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.
"More is more" (that less-is-a-bore corollary) emerges as another axiom of TeresaWorld; her hobby was buying in multiples. In a climate where you have to stretch a point to wear furs, she accumulated 24, from a $60,000 sable to a scruffy-looking nutria; from manifold minks to a bizarre blue-and-white striped Giorgio di Sant'Angelo number. Her sundry sets of china, costing up to $2,500 per five-piece place setting, are so epic that the auctioneers split them up to make them more attractive to buyers. Her stash of Francis I silverware passeth human understanding: counting service ware, there are almost 700 pieces of the stuff. She even felt the need to lay in 36 amber-stemmed crystal brandy snifters at $116 a pop. Duck down, and you can glimpse the high-status Bergdorf-Goodman price tags still affixed to their bottoms.
What does it all mean? Greed is the easy answer; indeed, it is the subtext of Rodriguez's supposed schemes, her investors' gullibility, the auction itself. But looking around the room, something deeper and darker seems to be at work, a hoarding impulse that goes far beyond RodriguezÕs need for socially acceptable props. Much of her crystal and china was squirreled away in the custom closets of her faux-French townhouse, located five short blocks (and a world away) from the main gates of River Oaks. Much of it was never even used. Given the poor-girl El Campo upbringing she has described, the fact that so many of her acquisitions have to do with hunger and thirst seems strangely poignant.
Contemplating her handbags, 110 strong, it is easy to imagine a woman who must have devoted significant blocks of time to shifting her valuables from one container to another. The Elizabethans would have recognized the Rodriguez purses as a metaphor; the "true bidders" the Harts aim to attract by imposing a $15 auction admission and throwing a charity preview party recognize the bags only as a bargain. Toward the end of the evening, socialites Susan Glesby and Jeanie Kilroy are seen appraising a tiny black-satin cylinder by Chanel, and then -- more lovingly -- one of the $11,400 Barry Kieselstein-Cord bags that Rodriguez's erstwhile chum Elyse Lanier has been known to carry, its golden alligator-head handles and clasp lending it a carnivorous air.
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"Is that a Judith Lieber?" asks a striking woman with angled silver hair and big jet earrings. She makes a beeline for the purses, her own Lieber jewelbox swinging on her arm. It is legendary Houston retailer Ella Pryor, here on a busman's holiday with her daughter, Judy Pryor Otto, who runs the family store. Regret and relief mingle on their faces. "Judy would have liked her as a customer," teases Ella. "If it wasn't other people's money," qualifies Judy. "The woman knew how to shop," she finishes, looking slightly wistful.
The ride may well be over for Teresa, not to mention for the Houston retailers who outfitted her dream world. (Some, like the dealer who supplied a country French writing table among the items now on the block, are still waiting to be paid.) But this being Houston, hope springs eternal. At the close of the party, the very social Harriet Rosmarin Gertner, who with her relatively new husband practically lives on Tony's central aisle, stands before a locked jewelry case. A gargantuan jade butterfly is produced, one of three pieces that failed to sell at a recent New York auction of Rodriguez's jewels (what did go brought $2.3 million). While a local doctor squints at the butterfly through a jeweler's glass -- "That brown diamond is in very good condition," he opines -- Gertner talks jewelry; dozens of headless Teresa dummies look on.
"I'm a jeweler's daughter, so I started collecting early," Gertner volunteers, flashing an ice-cube-size ring to rival any of Teresa's. Gertner's neck is encased in a wide pearl choker; her wrist bears a big diamond bracelet; even the buttons on her brightly flowered suit are jeweled. She speaks of David Webb and Piaget and a diamond-pave watch a friend of hers bought at another bankruptcy auction. "And I'll tell you something," she informs her new friends without so much as a shred of ambivalence. "If I'd been married a few more years, I'd have bought that watch!"
It's a sentiment that Teresa Rodriguez, the uninvited guest whose presence hovers nearby among the mannequins, would have understood.