By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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Ambivalence seeps like an uneasy vapor from the subdued cocktail-party crowd prowling Hart Galleries' vast second floor this Tuesday night. Everyone's motives are suspect. Ostensibly the odd gumbo of academic, artsy and cafe-society types has paid $50 a head to attend an auction preview benefiting the University of Houston art department. But beneath the gathering's respectable surface lurks a baser agenda: the long-awaited opportunity irresistible to any self-respecting voyeur -- to inspect the assembled worldly goods of Teresa Rodriguez, defrocked Houston social climber, alleged con artist and hopper extraordinaire.
Spread out beneath the gallery's unforgiving lights is the glittering trove of a confirmed magpie. Sparkly evening gowns, shimmery furs, twinkling jewels and handbags; shiny sterling, faceted crystal, antiques and china agleam with gilt. From a lustrous mahogany dining table big enough to apply for statehood dangles a foreboding cardboard talisman. "WARNING," the tag advises. "United States Government Seizure."
It's a reminder of the discomfiting circumstances surrounding not only this high-society preview, but also the four-day auction that begins this Friday. The Internal Revenue Service, having confiscated Rodriguez's effects from her Houston townhouse and Mexia ranch, is now selling them off to repay her $1.2 million tax debt and the court costs of her involuntary bankruptcy; if any money is left over after this and two previous auctions, it will go to the hundreds of investors -- many of them affluent and highly pissed-off Houstonians -- Teresa allegedly soaked for up to $80 million.
To wring a charity party from such a messy episode may have offended the city's guardians of good taste (one partygoer rolls her eyes and shudders delicately when asked why her name appears on the invitations), but the impulse seems profoundly -- and cheerfully -- Houstonian. Ours is a town in which the can-do gospel includes a mandate to make lemonade whenever presented a lemon, and gallery owners Jerry and Wynonne Hart, themselves charity-circuit fixtures, were dispensing gallons of it in the face of national publicity that has made many Houstonians cringe. L'affaire Rodriguez has stirred up our dormant rubophobia, that ancient Texas dread of being caricatured as overdressed buffoons with more money than good sense. Depictions of the flashy Teresa as "ostentatious even by Houston standards" have hardly fostered a party mood; nor, for that matter, has seeing Houston portrayed as a greed capital in such organs as the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer.
No doubt that accounts for a certain bemused hesitance on the part of the several hundred partygoers, who are notably circumspect about ogling Rodriguez's stuff. They wander among the good, the bad and the just plain improbable, clucking over her nesting pairs of polychromed porcelain ducks, lifting the lids of her unused Neiman's picnic baskets, eyeing her beloved herd of costly crystal frogs. Near the more personal artifacts -- the brave fur flings, the grandiose set of Louis Vuitton luggage, handles slightly worn from use -- a lugubrious note creeps in. It is as if a window suddenly has opened on an interrupted life.
A stir runs through the crowd at the arrival of Betty Shindler, the Best-Dressed socialite who has been the most vocal of Rodriguez's unhappy investors. She wears a whispery cream suit -- the same one she donned for a People magazine photographer, observes an uncharitable soul, who snipes, "She's gotten so much mileage out of this story!" Shindler looks spooked. "I've seen Teresa wearing so many of these things," she says, regarding the display cases crammed with Chanel handbags of the sort that hangs from her own shoulder, and the eerie tableau of headless mannequins sporting Rodriguez's linebackeresque wardrobe in size 16-18 petite. "It's almost like she's here in the room."
Her diffidence is understandable. The high-priced handbags, the Ungaro suits, the intricately pleated Mary McFadden gowns were the props Rodriguez used to woo wealthy Houstonians such as the Shindlers to invest in nonexistent government minority contracts that promised eyebrow-raising returns of 20 to 40 percent. When the hotsy-totsy Costume Institute brought Oscar de la Renta to town and Teresa bought his ruffly black ballgown -- worth a cool nine thou and now dressing one of the Harts' mannequins -- the message she telegraphed was, "I'm one of you."
And in a fundamental sense, she was. Gathered for auction, the Rodriguez collection is an encyclopedia of the pricy names that confer instant status (and buy quick acceptance) among Houston's flashier monied set. Baccarat, Frette, Steinway, Limoges, Hermes. Louis Vuitton. Neiman-Marcus. Cristal champagne. Pop novelist Judith Krantz could not have dreamed up a more brand-conscious universe than Teresa spun for herself as the millions rolled in. Her shopping sprees were organized on the "less is a bore" principle dear to the Houston aesthetic: everywhere one's eyes light at the auction preview, Rodriguez's passion for ornament explodes. Bearing fields of marble, her furniture perches atop ball-and-claw feet. Her battalions of crystal stemware are cut and colored and gilded to a fare-thee-well. Her ice-cream scoop boasts a preposterously fancy sterling handle, and even her silver pattern, Reed and Barton's Francis I, is as ornate as silverware gets. If a unifying thread runs through this assemblage, it's that there's nothing that can't be improved by the addition of a little gold. Or a lot.