WHEN JOANNE HERRING was in town recently for the visit of the king of Morocco, she ran into Miz Lillian at a party.
Decked out in one of her famour decolletages, her blond hair in curls around her forehead, Herring began a conversation with the president's mother. Instead of the usual party chitchat that Miz Lillian might have expected, Herring announced that she was the honorary consul general of Morocco and Pakistan in Houston and began discussing the cobalt situation in Morocco.
Herring finally excused herself and glided away in her high-heeled shoes.
Her eyes on sticks, Miz Lillian turned to the person next to her and asked in a loud stage whisper, "Is she for real?"
It wasn't the first time Joanne Herring had been to Washington and it wasn't the first time anyone had asked that question about her.
She rather likes the fact that people find her unbelievable and back in Houston she tells the Miz Lillian story about herself with glee.Her friends in Texas were somewhat miffed that the president's mother would appear to make fun of one of their own.
Joanne Herring chuckles. "They love to criticize me all they want. But just let someone from out of town do it...."
Herring and her husband Robert, chairman of the board of the Houston Natural Gas Company, have been spending a lot of time recently in Washington. In fact they are now pretty much regulars on the Washington party scene, one night at a party for the king of Morocco, another evening dining at Henry Kissinger's, another at a farewell party for the Pakistani ambassador, and a couple of weeks ago they were at the symphony ball. They were seated at the table of the ball. They were seated at the table of the ball chairman, Judy Clagett McClennan, whose father, Washington cave dweller Tom Clagett, had just sold his multi-million dollar Zeigler Coal Co. to Bob Herring.
This, however, is nothing compared to the "rootin', tootin'" parties the Herrings give in Texas for visting foreign royalty. Just last year they had dinner parties for the king of Sweden, King Hussein and Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia. Naturally, all of Houston showed up.
Why, recently, even Betty Beale was flown down to Houston on the Herrings' private plane to cover one of their extravagant parties.
Joanne and Robert Herring are very big in Houston these days. And to be very big in Houston is to be very big.
For one thing, Houston, Tex., is the fastest-growing city in America. For another it is the oil capital of the world. Oil attracts business which attracts the law. Land development is one of the hottest businesses to be in and millions are made every day as Houston spereads south toward the Gulf and north toward Dallas. Houston is the second-largest port in America. Of the top 10 law firms in America, Houston has four. It has the best medical center for heart care in the world, it has opera and museums and hugh department stores. And it has oil.
The big-time oil and gas types in Houston are as concerned as Robert Herring that the United States remain friends with the Middle Eastern countries, especially the Persian Gulf states.
It also means those like Pakistan and Morocco which are not all that big on oil themselves, but which are friendly with the big oil countries and the Arab oil producers.
The major oil companies have billions of dollars invested in the Middle East. The independent oil refineries depend on Middle Eastern oil for their business.
Ever since the oil embargo of 1973 (in Houston when people say '73 it's like after the Depression when people referred to '29), the major business types in Houston have realized the necessity for making friends abroad. At first they went about it by bringing Houston to the world, traveling constantly in their private jets. They finally made their mark, with their money and their socializing. Now they are bringing the world to Houston.
Setting Your Priorites
Slowly, slowly Joanne and Robert Herring have worked their way into Washington social life so that while nobody was even looking they have become more or less a fixture, seeking out members of the administration at cocktails, chatting up powerful representatives and senators at dinner, hobnobbing with ambassadors of Middle Eastern countries on the dance floor.
All of this has naturally led the suspicious, the skeptical, the cynical in the nation's capital to wonder just what it is that is attracting this powerful and very, very rich Houston oil man and his flashy, bombshell wife to Washington.
"I like Washington," says Joanne Herring, "because everybody is doing something.Everybody is dedicated to what they are doing. I don't always agree with what people are doing and I'm quick to tell them, but people in Washington are serious about world events. I think I've had the most exciting evenings of my life in Washington. I used to be totally Europe oriented, I spent all my time in Europe. When Bob said we'd have to be spending a lot of time in Washington I said 'yuk.' Now I'm not so interested in all those people from Europe, the jet set. They seem a little shallow.
