Not Just for Nothing
Published in: Harpers & Queen - April 2003

Houston, Texas.  A rainy night in January.  Shortly before 7pm, limos start the entrance to the Corinthian.  Some of the best dressed women in Texas, accompanied by the rather less flamboyant men in tuxedos step out of the cars, into the beautifully restored building and up the marble stairs, to take part in tonight's Winter Ball, one of the most important events in Houston's social calendar.

At the top of the stairs, they are greeted by a line of white-jacketed waiters, press photographers and cameramen from Channel 13, whose coverage of tonight's event will be aired the following Sunday.  Each taking a flute of ice-cold champagne, they wander through the hall past tables laden with items for auction.

Why has Harpers come to Houston to watch this event?  Because though you might not realize it immediately, these 'women of distinction' are rather are rather more important than their counterparts elsewhere.  Considering their close ties to power, events like tonight's - on the face of it, mere fundraisers - should actually be seen as networking opportunities that have an effect upon, for instance, whether or not the US goes to war with Iraq.

To understand this extraordinary claim, it is necessary to consider Houston's unique status. Though only the fourth largest city in the US, it is the energy capitol of the globe.

The city has fantastic shopping, excellent hotels and medical facilities that are second-to-none.  Its cultural credentials include a resident symphony orchestra, opera and ballet companies, and major museums.  It has played a prime role in space research ( the first word spoken on the moon was "Houston").  But more important than any of this are the cities political links.

And the hottest people in Texas, it turns out, are the socialites:  the women who draw up the guest list and the seating plans in such a way that their somewhat less socially accomplished husbands have access to the people who count, such as the US president, the Prince of Wales, or those in control of the world's oilfields.  They are social butterflies, fluttering from one group to another and, in the process, cross-pollinating the various strands of influence and power.