ‘Why?'”
By 1995 her alcoholism was full-blown. She was also driving from one River Oaks-area drugstore to another, filling Valium prescriptions. She didn’t seem to be able to take care of her children without the help of nannies, maids, and security guards. She had her driver or the driver’s son take the boys to Houston Rockets’ basketball games. A psychiatrist who came to see her later testified, “All she did was sit at home, drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and watch TV and send the maid out occasionally for videos.” Some employees of the house later gave affadavits in which they said they were fearful for the children one evening after Linda drank large amounts of Chivas Regal and Seagram’s VO, woke up the children, and began screaming obscenities at them.
Fayez would get home in he early evenings, remaining in a suit and tie as he always did, and read financial reports as the kids played around him. At six-thirty, he and the boys watched Wheel of Fortune, his favorite television show. “It was his way of relaxing, trying to get the words before the contestants did,” said a friend. “He’d study the television screen and then he’d get the puzzle and then you’d hear him suddenly blurt out in that deep voicce ‘Cannonball Run!'”
But he surely had to realize it was all coming apart. On a 1995 family vacation to Italy (Linda, as usual, was accompanied by her male friends, and Fayez had brought along art dealer Long), Linda went into a rage after having had too much to drink at dinner, screaming at Fayez, telling him to get into his private Falcon 900 jet and go back to Houston. For once, he did. When he arrived, he was informed by his attorney that Linda had been on the phone from Italy with her attorneys, Piro and Lilly, and that another divorce petition was being filed.
Away from the courtroom, Boston-area natives Piro and Lilly are full of charm and funny stories. But once a case begins, they occasionally are described as “the biggest sons of bitches in town.” They are masters at the language of blame, brilliantly able to torment one spouse at the beheast of the other—and their lawsuit against Fayez was no exception. They claimed that he had treated Linda with “extreme cruelty, including abusive sexual behavior,” and that he was guilty of assault and false inprisonment, intentionally incarcerating her in “one or more institutions” and even keeping her confined behind the locked doors of their River Oaks mansion.
Piro and Lilly, who had worked with Carolyn Farb to break her prenuptual contract, told me that Linda had ordered them to get $250 million out of Fayez, the same amount Louisa had recieved, and that she wanted Fayez humiliated. They told her they’d take her case for a non-refundable $50,000 retainer, plus Lilly’s $450-an-hour fee to work on the custody fight over the kids, plus expenses for experts and private investigators and other legal research, plus a contingency fee of 20 percent of any money or property they could get her beyond what was called for in the prenuptual agreement she had signed.
It was unheard of, some lawyers would say later, to charge a full hourly fee and a contigency fee to a client in a divorce case. But at the time, Linda didn’t complain, in part because she became convinced that Lilly was falling in love with her. Indeed, not long after Piro and Lilly took the case, the Houston rumor mill began churning yet again. Lilly was seen at dinners and parties with Linda. He was often at her house. She said that he had bought her a ring and an expensive bottle of perfume and that the two of them were planning to take a trip on the Queen Elizabeth II before the finalization for her divorce from Fayez. To show her devotion to Lilly, she bought him an Hermès briefcase (which he later returned, getting $4,300 in credit) and she purchased a $10,000 dress at Neiman’s, saying she was going to wear it at her wedding. She rewrote her will and made Lilly the trustee of her estate, which would not only give him the authority to make spending decisions on parts of her estate but would pay him a nice hourly rate as the attorney to make those decisions. Had the two of them fallen in love? Had Lilly, who was admittedly suffering from gambling debts, realized that Linda could be his meal ticket to prosperity? Or, as other lawyers would suggest, was Lilly acting romantic with her to allay any suspicions that he and Piro were about to take her to the cleaners with the fees they were charging her?
Before Piro and Lilly had the chance to attack the prenuptial agreement in court, Fayez said he wanted to settle. In November 1996 he agreed to give Linda a $12 million lump sum payment, allow her to maintain residence in the River Oaks Boulevard mansion (he moved back to another River Oaks mansion he owned and had never gotten around to selling), and pay her about $960,000 a year tax-free for the rest of her life. Not a bad deal for Sarofim, who according to one estimate had made $1 billion in income between 1990 and 1995. But it wasn’t a bad deal for Piro and Lilly either. On the day the $12 million check was handed over, Piro and Lilly took half of it for what they said was a down payment on their contigency fees—$3 million for Piro, $3 million for Lilly. They also took more than $400,000 from Linda for Lilly’s fees and for the firm’s expenses, for a total of almost $6.5 million. Linda couldn’t say she was walking away poor: Depending on which expert one belieevd, Piro and Lilly got Linda either $16 million or $37 million more than what her prenuptual called for. Yet what was outrageous to some legal experts who studied the case was that Piro and Lilly had based their 20 percent contingency on a $56 million figure that included the value of all the separate property that Linda had recieved from Fayez during their marriage. In fact, Lilly and piro later claimed that in addition to the $6.5 million they had already collected, Linda still owed them approximately $8 million.
