Find a back issue

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.