T’S THE NIGHT OF THE TACA CUSTOM AUCTION and Ball-one of the biggest black-tie to-dos of the social season-and ball chairwoman Julie Ingram is positively frantic. Guests are beginning to arrive at the Loews Anatole and her ballgown, quite literally, is falling apart. She, husband Don, assistants Carole Ann Brown, Mago Nelson, and Kay Agnew, and salon owner Paul Neinast-on hand to style Julie’s hair-are in the midst of their own little pre-gala celebration in the hotel’s Reagan Suite when the rose-petal sleeves on her black Victor Costa gown come unsnapped.
She decides to wear the gown strapless, but Don objects. A debate ensues among all present over the relative merit of the rose petals. Finally. Neinast takes matters into his own hands. He grabs a needle and thread out of Julie’s bag and, commanding the twenty-nine-year-old society queen to sit down, begins sewing the sleeves onto her gown, “It was so funny because Paul was sitting there saying ’I can’t wait for Victor to know this, that I am sewing the sleeves on his dress.’ Then I would sneeze and they’d pop. I said ’Paul, this isn’t going to work. My sleeves are going to fall off while I’m downstairs.’ He sewed the sleeves on so tight, the dress was skintight.”
At $1,300 apiece, local couturier Milo-the designer of choice for such social heavyweights as Margo Perot and Nancy Brinker-designs virtually all of Julie’s ballgowns, a task he took on when she wed fifty-three-year-old Dallas investor Don Ingram five years ago and began attending charity balls. And nobody but New York hairstylist Harry King-best known for his splashy Cosmopolitan covers-touches her hair, But, well, Milo and Harry King hadn’t contributed a penny to TACA. Victor Costa and Paul Neinast, on the other hand, had been quite generous.
“Milo asked me what I was wearing to TACA and I said, ’Who wants to know?’ I was joking with him, but I said, if you come to TACA and you spend what Victor spends then I’ll buy a dress from you. If not, Victor’s going to do my dress,’ ” recalls Julie, who, abiding by every good gala chairperson’s golden rule-“Do unto donors as you would have them do unto you”-bought a Victor Costa gown (cost: $285) with detachable sleeves ($185 extra).
The TACA Custom Auction and Ball, which raises funds for Dallas’s performing arts-$400,000 was netted with Julie at the helm-is just one of many charity galas that takes place every year. Like other up-and-comers on the Dallas social scene, Julie will tell you her work is motivated by her belief in the causes. But. coinci-dentally or not, the causes she happens to believe in also provide something other equally noble but decidedly less glamorous charities don’t; namely, an image-nourishing platform.
Of course, the charity gala has long been a vehicle for Dallas’s socially ambitious. Unlike other big cities that rely on their old-moneyed families to bequeath millions to charities, Dallas’s major means of supporting its needy has been through events. And for every fun run, every danceathon, every tea, luncheon, and black-tie gala, a slew of up-and-comers are willing to work tirelessly in the name of a good cause. But with the Dallas economy “a little under the weather,” as socialite-cum-jewelerCarla Francis so delicately puts it. many of the regulars on the fast track to fame have been forced into early retirement, leaving the playing field wide open to an aggressive new generation intent on making it in what could be called Dallas’s Gala Society-those who gain social entree by toiling for the arts and diseases.
Not to be confused with High Society, in which membership is traditionally conferred, membership in Gala Society can be bought. Which isn’t to say one is less honorable than the other or that High Society doesn’t hobnob with its younger stepsister. A High Society couple will, in fact, attend the season’s galas and support their favorite chairwomen but, as one social wag put it. “that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want the chairman attending their daughter’s debut.” In other words. High Society types may gain entree into Gala Society-if they so desire-but seldom, if ever, does it work the other way around.
Granted, Dallas’s relative youth and more-is-more philosophy have always blurred the distinction between High and Gala. The flowering of conspicuous consumption and lavish philanthropy that began in the Sixties (and showed no signs of stopping until a few years ago) seemed to suggest it was irrelevant whether your fortune was self-made or handed down. High Society smiles upon Dallas-born (Highland Park, please), Dallas-educated (St. Mark’s. Hockaday, Highland Park High, and SMU, which, curiously, carries more clout in Dallas than any Ivy League or Seven Sisters school), and a Dallas debut, but Gala Society is decidedly more democratic. Particularly in post-boom Dallas.
