Pretty Woman

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

With their success, Mary and Ralph began taking long, exotic trips to places like Vietnam and Morocco. Mary planned them, and Ralph wrote the checks. Isenberg had gotten into photography, posting his travel pictures on the Internet. But he says that at the most remote point of each trip, Mary would announce she wanted a divorce. She didn't follow through, but the threat hovered over the rest of the vacation. (Mary Isenberg did not return phone calls for this story.)

As their affluence grew, the fundamental differences in their personalities seemed wider than ever. Now hobnobbing with political and civic leaders, Isenberg wanted to enjoy his wealth, to host dinner parties, to shop, to attend galas. Mary, a down-to-earth woman who favors jeans and T-shirts, hated shopping, and the only people she wanted to socialize with in their home were the Stones. Isenberg decorated their house with bright colors, modern art and glass sculpture. Mary thought he had terrible taste and told him so.

The biggest conflict was even more fundamental: Isenberg was emotional, romantic and craved intimacy. After work, he'd see Mary reading on the couch and would plop down with his head in her lap. "Did I ask you to do that?" she'd say. "The couch is big enough for both of us."

With Isenberg, Nicole met civic leaders such as Mayor Laura Miller and Rudy Giuliani.
With Isenberg, Nicole met civic leaders such as Mayor Laura Miller and Rudy Giuliani.

In one of his hypochondria attacks, Isenberg took Mary to the doctor with him. Asked by the physician what she thought was wrong with her husband, Mary replied, "Oh, he's fucking nuts."

Alan and Sally had to admit she had a point. "He's an obsessive-compulsive character," Alan says. "There's a crazy side of Ralph. You can get worn down by that." Six years ago, Alan Stone says, he got a call from a distraught Isenberg. "I've lost my family," he moaned. "I've lost my kids emotionally. I don't know what to do." Isenberg felt like his wife and daughters were taking sides against him whenever conflict erupted. His oldest daughter wasn't speaking to him because of the way Isenberg handled a crisis involving another family member. In therapy, taking medication for depression, Ralph begged Mary to attend marriage counseling. She refused.

In late 2002, Alan sat Sally down and told her Isenberg was having an affair.

True Romance

When he first laid eyes on her in August 2002, Hu Yanhong--who took the name Nicole because it means success--was dressed like a professional masseuse, wearing little makeup, with her thick, long black hair pulled back. When she smiled and greeted him, it was clear that she didn't speak much English. And she was 37, no nubile babe. But Isenberg was so smitten that he leaped up from the massage table and danced her around the room.

"She was absolutely charming," Isenberg says. "I felt an immediate closeness. I felt something wonderful inside."

He admits they met at a bathhouse, where men could negotiate for sex as well as massages. He will not identify the establishment. Isenberg says he'd been getting massages--not sex--from another woman who worked there. He knows that people might not buy that but insists that what he wanted was far harder to find than sex. He longed for companionship, fun, romance.

"Did I go there with the intention or thought that I would have sex with her?" Isenberg says. "The answer is absolutely not. I went there with the intention to get a nice massage. I didn't go there for a hand job or a blow job or to get laid. I wanted a nice, soft massage."

He was looking for another kind of relief. Seven years earlier, after the Isenbergs returned from a trip to Peru, Isenberg began chatting with women on AOL. Then 46, Isenberg felt lonely and miserable. "You have no idea how weird it was typing out messages and trying to find someone to take me out of my pain."

Isenberg started perusing dating sites, arranging to meet women in other cities when he traveled. They'd go to fine restaurants, museums and jazz bars and maybe indulge in a bit of fantasy, which Isenberg insists most often didn't include sex. But reality sometimes intruded.

Like the time Isenberg invited a woman from Florida to meet him in Chicago and re-enact the movie Pretty Woman, where Richard Gere plays a rich businessman and Julia Roberts plays the troubled hooker he transforms into an elegant lady.

The woman showed up at the airport wearing short-shorts. The moment she opened her mouth, Isenberg thought, "Uh-oh." In her mid 30s, the woman was attractive but rough. She needed Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady to tone down the twang and slang.

Isenberg says everybody in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel stared as his companion "wiggled" her way across the lobby. He'd made reservations for dinner at a top-notch restaurant, but when he asked what she'd brought to wear, she pulled out a uniform for a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. He said, "We're going shopping."

In the elevator down, Isenberg asked his date to tone down her wiggle. She must have taken offense because "she danced across the lobby."

While shopping, Miss Florida gravitated to provocative clothes. Isenberg dragged her to a women's store, grabbed the manager and asked for a saleswoman to pull together some nice outfits.

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