By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Elizabeth Albanese sat near the front of the massive ballroom, sipping champagne. The 43-year-old loved champagne. In social settings such as this one, it was all she drank. It was part of the image she sought to cultivate, that of a genteel Southern lady. The same could be said of the pantyhose and the red lipstick and the kitten heels she wore. Co-workers had never even seen her in a pair of slacks.
True, she had lost some of her figure. The long, willowy neck had filled out, and her arms had gone a bit fleshy, but she was still what she had always been: a pretty little redhead who knew how to work it. And tonight she was working it—the Texas-sized smile, the easy charm, a shawl over her freckled shoulders and a green dress that showed just enough cleavage. She had spent $3,500 on the dress, and it was worth every penny. The truth was, friends would later say, she looked better than anyone in the room.
And she should have. In the hours before the evening's gala, while two of her underlings scurried to ready the ballroom, she had been upstairs in her master suite, having her hair and nails done. In a few minutes, she would take the stage, and all eyes would be on her.
Albanese was destined for a moment like this. A college graduate at the age of 16, she had earned a law degree from Harvard and spent a few years at an important Washington, D.C., law firm before turning her attention to journalism. As a reporter, she had purportedly written for The New York Times and covered big stories for CNN, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Now she was Dallas bureau chief of The Bond Buyer, a tiny trade publication based in New York. She was also president of the Dallas Press Club, a dying institution but one with a rich history and one that gave her access to some of the city's titans.
She looked around the room. It was packed with television reporters, newspaper writers and public relations professionals. The men wore suits and tuxedos, the women designer dresses and sparkling ball gowns. In the Dallas media world, there was no bigger night. For months, Albanese and the rest of the Dallas Press Club had been preparing for this event, the 2006 Katie Awards.
They had spared no expense. The ballroom, with its soaring ceilings and 30,000 square feet of floor space, was one of the largest meeting rooms in Dallas and the centerpiece of the historic Hyatt Regency. The press club couldn't have picked a better spot for its signature event.
Tonight, the winners would receive a gold statuette, a female knock-off of the Oscar trophy. The Katies were considered one of the most prestigious journalism awards in the Southwest, and every year the contest drew thousands of entrants from across a six-state region. The statues sat on a table near the front of the room, stacked one atop the other in the shape of a wedding cake. It would take hours to hand them all out.
As president of the press club, Albanese had a substantial part in the program. In a moment, her face would fill the two giant TV screens hanging above the stage. All told, the evening would cost the press club more than $100,000. Albanese would be the center of attention.
As the evening wore on, it became clear to those seated at her table that the night was more than just her creation: It was her coronation. Not only did she have several speaking roles as club president, she also won four awards, more than anyone else in the room. She even won the coveted Best Investigative News Story award for a portfolio of stories on tobacco litigation, beating a team of Dallas Morning News writers who had written a series that would lead to the indictments of several Dallas Independent School District officials. "She would go up there and get her award and come back and kind of smile, like, 'Oh, here I am again,'" says Jo Ann Holt, who sat next to Albanese that night. "I thought to myself: 'This is to the point of getting ridiculous. You know, you shouldn't enter that many categories. How does this look to other people?'"
Privately, a number of journalists were seething. At one table, a group of veteran Dallas Morning News reporters were joking that if they wanted to win awards in the future, they had better get a job at The Bond Buyer. At another table, an editor with Houston's Pipeline & Gas Journal swore he would never again enter the contest. "How does the press club allow its officers to submit their own entries?" he wondered. To him, the whole thing stunk.
When it was over, Albanese invited a select group up to her private suite. Prominently displayed at the entrance were her four Katie awards. Into the wee hours of the morning, she entertained her guests, drinking champagne and eating grapes.
"She was the Cinderella of the night," Holt says. "And she got to ride the carriage for a couple hours. And then it all came crashing down."