Making It and Breaking It in Society

There are two ways to successfully participate in the Dallas Social Olympiad.

First: by birth. Second: by qualifying.

In either case, the whole point is to be declared a winner.

Although Method #1 is admittedly easier, Method #2 affords more long-range satisfaction to any 3elf-respecting hand-over-hander with a healthy regard for the American way of social boot-strapping. There are notable examples of those who have ridden into Dallas unknown and, figuratively speaking, unloved and have left indelible and important marks on the city – just as there are always some

born to it all who manage only to muddle through. And then, there are those who blazed gloriously, only to disappear in a financial fizzle.

In the first group who rode in and marked the city well was, and is, Evelyn Alicia Kelley Lambert, widow of the late Joseph 0. Lambert Jr. of Lambert Landscape fame (whose social and business success formed its own standard chapter on making it in Dallas). A tall, dramatic, tensile type, the then Evelyn Del Barrio (the name came from her marriage in Cuba to a rum baron) arrived in Dallas in the waning 1940’s driving a second-hand station wagon, with a job offer from Neiman-Marcus decorative galleries in her pocket. Within weeks she and an artist friend had turned a war surplus building on a Garland farm into one of the places to be entertained. Drawing on her advertising experience in New York and California, she took over that department at Neiman-Marcus, but it was a union which ended in a clash of two too-strong wills: hers and Mr. Stanley’s. She quit, and married Joe Lambert, combining his position as beautifier of public Dallas with her own abiding interest in the visual arts. Her experiences in Cuba as reporter on international society and her gift for organizing the arts on a self-help basis (she, Jane Murchison Haber, and Betty Black Guiberson founded the TACA arts benefit and later helped save Venice!), plus an earthy candour (about everything but “unhappy places” in her past, as she puts it) soon made this Tennessee belle (by way of Oklahoma) a Dallas hostess you couldn’t say “no” to and moved her from a Garland farm to the penthouse of 3525 driving a Rolls-Royce, and ultimately to historic Villa Lambert in Vicenza, Italy (it’s an Italian national monument) where she divides her year with Dallas and New York. If Evelyn Lambert didn’t exist, Dallas would have had to invent her.

There is always a strong sense of willingness to work in those who are socially ambitious, but only where the labor will visibly count – getting maximum mileage. In any city the social climb is determined by the social clime; in Dallas, the best place to begin is cultureland: Symphony League, Civic Opera Guild, Art Museum Board, Civic Ballet, Theater Center, TACA, Public Service Television, Dallas County Heritage Society, Metropolitan Opera, Friends of the Library – ultimately to serve as chairman (Dallas still doesn’t say “chairwoman” or “chairperson”) of any main fund-raising project for one or two of the above.

High on the must-do, must-give list also are worthy causes: the SMU Sustentation Fund Drive, Southwestern Medical School, Children’s Medical Center, certain charities. Should you be able to give a building, so much the better (and quicker). This means endless committee meetings, telephone calling, and dog’s work, and it is absolutely the best formula for making it. Provided, of course, the individual isn’t totally repugnant in personality or physique – although a few of those have been tolerated. Traveling this volunteer culture-vulture route requires stamina in extremis, but it’s easier than undertaking the role of fabulous party-giver with funds unlimited – especially the fabulous party-giver who is suddenly shirtless, shoeless and bankerless.

Such was the sad saga of doubtless the most spectacularly unlikely couple ever to successfully ploy the party gambit in Dallas – or maybe the U.S.A. They were Margaret and Ernest Medders, who suddenly hit Dallas society in the mid-1960’s, and just as suddenly ended in a blaze of nationally headlined bankruptcy in 1967. But the intervening time was strictly Cinderella high-rolling for the two who tossed many a $50,000 bash at their Colonial Acres Farm just outside Muenster, Texas, a mere 60-mile helicopter or limousine hop from Dallas. From their first party, word got about that it was Edna Ferber-type fun (Ernest could neither read nor write!) and Dallas society kept going back. It was nothing for the Medders to transport their guests by chartered trains, planes, helicopters, and buses to the 185-acre ranch where most of the party action went on in the $175,000 show barn.

When it was party time the barn was ablaze with linen-draped, flower-covered tables with champagne fountains, name bands, and entertainers, and honorees such as Jeanne Dixon to mix among the guests dining on gourmet fare catered from Dallas. It all graphically illustrates what can be done with a good press agent (a Dallas service) and whatappears to be endless financing. TheMedders “money” was based on bankloans and loans from a Catholic charityorder named (ironically) the PoorSisters. Mr. Medders thought he was anheir to the Pelham Humphreys estatewhich a Mississippi lawyer thoughtmight be able to produce a claim of $500million from the Spindletop oil field inBeaumont. When the shade-treemechanic’s financial house of cards fell,any number of familiar Dallas businessand service people were left holdingempty bags – not to mention the PoorSisters. The Medders declaredbankruptcy, sold all they could, andretreated to Memphis, where Mr.Medders died and Mrs. Medders wrotea book about her climb and decline.Dallas society doesn’t like to thinkabout the Medders of Muenster, even now.

Some Make It on Merit

Birth, money, and connections have not been the sole passports to social standing of some top leaders of Dallas.

Neither Ted nor Annette Strauss had a Dallas background (she from Houston, he from West Texas) and they were Jewish – but Annette was good looking and smart (Phi Beta Kappa) and made it on hard work and brilliant leadership of whatever cultural task she accepted. Ted is charming and successful enough (radio stations) to be an asset. Brother Bob’s prominence came after their rise.

Melba Greenlee came from Midland where her father grew rich in oil field servicing. Melba married brain surgeon Ralph and she, too, devoted hours of work and thousands of dollars to Dallas culture, combining them with sponsorship of such leaders as Betty Marcus, her own good looks, solid arm-twisting and clever ideas for her projects.

Herman and Mimi Lay entered with clout, coming from Atlanta early in the 1960’s when he bought control of Frito (now Frito-Lay). This opened the door, but both Herman and Mimi proved to be exceptionally talented partygivers and -goers. Within a year they were snug in the bosom of Dallas society.

Carla Francis was from Austin and came to Dallas as the young wife of Lee Folse (their two daughters are making their debuts this season). Later she and Folse divorced and she married Jim Francis whose oil money enabled Carla to devote time and financing to the arts (particularly music and opera) and give lavish parties and wear clothes to match her astonishing good looks.

Travis and Martha Ward moved to Dallas from East Texas ana adopted an opulent lifestyle which plunged both into the cultural and social work-world. Back-home connections helped, but their own personalities turned the difficult social trick of making it in Dallas the hard way.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.