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Fashion

The Most Important Party in Houston History

This Uber-Expensive Bash Drew Major Celebrities — and Made New York Jealous

BY // 09.08.16

A LOOK BACK AT A STORIED PARTY THAT MADE HISTORY

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY HOUSTON METROPOLITAN RESEARCH CENTER, HOUSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY, PHOTOGRAPHED FOR THE HOUSTON POST BY BETTY TICHICH.

Nearly 35 years ago, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens — one America’s most important troves of decorative arts from centuries past — opened its august doors for its inaugural fund-raising benefit. The grounds of the 1927 John Staub-designed home and its ravishing 14-acre gardens were illuminated to welcome guests to “An Evening of Celebration” — the title, an understatement at odds with the scale and splendor of the endeavor. It was the first time the house museum had welcomed guests after dark since its owner, Miss Ima Hogg, bequeathed the property to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and moved out, in 1965.

Miss Ima was one of Houston’s grandest dames, and this party marked what would have been her centennial year (she had passed away seven years earlier). She was the daughter of the first native-born governor of Texas, founder of both the Houston Symphony and Bayou Bend, champion of mental health and education for all races and genders, an elected member of the school board, and benefactor of Memorial Park — all of which made her a progressive power woman who even today might be considered left of center in some circles.

The more-than-a-year-in-the-making fête was the most expensive ball ticket ever offered at the time in Houston, or Texas; it even drew gasps in Manhattan. Fund-raising records were shattered. The party was the talk of this town, covered by all the society reporters in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. Women’s Wear Daily dispatched a correspondent, and Suzy (Aileen Mehle) wrote about it for W, as did the Los Angeles Times (in glowing paragraphs between Nancy Reagan and reports on the royal family of Monaco).

Here are the dazzling details of the centennial bash, rescued from the sands of time thanks to chairman Linda McReynolds’ rediscovery of a lovingly kept archive, plus image assistance from Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Ideson Library.

Harris Masterson III & Carroll Masterson
Harris Masterson III & Carroll Masterson

Who: Ball chairman Linda McReynolds combined grace, grit, and teamwork to mobilize old and new guard alike to honor Miss Ima with a once-in-a-lifetime evening that interwove the Houston Symphony and Bayou Bend, raising funds for both. The bar was set very high. More than three decades later, McReynolds remembers the party “as the most private public event ever in Houston.”

Lucius Broadnax, Miss Ima’s devoted butler and chauffeur for 30-plus years, was coaxed out of retirement to greet guests, in full livery — a living tie to the lady being honored. Among the notables were Houston kingmakers now long gone and distinguished out-of-towners with local connections, as well as those who still appear on our social pages: Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski and wife Jeannette, she a past Symphony League president; Miss Ima’s best friend Nettie Jones and husband Albert (she wore amethysts given to her by Miss Hogg and cut the evening’s towering birthday cake); Linda Finger as decorations chair, with husband Ronny; Patty Hubbard, presiding over invitations, assisted by Pat Osborne; underwriting chairmen Elise and Russell Joseph, and her parents, Margaret Wiess Elkins and James A. Elkins Jr.; Lynn Wyatt; Diane and Bill Hobby; San Antonio grande doyenne Margaret Tobin and son Robert Tobin, heir to the map dynasty; Alice Simkins, a curator, collector and MFAH donor who is related to the Hogg family; global jet-setters Pierre Schlumberger and wife, socialite São; Carol and Les Ballard; publishing tycoon Joe Allbritton and wife Barby, who were off to the Preakness the next day; Cornelia and Meredith Long, he instrumental in powerfully advising the committee; Tony and Isaac Arnold, he then chairman of the MFAH board; Bayou Bend curator David Warren, narrator of the night’s program; and, in from Kerrville, Miss Hogg’s landscape architect, Pat Fleming.

Kickoff style: In lieu of a kickoff cocktail, members of the host committee and benefactors attended an elegant afternoon high tea in Bayou Bend’s historic Empire Room on Sunday, January 31, 1982, prepared by Miss Hogg’s go-to caterer, David Moncrief. Days before the big night, neighbors Katsy and John Mecom hosted 50 patrons for an opulent dinner party with illuminated swan ice-sculpture desserts, in anticipation of the ball.

