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All Tomorrow's Parties, in Houston

Michael May

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At the Chinese Community Center Gala, the men are in tuxes, the women in impossibly high heels and the fundraisers in top form. They're looking for people with fat checkbooks, but a reporter with a microphone will do.

I get pitches for building statues of Socrates in China, UNICEF and the Chinese Community Center itself.

This kind of talk fills the days and nights of Carolyn Farb. She's the divorced widow of a real estate tycoon, but she's now better known as Houston's "First Lady of Philanthropy." She's in her 50s and still glamorous. Tonight she works the crowd wearing an elaborate, cascading Chinese headdress that frames her blonde hair and perfect makeup.

"Have you seen Yao Ming's father?" she asks one woman. "He's very young- looking. In fact, he's better looking than his son!"

Carolyn, more than anyone else, has defined the Houston charity gala for the past three decades. The evening begins with a silent auction, a fundraising tool that Farb introduced to Houston. Then guests are seated at large round tables and try to chat over speeches by politicians, oil executives and a performance by a mariachi band singing in Chinese.

Carolyn receives a lifetime achievement award during a dinner of filet minon and crab cakes. A video about her life plays for the crowd.

"The world is showbiz, you gotta stand up and shout," she later says. "Look at Donald Trump, he's showbiz and he's in real estate."

Carolyn is not simply a fundraiser-she also gives her own money. And she knows what motivates her fellow rich Houstonians: praise. UNICEF's John Tsacrios says that's okay.

"There's a lot of anonymous giving in other parts of the country. In Houston, people like to be known. And I think it's good to be known. I think it's important for people to know that people they look up to are giving. They're role models. I think a showy giving is a good giving," he says.

Houston charities depend a lot on showy giving. And some donors depend as much on being seen as role models. Although it wasn't enough to keep him out of jail, oil billionaire Oscar Wyatt still has a great reputation around town as a man of charity. Mimi Swartz is a writer for "Texas Monthly" and a long-time observer of the Houston social scene. She misses the days when Houston's rich were wild and eccentric. Now they shuffle from one gala to another.

"They all look the same, act the same. You're not going to have the days when you had someone like Joanne Herring. She threw a party and had a Boy Scout troop dress like Nubian slaves. That's never going to happen again, and I think that's sad," she says, laughing.

Swartz remembers when Carolyn Farb was also part of that world. Back in the 1970s, her then-husband, real estate investor Harold Farb, opened a night club just so he could sing on stage. But through her relentless attention to one cause after another, Carolyn has reinvented herself as a woman of taste and compassion.

Barely 12 hours since the last gala, Carolyn is at it again, this time at an opulent luncheon for the Houston AIDS Foundation. Until Carolyn turned her attention to it, AIDS was not on the list of trendy causes in Houston. Now the foundation is officially a couture charity. Carson Kressley from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is the celebrity guest, flirting with the big donors-and everyone.

"My, that's a big microphone you have. Or are you just glad to see me?" he says as he approaches.

Kressley speaks at these kinds of events across the country, but he says the organizers in Houston are special.

"What's different in Texas is that this is like a job for these ladies. We just finished lunch, and they're already talking about next year. It's like, 'What are we going to do next year?'"

Later that day, I meet Carolyn Farb at her large, art-filled home in the wealthy suburb of River Oaks. She tells me she just sold a Frida Kahlo painting for a record price. Carolyn's still wearing her gown and leopard-spotted wrap, but she looks tired. She can't count all the galas she's attending this season.

"Do I like to stand with four hours in the evening in high heels at these events and schmooze?" she asks. "Sometimes I don't. But it's part of the thing. You've gotta make them glad that they came. Be appreciative of their support. Be the guiding light. Show them the way."

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