Conspicuous consumption, you see. has given way to a new conservatism that celebrates common sense and frowns upon the frivolous. In tough times, charitable benefits and parties like the PAWS Ball (for the Preservation of Animal World Safety and something called the Zoo-to-Do (honoring executive donors to the Dallas Zoo) seem almost silly. With fewer dollars to spend, society folks are supporting fewer causes and, as a result, galas are scaled back. With a keener eye on the bottom line-fundraising, after all, is what these benefits and lavish galas are all about-decorations are less elaborate and fancy party favors have become a thing of the past: the guests at this year’s Junior League Foil ies took home samples of skin cream from Lord & Taylor and socialite-turned-baker Melinda Wynn’s gingerbread men.
Today’s woman on the fast track to fame (read: aiming to chair a major ball) still must have the time and the money-whether she’s made it herself or married into it-to support her favorite charities. But the criteria within those parameters have shifted. Chalk it up to a shrinking dollar, but Dallas’s Gala Society has become more open-minded. Fewer questions are being asked. Single women, women without Dallas pedigrees, and even working women are welcome. What’s important now isn’t to whom you’re born, but how you present yourself. It’s not who you marry, but how you marry, says one former society writer. “If you’re somebody whose husband can bring in the big bucks and you can lick every envelope you’ve seen in your life, they’re willing to overlook the other stuff.” The fact that you’ve got a few skeletons in your closet doesn’t matter if you have earning power.
By virtue of having worked “job jobs.” as one woman calls the work she does for pay, today’s aspiring socialite approaches big-time volunteerism as an aspiring CEO might chart his climb up the corporate ladder. She targets her goals and maps out her strategy. She hires a social adviser to get her invited to the right parties and introduced to the right people who can land her the much-coveted volunteer positions in the popular causes. She courts society writers. And, when desperate enough, she thinks nothing of crashing the Crystal Charity Ball, the grand-daddy of them all. One of the wornen in this story did just that, last year.
Perhaps the biggest testimonial to changing times is the increasing number of single women defying the odds in their quest to be social. Once upon a time-it was the late Sixties, when grandes-dames Margaret McDer-mott, Lupe Murchison, and Nancy Hamon were chairing the big balls-a woman’s volunteer work was viewed as a respectable means of complementing the efforts of her prominent husband. Rising through the ranks without a husband was not only impossible, it was considered socially unacceptable. Not so anymore. Though it is still tricky, and few make it beyond the peripheral balls, Gala Society is opening its doors to single women like never before. But the rules are stringent.
Family background, for one thing, still counts. No matter how brilliant or beautiful she may be, the aspiring single socialite has her work cut out for her if her mother or grandmother hasn’t paved the way for her. For the out-of-towner, the odds are overwhelming.
Rhelda Ryan, thirty-five, co-chair of last year’s Weekend to Wipe Out Cancer, would certainly agree. “I didn’t go to SMU, I wasn’t born in Highland Park, and I didn’t go to Highland Park High School or Hockaday. It’s a handicap. You have to prove that you have the ability, that you have brains in your head. I wish I had gone to SMU. It would’ve made it a lot easier.”
With her Monroe, Louisiana, Junior League transfer in tow (Junior League being the ticket to many a socialite’s career), Rhelda moved to Dallas six years ago to make her mark. Her job as an office temporary affords her the flexibility to compete with other full-time fundraisers. On the day we meet. Rhelda has just returned from a planning meeting for the Tri Delta Charity Antiques Show and has the evening set aside for Junior League Follies rehearsal.
“People think there’s something bizarre about me because I love to do this work,” Rhelda Ryan says. “It’s like my substitute family, but some people say ’How can you love to raise money and be up until all hours of the night?’ Well, I’d much rather be up at Junior League headquarters until midnight than be here,” she says, motioning to her apartment-an efficiency in one of Turtle Creek’s swankiest highrises. She moved out of her larger apartment down the hall into this one when she took on the co-chairmanship of Weekend to Wipe Out Cancer last year. She says the difference in rent is enough to ease the strain on her finances. A social butterfly worrying about the rent? Unheard of, even five years ago.
But what about the unspoken rule that says any woman, single or married, must be willing and able to host little get-togethers, like thank-you parties for her committees? And what about the rule that says she must patronize her friends’ events? What about keeping up with wardrobe demands? One longtime observer of the Dallas social scene estimates that by the time a woman has ascended to chairone of the big four-Crystal Charity Ball, Junior League Follies, Cattle Baron’s Ball, or the Beaux Arts Ball-she’s spent in excess of $100,000 adhering to all of the conventions. That eliminates some well-intentioned contenders and reminds us that making it in Gala Society still requires not just a willingness to work hard, but a large stack of the green stuff.
