It was in the late '50s that Joanne Herring "broke out of Houston."
"At that time I was the Ambassadress for the hemisphere at the World's Fair," she says, "in San Antonio. I met the Count de Chambres, a descendant of Lafayette there.I went to Paris and through him I really got into high society or tilted society. I met everybody. And they liked me!"
She says this in a startled little girl voice as though genuinely surprised that these fancy pants jet-set types would like a little Texas bumpkin.
"I liked them too ad we all became lifelong friends. At that time there were very few Texans moving in that strata."
Houston was still a little-known town in Texas, certainly to foreigners. It wasn't nearly the major oil and gas center it is today. And any traveling and socializing that Joanne Herring was to do then had to do strictly with pleasure. It was only later she would become interested in Politics, only much later, after her marriage to the chairman of the board of Houston Natural Gas, Robert Herring, that she would aspire to a major role in the Washington social scene. Here is, in her own words, the saga of how she got from there to here:
In the days when she "broke out of Houston," Joanne Herring was still married to millionaire Bob King and she had just begun a daily TV program that was to occupy her time for the next 12 years and make her a well known local celebrity.
It was through her TV show and her European jet-set contacts that she was asked to do a documentary for the government of Spain. "I had the first interview with DonJuan Carlos and Sophia. You see I'm a very sincere person. And people trust me. Then I met Franco, he invited me to bring my child over and shoot. He was so sweet. Do you know that I won the Spanish Oscar for the documentary? Walter Cronkite is the only other one who got it."
From there it was more royalty, more titles and she was soon ensconed in European society. The next step was Italy, where she says she also made a documentary. "Prince Borghese had a luncheon for me, invited all the nobility. We met life-long friends; we were invited on yachts, to parties. It's just like in Washington. We met Yaqub-Khan, the Pakistani ambassador, and he introduced us to Ardeshire (Zahedi, Iranian ambassador) and Ardeshire introduced us to everybody else. England was the same way."
All of this was to culiminate in a film Joanne Herring made several years ago in France. She produced, directed and starred. By this time she had been divorced from her first husband and had gone through a period of psychiatry. "I went to a psychiastrist to try to save my marriage. I was the first person in Houston to admit going. After I told everybody they all admitted it. The psychiatrist said to me, 'You are a people-pleaser. You jump up and down and try to make people happy.' I still do jump up and down and do tricks."
Handiwork and Hassles
It is morning and Joanne Herring has been in her study behind the Louis Quatorze-decorated living room in her Houston Oaks mansion. You can hear her talking on the phone to various Pakistani officials, pleading with them to deliver the embroidered dresses she had commissioned for a fashion show to promote Pakistani handiwork. As honorary consult general in Houston for both Pakistan and Morocco, she will explain later, she is constantly hassling with people over the phone, sitting on the floor with papers spread all around her. Her secretary Patti, a tall, striking young woman who is also her son's girlfriend, calls to her to get details of a farewell dinner in Washington on the 14th for Pakistan Ambassador YAQUB-KHAN BY SAUDI ARABIAN AMBASSADOR ALIREZA. THE HERRINGS WILL FLY TO NEW YORK ON THEIR PLANE, THEN TO WASHINGTON, THEN BACK TO HOUSTON THAT SAME NIGHT.
SHE ARRIVES IN HER LIBRARY, DRESSED IN A PEACH WOOL SWEATER-AND-SKIRT OUTFIT WITH MATCHING SHAWL, WHICH COMPLIMENTS HER CHINA-DOLL COMPLEXION, AND COLLAPSES ON THE SOFA, HEAVING A SIGH OF EXASPERATION.
HER MAID BRINGS IN A TRAY OF TEA AND SHE SITS BACK, FINALLY RELAXES AND BEGINS TALKING ABOUT HERSELF, HER LIFE IN HOUSTON, AND HER NEW WASHINGTON INVOLVEMENT.
THE PHONE RINGS CONSTANTLY AS SHE TALKS, LONG-DISTANCE CALLS FROM ALL OVER THE COUNTRY AND THE WORLD. SHE ASKS HER SECRETARY TO TAKE MESSAGES.
THERE IS A VIVACIOUSNESS TO JOANNE HERRING, A "NEVER-SAY-DIE," "UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN" QUALITY ABOUT HER THAT IS DISARMING.
