Houston, Texas. A rainy night in January. Shortly before 7pm, limos start to block the entrance to the Corinthian ballroom. Some of the best dressed women in Texas, accompanied by rather less flamboyant men in tuxedos, step out of the cars, into the beautifully restored building, and up the marble stairs, to take part in tonight’s Winter Ball, one of the most important events in Houston’s social calendar.
At the top of the stairs, they are greeted by a line of white-jacketed waiters, press photographers and cameramen from Channel 13, whose coverage of tonight’s event will be aired the following Sunday. Each taking a flute of ice-cold champagne, they wander through the hall past tables laden with items for auction: candlesticks encrusted with Swarovski crystals; made-to-measure suits from Saks Fifth Avenue; a vast Texan barbecue; and an inscribed copy of former president George Bush’s book, All the Best, which though listed as “priceless” has attracted an opening bid of $100.
Around the room, hanging from a vast drape, are 12 portraits of Houstonian “Professional Women of Distinction”. The purpose of tonight’s event is to honour these individuals for their contribution to public life, notably to charities and the arts, and, in doing so, to raise money for yet another charity.
Since the late Eighties, some 150 Houstonian women have been honoured at the Winter Ball. One, Pat Breen, is here tonight, looking splendid in a black Oscar de la Renta number. Pat, who is a trustee of Houston’s world-class ballet company, and who chaired the glittering opening of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, won last year’s top award. What was it like, I ask, to walk down the stairs and acknowledge the applause of the onlookers? “It was,” she concedes with a modest smile, “a little nerve-wracking.”
Tonight’s winners, likewise, look more than a little nervous. But why has Harpers come to Houston to watch this event? Because, though you might not realise it immediately, these “women of distinction” are rather more important than their counterparts elsewhere. Considering their close ties to power, events like tonight’s – on the face of it mere fundraisers – should actually be seen as networking opportunities that could have an effect upon, for instance, whether or not the US goes to war with Iraq.
To understand this extraordinary claim, it is necessary to consider Houston’s unique status. Though only the fourth largest city in the US, it is the energy capital of the globe. Drive east from downtown, and you hit the refineries, stretching for mile after mile towards the Gulf of Mexico: this tells you all you need to know about how Houston turned into a world-class city.
Put it this way: if the principal export of Iraq were broccoli, it is unlikely that the US would be bothering Saddam Hussein. By the same token, if Houston didn’t have oil, it is unlikely that it would have attracted visits from so many political leaders. Can Sheffield, fourth-largest city in England, claim to have recently hosted Jiang Zemin and Vladimir Putin, leaders of two of the five nations with permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council? Houston can. The city has fantastic shopping, excellent hotels, and medical facilities that are second-to-none. Its cultural credentials include a resident symphony orchestra, opera and ballet companies, and major museums. It has played a prime role in space research (the first word spoken on the moon was “Houston”). But more important than any of this are the city’s political links.
The American historian Michael Lind recently highlighted Houston’s political influence in his book Made In Texas: George W Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. Lind gives little account of Houston’s social scene. But perhaps he should have done, because the grandes dames of Houston are astoundingly well connected, as proven in a comment one of them made to me. She confided that the early public appearances of President George W Bush made her “tremble” with anxiety. So she spoke to his people. “I said to one of them, ‘He has got to lose the smirk.’“
George W Bush’s links to Houston go back a long way: he went to school here, and lived as a young man at Chateaux Dijon, a large apartment complex near the glitzy Galleria shopping mall. His younger brother, Neil, father of the model Lauren Bush, still lives in Houston. And the former president, Bush Snr, lives here with his wife, Barbara, whose own charitable activities include unmissable fixtures on the city’s social calendar. (The man beside me at the Corinthian ballroom said it was at one of her events, promoting literacy, that he met John Major, the former British prime minister. “A good-looking guy!” he said, somewhat to my surprise.)
Only slightly less influential than the president are Houston’s political and business leaders. Of these, the foremost is James Baker, former secretary of state and treasury secretary to presidents Reagan and Bush Snr, and a close friend of the latter for four decades. The James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy, which he chairs, routinely draws world leaders to Houston; and his law firm, Baker Botts, is helping US oil companies in the Caspian and Afghanistan. Like John Major, Baker is on the board of the Carlyle Group, which employs the former president Bush as a senior consultant, and invests in defence, enjoying ties with, among others, some of the estranged relatives of Osama bin Laden.
Until the collapse of Enron, one of the most powerful Houstonians was Ken Lay, the disgraced former chairman. He co-chaired Barbara Bush’s literacy foundation. After the Gulf War, he hired both Robert Mosbacher, a friend of Bush and former secretary of commerce, and James Baker as consultants (Baker’s first efforts included securing contracts for Enron in the Middle East). Enron supplied a plane to Dubya, enabling him to fly across the US, campaigning for the presidency. And when vice president Dick Cheney was drawing up his energy policy, he consulted Enron extensively.
