Pretty Woman

The strange tale of a man and his Chinese bride that has Dallas talking

As the clock ticked toward August 15, 2005, the day Nicole would be deported, he turned to the press. In August, when Isenberg, 53, announced that he was going on a hunger strike in an effort to keep his new family together, parts of the bizarre story tumbled out in The Dallas Morning News.

Isenberg's public confession that he had spent a million dollars on wining and dining women before he fell in love with Nicole, now 40, unleashed a torrent of bad press, including angry public statements by his two estranged daughters that he hadn't been much of a family man when they were growing up.

The story appeared soon after Isenberg had called for the resignation of D'Angelo Lee--at the center of the FBI's investigation into corruption at City Hall--from the city Plan Commission. While remaining a staunch supporter, Isenberg says, Miller asked for his resignation from the Plan Commission. Though hurt, he complied.

In a last-ditch attempt to stave off the inevitable, the Isenbergs packed their bags and moved to New York City, where yet another immigration lawyer has taken up their battle. The story hit the New York Post as well as Chinese newspapers, with a photo of the couple and a headline calling Isenberg "China's son-in-law." The story had gone global.

How Isenberg--a Jewish nebbish with a savior complex--became China's son-in-law is a tale about the American dream as filtered through pre- and post-9/11 immigration law, where the right hand of "homeland security" may have no idea what the left hand is doing, a shocking indictment of a system supposed to protect the nation from terrorists entering the United States.

Or maybe it's just a story about lust, love and a leap of faith.

Best Friends

Walking through the commercial space at Preston Center in search of a new location for their hair salon in 1989, Alan and Sally Stone had very different reactions to Ralph Isenberg, the leasing manager. "He was very abusive and rude," says Alan, an Englishman who has lived in Dallas 25 years. As they left the building, Sally turned to her husband and said, "That's the most obnoxious man I've ever met."

Alan saw through Isenberg's act. "It's all fake," he told Sally. "I can do business with this guy."

After they signed the deal, Isenberg and his wife Mary invited the Stones to dinner at Baby Routh's, then one of Dallas' premier restaurants. Well-traveled and cosmopolitan, the Stones had little in common with the Isenbergs, both from the Midwest. The Stones had lots of friends; the Isenbergs rarely socialized. The Stones didn't have kids; the Isenbergs had two daughters, one in college and the other in high school. The Stones lived in East Dallas; the Isenbergs lived in DeSoto, their new home decorated with furniture from college.

Isenberg and Mary couldn't have been more different from the Stones or from each other. They'd met in college and had spent most of their marriage moving, living in 13 states in 14 years while Isenberg worked in the hotel business. A beautiful woman with curly red hair, Mary was introverted, Isenberg loud and wacky. Well-read, Mary could talk about anything but held her feelings close to the vest; Isenberg blurted out his innermost thoughts. He loved to socialize; Mary hated it.

But something magical happened during the dinner. The two couples hit it off. The four became each other's best friends, even taking weekend trips together.

To Alan, who calls himself "a ya-ya sister" because he has mostly female friends, Isenberg was funny, smart and never predictable. "He likes to push your buttons," Alan says. When the foursome got together, Sally says, "we would laugh and tell stories and do silly, silly things. It brought Mary out."

The Isenbergs had moved to Dallas in 1985, when Isenberg went into property management as leasing manager for a shopping center in Oak Cliff. His business took off in the '90s as he got into real estate development with the likes of Norman Brinker. Isenberg's business manner was unconventional, to say the least; he'd invite lessees to roll a big cup of dice he kept in his office to settle arguments over terms. But he was also shrewd, a problem-solver who knew how to maneuver among city bureaucrats. The Isenbergs moved to Oak Cliff in the mid-'90s, joining art and civic groups.

By 2000, according to tax records, Isenberg was making $500,000 a year.

The Stones discovered Isenberg also gave away a lot of money. A sucker for sob stories, crises and the down-and-out, Isenberg would write a check without asking anything in return. "In some sense, Ralph doesn't blow his own horn," Alan says. "He solves a lot of people's problems. He does things out of his heart."

And out of identification with the downtrodden and persecuted. Though not an observant Jew, his family's experience in the Holocaust profoundly affected his life. Members of one city board were surprised when, before a vote, Isenberg talked about his Jewish parents who'd escaped from Nazi Germany and those in his family who perished. "It was out of left field," one board member says.

At times, Isenberg's sometimes self-righteous do-good-ism got in the way of his head, as when he went on a graffiti-scrubbing binge in Oak Cliff and ran awry of a homeowner who didn't appreciate the unasked-for coat of green paint on her garage. Even the Dallas Observer applauded his willingness to roll up his sleeves and do something about graffiti instead of just talking about it. Isenberg sent the Observer five gallons of pea-green paint, offended that everybody couldn't see that his intentions were pure.

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