Secrets of the Sphinx?

Happy families, as Tolstoy wrote, are all alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own particular ways -- and those particulars can make for a riveting divorce case. Especially when the family is very, very rich.

If Sarofim v. Sarofim actually comes to trial next January, court watchers can expect revelations worthy of John Grisham and Judith Krantz. Even by the standards of modern-day divorce, Linda Sarofim's allegations against her soon-to-be ex-husband are extraordinarily lurid. And the money involved is staggering: investor Fayez Sarofim's net worth reportedly weighs in somewhere between $800 million and two billion dollars; Linda is demanding $100 million in damages alone.

But most fascinating of all may be the inscrutable, convoluted relationship of one of the richest couples in Texas.

Fayez, now 68, was born in Egypt, the son of a wealthy landowner. Armed with a Harvard MBA, he came to Houston in 1951, and seven years later launched his own company. He made brilliant investments, buying early into companies such as Teledyne and Intel. With the help of his socially well-connected first wife, Louisa Stude Sarofim, he attracted heavyweight clients, including Rice University and much of Houston's old guard. He made money for the city's high and mighty, and contributed liberally to charity. He is said to be a social lion; he is nicknamed "the Sphinx."

Linda Hicks met Fayez while working at Sarofim & Co. She was 25 years younger than he, and they embarked on an intense love-hate relationship. In 1983, she sued both Fayez and his company, alleging that the previous November, he "knowingly and intentionally assaulted" her, causing bodily injury, and that the company "entered into a conspiracy" to cover up the incident. Fayez denied the charges, and the suit was settled in his favor.

Apparently all was forgiven. In November '84, Linda and Fayez's first son was born. Technically, Fayez was still married to Louisa; nonetheless, the happy parents mailed birth announcements to their friends and acquaintances. In '86, they mailed out another round, this time to mark the arrival of their second child, also a boy.

Finally, in 1989, Louisa's divorce from Fayez became final. Her settlement -- an estimated $250 million -- set a Texas record.

When Linda gave birth to a third son in July of that year, River Oaks gossip ran wild. The child was blond and blue-eyed, and the swarthy Fayez most assuredly was not.

Nonetheless, Fayez and Linda were married, finally, on September 30, 1990. Perhaps chastened by his previous wife's settlement -- not to mention Linda's demonstrated familiarity with the civil courts -- Fayez demanded a prenuptial contract. To protect her interests, Linda hired Robert Piro, one of the nation's top divorce lawyers.

After a little more than a year of matrimony, she hired Piro again, this time to call an end to the relationship. That divorce filing discreetly cites "a discord or conflict of personalities."

But Fayez and Linda apparently overcame their conflicts -- at least temporarily -- and the case was dismissed without prejudice in '93. The couple resumed their high-profile ways. In early '94, Fayez, Linda and the three boys moved into a huge River Oaks mansion. When they opened their house for a Christmastime fundraiser, a Chronicle society reporter described a scene straight out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: a Christmas tree that soared to the top of the two-story game room; scads of imported flowers; and rack of lamb, smoked salmon and Peking duck served to nearly 200 "sophisticated," "well-heeled" ballet patrons.

But maintaining a marriage is harder than throwing a marvelous party. And according to court documents, Linda and Fayez "ceased to live together as husband and wife" the next summer. Last August, Linda filed for divorce.

Any hopes for a quiet settlement of differences evaporated this June, when divorce lawyer Earle Lilly, Robert Piro's partner, amended Linda's original petition, spiking it with breathtaking allegations. Fayez, that document asserts, treated Linda with "extreme cruelty, including abusive sexual behavior" -- and is guilty, too, of assault and false imprisonment, intentionally incarcerating Linda in "one or more institutions" and confining her behind their mansion's locked doors.

For her alleged sufferings, Linda asks a jury to grant her a cool $100 million in damages -- hardly a drop in the bucket if one believes Fayez's worth to be, as Linda's petition asserts, $2 billion.

Linda also asks for $10 million in child support for each of her three boys. The petition lists the older two as the biological offspring of both Linda and Fayez; the youngest, it says succinctly, was merely "born to Linda," and his legal status is "presently uncertain." The amended suit suggests that Fayez may have contrived to adopt the boy illegally. "Somehow," it says, "some way, Fayez Sarofim, with his vast wealth, was able to induce an out-of-county judge to sign off on legal papers" regarding the child.

As for the prenuptial agreement, Lilly was forced to argue that Piro, his savvy partner, had somehow been snookered and had allowed Linda to be coerced into signing a document that could now limit her post-marital haul.

A June hearing set the stage for the meanness that January may bring. Judge John D. Montgomery admonished the lawyers to keep their conduct professional, their depositions mannerly and their comments to the press within reasonable limits, lest the case become "the donnybrook of the century."

"You know me, I believe, by reputation," the judge said, his country-boy voice running counter to the heavy-handedness for which he is famed. He warned the lawyers that he would recognize and punish any abuse of his courtroom: "Even a hog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked." When Lilly declared himself the lead counsel for the plaintiff's side, the judge seemed wary that colliding egos might complicate matters; he double-checked to be sure that Lilly's high-flying co-counsel -- tort king John O'Quinn -- wouldn't assume control at the last minute.

Fayez's and Linda's depositions were scheduled to begin July 2. In the meantime, the lawyers tried to hammer out a settlement. Neither Lilly nor Richard Keeton, Fayez's lawyer, now return phone calls regarding the case. But in early July, before the depositions began, Lilly estimated that the odds of going to court were 50-50. "If it doesn't reach settlement," he promised, "it'll be the War of the Roses, the divorce case from hell.

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