SHE IS GIRLISH AND CONFIDENTIAL IN HER CONVERSATION, ALMOST LIKE A SORORITY SISTER, AND THERE IS A DETERMINATION ABOUT HER, AN ENERGY, AN IRREPESSIBLE SPIRIT THAT EMANATES EVEN WHEN SHE SAYS SHE IS MOST DEJECTED. "WE WERE RAISED VERY STRICTLY," SHE SAYS. "MY FATHER ALWAYS TAUGHT ME TO 'SMILE AND THE WORLD SMILES WITH YOU' . . ." SHE THINKS ABOUT THAT A MOMEN AND THEN GRIMACES. "GEE THAT'S DULL, SHE SAYS.
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT IS REFRESHING ABOUT JOANNE HERRING IS HER CANDID ENTHUSIASM FOR HER SOCIAL LIFE, FOR THE POWERFUL, RICH, IMPORTANT AND FAMOUS PEOPLE SHE HAS MET AND IS MEETING.
SHE TAKES A GREAT PRIDE IN HER HOUSE, AN ELEPHANT OF A HOUSE WITH ENORMOUSLY HIGH CEILINGS, TONS OF FRENCH AND ITALIAN FURNITURE. ALMOST EVERYTHING IN THE HOUSE IS GOLD OR GILDED, SMOKED GLASS, CUT VELVET, RED-CARPETED, BLACK-FLOCKED. SHE APOLOGIZES FOR THE SCARLETT O'HARA STAIRCASE WHICH DOMINATES THE HALLWAY, AND ADMITS RUEFULLY THAT IT GOES NOWHERE. SHE MOANS OVER HER MISTAKE, PAPERING THE GRAND ENTRANCE HALL IN BLACK-FLOCKED WALLPAPER. SHE POINTS PROUDLY TO HER GOLD-LEAF, CARVED DINING ROOM TABLE AND CHAIRS, "THIS ROOM IS REALLY ME," AND SHE RHAPSODIZES OVER HER UPSTAIRS DISCOTHEQUE-HAREM WHICH SHE HAD BUILT FOR THE KING OF SWEDEN'S VISIT AND WHICH SHE NOW USES FOR ALL HER PARTIES.
STILL, SHE REALIZES THAT SOME OF THE ACCOUTREMENTS OF HER LIFE ARE ALL WRONG NOW, THAT CHANGES HAVE TO BE MADE.
SHE HINTS THAT PERHAPS HER TASTE HAS CHANGED, IS NOT SO OSTENTATIOUS ANY MORE. SHE INTIMATES THAT HER LIFESTYLE MIGHT EVEN BE MORE IN FLUX THAN ONE MIGHT REALIZE. SHE PROMISES A LESS FRIVOLOUS, MORE CONSCIENTIOUS APPROACH TO HER POLITICAL INVOLVEMENTS, TO HER HUSBAND'S CAREER, TO HER RECENT WASHINGTON CONNECTION.
"THAT'S ONE OF THE REASONS I'VE GOTTEN SO INVOLVED IN SO MANY THINGS LIKE THIS PAKISTANI AND MORROCAN THING. I REALLY DON'T HAVE TIME. WHAT I'M DOING WITH THE THIRD-WORLD COUNTRIES HAS JUST KILLED ME. AND I HAVEN'T GOTTEN ONE PENNY OUT OF IT."
THE KIDNAPPED DOCUMENTARY
THE FRENCH DOCUMENTARY WAS ONLY ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF TRYING TO PLEASE EVERYONE, SHE SAYS. "I WAS ENGAGED TO THE FRENCH MINISTER OF THE INTERIOR AT THE TIME. IT WAS RIGHT BEFORE THE BICENTENNIAL AND HE WANTED ME TO DO A FILM ABOUT THE FRENCH PARTICIPATION IN OUR REVOLUTION. AND OF COURSE WITH MY GEORGE WASHINGTON BACKGROUND IT WAS SO EASY."
SHE GATHERED UP ALL OF HER DESCENDANTS OF THE PARTICIPANTS, NOBILITY FRIENDS, GOT THEM DRESSED UP IN COSTUME AND TOOK THEM OUT TO VERSAILLES FOR FILMING, ALL FINANCED BY EXXON AND SCHLUMBERGER. ("I GOT THE MONEY IN ONE AFTERNOON.")
UNFORTUNATELY, THE FILM, CALLED "A THIRST FOR GLORY," WAS "KIDNAPPED" BY THE FILM CREW, SAYS JOANNE HERRING, AND "I HAD TO RANSOM IT BACK FOR $50,000. SO IT HAS YET TO BE SHOWN."