To no one’s surprise, Linda and Lilly’s romantic relationship, if that’s what it was, didn’t last long. Linda later said that on the night the divorce was finalized, they went to Tony’s drank a bottle of Cristal champagne and then finally consummated their relationship at her home. The next morning, she said, he had her buy a $130,000 Mercedes as a bonus for the work he had done on her case. They later went to Acapulco and then to an art auction at Christie’s in new York. Lilly says nothing untoward happened on those trips. He swears they never once had sex. “I think Linda believed she could have anything she wanted, including me,” he told me. “She looked at me as another property she could have.”
By early 1997 Lilly was not returning Linda’s phone calls, and she was losing control. She would leave vitriolic drunken messages on Lilly’s answering machine, some of them comical (“I’m your worst nightmare. I am rich white trash!”) and others frightening (“Get right over here or I’m going to burn your f—ing house down, and I will be praising Allah in the front yard”) and others pathetic (“Call me tonight or I am going to slit my wrists”). On Valentine’s Day, 1997, he apparently stood her up on a dinner date, and she went on a binge. Five days later, on February 19, Linda was taken to St. Joseph’s hospital with a lethal blood-alcohol level of .365. Her mother, Ms. Arthur A. Olson, who had moved to Houston a few years after Linda did, had signed papers to have Linda admitted to the hospital’s Behavioral Medicine Unit. She was stabilized and remained there for six days. When she got out, the 43-year-old Linda was saying she was already in love again with a new man.
His name was Mason Lowe. and he had voluntarily admitted himself into the Behavioral Medicine Unit for undisclosed reasons. (Lowe would not comment for this story.) He was a big guy, six foot two and two hundred pounds, just days away from his twenty-sixth birthday. He had grown up in Houston, dropped out of Cypress-Fairbanks High School, then joined the Navy in 1989; he was stationed on the U.S.S. Tortuga and progressed to “electronic warfare technician, third class.” According to information obtained in an open records request, Mason qualified for Navy Seal training, but he never joined the Seals, leaving the Navy with an honorable discharge in 1993.
When he returned to Houston, he took a job as a security guard for $6 an hour, working at a Compaq Computer manufacturnig plant. A parole officer would later write in a report that Lowe had admitted to having a drinking problem that started in the Navy, when he drank every night until he was inebriated. He was arrested in 1993 in Houston for public intoxication and the next year on a charge of driving while intoxicated. In 1994 he was arrested for stealing computers and parts from the Compaq plant (at least 250 microprocessors and 366 hard drive) and selling them. He used the money he recieved, approximately $160,000, to get a taste of the good life. Compaq’s manager of security, who did an investigation of the case, said Mason bought two Rolex watches, guns, suits, furnishings for his apartment, a surround-sound stereo, and entertainment at men’s clubs. In a March 1995 plea bargain, he was given a ten-year deferred adjudicationn with the stipulation that he had to pay back $200,000 in restitution in $500 monthly increments.
Mason took a job at the Bookstop, earning $.75 an hour—hardly the kind of money that would allow him to keep up his restitution. In a letter to the judge overseeing his theft case, he wrote that his experience on the job made him want to go into the counseling profession. “I enjoy working at Bookstop because I can see what people are going through in their life through the books they buy,” he wrote. “It makes me feel good when a customer can see that I care that their husband is beating them, they are looking for a job, their wife is cheating on them, or that they are trying to get pregnant.”
But instead of becoming a counselor, he eventually decided he needed counseling himself. (According to Linda’s court testimony, he has “extreme highs and extreme lows.”) He checked into St. Joseph’s Hospital, and there was his angel of mercy. It was like the construction worker Larrt Fortensky meeting Elizabeth Taylor at the Betty Ford Center. On April 21, 1997, two months after they had met, Linda Sarofim and Mason Lowe were married in a quick civil ceremony at the townhouse of the Reverend Don Ramey, the self-proclaimed “wedding preacher” of Houston, who lit candles in his living room and played a Victoria’s Secret classical music album to create a more romantic environment for the bride and groom. Then Linda and Mason returned to the River Oaks Boulevard mansion to live out the rest of their day.
