Overblown and Underrated

So you know Houston's goats, heroes and high points? Think again.

Most Underrated: The Anna Nicole Smith trial

It's hard to think of anything involving Anna Nicole Smith as being overlooked, but Cosgriff says the bizarre story of the sex bomb's marriage to billionaire oilman J. Howard Marshall II didn't get the coverage it deserved.

Smith, of course, was suing Marshall's stepson over dividing up the dead guy's estate. She dropped her suit after a California bankruptcy court awarded her $475 million, but a countersuit by the stepson remains.

Despite awesome clutch hitting, Bill Spiers often gets overlooked.
Despite awesome clutch hitting, Bill Spiers often gets overlooked.

Elaborate preparations were made for press coverage of the Houston trial, but the expected media onslaught never occurred -- and the ranks thinned even further when Smith was absent for much of the trial, owing to the most suspicious injury since Bill Murray's whiplash in Wild Things.

"They were sooo chintzy with press credentials, but no one ever showed up," Cosgriff says.

But by staying away in droves, the national media missed a compelling story about greed and the vanity of once-great men, she says.

"It was a fascinating trial … the sibling rivalry, the old man who was a brilliant, charming guy, and all we know of him is this diaper-clad drooler in a wheelchair," she says. "There were, and continue to be, many days of eye-glazing, mind-numbing, dry financial testimony. So folks shouldn't be running down there expecting a fascinating courtroom drama on any given day -- it's just that the premise has far more to it than Anna Nicole."

Mover and Shaker

More than in a lot of cities, the history of Houston has been a history of Great Men. Or at least self-proclaimed Great Men who shaped the city for good or ill on the way to lining their pockets.

Some, like William Marsh Rice and his university, or George Hermann and his tree-filled park, have put their names where history will remember them. Others liked to do their moving and shaking in private, getting mayors and congressmen elected and lucrative construction jobs awarded.

Houston's past is filled with such men -- and yes, it's almost exclusively men. Bob Stein, a Rice political science professor, has studied them all.

Most Overrated: Jesse Jones

Few names are held in more reverence in Houston's pantheon than that of Jesse Jones -- perhaps because Jones's foundation controlled much of the media that put forth such reverence.

Jones is forever extolled as the man who built much of downtown Houston, brought the 1928 Democratic Convention here and was a fervent New Dealer, albeit one thought to be too conservative by many of his colleagues. After being denied the vice presidential nomination in 1940, Jones became an enemy of FDR's.

Jones's charitable foundation, Houston Endowment, for years owned the Houston Chronicle and funded many influential groups around town. Jones Hall, of course, is named after him.

But, Stein says, Jones's reputation has grown enormously since his death, because of the power and influence -- and good works -- of the endowment.

"He may have done much more for the city after his death than he ever did while he was alive," Stein says. "While he was alive, he did more for Jesse Jones than he ever did for the city."

It is the work of the endowment that has given Jones such prominence, Stein says, and all that work came after his death. "He's overrated in the sense that his legacy is much greater in what's happened after his death than it is from what he did during his lifetime."

Most Underrated: The Allen brothers

History tends to look condescendingly on the Allen brothers. The siblings came from New York in 1836 to a swamp near the site of today's Wortham Center, and where others had seen a mosquito-infested muddy bog, they saw a gleaming city.

They advertised the glowing qualities of their jewel by the sea, qualities that were not immediately apparent to the people who succumbed to the ads and found that Houston was not only not exactly a jewel but was 45 miles from the sea.

Augustus C. and John Kirby Allen were not daunted by disgruntled customers, however; they used glowing promises of construction in order to get Houston named the capital of the new country of Texas.

That didn't last long, and the city struggled until the turn of the century, when the Great Storm of 1900 devastated Galveston and oil was discovered at Spindletop.

Stein believes the Allen brothers don't deserve the reputation of being either slick real estate salesmen or wide-eyed quacks intent on widening Buffalo Bayou.

"They're often ridiculed with humor as two guys who thought they could build a city on a swamp, but if they hadn't made those efforts to build that channel, no one would have ever built here," he says. "They made Houston, where it was possible that Galveston might have come back and succeeded even after the storm of 1900. Instead, Houston was there to take over."

"They weren't these brilliant, snappy entrepreneurs who made lots of money," he says, "but without them there's probably no Houston."

Houston is a city that is ever changing, one that often pays scant attention to the past. So if there's one place where reputations should not be set in stone, but subject to constant re-evaluation, it's here, on the swampy bog where space missions are directed, Mattress Mac movies are made, and great bluesmen die unheralded.

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