Wardrobe cues: The invitation (engraved on pale pink paper with green tissue liner, in deference to Miss Ima’s favorite colors and her celebrated azaleas) enjoined guests to wear “black tie or nostalgic dress from the period 1882-1982.” McReynolds wore Zandra Rhodes, which channeled the Victorian era, when Miss Ima was a child, via its cascades of flounces and lace. The picture that defines the evening is McReynolds standing at the door as Miss Hogg had always done, greeting guests, her family bedside her — including her pre-teen daughters, Merritt and Larkin, and twin sister Carolyn McMullen, flying in from a China trip — and, nearby, Caroline Wiess Law, grand benefactress to the MFAH.

To this day, McReynolds remembers the magnificent gems that came out of vaults for the night. “I’ve never seen such beautiful jewelry,” she says, recalling how she turned down TV coverage due to security issues — those baubles would have been mighty tempting to thieves.

Making an entrance: Rather than traipsing over the suspension bridge, attendees arrived via the formal drive on Lazy Lane. The time was a civilized 8 pm. After disembarking from Rolls Royces, Benzes, and Cadillacs, guests strolled through Philadelphia Hall and several other historic rooms before heading to the terrace for cocktail hour, where Champagne flutes were raised and toasts made with Miss Hogg’s libation of choice: Fish House Punch. Upon the lawn, sans tent, 65 tables awaited suites of 10 guests each, making the total in attendance a perfect 650.Bayou Bend

Please be seated: Pre-Jackson Hicks, New York chef de cuisine Jean-Pierre Briand and Houston’s Bill White were enlisted to create the six-course seated dinner served al fresco among topiaries supporting chandeliers that appeared to be suspended from trees. Tables, brimming with peonies and lilies, were set with lace-overlaid pink linens; Gump’s provided favors, pewter bud vases with Miss Ima’s symbol, the lyre. The menu nodded to Miss Hogg’s preferences: Terrine de mallard, Blanquette de veau, and Gâteau d’anniversaire were some of the French-inflected dishes, paired with lavish wine selections and Perrier-Jouët Champagne.

Musical moments: At one end of the garden, the Symphony, led by Maestro Sergiu Comissiona, performed Miss Ima’s classical standards — headlined by Wagner, Brahms, and Beethoven. At the other end, the Lester Lanin Orchestra struck up popular tunes that segued into dancing, from “Sweet Georgia Brown” to “Pac-Man Fever.”

Mishaps avoided: The question leading up to the big night was … the weather. McReynolds had foregone a tent not because of the expense — which was set to be underwritten to the tune of $35,000 — but to avoid obstructing the view on the lawn. (A rain date was noted on the invite, just in case.) The day before, a downpour came — a deluge that flooded River Oaks. But by the following evening, all had dried off, and it was a clear night where guests even commented upon seeing the stars. The other hiccup was that the Symphony was delayed; because of an accident on Waugh Drive, most of the 90-some piece orchestra was not on hand when it came time to take the stage. The chair’s solution was to switch the order of the program, and Beethoven eventually got his due.

The beautiful bottom line: Within weeks of finalizing her budget, the persuasive chairman had $100,000 in a bank trust a year in advance, which yielded a tidy amount of interest by the time of the ball. The impressive six-figure sum to cover the costs of the soirée came from four lead underwriters: The Cullen Trust, Barbara and Gerald Hines, Carroll and Harris Masterson III, and Caroline and Ted Law. Each contributed $25,000 to the cause. Individual tickets began at $500, and table prices soared to $15,000 for tables of 10 — “the highest anyone can remember for a benefit anywhere in Texas,” wrote Dallas Times Herald reporter Nancy Smith at the time. (This was in 1982 financials. Magnify four- or fivefold. The $25,000 underwriting gifts would be equivalent to $100,000 or $125,000 per couple today.)

Without a raffle or auction, the bottom line was a handsome $750,000 — equal to about $4 million today, perhaps the most any cultural benefit in Houston has ever cleared. “Miss Ima was certainly with us,” says McReynolds. “I like to think she would have been very pleased.”

Another takeaway: While this was the beginning of modern fund-raising in Houston, it was also an unprecedented, never-to-be repeated night. May 14, 1982, marked the first and only time that two of our town’s grandest arts organizations have come together to share a fête — all in honor of one singular woman.

Home, chic home.

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