Cheney, for his part, was until August 2000 chairman and chief executive of Halliburton, a Houston-based, oil-related company (his retirement package from the company ran to an estimated $20 million, and was approved by the board on the same day that he was confirmed as vice-presidential candidate); national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had an oil tanker named after her for services to Chevron (she was a company director for to years); and William S Farish, scion of the Houston family that built Exxon, is US ambassador to London. In short, as The New York Times put it last year, “Texas is hotter than ever – and we’re not talking about the weather.”
And the hottest people in Texas, it turns out, are the socialites: the women who draw up the guest lists and the seating plans in such a way that their somewhat less socially accomplished husbands have access to the people who count, such as the US president, the Prince of Wales, or those in control of the world’s oilfields. They are social butterflies, fluttering from one group to another and, in the process, cross-pollinating the various strands of influence and power.
The most celebrated of these women would, until not long ago, have included the late Dominique de Menil. She inherited an oil fortune, used it to build the prestigious Menil Art Collection, and established, with former president Jimmy Carter, the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation. Another, Joanne King Herring, whose husband chaired the Houston Natural Gas Company, once redecorated her mansion to make it look like a sultan’s palace in order to entertain visitors from the Middle East.
These days, the best known of Houston’s oil-funded socialites is Lynn Wyatt. The day before I arrive in Houston, Lynn and her husband Oscar hosted a dinner party at which the guests included not only fellow socialites such as Pat Breen, but also three admirals and a former secretary of the Navy. Not for nothing did Lynn once say: “A Texas woman just thinks, ‘I can do anything.’“
When I visit her home – an elegant, Georgian-style redbrick house – in the exclusive district of River Oaks, she says the discussion, at that dinner party, was utterly absorbing. We sit in her front room, sipping a blend of iced tea and lemonade. Lynn, in black top and checked YSL trousers, looks unspeakably glamorous.
Lynn has long been friends with, among others, Prince Rainier of Monaco (and, while she was alive, Princess Grace), Elton John, Mick Jagger, Bill Blass, Karl Lagerfeld and Emanuel Ungaro. She knew Andy Warhol well enough to have him stay with her and paint the portraits of her that hang above the mantelpiece. And her friendship with Viscount Linley led him to create an exquisite jewellery box for her, in inlaid wood, shaped like the house where she used to live. “Isn’t that great!” she says, as she pulls out one of the drawers.
The granddaughter of Russian immigrants who made a fortune in retail, Lynn first married in 1954. Bobby Lipman fathered two sons – one, Steve, was for some time a close friend of the Duchess of York – but the marriage didn’t last. Bobby went off the rails, eventually killing a young woman in London while under the influence of drugs. But Lynn somehow managed to move on and, in 1962, she met Oscar Wyatt, one of Houston’s best-known oilmen. They’ve been married for 40 years.
Oscar Wyatt was the first American oilman in Iran after that country’s revolution. He was also the first to import oil from China. But he earned his place in history in 1991, shortly before the war with Iraq, by negotiating personally with Saddam Hussein for the return of American hostages.
By then, Oscar had known the Iraqi leader for nearly 20 years. So he flew out with a friend, former Texas governor John Connally, and persuaded Saddam to let the hostages fly home in Wyatt’s own plane. “That was a poignant homecoming,” remembers Lynn.
After the celebrations died down, cynics wondered what Oscar must have offered Saddam in return. He has always denied discussing business, insisting the trip was humanitarian, but whether that is true or not, it has rightly been said that Oscar Wyatt can pick up the phone and speak to kings, prime ministers and OPEC potentates.
He’s been close to several American presidents, too. Among the papers stored at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, in Austin, Texas, is a hefty file of correspondence between Johnson and Wyatt. To read this is to get a good idea of how contributors to political campaigns expect payback from politicians.
Wyatt contributed $100,000 to Johnson’s campaign, an almighty sum in those days. When Johnson failed to support certain business initiatives, Wyatt stormed into the Oval Office to call him a “no good, dirty, double-crossing son of a bitch.” Remembering the incident later, Wyatt said: “Lyndon was jumping up and down. He kept saying, ‘Now, Oscar, you don’t mean that! You’re my friend!’“
This may be ancient history, but with another Texan in the White House, it is worth keeping in mind. I wonder, for instance, what was discussed at Lynn’s dinner party the previous night. Though the main point of the evening was to raise support for the Naval Academy (she was appointed onto its board of visitors by Ronald Reagan in the Eighties), talk inevitably strayed to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Did anybody speak out against war? “I really can’t talk about that,” Lynn says demurely.
