How can you say to a girl, ‘Come home and meet Mum, she’s a prime minister’?” Mark Thatcher once wondered aloud to a Fleet Street tabloid. But the 30-year-old son of Britain’s boss, a lad of seemingly less precious mettle than the Iron Lady, evidently found the right words with Texas heiress Karen Fortson, 24. She and Mark recently flew to England for a three-day weekend at Chequers, official retreat of Britain’s P.M.s, where the Fort Worth society belle met the Prime Matriarch, dad Denis and Mark’s twin sister, Carol. Rumors bubbled as the young couple attended a formal luncheon for Japan’s Prince Hiro, along with such guests as Princess Alexandra and computer tycoon Sir Clive Sinclair. When a beaming Maggie led the pair out of church Sunday morn, both sides of the Atlantic buzzed with talk of an impending match.
If Mark Thatcher does propose an alliance, it won’t be the first time a noted Briton has put the upper crust on an American family pie (see accompanying box). But though the Fortson fortune is valued in multimillions, a family name is weightier than mere coin in Fort Worth, where Karen’s parents, oil magnate Benjamin Johnson Fortson Jr. and wife Kay Kimbell Carter, rank at the top of well-bred society. Kay chairs the $100-million foundation that funds the Kimbell Art Museum’s world-class collection, while Ben descends from the ultrarich Stripling clan, longtime arbiters of social standing in Texas. In contrast to the flashy nouveau set in neighboring Dallas, the Fortsons lead the discreetly expensive life of Fort Worth’s moneyed aristocracy. British papers are nevertheless billing the Thatcher-Fortson liaison as a real-life episode from Dallas. “We don’t know much about Texans,” confessed one Fleet Street newsman. “We developed many of our ideas from watching the television show.”
Thatcher, who has visited the Fortsons at their palatial Westover Hill mansion and their Manhattan pied à terre, presumably knows better. He reportedly met Karen last winter at a party thrown by billionaire Texas oilman Perry Bass and wife Nancy, and the two have been dating ever since. The Basses, longtime friends of the Fort-sons, both showed up for Sunday lunch at Chequers after church. “She is absolutely super,” Mark’s twin sister Carol said of Karen, “every bit as charming as everybody says.” Meanwhile, Karen’s grandmother, Texas grande dame Katherine Lipscomb, has been widely quoted around London as saying, “I’d certainly like him as a grandson-in-law, not because of who he is, but because I like him as a young man.”
That’s more than most of Fleet Street would say for the P.M.’s son. The Observer labeled Thatcher’s career “a model of relentless mediocrity” marked by a string of auto-racing crack-ups and relentless exploitation of his family name. “In later life,” the Prime Minister’s biographers, Nicholas Wapshott and George Brock, have written, “he has taken advantage of her fame and has a tendency to name-drop…. He is free-spending and has assembled a career and income on the strength of being Mrs. Thatcher’s son. He has advertised Japanese airlines, Marlboro cigarettes, Playboy toiletries for men, Cutty Sark whiskey and Japanese synthetic suede.” His most notable exploit as a professional driver was to get lost for six days in the Sahara desert during the 1982 Paris-to-Dakar auto rally, requiring father Denis to fly to Algeria and join a military rescue costing the Algerian and neighboring governments $550,000.
Even more embarrassing to his mother politically have been some recent revelations about Thatcher’s business dealings. After graduating in 1971 from the elite Harrow school without the stuff for university entrance, he bounced through several jobs, dropping out of an accounting program along the way. Then, five months after his mother’s election, he set up his own company, Monteagle Marketing (London), Ltd. He boasted that the mysterious firm’s “turnover certainly isn’t peanuts,” but its 1982 books reported Monteagle was losing money. Real trouble came, however, when he acted as middleman in a controversial deal with the Middle East state of Oman. During an official visit there, Mrs. Thatcher urged Sultan Qaboos bin Said to award a British company the $420-million contract to build the new Oman university. While she was making her buy-British pitch, Mark slipped into town unannounced as the representative of Cementation International, Ltd., which eventually landed the plum contract. The link prompted difficult questions in Parliament and Mrs. Thatcher was forced to defend herself, though without apologizing.
Such dealings, however, don’t seem to have hurt young Thatcher’s prospects, either in the business world or in Fort Worth social circles. He still holds directorships in three gold-trading and investment firms in Hong Kong, and he just copped an annual salary of some $90,000 to sell Lotus sports cars in—where else?—Texas, where folks can afford $47,000 automobiles. Says Lotus boss David Wickins, “His name is worth quite a few motorcars.” As for Karen Fortson, a Texas rose by any other name couldn’t smell as sweet. Featured in Town and Country magazine as one of the “Beautiful Texas Debutantes,” she came out at the 1979 Assembly Ball in Fort Worth and graduated from Texas Christian University last August with a degree in home economics. The willowy, blue-eyed brunette is currently interning at Christie’s, the New York art-auction house, and seems interested in collecting Mark. This despite his reputation among British women as a “twit,” a “wet” or a “wally,” all of which can be freely translated as “wimp.” The Fortsons are still downplaying the romance, but British bets are on marriage. “Texan billionaires believe that money can buy anyone,” commented the Daily Express. “Britons believe that anyone can buy Mark Thatcher.”