AS FOR THE MINSTER OF THE INTERIOR, "IT JUST DIDN'T QUITE SEEM RIGHT TO TAKE MY LITTLE TEXAS BOYS (HER SONS FROM HER MARRIAGE TO KING) TO PARIS. AND THEN I GOT TOGETHER WITH BOB HERRING. THAT WAS SO RIGHT. BELLS RANG AND EVERYTHING."
AFTER THAT EXPERIENCE JOANNE HERRING GAVE UP DOCUMENTARIES IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES. "YOU HAD TO WORK ALL DAY AND THEN GO TO PARTIES ALL NIGHT WITH MINISTERS OF THIS AND THAT. IT WAS WALL-TO-WALL WORK. I JUST DON'T HAVE THE TASTE FOR IT ANYMORE. THE ONLY THING I'D THINK OF DOING NOW WOULD BE AN ALISTAIR COOKE TYPE OF THING."
ALL THIS RUNNING AROUND EUROPE, PARTYING AND MAKING DOCUMENTARIES MAY HAVE BEEN EXHAUSTING, PARTICULARLY SINCE JOANNE HERRING WAS STILL DOING FIVE SHOWS A WEEK BACK HOME N HOUSTON (OFTEN TAPING THREE WEEKS WORTH AT ONE TIME, BEFORE A BIG TRIP), BUT IT WAS PUTTING HER ON THE MAP, MAKING A NAME FOR HER THAT WOULD SOON PAY OFF POLITICALLY.
FIVE AND A HALF YEARS AGO SHE MARRIED BOB HERRING, WENT ON HER HONEYMOON TO SAUDI ARABIA, AND BEGAN TO TAKE AN INTEREST IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND AS SHE CALLS THEM, "THE THIRD-WORLD COUNTRIES LIKE MOROCCO AND PAKISTAN."
AND IT WS TWO YEARS AFTER SHE MARRIED BOB HERRING THAT SHE GAVE UP THE TV show. "I was taping five shows a day, running a big house, traveling all over the world, giving parties and tending to five children. Even then people thought I was just sitting around on my tuffet eating curds and whey. So one day I woke up in Iran in the shah's granddaughter's palace and I couldn't get out of bed. I was really sick. I felt God was trying to tell me something, which was . . . This is the end of your television career.
But Joanne Herring wasn't one to sit on her tuffet, as she says. And giving up the TV career gave her extra time to do something else. It also left her with an identity crisis. "After 12 years I was terrified. I was so used to having people come up to me and say 'you're Joanne King, I saw you on TV.'"
So rather than sit around doing nothing she got involved in something else. She became the honorary consul of Pakistan.
Now that may seem a little unusual, but the way she tells it, it's all very logical. "Actually Pakistan wanted Bob to be the consul general. But Bob couldn't do it so they asked me. They figured they'd get Bob anway. And they did."
So she threw herself into a project getting poor Pakistani women to do hand-embroidery work on designs created by about a dozen top designers from New York whose aid she enlisted. "everybody told me it was crazy, impossible, except the president of Pakistan. So I called Prentiss Hale (who heads a company which owns Neiman-Marcus) and got him to promise to sell them. "I got a woman in Karachi called 'the barracuda' to organzie the women. I had a huge fashion show and I got Nelson Rockefeller to come. Nelson said, 'I don't like style shows' and I said, Nelson, but we need your picure.' Because you see," she explains with total simplicity, "everything is P.R."
THE MONEY THAT SHE AND HER HUSBAND HAVE IN THE PAKISTANI PROJECT, SAYS JOANNE, IS "WELL, YOU'D BE SURPRISED. AND WE'LL NEVER GET IT BACK. BUT I'D RATHER SPEND MY MONEY ON THIS KIND OF THING THAN ON BALLOONS FULL OF BUTTERFLIES."
"PEOPLE ASK ME WHY I DON'T WORK FOR THE POOR PEOPLE OF TEXAS INSTEAD OF THE POOR OF PAKISTAN," SHE SAYS. "WELL, TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH THERE'S NO REASON TO BE POOR IN TEXAS. THERE ARE 27 PAGES OF WANT ADS FOR JOBS IN THE NEWSPAPERS, THERE ARE TRAINING SCHOOLS, THERE IS WELFARE. BESIDES, I AM PROMOTING FREE ENTERPRISE IN PAKISTAN. AND THEY'RE NOT COMPETING WITH AMERICANS EITHER."