"We used to come to Washington once a month. Now we come lmost every two weeks. At first we stayed with Ardeshir (Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador), our first friend here. But now with the recent trouble in Iran we stay at the Madison."
What Joanne Herring and her husband realized (that a lot of the jet set they had been traveling with hadn't) is this: "We are living in the twilight of our era," she says, "Our way of life is seriously threatened.Most people are like ostriches. They don't want to see it or hear about it, or know it or accept it."
What is is these people don't want to know about is the possibility of an oil shortage and a potential fight between the Soviet Union and the Western countries for control over oil and gas in the Middle East.
Robert Herring is very concerned, as are many of his colleagues in Houston... which is why he is trying to make friends with as many of those in power in the Middle East as possible. And Joanne Herring, when it come to making friends, well, let's just say she is an asset.
"Russia," says Robert Herring, "has notified Eastern Europe that they wil force them out of oil over the next four years. Russia will have to get into the Middle East in the next five or 10 years. The East and the West are headed for a period where they will both be dependent on Middle Eastern oil. And there won't be enough."
"Which is why," chmimes in Joanne Herring, " there is a really serious need for us to be friends with Middle Eastern countries."
"In all my 21 visits to Saudi Arabia," says Robert Herring, "I have heard 10 times more fear expressed by them about Russian infiltration than I have ever heard about the Arab-Israeli situation.
"And that concern," he adds, "is as much a basis for our friendship with the Middle East as anything else."
Robert Herring has been putting a hugh burn on the Saudi Arabians for the past five years, even taking Joanne there on their honeymoon five years ago. He is trying to make a deal with them to negotiate a floating liquids plant which would be built on a ship to produce propane, butane, and natural gas.
So far the Saudis have refused to play ball, though the Herrings have entertained and been entertained by the Saudi ambassador and Prince Saud, and even though they are tight with Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi oil minister. Insiders say it is a matter of style, that of all the Arab countries, the Saudis-particularly the elegant and Princeton-educated Prince Saud-prefer a rather low-key, subtle approach, strictly the opposite of the Herrings'. Though the many Arab men find Joanne pretty delicious.
And Robert Herring will say that, when he first proposed the floating liquids plant deal a year ago, Sheik Yamani's first question was a rather suspicious, "Why do you want to build a floating plant? So you can get the hell out of here when things blow up and the communists take over?"
This is where the parties come in-and the visits, and the connections. And of course where Washington comes in. Washington is where friends are made socially. Where a strategic seat at a dinner party means a foot in the office door the next morning. A pretty smile, a voluptuous bustline, a batted eye, may seem frivolous to some, but the Herrings know better.
Ultimately, they feel, it could mean, if you want to get dramatic about it, the salvation of the United States. Oil-wise, anyway.
"For so many years businessmen didn't think it was important to talk to politicians," explains Joanne Herring. "And a lot of politicians don't want to talk to businessmen. But it's so important for all of us to speak for the industry (oil,gas,coal). Bob is multi-faceted in the industry-he can talk about most of the issues to these people, try to make them understand the problems of the industry. In order to make investments, to have a productive business, you have to make plans five years in advance, have to be able to answer to the stockholders. So it's important to find out what the lawmakers plans are and to explan your oan needs and why."
The party scene in Washington, the Herrings feel, is the perfect place to do that.
"A lot of people won't talk to businessmen in their office. They're suspicious that they might have their own interests ar heart. Parties are the only place they'll see us and the only way to see them. At a party they'll talk to us. And now in Washington they've learned who we are, learned to know us.
"Naturally they all think I'm some light headed blond who wants to come up to Washington parties so she can go home to Texas and tell all her friends. But Bob has been extremely successful here."
