Everything, really, was quite perfect. The Women's Council of The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden was gathering last month in the historic DeGolyer House for its Fall Informal Luncheon, each of the ladies dressed in "casual garden attire," as their bluebonnet-bordered invitations had instructed. The luncheon tables were whimsically decorated with gourds painted like scarecrows and witches, and with baskets of fresh orange and yellow mums. Inside the mansion's master bedroom, Women's Council volunteers in silk pantsuits and printed broomstick skirts madly tied festive ribbons around box lunches stacked on the bed, rushing to beat the clock for the 10:30 meeting start.
In the great room, Tom Robertson snapped photos of a trio of hard-working volunteers, as his wife and co-worker, Agness, jotted down names and details for the society column in the coming week's edition of Park Cities People.
All was going swimmingly until the Robertsons prepared to leave, and a grateful volunteer saw fit to thank them for their interest by slipping Tom two box lunches as he shuffled toward the door. "We think you two are so wonderful," the volunteer gushed. "Please take some lunch home." Tom obligingly tucked the boxes under his arm and went to gather Agness, the aroma of the herb-infused chicken breast lunches trailing in his wake.
By Dallas society standards, what happened next could only be described as a moment of sheer horror--a faux pas of Everest proportions. Mary Miller, the meeting's chairwoman, caught a glimpse of the white boxes disappearing toward the exit. Scrambling after Tom, Miller gently tapped him on the shoulder. She grimaced.
"I'm really sorry Tom," she whispered, so as not to create a stir. "But you can't take a lunch. If you do, we won't have enough for our guests.
"I'm so embarrassed, and I'm so sorry," Miller went on, plummeting ever more deeply into a graceless abyss. "I mean, we had to give the caterer a specific number, and we only have enough for each person. Normally, you have a caterer in the kitchen who could put a little something extra together, but we don't, and, uh, we have some lovely pound cake. We have a lot of pound cake. Would you like to take some pound cake?"
No, Tom and Agness did not want pound cake. They dutifully handed over the box lunches, unfazed by this little lapse in hostess etiquette. Miller, on the other hand, was turning slightly pale, knowing full well she had just cold-shouldered one of the most powerful couples in Park Cities society.
The Robertsons had little time that day to dally over the rebuff. They were due next at a soiree at the downtown Neiman Marcus store previewing the Ferragamo "Historic Heel Special Collection"--with a special appearance by the late shoe designer's chain-smoking daughter, Marchesa Fiamma di San Giuliano Ferragamo.
There was no possibility they would walk away hungry from this stop. At the Zodiac Room, they enjoyed a fresh seafood salad and popovers. Then, the Robertsons set to work: a photo of Miss Ferragamo, Neiman's manager Malcolm Reuben, and a couple of the store's biggest Ferragamo customers, who would be properly fussed over at the customer appreciation luncheon.
Then it was out of Neiman's and on to three or four more big deals of the day. Invitations to six other events would end up on the scrap heap. After all, there is only so much high society you can pack into a 12-hour work day.
For Tom and Agness, this is the lush life--chasing after the Dallas aristocracy seven days a week, chronicling its teas and dinners, its balls and auctions, its debutante parties, even its occasional bowl-a-thon. At 81 and 79 years old, they have been the Park Cities society writing-photography team for nearly 15 years. Tom takes the pictures; Agness writes jaunty copy to match. They assemble the column from their home, mostly, where a dining-room table is stacked with boxes of gilded invitations, and a computer, printer, and fax machine stand nearby. Deadline is every Monday; Tom turns in his best photos, and Agness delivers a set of pithy paragraphs packed with boldfaced names and exclamation points. Occasionally, she'll include an editorial comment--sometimes even inch close to a political statement--but never a scintilla of gossip.
Theirs is a nice column. The Robertsons' subjects have come to count on reading compliments about their children and complete descriptions of their ball gowns. In all their years on the job, Tom and Agness have never taken an extended vacation. Tom has worn out four tuxes. Agness has never called in sick. "Oh, there were times I haven't felt well," she says. "But I'd just sit on the bed with my notes and get it written."