HIS MAJESTY'S EXCEPTION
WITH HER PAKISTANI CONSULATE JOB SUCH A SUCCESS, JOANNE AND BOB HERRING BEGAN COMING TO WASHINGTON MORE OFTEN, SEEING LESS OF THEIR FRIENDS FROM EUROPEAN ROYALTY. AND IT WAS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE THE HONORARY MOROCCAN CONSUL GENERALSHIP WAS OFFERED.
THE HERRINGS WENT TO MOROCCO AND HAD AN AUDIENCE WITH THE KING. "HIS MAJESTY RARELY SEES WOMEN," SHE CONFIDES, "BUT HE MADE AN EXCEPTION IN MY CASE. AND I'M VERY INTERESTED IN WORLD AFFAIRS SO WE TALKED ABOUT THAT. BACK AT THE HOTEL THERE WAS THE CHIEF OF PROTOCOL. HE TOLD ME HIS MAJESTY WANTED ME TO BE THE HONORARY CONSUL OF MOROCO. I SAID I WOULD JUST LOVE TO DO IT . . . AND I WOULD BECAUSE MOROCCO IS JUST SO MUCH FUN! BUT IHD HAVE TO ASK THE PAKISTANI AMBASSADOR. DO YOU KNOW I'M THE ONLY CONSUL HIS MAJESTY HAS EVER PERSONALLY APPOINTED?"
NATURALLY ALL THIS CHANGED THE DIRECTION OF THE HERRINGS' LIFE, THRUSTING THEM INTO A MUCH MORE POLITICAL SOCIAL ATMOSPHERE AND OPENED THE WAY FOR THEM TO CONCENTRATE ON MORE MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRIES, THOSE WITH OIL OR THOSE RELATED TO THE OIL COUNTRIES. ALL ANTICOMMUNIST.
IT ALSO LED IN A CHANGE OF INTERESTS FOR JOANNE HERRING, IT LED TO WASHINGTON.
"NOW I SPEND MY LIFE TALKING POLITICS," SHE SAYS. "IT ENDEARS ME TO SOME AND THROWS OTHERS OFF. I MADE UP MY MIND THAT I'D HAVE TO DECIDE WHETHER I WANTD PEOPLE TO LIKE ME OR WHETHER I WANTED TO TELL THE TRUTH."
SINCE THAT TIME, SAYS JOANNE, THE HERRINGS HAVE CONCENTRATED THEIR THOUGHTS ON WHAT'S GOOD FOR HOUSTON AND WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY.
"BOB AND I HAVE HAD EIGHT HEADS OF STATE IN THE LAST TWO YEARS," SAYS JOANNE. "THEY ALL CAME TO SEE TEXAS."
ONE OF THE REASONS THEY LIKE TO GO TO THE HERRINGS IS BECAUSE JOANNE HAS FIGURED OUT THE PERFECT FORMULA, SHE THINKS, FOR ENTERTAINING THEM, AND SHE CAN ALSO DRAW ALMOST EVERYBODY IN HOUSTON.
"WHEN I GIVE A PARTY FOR A HEAD OF STATE," SHE SAYS, "HEHS USUALLY BEEN TO WASHINGTON AND HAD ALL THE POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE. I FIGURE IF I CAN TAKE THE POMP OUT OF HIS VISIT THAT'S MY GIFT TO HIM. I MOVE THEM AROUND AT DINNER, I TRY VERY HARD TO PRICK THE POMPOSITY. I CAN'T STAND THAT."
"AS LONG AS YOU CAN STICK TO THE BASIC RULES OF ENTERTAINING ROYALTY, THEN YOU CAN BREAK AWAY, TAKE LIBERTIES."
NEVER MIND THAT KING HUSSEIN AND PRINCE SAUD WERE BOTH A BIT TERRIFIED AT THE "HAREM" JOANNE HERRING PRODUCED FOR THEM IN THE PERSIAN ROOM DISCOTHEQUE. MOST OF THEM SEEN TO BE FAIRLY SPORTING ABOUT IT.
SADAT CAME AND HAD A GOOD TIME. SO DID FRENCH PRESIDENT GISCARD D'ESTAING. "WE ENTERTAINED HIM. NOT ON ANY OF OUR RANCHES. THEY'RE NOT GLAMOROUS ENOUGH. I GOT MY BEST FRIEND MRS. MCCULLOUGH, WHOSE HUSBAND IS THE HEAD OF CONTINENTAL OIL, TO HAVE THEM. SHE SUED TO BE MARRIED TO SONNY WHITNEY. WE TOOK PRINCE SAUD THERE TOO."