I found out that the only thing that seems to have clout is to be a glamorous figure," says Joanne Herring. "Without the glamorous image I have no clout. For instance, the only way I'll get into the State Department is if somebody meets me at a party and wants to talk to me, has fun with me at the party. That's the only way I'll get into their office. I don't particularly like it if they don't think I have a brain in my head but if that's the only way I can get them to listen, well then that's the way it is."
Nobody would quarrel with the fact that it works. It was only recently, for instance, that the Herrings achieved the ne plus ultra in social acceptance in Washington by attending a dinner given by Henry and Nancy Kissinger.
"It was the most wonderful evening," says Joanne Herring. "It was a farewell dinner for the Pakistani Ambassador Yakub Khan. There were only 16 people, the Kissingers, the Dobrynins, the Khans, the MacMathiases.
"The people always have a reason for saying things," she says. "I just get a high being there. I think it was about the most interesting dinner I've been to. And the other thing I like about Washington is that iths an early town. You go out, you do your business, you go home and go to bed. This business of staying out at discotheques until 4 a.m., well, I used to like to do that. But you don't have time anymore. You have to set your priorities."
Making Parties Count
Priorities. They change. Joanne Herring will tell you.
"The year I was up for the Junior League back in the '60s, I gave a Roman bacchanal." Then married to Houston millionaire Bob King, Joanne already was a controversial local celebrity. "They weren't ready for that in Houston," she went on. "We rehearsed it for a month. I'd gone out and gotten a black Boy Scout troop and hired them to be little Nubian slaves. And we burned a Christian and everything. People drank out of goblets. We auctioned off girls, people got thrown in the pool, the guests left at 7 a.m. Life magazine covered it. I didn't intend for that to happen. How do I get myself into these things" My mother had to go into seclusion. I had a big house with a ballroom in those days. It would be impossible to do that kind of thing now. We were all so young then. Now we're all so dignified. So filled with responsibilities. I don't give bachanals anymore. I grew up."
Today, she says, "I make parties count. I give parties for a purpose. I want people to meet and exchange ideas, create things for themselves and for Houston.
"Many things have happened at my parties that I find heartwarming. If I see a friend make a deal for himself I feel good."
Joanne Herring attributes this switch in priorities for party-giving to maturity and change.
"I've changed a lot of my ideas about things since I started spending time in Washington," she says. "I like to think I am open enough so that I will grow more and think about things...I'm positive and flexible.If it makes sense I can fit it into my puzzle. If you don't change you really are in trouble. Changing is flexibility. It's so much more fun. I never sat next to anybody at a dinner party I didn't learn something from, that I didn't use. To be a sponge is fun."
What Brings You to Houston?
Joanne Herring is in the midst of an interview in her mansion in the exclusive section of River Oaks in Houston. There are two women sitting with her in what must be the study, an enormous room with a bar, 30-foot-high ceilings, thick rugs, lots of bookcases, damask curtains, velvet furniture. Pictures of her, with every famous person you can imagine, are everywhere. The women are writing a book about extraordinary women in Texas and they have selected Herring, who is qvite happy to talk to them except she is very late for a luncheon she and her husband are giving for the Pakistani minister of information.
She and her husband are having this luncheon at the Ramada, one of the most exclusive menhs business clubs in downtown Houston. It is a press luncheon and about 30 or 40 journalists will be present.
Joanne Herring comes racing out of the library into the grand hallway, its red carpeted "stairway to nowhere" dominating the entire house.
She is wearing a flame-red suit, red lizard stiletto-heeled ankle-strapped sandals, her platinum blond wig on slightly askew, a black veil over her eye barely revealing that her false eye-lashes are coming unglued. She has a pale gray fur boa thrown over her shoulder. The lipstick and nail polish are the closest thing to Fire and Ice since the 1950s.
"Oh Gaaaaawwwwwd," she moans, "I'm so late Bob will just kill me," and she dashes out the door, quickly bids goodbye to the two ladies and jumps behind the whell of her black Cadillac limousine. "I can't talk to you for a minute," she says breathlessly. "I have to think of something to say about the minister from Pakistan (she pronounces it Pawk-ees-tawn) and I've lost his biography. Oh Lord."