Tom--who always drives--doesn't see so well from behind the wheel at night anymore, and most of the time Agness' feet hurt. Every Thursday morning, they drive to the Central Expressway office of Park Cities People, grab a handful of papers hot off the presses, and right there in the parking lot, pore over their two-, sometimes four-page section like excited high schoolers with a new yearbook.
Neither Tom nor Agness were to the manor born. They married 55 years ago, and while Tom worked his way up at Braniff International Airlines, they raised a son and daughter in a roomy--though hardly opulent--North Dallas ranch house. They wear sensible clothing, simple and well-made, but hardly the Chanel and Armani designs favored by the ruling class they so faithfully cover. "We are background people, really. We're just observers," Agness says.
Yet the unassuming Robertsons hold a curious sway in the world of high society; a power they seem fully aware of, but which has left them beautifully uncorrupted. They share a symbiosis of sorts with the rich, famous, and artsy of Dallas. It works like this: Tom and Agness need the city's movers and shakers to fill their society section every week. But what is even more evident is how much Dallas' wealthy and wannabes need Tom and Agness.
As everyone who is anyone knows, if you throw a big bash, you gotta get free publicity. What good is being high society, after all, if nobody notices? And everyone caught in the tiny social whirl of Highland Park and Preston Hollow understands one truth from the outset: If Tom and Agness don't make it to your party, it's just as if it never happened.
If you doubt that even for a moment, consider the lavish, gold-and-black invitation the Robertsons received to the recent world premiere of the remastered 1956 film Giant, a black-tie gala that preceded this year's big Cattle Baron's Ball. Every society reporter in town received a similar invitation, but you can bet not one of them got a better seat to the movie than Tom and Agness:
Row 1, seats 1 and 2.
"I don't see any of our parking boys, Tom," says Agness, craning her neck to scan the 4200 block of Bordeaux Avenue for a sign of valet service. She is beside Tom in their 1992 bronze-colored Cadillac Seville, in tow for a full day of party-hopping. Tom is negotiating the Highland Park street, which is jammed with parked Suburbans and Lexuses. The Robertsons are rarely forced to self-park; most functions provide valet parking and the "parking boys" always recognize the Robertsons' car with its vanity plates reading "SOC ED."
"They are so wonderful," coos Agness. "They see us coming and just run to us, even in the pouring rain."
The day begins at 9:30 a.m. with a Kick-off Coffee (all society events, even those with generic descriptions, inexplicably merit capital letters on invitations) for the 1997 Children's Medical Center Family Night at Six Flags. Honorary advisors, and the faces Tom and Agness want to capture on film, are WFAA-TV Channel 8 anchor Tracy Rowlett and his wife, Jill.
The Rowletts are nearly 30 minutes late. But there is plenty to do while waiting, like strolling through the massive wood-floor entry of the home, and chatting with its owner, hostess Debra Miller. Miller and her husband, Edwin, have recently sold the splendid white-brick Georgian and will soon move to another Highland Park home. "I redid this one, and there's not much else we can do but move to another one," Miller says, punctuating the statement with a little shrug of her shoulders.
When the Rowletts arrive, Tom hustles them to the front of a living-room fireplace with George Farr, president of Children's Medical Center. Fireplaces are one of Tom's preferred backgrounds--second only to a nice, white wall. Upon entering a home, hotel, or other party site, Tom's mission is to find a suitable background. He pokes around a room, then zeros in on a site. With the background selected, Agness steps in, arranging the subjects, urging them to face the camera head-on rather than sideways. The pose is vital to the success of a society photo, because as Agness confides later on, "Everyone always thinks, if they stand sideways, they'll look thin. Not true," she says. "The camera will pick up every little wrinkle and fold in their clothes and make them look fat." (A potential problem with, for instance, wide-bottomed movers and shakers like Tracy Rowlett.)
And what if the subjects are fat?
"We put the bigger people in back," she says. Then, without missing a beat, she adds: "They usually know who they are."
