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Calling B.S. on Guy Sorman’s Story About Dallas Donors

On Sunday, the Dallas Morning News published a story written by a fellow named Guy Sorman. Not sure how the print headline read, but here’s the online version: “How Dallas’ Super-Rich Donors Are Transforming the City.” The premise of the story is undeniably true. There is a lot of money flowing through Dallas, and the people who have the most are giving away loads of it. But there are a couple of details in Sorman’s story that give me bitter beer face. From the third paragraph:

A decade ago, [Kelcy] Warren joined a project with the ambitious goal of connecting Dallas’ separated halves by covering the freeway with a park, which would include recreational space, open-air restaurants and an auditorium for outdoor concerts. He donated $10 million of his own; $40 million more came from the very wealthy families at the heart of Dallas’ philanthropic community — the Thousand Families, as they’re sometimes referred to locally.

I’ve lived in Dallas since 1976, and I’ve never heard that term, “the Thousand Families.” Maybe I don’t run in the right circles. I asked our society columnist, Jeanne Prejean, about it. Jeanne knows a thing or two about a thing or two. If you name someone who has given at least $5 million to charity in the last decade, Jeanne has probably hugged the person and can tell you a personal detail about him or her that shouldn’t be published. Guess what. Jeanne had never heard the term either. Please, FrontBurnervians, if one of you has heard this term used locally, tell us about it in the comments.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Sorman made up the term. I’m sure that while he was in Dallas doing research for his upcoming book about American philanthropy, someone used the term in his presence. What I am saying is that Sorman is “one of France’s leading public intellectuals.” He can probably talk your ear off about how much sovereign debt France needs to write down to rescue the Eurozone. But I’m not so sure how well he knows Dallas and the people here who might be trying to popularize a cute terms of their own invention. I apologize if I sound provincial.

The second detail — really a raft of details — that gives me trouble is a bit more serious. A few paragraphs deeper:

Dallas’ most prosperous philanthropists donate so massively that they lose track of their own giving. I recently found myself in the office of a Dallas-based financier and donor — call him Mr. T. His back was turned to me as we spoke, since he needed to watch two screens that displayed the fluctuating prices of stocks and raw materials, and he interrupted our conversation from time to time to place buy and sell orders.

I asked him how much he was worth; in Dallas, I had learned, such a question wasn’t unseemly, and within the philanthropic community, everyone seemed to know more or less how much money everyone else had.

Mr. T. wasn’t sure, since the answer changed constantly with the stock market. He called his secretary: “Pamela, how much am I worth today?” A few minutes later, Pamela announced that Mr. T., at that moment, was worth $10 billion. I asked him how much he had donated to philanthropic causes. Again, he couldn’t answer: This was primarily the domain of his wife and his two daughters, who ran the foundation that bore his name. Pamela again came to the rescue: Over the last decade, Mr. T.’s foundation had donated $1 billion.

My guess is that this anecdote concerns Harold Simmons. He has the daughters and the money. Forrest Hoglund is a suspect, but I’m fairly certain he’s nowhere near that loaded. Ross Perot, too, might be in the running, but he’s not actively trading stocks and raw materials.

Okay, first, I’m here to tell you that it is unseemly to ask a billionaire how much he’s worth, whether he lives in Dallas or anywhere else. Maybe Mark Cuban shrugs off the question and gives you that weird sideways look, but Harold Simmons isn’t going to talk to you about how much he’s worth. The only thing Simmons wants to talk about is how poor he grew up.

What do I know, though, right? I’ve never met Simmons. All I know is what I’ve read about him. Well, I do know this: if you’ve got $10 billion, no way can your secretary figure out how much you’re worth — in a few minutes. By the time she has called your broker and checked with your Realtor and contacted the four corners of your vast empire, that number will have changed, perhaps dramatically. And, in any case, that accounting would take days, not minutes. It’s not like Pamela can pull up your Chase account on your iPhone app.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Simmons, but Karl Rove apparently still hasn’t cashed that $5 million check. Do you want your net worth with our without that donation?” Nope. Not how it happens.

Finally, if asking someone about his wealth isn’t unseemly, then why didn’t Sorman use the billionaire’s name? I wrote to an email address provided at the end of the News story, and I’ve called the Manhattan Institute, where Sorman is a contributing editor to one of its publications. If I get a chance to ask him that question, I’ll update this post and let you know what he tells me.

Update (5/28/13): Over the long weekend, I got an email from Sorman. He says:

Sorry, Tim, I have nothing to add. What has been published in the Dallas Monring News is an abstract of one chapter in my coming book, The American Heart. I have not invented anything and I shall not give you my sources. The text has been thoroughly edited and verified by Dallas editors. You may have a different interpretation or different sources. Anyway, I am no Dallas insider; I only try to convey to my readers (not only in France, as my books are translated in many countries) what US philanthropy is about. It is uniquely American for sure. I got many feedback from Dallas, all favourable except yours; I have been very surprised by these positive reactions. Probably my irony was lost in translation.
NB: how does the European debt crisis relate to all this? You may know as little about Europe as I myself know about Texas.

Warm regards.

