When VIPs come to Texas, Joanne King Herring believes, they’ve got to meet four people: an astronaut, someone from the King Ranch, heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley and John Connally. “If they’ve done that,” says Joanne Herring, “they’ve done just about everything.” Making sure that distinguished visitors get properly introduced—an assignment she undertakes with boundless energy and staggering wealth—has helped establish the 40ish former local TV star as Houston’s most spectacular hostess.
Business as much as vanity is involved in Joanne’s social efforts. Her husband, Robert Herring, is chairman of Houston Natural Gas, which operates in 24 foreign countries. Herring, 55, a World War II aviator who studied economics and finance at Texas A & M and Georgetown University, is so respected for his organizational skills that he also serves as president of the Texas Heart Institute and as a trustee of Rice University. Three months of the year he is traveling and Joanne goes with him. In just 14 recent days, she visited France, Saudi Arabia, England, Lebanon and Iran. “I was about to fall apart by the time we got to the Philippines,” she says. “But President and Mrs. Marcos are good friends, and we were met by brass bands, soldiers with swords, the whole thing. I had to rush into the airport lounge and change for a big reception.”
Such lavish hospitality abroad begets social obligations at home. To repay her debts she gives receptions and dinner parties twice a month—often with a guest list of up to 200—for such old friends as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Jordanian King Hussein, Monaco’s Princess Grace, the Shah of Iran and assorted potentates who come to Texas. She has no trouble turning out the locals. “People are extremely curious about royalty,” she says, “but few know anything about them, really.” Joanne is cautious about discussing her guests. “What is good conversation to one person,” she says, “can break another person’s heart.” If in doubt, she steers the conversation around to her favorite subject—Communism. (She’s against it.)
The Herrings’ 23-room mansion in Houston’s River Oaks area is built around an indoor swimming pool. The setting is perfect for her parties. To loosen guests up, she moves them from table to table as often as five times during a meal (“It takes weeks to get the seating organized,” she admits). While the guests are switching tables, a band plays so they can dance en route. Her meals are always catered (Joanne does not cook), but the tables are set with her own silver, crystal and valuable pieces from her husband’s jade collection. When special effects are required, she does not hesitate. Last May the Iranian ambassador asked her to throw a party for King Gustav of Sweden. Her response was to tear out several second-floor walls to make room for a sheikh’s tent discotheque, decorated with zebra rugs, hanging brass lamps, stuffed tigers—and a belly dancer. The room was such a howl that the Herrings have kept it intact.
All this entertaining by no means exhausts Joanne’s energies. She is producing and narrating A Thirst for Glory, a Taste of Freedom, a TV documentary about Lafayette, filmed in France and the U.S. Again, her international connections paid off. Thirty French nobles, many of them former guests of the Herrings in Texas, dressed in elaborate 18th-century costumes during a heat wave for filming at Versailles. “Mrs. Herring,” gushed Paris’ Le Figaro, “is the Texan who acts like a duchess.”
Brought up the pampered only child of a wealthy engineer, Joanne has never been a stranger to regal surroundings. Her parents’ home has facades evoking both Mount Vernon and Monticello. Shortly before dropping out of the University of Texas, she went to Hollywood to test opposite Clark Gable for Across the Wide Missouri. Offered a small part, she instead married millionaire developer Bob King (no relation to the Ranch).
Back in Houston, she tried her hand at television—and wound up hosting the CBS-affiliate midday talk show for 10 years. After she was divorced from King, she married widower Herring in 1973. Two years ago she gave up her show to devote herself to domestic life. Sundays are strictly for family: He has three children and she has two by their previous marriages. A diabetic, Joanne neither smokes nor drinks and admits that her magnolia exterior conceals a volatile temper. When New York Times editor Clifton Daniel criticized John Connally at a dinner party, Herring sprang to the defense of her longtime friend. “I gave Clifton a piece of my mind,” she claims, “and he hasn’t spoken to me since.”
The serious side of her entertaining became clear during a recent party for Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia. “Parties are like planting a seed,” she explains. “Everyone is relaxed and on the same level—not stilted like in an office. That’s why there is so much business done at parties.” Robert Herring, who has been trying for four years to get approval to build a methanol complex in Saudi Arabia, was deep in conversation with Prince Saud under the sheikh’s tent. If a deal is ever struck, Joanne Herring can share in the credit.