At the Millers' fireplace, Tom pulls his Nikon from the vintage, ocean-blue Braniff International flight tote that serves as his camera bag. "When I count 'one,' show me some teeth," he says. "I'll shoot on 'three.'"
Party after party it will go like this--Tom behind the camera calling out his trademark "One, two, teeth-teeth-teeth!" Toothy grins all around, a click of the camera shutter, and then it's back to the party. Tom and Agness rarely stay at any event long enough to glory in their own notoriety. There's a packed schedule to keep, for God's sake, and when they are running late they barely have time to gulp a few sips of coffee before running out the door. As Tom locks arms with Agness, escorting her to the door, an ample woman in a faux leopard vest and black wide-leg pants, with a black Chanel bag hanging from her shoulder, embraces them.
"Hello, my precious!" she gushes, giving Agness one of those always-polite pecks on the cheek. "Didn't we have fun at the Cattle Baron's?" Tom and Agness, she says, are so easy to like, so important, so irreplaceable in this town.
Outside at last, Agness has to yell to be heard over the roar of lawn mowers and gasoline-powered edgers being pushed by the dozens of Hispanic lawn boys throughout the neighborhood. "She really did go on," Agness says of that particular fan. "My golly, she really did."
Tom Robertson and Agness Foster, both Texas-born, met nearly 60 years ago. But Agness tells the story like it was just last week.
"We were both working at the Federal Land Bank in Houston. I was young at that time, working in the secretarial pool. The bank brought in eight gorgeous, young college graduates, and they were always having fun with us girls, just joking and talking. Flirting, too. But this one (she says this pointing to Tom, who is sitting across from her in their North Dallas home), he was just always sitting over there working and acting all serious. He was in the computer section. One day he got up the courage to ask me, did I know Jack Foster. I said, 'Why, yes, he's my brother.' It turned out they had a very slight acquaintance."
After Tom finally broke the ice, the couple began courting, and ultimately married in 1941. Their son, Ross, was born in 1942, and their daughter, Heather, in 1945. Tom worked briefly for Lockheed during World War II, then signed on with an infant airline--Braniff International--in 1946. He worked at Braniff for 35 years, heading up the budgeting department, long-range planning, and finishing his career as vice president of regulatory proceedings--which meant lobbying the federal government for more routes for Braniff. "I think I lived half my working life in Washington, D.C., working on winning routes to Hawaii and London. We got them, but poor Agness had to raise the kids by herself back here in Dallas," Tom says.
It was hard work, spending the weeks alone with the kids, Agness recalls. But there were perks. She often hopped a red-eye flight to New York with other Braniff wives, took in a big Broadway show, and made it back to Dallas in time to tuck the kids in bed.
Now, the Robertsons share their home with a big black foundling cat named Cushy, who rarely graces strangers with her presence. Tom, sitting in a simple chair in the home's great room, is leaning forward, his legs crossed, looking very slight. A Xeroxed photo from his Braniff days shows a much younger man--tall and lean and lanky. But even back then he had the same distinct eyebrows--bushy and unruly, like two woolly caterpillars perched above his eyes.
The room around them is accented with souvenirs of Tom's South and Central American travels in the Braniff days: a stuffed llama near the front door; a Peruvian milk can on the fireplace hearth. At one time, this house was a major hobby for Tom. He bought the lot in 1948, and built the home to his own specifications four years later, when the neighborhood near Preston Road and Royal Lane was mostly cornfields. The roof is steel; the foundation is slab ("Back then," Tom says, "everyone was doing pier and beam"); and the pedestal dining table is built into--as in permanently--the floor.
"I didn't want our kids to hurt themselves falling over the table legs, so I designed it that way," Tom says. "I wanted a house that would last, so I built it this way."
While Tom designed the house and moved up the corporate ladder at Braniff, Agness stayed home with their children, Ross and Heather. Ross is now a law firm administrator in Dallas; Heather, an artist in Seattle. The Robertsons have four grown grandchildren. In 1980, when Tom retired, they expected to travel to their hearts' content on the "gold passes'' Braniff offered as a retirement gift--good for anywhere the airline flew. Two years later, the storied Dallas company went belly-up.