When Kathy Phillips was up for co-chair of last year’s Cattle Baron’s Ball, the big benefit for the American Cancer Society, she admits there were arched eyebrows from other members who questioned the ability of a single woman to take on the task. “Dallas is still very much a married society,” says the thirty-four-year-old Highland Park native. “Dinners at people’s homes? I never get invited. There has to be boy-girl seating, and if they invited me, they’d have to invite an extra man. But she’s not complaining. Between fundraising and her job as Dallas representative for Don Strange Catering, Kathy is at some sort of party virtually all the time.
Unlike many of her peers who grew up in Dallas, attended Highland Park High School, and pledged a good sorority at SMU, Kathy didn’t have the way paved for her. She successfully carved her own niche nonetheless. While she was in college, she created something called the Bowling Ball for her well-to-do friends who were making their debuts. She was asked to join the Dallas Junior League and. following yet another unspoken rule for single women, found a mentor. In her case, it was Annette Strauss.
“There are a lot of organizations in Dallas that are wonderful but you have to be in your mid-thirties before you can get involved,” Kathy says. “I haven’t been married and I don’t date nearly enough, so I needed to do something with my time. I started out with TACA. Annette Strauss was chairman of the board and I worked closely with her for several years. She gave me a chance. I was twenty-four and she gave me my first chairmanship.”
The challenge for any up-and-comer is finding an organization that offers equal parts credibility and social cachet. With plenty ox events that offer an image-nourishing platform, there simply isn’t any need to waste time or money on unpopular causes. Children’s charities-the Weekend to Wipe Out Cancer, for instance, benefits the Children’s Medical Center-tend to be good training grounds, while a number of organizations that fall into the gray area- neither art nor disease-are considered socially risky. The women volunteering their time at organizations like The Family Place (a shelter for battered women and children) are in it for entirely different reasons. If the goal is to be seen with the well-dressed, well-known, and well-heeled-and it is-such groups offer little opportunity for the aspiring socialite.
Which brings up a perplexing question. A high profile is vital for the social aspirant who would chair a major ball. But when such positions are doled out only to those with a recognizable name, which comes first- the high profile or the chair?
And when does a high profile become a detriment? Carol Peeler, the thirty-three-year-old chairman of this year’s Junior League Follies, spent years working her way up, with impressive placements in the Junior League that signaled she was being groomed for ball chair. She also worked on the ArtReach Festival of Trees, chaired the Weekend to Wipe Out Cancer, and was asked to join Cattle Baron’s. She was considered among the noble forces who work tirelessly for their causes with little fanfare. But in an ironic bit of timing, Carol’s resume was rendered obsolete only three days after the Junior League bash when she, husband Charles Peeler, and five others were indicted for tax fraud. The case had been under investigation for years, but the federal grana jury returned the indictment the Friday of the ball. Charles persuaded Carol’s lawyers to keep the news from her until after the ball.
It says something about the nature of Gala Society that some of the same people who were willing to be interviewed for this article-thinking the inclusion of a low-profile type like Carol would polish their own images-didn’t want to be linked to her in print after the indictments came down.
In Gala Society, image enhancement comes in many forms. But the modus operandi of the cutting-edge socialites is perhaps best reflected in the phenomenon known as “personal public relations.” If there were an official guide outlining appropriate topics for polite conversation among Dallas’s Gala Society, this practice of hiring a consultant to handle your contacts-for business or social gain-would not be included. It is. in a word, sub rosa.
In Dallas, the only proper route to representation is to chair a gala and have the organization hire a consultant to promote your cause (read: you). A nifty little rule about publicity then works in your favor: people like to read about other people. You’ll never find the name of a charitable cause bold-faced in a society column, but you will find the names of its hard-working volunteers, most often the chair.
When Julie chaired the TACA ball, it was TACA that footed the bill for PR consultant Martha Tiller’s promotional work. If publicity is the name of the game, Martha’s strategy worked. In the months leading up to the TACA ball, Julie’s name was peppered through the society columns with increasing regularity. There were items about Don and Julie loaning an Italian fountain to TACA, Julie and other TACA supporters attending a luncheon, Julie giving birth to her second daughter a month before TACA, Don and Julie traveling to New York the week before TACA. The “story” possibilities were endless.
Curiously, Julie is her own best publicise. Everything one wants to know about her comes neatly packaged in a self-styled “press kit” containing a two-page bio, five-page résumé (covering her career as a beauty queen and model), and letters of recommendation from one-time clients.