THE WAY THESE TRIPS MATERIALIZE IS ALWAYS THROUGH FRIENDS, MOST THROUGH THEIR NEW WASHINGTON FRIENDS. IT WAS ARDESHIR ZAHEDI WHO SUGGESTED THEY ENTERTAIN THE KING OF SWEDEN AND THEY PLANNED IT THROUGH THEIR NEW FRIENDS COUNT AND COUNTLESS WILHELM WACHTMEISTER, THE SWEDISH AMBASSADOR AND HIS WIFE.
THE VISIT OF KING HUSSEIN WAS PLANNED THROUGH THE U.S. State Department. Somebody at State asked them to have him, and "Prince Saud we already knew."
"I've done it so much now that I have a pattern. They all like to see NASA; they like to see a ranch, and then I always have a formal dinner and bring the tops of the Texas medical world like (heart surgeon) Denton Cooley, and an astronaut, and people in business, and others in politics like John Connally. We put on a Wild West show for them, and they love to go to the medical center, see the baboons with artificial hearts and watch Denton operate."
For this extravagant political social life Joanne Herring has to have decent wardrobe. But she hates to shop. So. "Emilio Pucci brought me a whole wardrobe and it fit perfectly. He's so down to earth. I just love him. Pierre Cardin does things for me he doesn't do for others. I just say, 'Dear, I want to look like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.' I'm so short I can't wear those blowsy things. I like the Belle Epoque look like the Empress Eugenie, the romantic look. And I always have them made up in my Pakistani fabrics . . ."
All of this costs money which the Herrings have in abundance. But it's not as important to them as it used to be, not as important to them as most people might think from the lavish way they live, travel and entertain, though certainly much of it is taxdeductible for business purposes.
"Bob doesn't care a lot about money," says Joanne Herring. "He doesn't want much for himself. It's impossible to buy him Christmas presents. Besides, we're not that rich."
"My income," Bob Herring will say, "it is spread out. We're not all that well off."
There are, they both insist, things that money can buy that they can't afford. "For instance, a helicopter to take us to the airport from home instead of having to fight this awful traffic," she says. "Most people couldn't afford that. They just don't have that kind of moeny anymore. I'd love to have a helicopter. But if I did have the money for it, I'd put it in pakistan instead. Money has got to get out there and work for you. Texans are now thinking of making their money work for them rather than spending it. Oh sure, I like a certain amount of jewelry for special occasions and a nice fur. . . ."
The Simplified Life
Still, Joanne Herring feels it's too much trouble to have a lot of money, a lot of things. "There are no servants to polish the silver and people are always stealing things. I've been robbed six times, once in broad daylight, once with 45 people here for dinner. We've begun to simplify our lives."
Mainly, though, the Herrings' life gets, as they say, seriouser and seriouser. Joanne Herring is even going back to TV, this time, though, for only one show a week.
I want to do political stuff and they want me to do fashion and Christmas ornaments. It will be Le Grand Exeriment."
"I like social life, but I like to see something that culminates in helping. I know it sounds corny, but it's true. I feel like God puts us in a position where we do things. I'm a Presbyterian and we believe in predestination."
She also says that she cares most in life about her family, her mother and father, Bob and her children. (She spent last Saturday at a day-long seminar in parent assertiveness.) "My mother really cares about me. Without her I couldn't live. Everything else about my life is exciting, delightful, but without the core of the family it wouldn't be anything at all. I can go out and fight the world for Pakistan and Morocco, but I couldn't make it without my family."
She says she really has no goal, no ambition. "I wish I could tell you that what I'd really like to do is climb up in my loft and listen to classical music or go walk alone on a beach . . . but that's just not true."
Her main motivation in life now, she says from taking Washington by storm, is this thing in Pakistan. This fashion show. "And I've also gotten so involved in the business end of it.
"You know, dealing with these ministries in these third-world countries is like dealing with sick old elephants. And a lot of what I do for them and for Bob hinges on my glamor or image.Without if I have no clout.
"Please don't destroy it for me." CAPTION: Picture 1, Joanne and Robert Herring, Copyright (c) 1978, Arthur Meyerson Photography; Picture 2, Joanne Herring, Copyright (c) 1978, Arthur Meyerson Photography