"We never used those gold passes; not even once," Agness muses.
So what was a retired couple to do? Start another career?
Shortly after his retirement, Tom and Agness attended a party where a photographer for the oldest of the Park Cities' weeklies, the Park Cities News, was working. When her camera malfunctioned, Tom--a hobbyist photographer--offered to shoot the photos she needed with the camera he kept in his car.
He was soon offered a job at the PCN, which he accepted. But the competition for society news in the Park Cities grew blazing hot with the birth of a competing weekly, Park Cities People, and in 1982 PCP publisher Reid Slaughter saw fit to best his competition by stealing Tom away.
"I remember inviting Tom to lunch at the Dallas Country Club," says Slaughter, who now publishes Cowboys and Indians, a glossy bimonthly magazine devoted to glamorizing all things "Western." "We met way back in a corner of the men's grill. We had to pick a men's-only place, where we could be sure no society women would see us and start talking."
It would be five years before Slaughter would ask Agness to join her husband on the society beat. She came on in May of 1987 as an interim society editor, but Slaughter soon offered her the job permanently. She has been boldfacing the big names ever since.
"They really were so charming," Slaughter recalls. "Our goal was to get every man, woman, and child in the Park Cities in a picture in our paper at least once a year. I think with Tom and Agness, we came close. Because they could not turn down an assignment. And they do that job with a servant's heart, which is what it takes to do it properly. They stand to the side and put other people in the spotlight and get such joy out of it."
In retrospect, Slaughter figures he got by far the best end of the deal.
"I look at it like the Herschel Walker trade was for the Cowboys," he says. "Tom and Agness ended up paying dividends long after leaving the Park Cities News."
All morning, as the Robertsons bounce from Highland Park to the arboretum to the Zodiac Room, the sulky sky above them has been threatening a tantrum. Within two hours, threads of high, white clouds roll into bulging thunderheads. When at last the heavens let loose with a wind-lashed downpour, Tom and Agness, fresh from an afternoon nap, set out on their second shift of the day--visits to a cocktail party in honor of big Dallas Republican Robert Strauss and corporate sponsors of a Senior Citizens of Greater Dallas luncheon; a political fund raiser for the son of an EDS honcho; a Borders book-signing; and the unveiling of Barbie Goes Naturally Texas, a Texas State Fair exhibit in which America's favorite bimbo doll is dressed in original designs made of Texas wool, cotton, and mohair.
"I don't think God should send this wind on an already bad hair day," Agness chirps as she folds herself into the passenger seat of the Seville, then smooths her simply styled red-blond hair into place with her fingers. A scarlet red raincoat is draped over her shoulders, and she has changed from her pink paisley skirt and patent-leather pumps to black slacks and sensible, rubber-soled oxfords. As always, Tom has helped her into the car, umbrella hoisted to protect her hair from the storm. The perfect gentleman.
Theirs is one of those increasingly rare relationships, where, after 50-plus years together, everything somehow looks seamlessly choreographed. He instinctively pours cream into her cup even before the waiter has filled it with coffee. When there are no "parking boys" available, Tom pulls up curbside with the car, ensuring that Agness will not be forced to step into a rain-filled gutter and spoil her Ferragamos.
He is her biggest fan.
"Can you believe Agness has never missed a week of her column? Not a single week!" Tom says, driving south on the tollway to a cocktail party at the Preston Hollow home of oilman Jerry McCutchin. "Can you imagine that? In 10 years, not a missed column!"
Agness, thumbing through the stack of invitations on the seat beside her, feigns a little wince. "Oh, Daddy, uh, I mean Tom," she protests. "He's really the guts of the operation," she says. "He's got the patience to plow through all those names and help me through it every week."
