The Final Ascent

Linda Sarofim Lowe might have been more enamored than most visitors to an Abercrombie & Kent Web page touting its African tours. The upscale travel company cites a Swahili saying that translates as "The beginning is a bud, the end is a coconut."

It means simply that big things start small -- wisdom that seems most appropriate to Lowe's own life. By the time she left in June on the A&K trip to Tanzania for a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, her bud had blossomed into the kind of big bucks most Houstonians can only dream about.

Twenty years earlier, she'd arrived in the Bayou City in an old Ford Granada, as just another new divorcée with a young child and an uncertain future. A decade later, she was the new bride of Houston's richest man, investment mogul Fayez Sarofim. Lowe had been his mistress and the mother of his three sons. She was now an instant resident of a River Oaks Boulevard mansion and the presumed heir to Sarofim's $2 billion-plus fortune. All of this came to a slightly pudgy woman of somewhat ordinary appearance, hardly measuring up to the "trophy wife" standards of the megarich.

The Sarofim union fell apart in 1996 with a divorce she initiated, but Lowe wasn't exactly turned out into the streets. A settlement engineered by her attorneys, Earle Lilly and Robert Piro, gave primary custody of the children to Sarofim. However, the agreement gained Lowe an estimated $50 million in what would have been contested property. And Sarofim agreed to pay her almost $1 million yearly for the rest of her life.

Not long after that legal case closed, Lowe turned her wrath on her attorneys. Lilly and Piro had immediately pocketed half of her $12 million cash payment from Sarofim. Worse yet, she alleged in her lawsuit, Lilly had arranged a most lucrative fee contract by wooing her with romance, booze and even marriage plans -- then dumped her as soon as he grabbed the whopping attorney fees (see "Courtship, River Oaks Style," by George Flynn, July 16, 1998). His final insult was driving away in one of her gifts to him, a new Mercedes, Lowe contended.

Lilly and Piro dismissed the accusations as ridiculous, saying they were the product of the addled mind of a serious abuser of prescription drugs and alcohol. They argued that they'd worked hard for the money and voided a prenuptial agreement that would have paid her peanuts in comparison. Based on the contingency agreement, they said, even more should have been due them in fees. As for the notion that he'd bedded down Lowe, Lilly said that was nonsense.

While arguments continue on, a contentious trial ended in November 1999 with a verdict that the attorneys breached their fiduciary trust. A judge cut the jury's $6.3 million verdict to about $3.6 million, but Lowe clearly had emerged victorious over two of the city's premiere divorce attorneys.

Lowe was 23 years younger than the 71-year-old Sarofim, and her next husband was 18 years her junior. She met Mason Abram Lowe in 1997 while they were both hospitalized in a psychiatric care unit. Mason Lowe was a former security guard who had been convicted of felony theft.

Their whirlwind romance seemingly led into an idyllic new life. They plunked down $4 million for prime Hawaiian property to build a new mansion, but never completed it. The couple added a $2 million condo in Toronto to their holdings. And they headed out for exotic destinations -- jaunts to Europe, a trip down the Amazon and other adventures -- although there were reports of discord between the pair.

Early this year they set their sights on the special Abercrombie & Kent trek package to Kilimanjaro's summit. This would be no mountain climb in the real sense of clawing up cliffs with pitons and ropes, but the path to the 19,340-foot-high peak was considered strenuous and demanding. The travel company advises climbers to first consult a physician, and it restricts the trip to those in good health over 12 years old.

Linda Lowe, with her past of heavy drinking and smoking, reportedly joked to friends that she'd gotten in shape for the mid-May trip by ballroom dancing. Halfway into the six-day climb, the group of guides and equipment carriers returned bearing Lowe's body.

Two autopsies, one in Africa and one in Houston, listed the cause of death as altitude sickness brought on by thin air: Basically she drowned from liquid that formed in her lungs and blocked the intake of oxygen. She died only a few hours from the base of the mountain.

Her remains returned to Houston. And attorneys returned to the courthouse, this time for probate proceedings. They wrangled over her two wills: one from March 26, 1997, that had named Lilly as executor; the other signed after her marriage little more than three months later, giving Mason Lowe executor authority.

Piro and Lilly, who are appealing the earlier Lowe judgment against them, initially contested her second will with familiar arguments. Lowe had sued them on allegations that she signed the fee agreement while suffering from psychological problems and severe drug and alcohol abuse. The two lawyers used the same grounds to challenge her second will, adding that she'd allegedly been unduly influenced by her new husband.

Their opposition was withdrawn when a new executor stepped forward: Fayez Sarofim. She basically gave equal shares of the estate to Mason Lowe and her four children, including her son Sean by her first marriage.

They are expected to divide up an estate estimated at more than $50 million after taxes and related expenses. The woman who amassed that fortune now rests under a slope of Glenwood Cemetery, her burial plot marked by nothing more than her name on a six-inch bronze-colored tag at the base of a knee-high shrub.

Meanwhile, lawyers are trying to add up her far-flung possessions. In October Probate Judge Russell Austin granted an extension until February 27 for the filing of the required inventory of Lowe's assets.

At least that's the case as couched in the rich legalese of probate proceedings. To state it in more understandable Swahili terms, Lowe's tiny grave-top bush has lost its bud -- and the accountants are still counting all those coconuts.

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