Now speeding through River Oaks, the car swerves slightly and she giggles. "This veil is giving me vertigo, I can't see anything," and, "I sure hope my consular license plates will keep me from getting a ticket."
Once in the lobby of the office building, Herring is surrounded by a group of businessmen.
Everyone gets on the elevator and one of the men turns to her and says,"Well, well, Joanne, welcome to Houston." As the others smirk, amused at the slight dig at the world-traveling Herrings, she ignores the jibe and smiles sweetly, thanking him. "And what brings you to Houston today," continues the man, not satisfied with her first response. "Oh, the minister of information of Pawk-ees-tawn," she says, still smiling sweetly.
"Oh," says the man. And shuts up.
Inside the private room at the Ramada Club, Robert Herring sits at a long banquet table looking a bit frustrated but resigned. Several Pakistanis are surrounded by a group of reporters and TV people waiting for Joanne Herring to appear so they can start lunch.
She apologizes profusely, plops down in her seat, and launches into an explanation of what the lunch is about and why they are having it, sprinkling her little talk with political facts about her involvement in Pakistan and the State Departmenths attitude toward that country.
"One of the reasons Bob and I have gotten so involved in Pakistan," she explains to a gaga-eyed group of reporters, "is this man. Bob and I are trying to start a cottage industry there. We care about helping the poor there. And with no financial compensation at all....The tragedy is that a lot of people don't know anything at all about Pakistan. Why, do you know a friend of mine asked the other day what part of Venezuela Karachi was in?...Pakistan has always been profree enterprise and anticommunist....If you look at a map of the world you'll see that Pakistan is in the parth of the Soviet Union and it's heading straight to us."
Next the Pakistani minister gives his spiel about his country to the reporters, then a lot of questions are asked of Robert Herring about how much natural gas there is in Pakistan. He has all the figures.
Outside, after the lunch, Joanne Herring mentions that she thinks the minister of information is cute. "But," she says, laughing like a schoolgirl who just sat through an incomprehensible trigonometry class, "could you understand a word he said?"
Putting Everything on the Line
These days, Houston's attraction to the Middle Eastern oil countries is still the parties, the glamor, the lore of Texas.
But it is not the bacchanals of Herringhs earlier years, the carefree evenings of yesteryear. Now everything is for a reason, a purpose. Texans, Houstonians, are serious about their partying.
And Houston has become a working town socially in a way that no other city in America is except Washington, D.C. Too much hinges on whether deals are made to be carefree the way it used to be. Socially in Houston, as in Washington, the action is during the week, an extension of the work day. On the weekends people fly off to their ranches on their private planes. And during the week at least half of Houston is out of town or out of the country "on business," which in many instances means attending social events.
One of the reasons Houston has become such a boom town, one of the most important and exciting cities in the country, despite its horrible weather and lack of recreational facilities, is because it is wide open, socially and professionally. Anyone who has the energy, the talent and the ambition can make it in Houston. This is unlike Dallas, which is a declining city, and very unlike Houston's neighbor on the gulf, New Orleans. Both of those cities, because of their insular social structure, refused to accept newcomers, the nouveau riche, the self-made men. So they went where they could be accepted, where they would fit in. They went to Houston. And they spent their money there.
This is where the Herrings come in. Robert and Joanne Herring, with their style of living and their glamorous and ostentatious image, would never have been accepted in Dallas or New Orleans. But in Houston, even the oldest families tolerate-even if they don't totally accept-a Joanne or a Robert Herring.
And it is that social tolerance among second- or third-generation money that has made Houston, professionally and socially, the exciting and economically crucial (internationally so) city that it is.
Most people in Houston haven't forgotten how they made their money and most people in Houston openly admire anybody else who can do it.
The dirrerence between the way Houston was 20 years ago and the way it is today is that 20 years ago the Houstonians used their money strictly for pleasure. Today they use it to make more. And if that means entertaining, building discotheques, playing musical chairs at dinner parties, flying in royalty for dinners, providing attractive single ladies for their male guests, then by golly that's what they're going to do.
