Monthly Archives: April 2014

They Who Must be Obeyed

They Who Must be Obeyed

The women who rule Houston rule the world

By: John-Paul Flintoff, March 18, 2003

(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…………..

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.

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Iceland Volcano No Match for Mica Mosbacher

Houstonian Michele “Mica” Mosbacher was named honorary consul to Iceland in January and confirmed in March. The position mostly involves promoting culture and trade opportunities and protecting the rights of Icelanders in the Houston area. Little did Mosbacher know it would place her in the center of the action when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which had erupted in late March, entered an explosive phase that released a huge cloud of ash on April 14.

Q: I hear you had quite a trip to Iceland recently.

A: I went to Reykjavík to the briefings at the foreign ministry, which is the equivalent of our State Department, to understand what my responsibilities would be in this capacity. One of the briefings that I had was on search-and-rescue and evacuation procedures.

Q: You didn’t know how handy that would be.

A: They kind of joked with me. They said, “Well, you’re not living in Haiti or Chile, so I don’t think you need to worry too much about this.” And I asked if it was safe to go to the southern part of Iceland to see this famous resort. It’s called the Hotel Ranga, and it’s the only Michelin four-star resort in Iceland. It’s well known for salmon fishing expeditions, and it’s on the River Ranga, which is about 25 miles west of the volcano.

The ambassador’s wife said to me, “Oh, we’re referring to that volcanic eruption as a tourist eruption, and it’s kaput. You have nothing to worry about.” So I hired a guide, and we drove to the Hotel Ranga. Most of the media were leaving that day. The hotel was capitalizing on the (March) eruption and offering tours, which was kind of enterprising of them.

The next morning around 3 a.m., someone from search-and-rescue woke up the hotel manager to tell him the volcano was erupting, that they were evacuating the farmers in the countryside near the volcano. When we heard about it, we thought he was joking.

When I came downstairs to breakfast, there was a lot of excitement. They had moved in the coast guard and moved in search-and-rescue and several helicopters. Someone had already been up that morning in the helicopter and said, “I’ve never seen a glacier melt like this. Water is rushing onto the road, flooding the area.” They sent in a crew to divert the road — to actually destroy the road and move it away from the bridge; there was only one main artery — so that the water would take the path of least resistance and flow into the ocean.

They grounded all air traffic, including helicopters, until about 7 that evening, and then they allowed one helicopter up … so that the foreign minister could survey it. The volcano was very quiet at that point. It had stopped erupting, at least temporarily. I was up in the air so I could see firsthand what the countryside looked like.

Q: What was it like up there?

A: I had an NBC cameraman with us and the guide and one of my colleagues and then a very experienced search-and-rescue pilot. We were very close to the volcano at that point. It was flowing east, so we stayed west. It was relatively quiet, and then all of a sudden it began erupting; and it was that particular eruption that stopped all the air traffic in Europe. It looked like a nuclear explosion.

And the winds picked up and the helicopter started swaying. I have a pretty funny picture — clearly the expression on my face is “get me out of here.” I was motioning to the pilot to wrap it up, but he thought I meant to circle again. He misinterpreted my hand signals.

So there were five of us in the world that watched it erupt, and when we went back to the lodge, they put up another air stop, and no one was allowed up.

Q: Were you then stuck at the hotel? 

A: Well, we made the decision — because of the magnitude of this volcano — that it might be prudent to drive back to Reykjavík, which is west and on the coast, where we would be out of harm’s way at that point. And we were lucky. The next day there was an Icelandair plane on the ground. The airport was a ghost town, but there was one plane on the ground, and it was able to fly to New York, because that was going west.

So I ended up in New York, and I visited with the consul general. Those of us who represented Iceland were a little worried that frustrated passengers would start making us the unwitting scapegoats for the travel disruption.

Q: Have you been back since then?

A: No. I plan to go back in August. I’m hoping I can go back to the hotel where this wonderful fishing lodge is. Unfortunately, at this point the ground is just covered in ash and the sky is still very hazy, so I know they’re extremely worried about their tourist business, but it does look like the volcano is calming down.

One thing I forgot to mention: The guide that I had with me had planned for us to go trekking on the glacier where the volcano is. At breakfast he pulled out a map and said, “We have a problem. You are here, and we were going to go there.” He pointed to the volcano on the map and said, “I don’t think we’ll be going glacier trekking today.”

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