Regardless of whatever psychological problems he might have been having, Mason was a quick study when it came to being a millionaire. He began driving a Bentley (a present from Linda) and started buying expensive suits from Neiman Marcus. He studied fine wines (“A security guard turned vintage wine expert,” sniffed one man who met him soon after the marriage), and he strolled through the art gallery of Fayez’s old friend Meredith Long, looking at pictures. But the art that most impressed Mason were the realistic sculptures, often seen at hotels, of people sitting on benches or reading newspapers. Mason obtained a sculpture of a police officer blowing his whistle, with his hand held up in the stop position, and he put it right by the front gate of the River Oaks Boulevard home—horrifying some of the neighbors.
Soon, stories about Mason were spreading through the society grapevine. Linda’s old friends—her interior designer, jeweler, and caterer—openly were telling people that Mason had persuaded Linda not to socialize with them anymore. Linda’s mother also thought Mason kept them apart. “She married an evil person,” she told me. “I was not allowed to speak to Linda on the telephone. There was a security guard at the home twenty-four hours a day who wouldn’t let me in.”
Yet there is no evidence that Linda complained about Mason during their first year of marriage. In fact, she seemed to enjoy him. They took many vacations together, including a boat ride down the Amazon. Back in Houston, she took him to the Houston Grand Opera Ball and didn’t make a single drunken scene. Although she did have Mason sign a prenuptual contract in which, in case of divorce, he could not claim any of her money or property she has obtained before their marriage, she did change her will to make Mason the trustee and executor of her estate.
In some ways, Linda was getting her life back together. She hired Michael Phillips, an aggressive attorney in the mostly blue-collar outlying town of Angleton, and asked him to sue Piro and Lilly for fraudulently overcharging her. A jury ruled that Piro and Lilly’s fee structure was a clear breach of fiduciary duty on the part of two lawyers who presumably saw a chance to take advantage of a very rich but very alcoholic woman. (Linda had testified that she was inebriated the day she was handed a letter agreeing to the fee structure and that she didn’t even know what she was signing.) The jury ordered Piro and Lilly to return $6.3 million fo the $6.5 million they recieved. A judge lowered the jury’s award to $3,625,479 but wrote a scathing denunciation of the attorneys.
Linda might have been gaining a better public reputation, but what was happening behind the closed doors of her River Oaks Boulevard mansion? One known incident occured in March 1998, when Mason called for an ambulance, saying Linda had been on a three-day alcoholic binge and had fallen. According to notes written by a nurse at a hospital examining room, Linda had multiple bruises. Mason was asked to step out of the room, after which Linda was asked if anyone had been battering her. The nurses wrote about her responses to the questions: “Denies. Appears scared. Refuses to answer further questions.” When asked, Mason also denied she had been battered.
A few months later a Houston society columnist and a Houston realtor received phone calls from a Honolulu realtor, asking if they had heard of a Mason Lowe. As it turned out, Mason and Linda did purchase an expensive piece of property on the north side of the island of Oahu, and they had plans to build a $15 million mansion, which Linda said she would be paying for out of her own stock market accounts. One person who knew about the purchase of the property told me that Mason pushed for the move (in Hawaii, the River Oaks gossips wouldn’t be around to talk behind his back), and Linda had agreed to it because a beautiful house on the beach might be a place that would lure her sons, and perhaps they’d spend more time with her.
In the late summer of 1999, cars, clothes, furnishings, and more than one hundred paintings were shipped out of the River Oaks home. Meanwhile, Fayez bought the former Claire Boothe Luce estate on Oahu, a thirty-minute drive from Linda’s property, apparently because he realized that he would need a place to stay when he brought the boys to visit Linda and Mason. Despite everything she had put him through, Fayez remained generous to her. He let Linda and Mason stay at his Hawaii estate while their home was being constructed. When Linda and Mason were in Houston, he invited them to his house for dinner. Either he had decided to let bygones be bygones, or he felt he ought to keep his eye on the couple.
But then Linda soured on Hawaii. One person who visited them there was under the impression that Linda was angry with Mason and also angry that she was separated from her boys. According to this source, Linda was heard to bellow at Mason, “You’ve separated me from my children.” Suddenly, the Hawaii property was up for sale. The asking price was in excess of $4 million (no construction had begun, although some $5 million in specialty material for the new home reportedly had been bought and put in storage.) Around the same time, Linda and Mason bought a $2 million condo in Vancouver, Canada.