0f the many other Houston socialites able to bring together powerful figures from business and politics, one of the most colourful, highly skilled at networking on behalf of her husband, and tipped by The New York Times as “the next Lynn Wyatt”, is Becca Cason Thrash. Like the George W Bushes, Becca once lived at Chateaux Dijon. She is now married to John Thrash, who took over and turned round an ailing family oil business in the 80s and now runs an energy company, eCorp. Her effect on him has been dramatic: the fact that she is by no means merely ornamental is clear from the way her husband describes their first meeting. “I didn’t take the time that night to contemplate how beautiful she was, because I was so distracted by all the things coming out of her mouth.” Until then, John Thrash had little experience of society. Indeed, Becca says he was “a kind of Tibetan monk”. The transformation, according to those who have watched it, has been amazing.
Becca is acknowledged to be outstanding at mixing interesting people, a skill she developed while running a PR company. According to one former client, guests at her parties would include: “People who normally went to country clubs, the young, hip crowd, and Saudi Arabians over here doing oil deals.”
Shelby Hodge, society columnist on the Houston Chronicle, says of Becca: “No one in this town throws a party like she does.” In particular, Hodge commends “the scale of the decor, and the orchestration of the guest list”. As one of the few American members of the Prince of Wales’s Foundation, raising money for English architectural restoration, Becca rubs shoulders with Forbeses, Rockefellers and Trumps. Also known as TriBecca, for her habit of changing costume three times at each party, she has recently entertained designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, the Bush family, Lynn Wyatt and a couple whose names I find on the guest lists for all the most important functions: Robert and Mica Mosbacher.
Before leaving Houston, I decide I must visit the Mosbachers, who married less than three years ago. If any couple combines social cachet with oil money and political connections, it’s the former secretary of commerce and his young wife. Robert Mosbacher has known George Bush Snr for decades, and served in his administration. In 1999, to celebrate George and Barbara’s 75th and 74th birthdays, respectively, Robert and Mica threw one of the biggest parties ever seen in Houston: top tables cost $100,000 More recently, Mica co-hosted, with Lynn Wyatt, a party for the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer.
I ask Lynn for help, and get myself a date to visit the Mosbachers at their new home. When the appointed hour arrives, Mica is there to greet me at the gates of the house, in one of the most exclusive streets in River Oaks. Over generous glasses of wine, we chat in the library, and are soon joined by her husband. Like the former president, Robert was born in the east of the US, and attracted to Texas by the prospect of making his fortune in oil. (“You can drill just one well,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “having borrowed just a little money, and then you can be a millionaire. It’s the epitome of the chance to get rich quick.”) He found the southern state to be a place that welcomed newcomers. “Unlike eastern society, there was no established hierarchy. Anyone can make it. It’s more about what you have done than who you are.” Having achieved his dream, he went into government, then returned to the oil business, not only as a consultant for Enron, but also working for himself. He still keeps an office downtown, and the first thing he does in the morning, according to Mica, is to check the price of oil.
In the past, he says, there were countless oil companies in Texas, many of them, like his own, run by individuals or families. “There are very few left. We’re like the last of the Mohicans.” The ethos of the industry has hardened. “In those days, you would do business on a handshake. Your word was your bond.” Regrettably, that’s no longer the case, as can be seen by the fraudulent practices at Enron.
Robert Mosbacher thinks it is merely coincidental that so many powerful Americans have links with Houston’s oil industry. But he would say that. Nor is it surprising that he defends his old friend Ken Lay, who lived until recently in a mansion nearby. “People here were horrified by what happened at Enron,” he says. “But remember that Enron and Ken Lay contributed a lot to the community.” (At the Winter Ball, standing beside the items for auction, I hear one woman ask another, in a tone that can only be described as funereal: “So, how are things going at Enron?” But Lay himself remains respected on the charity circuit, and has even been greeted with standing ovations just for showing up at black-tie events.)
My conversation with the Mosbachers does range slightly beyond business and politics. At one point, Mica tells me, with relish, about a legendary pair of Houstonian socialites who shot or poisoned their husbands. In response. Robert raises an eyebrow: “I’m not sure I like the trend of this conversation.” Guessing that it’s time to leave, I take another look around the newly decorated room, and notice that, though few books have been stacked on the shelves, a couple of photos have been put up in places of honour. One shows Robert and Mica standing on either side of a woman in a glamorous outfit: America’s First Lady, Laura Bush. She has inscribed the picture with a loving message.
The other photograph is a group shot, showing a bunch of anonymous-looking guys, much like the interchangeable gentlemen in tuxedos at the Winter Ball, massively outshone by their glamorous wives and girlfriends. The difference is that this group is dressed for quail hunting. But, like the men at the ball, they’re no ordinary bunch. Standing around in a clearing in southern Texas, they include a former secretary of state, a former ambassador, a former secretary of commerce and a former president of the United States. Studying their faces, I conclude that hunting quail must constitute light relief from affairs of state and the commercial imperatives of oil – converging, right now, in the war on Iraq. Not forgetting the high-powered networking through which they are guided by their wives, Houston’s women of distinction.
First published 18 March 2003