Nobody in Houston quite knows how to take the Herring is a respected businessman, a pillar of the community, a quiet, almost introverted person who steps aside and lets his wife take the spotlight.
Joanne Herring is more of a mystery, even though, where her husband is soft-spoken and modest, she is flashy and aggressive.
Aside from being chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Houston Natural Gas, which is the largest seller of natural gas to the industrial market, he owns 4,000 miles of pipelines, and produces oil and gas. He also owns coal mines, a river barge, 90 boats abroad; he services oil rigs; he deals in nitrogen, is the largest handler of carbon dioxide in the world. He is also president of the Texas Heart Institute, on the board of the Medical Center and is a consultant to the mayor and the city council on tax matters, and on the board of trustees of Rice University.
"He is," says his wife, "a compulsive do-gooder."
He is in his late 50s, Joanne Herring somewhere in her 4/s, though she will not tell their ages. "It's just not good for business," she says simply.
Robert Herring's father was the superintendent of a gasoline plant in Ranger, Tex. He grew up hoeing weeds around the oil tanks to help support his family. After the war he worked his way through Texas A & M, then joined up with another man named Ray Fish building gas pipelines in West Texas. "I always knew I wanted to be in the oil business," says Herring. "And, I always felt I could do anything I wanted to do." Like most Texans, Robert Herring wasn't afraid to think big and wasn't afraid to borrow big either. "I told my partner once I would have to work for 72 years giving half my salary to pay the borrowed money back if I lost on one deal," he says, "and Fish said to me, 'Don't lose."
"Texans," says Joanne Herring, "don't lose. Not because they cheat but because they lay it on the line. And they always have the security of knowing they can make it again. People in Houston put everything on the line, lose everything and come back and make it again."
The Eccentric Innocent
There are people in Houston who donht approve of Joanne Herring. They accuse her of being ostentations, of being gandy, tacky, vulgar. They say she has invented an upper-class family background for herself and that she is really the daughter of a gas-station attendant. They say she is giving Texas a bad name by creating a stereotypical image of the loud, extravagant, high-rolling nouveau riche Texas which doesn't really exist any more. They take glee in the fact that after inviting all of Houston to a dinner for King Hussein last year and lining him up with women, he stayed 15 minutes and went to dinner at George Bush's. And they delight in knowing that Prince Saud left early as well.
They tsk-tsk and cluck and raise their eyebrows. And they go to her parties.
Because socially, in Houston, Joanne Herring is where the action is.
She knows. She knows what they say about her.
"I've been a rebel all my life," she says. "Because I've never really cared about what anybody thought about me. It takes courage. But in the end you always win. If you've done the best you can. And I count my blessings. I decided a long time ago I was just going to be me. I don't like me all the time and I don't expect anybody else to. I went into TV when it wasn't the thing to do. I had my own show five days a week for 12 years.
"I've always done what I wanted to do. I was a brunette and I changed to a blond because I wanted to. I don't think I fit in any category. I've always had sticks thrown at me. It doesn't bother me. I'm not busy keeping up with anybody else. I do what I think is important."
Joanne Herring is clearly a woman in transition. She is bright and quick and you don't have to tell her anything more than once. There is something rather touching about her straightforwardness, her genuine eccentricity, her need for attention. She is what sh is. She is in a way, a Marilyn Monroe to Robert Herringhs Arthur Miller-the kittenish, naive blond bombshell trying to make something of herself, improve her mind, her talent, be taken seriously. The echoes of Monroe are there when she talks about her husband, who is not exactly a sex symbol. "I like verbal men. I love talking to Bob. He says things I want to hear. He's so superior to me in every way. To me a really fascinating man is not terribly good-looking or a fabulous dancer. I like somebody who does things, whose thinking makes sense. I can come away in a state of euphoria after talking to a Henry Kissinger or a Nelson Rockefeller."
And in most cases, except perhaps for the Saudis and the real Houston and Washington inner circles, it still works for her, though she is beginning to feel that it is a bit demeaning.