For those brazen enough to seek personal PR, be forewarned: public relations consultants deplore the term “publicist.” Publicity, they’ll tell you, is merely one aspect of the whole public relations picture. They also say they’ll turn away anyone who’s simply looking for social entree. Yet, Tiller interviews potential clients with this teaser: “Do you want to be rich, famous, or on the cover of Time magazine?” she’ll ask. “They blush,” Tiller says, “there’s this pregnant pause, and I say ’That’s great. I can’t get you on the cover of Time magazine.’ But if they’re willing to donate the time and money-not necessarily to pay me,” she hastens to add, “but to do things-I can help them do the kinds of things that will help them get noticed to get on the cover of Time magazine.”
IT’S THE SECOND WEEK of January and the calm that is supposed to follow the holidays and the year’s big social rush has eluded Julie Ingram. Earlier in the week, she fired virtually her entire domestic staff, so the young mother of two was forced to “play mommy” for four days straight. Social doyenne Cynthia Mel-nick, in fact, caught her in a weak moment-during one of the four days she was without help- and persuaded Julie to lend her considerable fundraising talents to the Gourmei Gala in March. Barely two months had passed since she’d chaired the TACA Custom Auction and Ball, and her self-prescribed breather was coming to an end: yes, she and husband Don would be more than happy to volunteer as celebrity chefs at the annual benefit for the March of Dimes.
“I hate to say it, but it’s been frantic. My friends call and say ’My God, you don’t have your maid today.’ I know it sounds just awful, but I have to live with my husband. If everything is not perfect when he walks in the door. . .” Julie says, catching herself. “I mean, with our schedule, we have to have somebody here twenty-four hours a day. Don could come home and say ’We’re going to New York. The flight leaves at 8:30.’ I never know. I’ve got to have somebody here and it’s just impossible to find.”
In her ivory-colored silk pajamas, Julie looks more like the beauty queen she once was than an exasperated wife and mother. The former Julie Wullschleger-later changed to the easier Julie Wray-grew up in Centralia, Kansas (“population 499 since 1 left”), but found her way out of town on the beauty pageant circuit. It was during her senior year in high school that the Junior Miss runner-up persuaded her parents to let her attend the Barbizon School of Modeling in nearby Topeka. “It was mainly for self-improvement. I just wanted to learn basic grooming-how to paint your fingernails, how to do your makeup, how to walk, how to talk on the telephone, how to make airline reservations. They go through all sorts of things.”
By the time she and Don met ten years ago, she was a freshman at Bauder Fashion College in Arlington. As Miss Arlington, Julie made headlines when she sued the pageant for cutting short her reign by three months. She lost the suit but, undaunted, went on to pursue a career as a model specializing in promotional gigs that earned her such titles as Miss Yellow Pages, Miss Miracle Whip, and Ms. Urban Cowgirl. Julie even had her own national poster. “Mine came out after Farrah’s,” she says.
Like other up-and-comers who marry prominent figures on the Dallas social scene, Julie was propelled into the social arena because of her husband (described in his wife’s bio as “a very low-key multimillionaire”). But unlike some of her peers who spend years striving to chair a major ball, Julie rose through the ranks with relative ease. She had never presided over a major Benefit, in fact, when “Mama Virginia”- as she and Don call Virginia Nick, founding president of TACA-called and asked Julie to chair the ’88 auction.
“it was a totally different ball game, going to charity balls and all that,” Julie says. “My first response was that it just seemed very fake to me. But I told Don, “I can do it. I won’t have any problem with it if you want me to do it.’ The charity work and all that is necessary to a certain extent because Dallas is such a high-powered city.
“Now, after being married for five years, it gets to the point where you decide what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do because, in the beginning, everybody picks you up. We were freshly married and they think you’re an easy target-’Let’s call Julie because she’ll do it and Don will give money.’ You spread yourself too thin and all of a sudden you ask yourself why you’re doing it because it turns into more of a social thing. I don’t have time to go to a tea every morning. I hate that stuff.”
CHARITABLE CAUSES: WHO’S HOT
Crystal Charity – If you’re already a member, read no further.
TACA-Always a popular charity because of its easy access-all you have to do is give.
500, Inc.-Young Dallas professionals can skip “Love Connection” and proceed directly to the next dinner party
The Dallas Opera-Society has embraced The Opera in recent years. Recognized for lavish parlies and diverse member ship.
Dallas Symphony Or-chestra League-With a $5,000 per ticket grand opening lor the new Morton H Meyerson concert hall, you can be sure the true social climbers will rise to the occasion-with the help of their bankers
Dallas Museum of Natural History Associates-Recipe: mix overdose of Egyptian artifacts with thousands of dollars of hype, add dozens of preview parties and mix with politically motivated city leaders Yield: totally unheard-of society group becomes the “in” crowd lor those on their way up the ladder, all because of a dead pharaoh named Ramses.
