Tea at the di Portanovas'

What excess comes with riches? A tea party reveals all -- almost

These stand as private testimony to years of dedicated shopping -- a rebuke to the relative austerity of Ricky's low-key Cullen relatives. Hugh Roy may have commissioned a John Staub mansion at the corner of River Oaks Boulevard and Inwood and showered his largesse upon Houston institutions from U. of H. to the Texas Medical Center, but neither he nor his sanctioned heirs have ever been noted for having fun with their dough. Certainly they never gadded about in a personal Learjet named the Barefoot Contessa, or announced plans -- heralded by fireworks exploding from the roof of Monte Carlo's Hotel de Paris -- to purchase New York City's prestigious 21 club (plans which did not bear fruit).

And certainly Ricky and Sandra, who reinvented herself as the Baroness Alessandra, were strangers to Hugh Roy's dictum that "jewelry is something people use in order to make out that they're better than other people." Having come into his fortune, Ricky exulted in the 18th-century European aristocrat's prerogative to design his personal cosmos. If a lack of funds had once kept him from living the baronial life he laid claim to (over the mutterings of those who speculated on his title's provenance), he could now afford to play the nobleman's part. He dressed the baroness in gowns and jewelry of his own inspiration, and he presented his regally proportioned entertainments on stages of his own devising -- on one of which assorted tea-sippers now murmured quietly, chatting with Mr. Bentley.

It was here, at the heart of the world Ricky di Portanova created, that one searched for what is invariably missing in the carefully propped rich-people's rooms depicted by American shelter magazines: evidence of life. Clues, perhaps, to some existence beyond the cartoonish one we tend to imagine for big spenders, particularly those of a gleefully outrageous bent. The sleeping hedgehog in its lonely sock; what did it signify? Or those romantic videos on the console: Rebecca, Three Coins in the Fountain. Or the books alongside: Tiffany Parties, The Living Bible, a volume by Rush Limbaugh. The rack of old-fashioned CDs: Herb Alpert, Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt. The carefully arranged silver flasks commemorating the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer. The legend on the hot dog machine: "We Don't Boil or Steam the Flavor Away."

Inside a small, completely mirrored bathroom, hung with a print of horrified dogs shrinking from a smugly urinating cat, the horizon arced into green-glass infinity. Into the distance marched hundreds of small chandeliers, hundreds of white commodes. Turn around: same dizzyingly surreal vista. How to resist it? Why try? In the drawing room, Mr. Bentley greeted a sleek, blond latecomer with glad salutations. She had come, as symmetry would have it, from Hugh Roy Cullen's old house, right down the street.

"Mrs. Wyatt!" sang Mr. Bentley, drawing her inside the party room to end all party rooms. "Come in and have a cup of long-leaf tea! You look like a million dollars!"

Outside, the mechanical gates swung shut behind the armed guard. A last, lingering goggle -- and a revelation. Now that the neighborhood has been infiltrated by such monsters as the McNairs' nearby mausoleum, the House of the Fu Dogs, some long-gone sheik's Fort Knox and the Sapersteins' monument to themselves, the di Portanovas' house has started to look ... well ... almost normal. Peering through the gate, it was easy to imagine the di Portanovas toasting each other with their beloved Dom Perignon in their Claridge's suite, having the last laugh.

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