Like many women who start off by choosing a flashy, bombshell image, Joanne Herring is ambivalent about it. Reluctant to give up something that has worked so well for her all along, she is still aware that it's nearly time to shed that skin if she wants to be taken seriously. On the one hand she will say it is the only thing that works for her. On the other she will say, "I'm not really a social person; I wish people would write something about me other than that I give parties," and "I feel a little like B'rer Rabbit trying to get out of the Briar Patch. I keep getting writing about the same way."
Anyone who thinks Joanne Herring is a dumb broad is making a big mistake. The fact that she might come on like one has nothing to do with what she is. In fact she is bright, shrewd, and very perceptive about other people. She is also a true eccentric, a nonconformist in a very British sense. There is a zany quality about her and a feeling that despite all the commotion, the show biz and razzamatazz she is still, in an interesting way, an innocent.
"My son says, 'Mother, I used to worry about you but now I realize you like to live in the eye of the hurricane.'"
She has a sense of humor about herself, her image, her public persona, her pitch, and she is totally straightforward about who she is and what she wants, as well as she knows it. She wants to be recognized, to be noticed, to be accepted, to be taken seriously.
If there is any confusion in Joanne Herring it is the choice of the means to that end.
She accepts the fact that some people laugh at her as well as that some people adore her and think she is a fabulous, larger-than-life creature.
That she is a Daisy Mae, cartoon-like figure, a parody of the rich Texas hostess.
Slowly she is changing all that and she will rattle off all the things she is trying to do for Pakistan and Morocco, all the documentaries she has done, how she got started, what her family background is.
She will tell you her family was one of the first families to move to River Oaks, the richest residential area in Houston. "And of course," she says, "we had a land grant from the Spanish king way out in the country. That place has been in the family since 1600...well, maybe not 1600. Maybe 1800. My family was in land." In her library she has several large photographs of an antebellum mansion which she says are her family's estates. And she says they had seven ranches.
"On my motherhs side we had an ancester die at the Alamo," she says. "And Frank and Jesse James used to visit the family all the time. A lot of people in Houston don't know I came from a nice family with all these houses.My mother used to tell me. 'Don't say where you came from.' But my father always said if I lived in the 16th century they would have called me Joanne the Confessor because I tell everybody everything. I'm also a descendant of George Washington through Betty, his only sister."
When Joanne the Confessor was 21 she married a very rich young man from a successful land-developing family named King (no relation to King Ranch.) She had two children, gave a lot of parties and began doing a daily TV show which she did until two years after she married Robert Herring, whose own wife had drowned mysteriously in their swimming pool.
"In the '50s there was a period when a lot of people in Houston made a lot of money quick," says Joanne Herring, "and built big houses. This was a wild rootin', tootin' era, the oil patch crowd took over and everybody was going to the Shamrock Club and movie stars started coming to Houston.
"They added a certain sparkle, wore diamonds to go hunting, and did just about what they wanted to with their money. In those days there was a real openness about Houston. I remember Silver Dollar Jim West used to thro silver dollars in the swimming pool and make the kids dive for them. But he worked hard for his money. Why shouldn't he?"
Joanne Herring remembers the first bunch of Europeans she brought down to a friend's ranch and the first day out one of them came out with metal armored boots around his legs which he told her he had especially made at Hermes to protect him from the rattlesnakes he'd read about in Texas.
That was, she says, a more "extravagant era, a more fun era, a more innocent era. More people are realizing now that life is serious, the world is crumbling around us."
In those days she says, "Houston was isolated. It was a dry town. You couldn't buy a drink. When you went somewhere on a weekend you just had to have a private plane. I'd go to Europe then and I'd say to the Europeans, 'Oh, you must come to Texas' and they'd get this glazed look and say 'Oh, yes.' Now everybody comes. My children call this the Herring Hilton." CAPTION: Picture, Joanne Herring in her Houston house . Copyright (c) 1978, Arthur Meyerson Photography