25 comments on “Calling B.S. on Guy Sorman’s Story About Dallas Donors

  1. Excellent BS detector. Sounds embellished for sure, hopefully not outright fabricated.

  2. Okay, T. Boone is an interesting guess. Because from what I know he IS the sort of guy who’d make a big show of calling his secretary and asking how much he’s worth. But there are a couple problems. First, T. Boone ain’t worth near that much. As of March 2013, Forbes has him at $1.2 billion. Second, what kind of move is it to disguise someone’s identity that transparently. That would be like writing a story about Hollywood and saying, “One Indian-American director of thrillers whom I’ll call Mr. M. …”

  3. long time Dallas resident and i’ve never heard the term Thousand Families.

  4. I have worked for a very wealthy family for years and have facilitated significant donations through them personally and via trusts. I have never, ever heard the term Thousand Families. Calling foutaise on that.

  5. Maybe “thousand families” is to the ultra-rich as “$30,000 millionaire” is to McKinney Avenue guys. If you are one, you don’t admit it or deny it exists and if you think someone is one you can’t prove it.
    As far as issue #2, it leaves the impression that Mr. S did his research by watching old episodes of Dallas.

  6. Tim, I think you’re right about this being Simmons. In January the WSJ said he was worth $10 billion. However, to your other point about him, Simmons is not reticent at all to tell you what’s he’s worth. Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with him for the Dallas Business Journal in 2006, when he was “only” worth about $4 billion:

    DBJ: Forbes magazine put you at No. 278 on its latest list of the world’s richest people, with $2.6 billion. Is that accurate?

    SIMMONS: It was a year ago; now it’s about $4 billion. I made over $1 billion last year — probably $1.5 billion, $2 billion, depending on where the stock price is. I do my own calculations. The other day it was $4.6 billion; today it’s only about $3.9 billion. Stocks go up and down. I monitor my own stocks; I’ve got them on the screen all the time. But I don’t sit around thinking what it all adds up to.

  7. Sure does seem like it’s Simmons, then. So if he monitors his own stocks, why would he call his secretary?

  8. I’m totally part of the “Thousand Families,” bro. You’re just an old who’s not cool enough to get it. We’re going to own this town one day.

  9. Also, the article said that the maintenance for Klyde Warren Park would be paid for by the project. Wasn’t it not too long ago that money was being requested for maintenance for the park because it was not in the projects budget?

  10. Why not? Maybe he doesn’t want it to look like he knows, maybe it gives her a thrill, maybe they’re playing a joke on him, maybe he was joking and the writer was tone deaf to the entire episode, maybe they had just talked about it at a meeting two hours before and he knew she would remember but he doesn’t remember things so well, maybe she is his Alfred and has access to the supercomputer that keeps track of all money transactions worldwide in real time but he keeps forgetting the password because he has more important things to do like, hello, keeping Gotham safe.

  11. Hypothetical #1a:
    Someone actually said “The Family.” In response, the interviewer ask, “how many people are in this family?” The respondent said, “Oh, I don’t know, about a thousand.” Voilà: The Thousand Families.

    Hypothetical #1b:
    Trigger finger happened. The word for family in French is “famille.” A doubling of command+v could have resulted in “mille (fa)mille.” Voilà: Thousand Family. Someone later added the “ies” to make it make sense.

    Hypothetical #2:
    Maybe it’s a writer’s workaround: Sorman couldn’t get an actual interview so he crafted his description around the 2006 Dallas Business Journal article; popped over to the Forbe’s list for the most recent accounting of Simmons’ wealth; then cloaked his characterization as the anonymous “Mr. T.” Also known as the bing, bang, boom. (Or, more subtly put, “Voilà.”)

  12. I thought the premise of the story was, “people are giving a lot of money,” and “this is really good for Dallas.” The first is true. The second premise, after looking at the trickle of people actually moving to the city and considering the state of the still-neglected school system, is certainly not true. Or, at least, the jury is out.

    Tim you might be right about his facts, but you failed to do any critical analysis about the entire premise.

  13. You’re reaching deep here, sir. 2008, huh? The efforts of these church “philanthropists” is the exception, not the rule. Hooray for bridges and non-existent riverfront parks.

  14. In light of this interview, the DMN piece seems completely plausible–at least the part about “Mr. T.” Looks like you called BS to quick, in my humble opinion.

  15. I nominate Trevor Rees-Jones

    Not knowing what you’re worth is all part of the billionaire ‘pose’. All of them know EXACTLY what they’re worth.

    And the gobs of money they donate is actually small in relation to total their wealth. Many lesser Dallasites contribute a much larger percentage o charity than most 1%’s. And they never ask to have their name put on anything.

  16. Also, Glenn, can you tell Tim that granting rich people anonymity for no reason is a courtesy, a token gesture of fealty by a journalist to his better? Apparently he hasn’t been reading your blog posts.

  17. Huh. I always thought the Thousand Families were those doctors and lawyers who paid D Mag ads to get on those “best of” lists.

  18. I beg to differ as to the not being the rule as the church I attend not only fixes up local schools, has a weekly reading buddy program, sponsors mission trips internationally as well as across the US after natural disasters have happened. I could go on but I’m sure you have already made up your mind.

  19. I’ve heard the term “1000 Families” before in reference to Dallas. I can’t remember when or where. I think it might have been at city-data.

  20. It’s almost definitely Harold Simmons. T. Boone also has dual monitors with stock tickers but his Foundation hasn’t given that much money away. Hoglund is a very generous millionaire, but not a billionaire.