Never Seat Them At The Same Table
RickBrettell and Wendy Reves-Thank goodness Nancy Hamon gave him a new wing to worry about
Roxanne and Gene Phillips-A $10 million mansion doesn’t ensure marital bliss.
Norman Brinker and Rodger Meier-SMART and DART campaign chairmen should stick to polo ponies and Cadillacs respectively.
Burn Bright and Tom Landry- Especially if you’re hosting a thirtieth birthday party
Ross Perot and anybody from The Dallas Arboretum-He took back a $6 million gift because they didn’t cultivate money the way he cultivates money
Alan Peppard and Nancy Smith-Hedda Hopper and Louelia Parsons would have been more compatible than these society columnists.
Hostesses You Cant Say No To
Caroline Rose Hunt –When she (not her publicist) finally asks you, it won’t be to plug her latest hotel venture.
Diana Strauss-You won’t find anything less than Beluga at her parties
Virginia Nick-TACA founder and a member of the most prominent arts and civic boards in the city, she gets what she wants
Nancy Brinker-She won’t take no lor an answer. Ever.
THE ADVISORY BOARD SYNDROME
Charily ball planners have become rather creative in soliciting support for their various causes. The latest technique is the naming of an Advisory Board or Committee lor your gala. Most of the names are figureheads who have already served their time, paid their dues, and moved to their vacation homes for the winter Don’t imagine that they’re licking any envelopes.
One veteran tundraiser refers to the advisory committee name-dropping technique as the social climber’s hit list You can be certain you’ll see these names on advisory com mittees this year:
Margaret McDermott Mayor Annette Straus Caroline Rose Hunt H. Ross Perot Trammell Crow Virginia Nick Jeremy Halbreich Ralph Rogers Henry S. Miller Jr. liener Temerlin
Volunteer work is not all glitz and glamour. Some of our most industrious Workers:
Cynthia Melnick – Has successfully chaired several events from TACA to the Gourmet Gala with the gracefulness of a butterfly and the stamina of a marathon runner
Mago Nelson-A savvy volunteer and vivacious gala chairman whose no-nonsense approach always enhances the bottom, line.
Ann Libby Alispaugh – A gracious and elegant hostess who is recognized for her behind-the-scenes method of orchestrating events.
Sally Briee-Known on the charity circuit as one of our hardest working, most down to earth volunteers.
You can marry down, but you can never over-marry. These Dallas women will catapult you to the top;
Brooke Stollenwerck-Former Idlewild debutante whose debut is remembered tor its circus theme complete with real elephants, lions, and tigers.
Pam Pappas Prominent Dallas relatives, a wealthy Greek family back in Houston, and lots of charity work under her belt
Linda Perryman-One of the most socially promi-nent. yet discreet former debs around.
lynn O’Brien-The original Mrs. T Boone Pickens. Trivia; it was her money that gave Boone his start.
THE NAMES YOU HAVE TO HAVE BEHIND YOUR CAUSE
– Pick any branch of the family tree -they all bring credibility to the cause.
Lawrence (“Herkie”) and Dorottry Herkimer
– Known lor their gen erosity, this popular couple always brings a well-heeled support group with them.
Ruth Sharp Altshuler
– Her stamp of approval almost guarantees success.
-The Henry S Miller family tree also makes your charity more credible to the social set Paticularlygood to have Juanita, Tincy, or Patsy in your corner
Tramell and Margaret Crow
-They’re selective about lending their name, but once you has their support you’ve got it made.
-She can move charitable mountains with the greatest of ease
-A veteran party planner who can gel the movers and shakers to your party.
-The sell-appointed “social secretary of Dallas’ still maintains the Social Directory and an interest in her “dales lor debs” Parly Service.
Tne term socialite does not only apply to women can/ing their niche in Dallas society. Some Dallas men to watch for
George Lancaster-Family ties to the Meadows fortune and a craving for the limelight ensure young George invitations to the best parties and his photograph in the society pages.
Reuben Martinez-Once overheard saying to his wife at a charily gala. “Honey, what disease are we dancing for tonight?’
Peter Anderson-Good looks and a job as catering executive at the city’s largest hotel enable him to mingle with gala society on a regular basis.
Barter Brinkman-A true party veteran who has been known to call a hostess and inquire about the guest list.
Richard Eiseman-“Second-genefationex clusive jeweler to the rich and famous who can always be seen with beautiful women wearing (what else?) Richard Eiseman baubles.
Paul Zane Pilsner-Eccentric young millionaire who refuses to pay to go to charity balls. Prefers to host charitable receptions in his home.
Michael Lee-Owner of the Yacht Club/The Lodge yuppie hangout who thoroughly enjoys the fete set crowd.