Wreathes there a Houstonian with soul so dead, he has not longed to peek inside the River Oaks Boulevard mansion of the Baron and Baroness Enrique di Portanova? Folks have been gossiping about the place ever since its 1970s redo, while the disenfranchised Italian baron waged his protracted legal battle for a piece of his Cullen relatives' oil-wildcatting gadzillions (his mother, Lillie, was the eldest daughter of Cullen patriarch Hugh Roy). Enrique won and devoted himself to proving that living flamboyantly is the best revenge.
In a splendidly Houstonian conclusion to a classic fairy-tale plot, Ricky (as he's known to his jet-setting circle) married a Lamar High School beauty, Sandra Hovas, and began transforming a simple French pavilion on the city's most expensive street into a baronial palazzo crowned with pineapple finials. He bricked over the front yard and planted a cavorting-cupid fountain dead center; he staked out his budding imperial universe with a lavish wrought-iron wall sprouting still more stone pineapples. Even among the mock palaces lining the look-at-me boulevard, the di Portanova mansion called attention to itself. Triply so once Ricky had the profoundly Texan inspiration to enclose and air-condition his entire backyard -- roofing it over, swimming pool and all, with a chandelier-hung skylight that spanned from the mansion's rear wall to an outlying guest house. From the air, flying over the city, the place loomed among the trees of River Oaks like a white whale. It was impossible not to wonder what lay within.
So when invitations went out recently for an "English afternoon tea party" hosted by Michael Bentley, the manager of London's rarefied Claridge's hotel, they acquired instant can't-ignore status by appending that said tea party would take place in the house of his friends and clients, the di Portanovas. The peripatetic couple would not be present, since they spend a good part of the year (and a good chunk of the Cullen millions) ensconced in their Acapulco villa or a luxurious Claridge's suite.
Some Claridge's regulars were propelled past the di Portanova's armed guard by their relationships with Michael Bentley; other attendees were driven by a more primal impulse, one that has made Robin Leach a contemporary icon -- the yen to see how our financial betters live. Thus it was that a clutch of gently gawking Houstonians found themselves nibbling caviar-dotted cucumber sandwiches and exchanging distracted pleasantries last week inside the soaring space that is the Baron di Portanova's 20th-century answer to a quattrocento palazzo's courtyard.
Dazzlingly white-on-white, centered by the clear turquoise of a broad swimming pool, graced by a quartet of the world's largest ficus trees, this erstwhile backyard is part orangery, part Texas rec room--and l00 percent architectural fantasy of the sort in which French kings and eccentric English aristocrats used to indulge.
Where grass once grew, creamy marble now spreads; where the seasons once ruled, a seasonless world humming to the faint drone of a powerful air conditioner now unfolds. Everywhere there is greenery -- topiary, palms, vines real and metallic snaking around twisted Bernini-style columns and twining through the verdigris thicket of three huge chandeliers improbably suspended above the pool. Everywhere there are tiny white lights -- wrapped around tree trunks, clinging to planters and pedestals. And everywhere, too, there is white lattice; it sheathes even a small poolside organ and a large video projection console.
Apart from the ghostly, half-felt presence of the di Portanovas live-in retainers, this otherworldly white universe is populated by a phantasmagoric collection of sphinxes, jaguars, dolphins, stags, classical figures and candelabra-hoisting Nubians, each slumbering in stone or metal. Slumbering in fur and scales was the di Portanova menagerie: Ricky's famous pet snake, whose glass cage bears a brass plaque announcing her name, Katharina, and whose squinty head poked briefly from her earthenware cave to inspect passersby. In a wire house, an albino ferret reposed on a blue-velour hammock, blinking its little red eyes. Nearby, hibernating inside a lace-trimmed sock, a hedgehog-sized bristle of fur could be glimpsed; dangling above its fancy burrow was a matching toy socklet trimmed in slightly gnawed ribbon.
It was as if these creatures were awaiting some transformation, when their king and queen would return from faraway lands, commanding the chandeliers and Tivoli lights to sparkle, the organ and vanilla-colored piano to play, the commercial hot dog machine in a far corner to rotate its metal spindles. The specter of the di Portanovas' legendary parties past hovered over the scone-eating tea-party guests at their obelisk-topped tables: the Christmas extravaganzas featuring Santas and gospel choirs and live camels; the seated dinner for Pavarotti; the intimate suppers when host Ricky, in the manner of Louis XV, would whip up one of his famous pastas in the miniature, tile-clad kitchen occupying a corner of this colossal room, pouring wine from bottles with risque labels of his own design.
The other rooms visible to the tea-partiers mesmerized in their own extravagant way. Densely decorated in a giddy mix of rococo and the three French Louis styles, lush with velvets and gilt and crystal and 18th-century oil paintings and wallcoverings of golden watered silk, they exude the odd poignance of rooms that conjure an imagined past, whether they exist in the pages of The Great Gatsby, in a Ralph Lauren showroom or on River Oaks Boulevard. Drawing room, sweepingly staircased entry hall, dining room, hut-sized bar alcove -- all possess a certain magpie gleam, their custom-glass coffee tables crowded with small bibelots, boxes, flasks and containers in a rainbow of precious materials.
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.
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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.