Canada? Why would Linda want to live outside the U.S. in a place where she would be isolated from anyone but Mason? And why live in a condo? She had pieces of art that cost almost as much as that condo. The few people who knew about the sale of the Hawaii and the purchase of the Vancouver condo were baffled. And almost immediately another rumor began to run through Houston circles. According to the rumor, Linda was thinking about divorcing Mason. She had grown tired of him and had decided that Canada would be a good place to get a divorce quietly and not have to endure another round of negative headlines.
If that was indeed her intention, she did nothing about it before the last, fateful trip she took with Mason. In May they flew from Hawaii to Houston, where they spent a few days before flying to London and then on to Africa for a six-day climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was a $1,000-a-day Abercrombie and Kent guided tour, and because it was the off-season, Linda and Mason were the only customers on that trek, accompanied by two guides who spoke some English and ten African tent bearers. Linda was hardly in physical condition to climb a 19,380-foot mountain, especially considering her history of smoking and drinking. Yet those who saw her in Houston said she was excited. She said she had been training for Africa by taking ballroom dance lessons. Worried about Linda’s stamina, her lawyer, Michael Phillips, asked Linda and Mason if they wanted to take his portable satellite phone in case they ran into trouble. They declined.
According to a lawyer familiar with the case, two days into the climb Linda was having trouble breathing. But the group pushed on. On the third day she was having trouble walking, and tent bearers carried her to the campsite where they were to stay for the night. Her breathing problems intensified, and the next day the decision was made to carry her back down the mountain, strapped to the back of a tent bearer. She asphyxiated and died before she reached base camp.
Mason left Linda’s body in Africa to be autopsied, and he returned to Houston through Paris, which caused some consternation among the Sarofim acquaintances. Why would a husband leave his dead wife alone in a foreign country? Back in Africa the autopsy concluded that Linda had died of altitude sickness. An Abercrombie and Kent spokesman admitted that climbers on Mount Kilimanjaro do get altitude sickness but that they usually do not die from it.
Linda’s funeral was held a Christ Church Cathedral, in downtown Houston. The priest gave the standard Episcopal funeral service, with little personal reference to Linda. About a hundred people came, including the three men who had once been Linda’s traveling companions and several employees from Neiman Marcus. Mason and Fayez sat in the front row. Between them were Linda’s grown son from her first marriage and the three younger sons of Linda and Fayez. A solemn Mason kept his head lowered throughout the funeral. Fayez seemed distraught, with beads of perspiration clinging to his face. After the funeral, in a rare public show of emotion, he confronted one of Linda’s female friends from Neiman’s, apparently confusing her for a travel agent, and heatedly asked if she had anything to do with booking Linda’s trip to Africa. “What’s amazing is you could still tell Fayez loved Linda,” said a man who was there. “That could be the biggest mystery of all.”
What only a handful of other mourners knew was that another autopsy had been performed on Linda’s body just before the funeral. Houston pathologist Paul B. Radelat, the chief of pathology at Christus St. Catherine Hospital in Katy, had done the autopsy at the request of Michael Phillips, the attorney representing the estate of Linda Lowe. Radelat later told me he was able to do a thorough autopsy, in spite of the loss of several organs—they had been removed in the earlier autopsy in Africa—and he assessed that he couldn’t be specific about what he had learned because he was only supposed to release the report to the lawyer. He did say, however, that he believed Linda died of altitude sickness and that there was no foul play.
A few days later I called Radelat back and asked about another rumor I had heard. “Did you notice if she had pneumonia?” I asked.
“She did have pneumonia,” he said. “She had extensive pneumonia.” He added that high-altitude sickness, which is caused by what he described as “an outpouring of fluid into the lung tissues,” would have made it far easier for the pneumonia to spread quickly through Linda’s lungs.
“So why was an out-of-shape woman heading up into high altitudes if she had pneumonia?” I asked.
“It’s possible she didn’t know she had pneumonia” Redelat replied. “It might have come on very quickly . . . I do not think, based on the totality of the evidence, that Linda Lowe’s altitude sickness was induced by anything other than high altitude.”
Nevertheless, there were many questions being asked by her friends. If Linda had been showing any signs of ill health—a cough, a fever, a cold—why was she allowed to go up that mountain? And why, if the best way to have saved her life according to Radelat was to have gotten her down from the mountain quickly and given her oxygen and competant medical care, did she spend an extra night up there? Why didn’t someone at least order oxygen to be raced up the mountain to her?
And there was even more controversy after Linda’s death. After the funeral Lilly filed a lawsuit asking a judge to throw out Linda’s second will, which named Mason as executor and partial benefactor of her estate, and to replace it with the first will, which had named Lilly as executor. Lilly’s critics said the attorney had filed the lawsuit because he believed Mason helped mastermind Linda’s lawsuit against him and Piro, and he wanted revenge. But Lilly said he only wanted to protect the financial interests of Linda’s sons.
According to the new will she had signed, the estate would be split five ways among Linda’s four sons and Mason. If Linda’s estate,—money, jewels, art, and property—was worth $100 million, as Piro and Lilly believed, 55 percent of that would go to pay inheritance taxes, leaving the five heirs to split $45 million. (Mason would also get to keep the Vancouver condo and any paintings the pair had collected during their marriage.) If Linda’s first will were reinstated, Mason, whom Linda did not know at that time, would get nothing.
The stage appeared set for yet another chapter of the Sarofim saga. But in late July a settlement between the various parties was negotiated by Fayez’s attorney Richard Keeton. Fayez was going to take over as executor of Linda’s estate and also serve as trustee over the trusts that her estate had created for her four sons. Mason would give up his titles as executor and trustee of the estate, but he would still get his fifth of the estate. Meanwhile, Piro and Lilly had agreed to drop their legal attempts to keep Mason from getting any money at all. It was easy to speculate why Fayez wanted the deal: As trustee and executor of the boys’ trusts, he could get Mason out of their lives forever. But why would Piro and Lilly be so willing to end the fight against the felon they dispise? Piro told me that by going along with Sarofim’s desire to settle, they might be able to persuade him later, as the executor of Linda’s estate, to reach a settlement concerning the $3.6 million they still owe after losing their lawsuit. Just in case Sarofim still fights them, they’re ready to plead poverty. Lilly has filed for bankruptcy, saying in an affadavit that he is worth only $400,000. In a complicated estate-planning maneuver, Piro’s own wife sued him to clarify which assets were her separate property. As a result, Piro has been able to claim in an affadavit of his own that he is worth only $470,000. Just like that, the $6.5 million they recieved from Linda has disappeared.
As autumn arrived and the Houston social season returned, the talk was still about the Sarofins. It was being said that the great Sphinx was ready to give up the reins. The Wall Street Journal had even reported that Fayez Sarofim and Company was up for sale (company officials would not comment). There were also reports that Fayez had bought a huge ranch in Cody, Wyoming, no doubt to be a refuge for him and his children when they wished to make periodic escapes from Houston.
As for Louisa, she has become the president of the board of the prestigious Menil Foundation, which operates the Menil Collection museum. Yet she remained, as always, rarely seen, her weekends often spent in Santa Fe. Houston Chronicle columnist Maxine Mesinger reported in September that Fayez and Louisa’s son, Christopher, and Courtney Lanier, the former close friend of hs former wife’s were planning to marry. To just about everyone’s relief, Christopher and Valerie’s divorce was settled this past spring, right before opening arguments. It was reported that Valerie got $13 million, a house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and joint custody of their daughter. Christopher’s lawyer was Donn Fullenweider, the man who had represented Christopher’s mother in her divorce from Fayez. Valerie’s lawyers were, of all people, Piro and Lilly. Despite the negative publicity they have received over the past year—they are also the subjects of a State Bar investigation—business is stil booming. Both have even raised their rates from $450 to $500 an hour.
And what of the mysterious Mason Lowe? Although he has his condo in Vancouver, the newly minted millionaire has remained in Houston, staying at the Four Seasons downtown. I spent days just trying to get a look at him and finally ran across him outside a probate courtroom, where a brief, rather inconsequential hearing was being held regarding Linda’s estate. He was in a dark suit and dark, thin glasses, his large head topped by a sparse crop of dry, dark hair. He took note of everyone who walked past him. In some ways, he projected the wary watchfulness of a crane that was ready to fly at the first sign of danger.
I walked up to him. “Mason?” I sad.
He looked at me, then turned quickly away.
“Mason Lowe?” I said again.
Finally, he turned back around. “No,” he said, “I’m not Mason Lowe.” And with startling abruptness, he slipped into the courtroom and took a seat on the back row next to his lawyers, refusing to look at me again.
Fayez has not moved back into the great mansion on River Oaks Boulevard, nor is it clear if he ever will. Yet he still hires gardeners to come to the home every day to sweep leaves off the manicured lawn, and inside are maids dusting furniture.
I got out of the car and stood by the locked gate, looking for some sign of life. Around the corner of the house a man appeared, walking directly toward me. But then he picked up some hedge clippers from the ground, turned his attention toward a bush, and snipped at a few stray branches.