The Robertsons' society subjects--all of those men and women who do--have only vague memories of how they became acquainted with Tom and Agness. They only know that they depend on the couple to show up, line them up in front of the fireplace, and splash their smiling faces over the center spread of their hometown paper.
"Whatever you're doing, Tom and Agness have to be there," says Carolyn Rogers, a major doer in various causes, but most recently an organizer of an annual mother-daughter benefit luncheon for the National Kidney Foundation. "They're our historians, really. I mean, I don't know why anyone bothers to even have a historian. That's what Tom and Agness do."
Harriett Rose, a fixture on the Dallas social and arts scene, says, "One day I was at some event early. I always try to get there early because I don't move so well. And there were Tom and Aggie. They were new at this and they didn't know anyone. So I sat down and started talking to them. And we've been talking ever since."
Jane Dunne, chairwoman of the board for the Children's Advocacy Center, knows the Robertsons as so devoted to their work that when her two daughters married within months of each other last year, she felt compelled to write "personal" on the wedding invitations she mailed to Tom and Agness. "We love them, you know, and we wanted them to just come and enjoy themselves, not to feel like they had to be working. But Tom took pictures anyway." The morning after the weddings, Tom arrived at the Dunnes' Turtle Creek home, freshly developed wedding photos in hand. "That sweet Tom," Dunne says, her eyes misting a little at the memory, "had gone out the night before and had them developed as a special wedding gift for them to take on their honeymoon."
How apropos can you get? It's the perfect time for having Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as speaker at the 1996 Living Legends Luncheon. Due to the tension in the Middle East (so what else is new?) and his vast knowledge of the situation, plus still being an advisor to the Armed Services, the rush for tickets is on.
He will be driven into the Chantilly Ballroom in a Jeep by a color guard. Camouflage will be the material du jour, and centerpieces will be Army "stuff" from a military surplus store.
The Desert Storm dessert is a chocolate combat truck filled with butterfinger mousse. A few of the luncheon categories are Stealth Bomber, Tomahawk Missile, and Scud Buster."
--Lead item in the September 19 Park Cities People society column by Agness Robertson
"People love the breezy way that Agness writes," says Tom Boone, managing editor of Park Cities People and the man who writes the headlines that top each of Agness' society items. "I get these wonderful, fawning letters about Tom and Aggie. I call her Aggie Waggie, and she calls me Tommy Booney. And I hear about them wherever I go in town. People sometimes call them almost begging for them to cover their party. That would be a heady experience for any of us in journalism, I think. But Tom and Agness seem to not be affected."
Agness could be affected if she wanted to. But she decided long ago she couldn't--didn't want to, really--fake her way into high society. Her one pair of $250 Ferragamo pumps takes her everywhere she needs to go. (Besides, she says, they may be pricey, but they still hurt her feet after only a couple of hours.) The Robertsons haven't even invested in any chic, new Western threads for the ultraprestigious Cattle Baron's Ball in years. While the revelers try to outdo each other every year with rhinestone-studded denim jackets and custom-made cowboy boots, "Tom just wears the same old jeans and a bolo tie. I have jeans and kind of a fancy denim shirt," Agness says.
"Oh, those cute little girls who show up at these things in their Escada suits--they're adorable. But that isn't me. Tom and I are background people."
They are at their best, in fact, when chatting it up with the servants. As the Robertsons pull into the circular drive at the $10-million McCutchin mansion, the parking boys bound over to the Seville, practically falling over each other to open Agness' door. "How are you, Miss Robertson? Haven't seen you in a while!" says the fresh-faced twentysomething who helps her from the car.
"Here are our parking boys, Tom, finally!" Agness says, squeezing the attendant's arm. "We missed y'all earlier this morning, didn't we, Tom?"
On the way to the massive front door, Tom leans over and shares a good McCutchin tidbit.
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"Sharon, the lady of this house--she was the chairman of the Crystal Charity Ball last year. And she used to have more shoes than that woman who used to run the Philippines. I don't know if she still does. That was a few years ago, when they lived up near Las Colinas. She had a whole walk-in closet filled just with shoes. Every kind of shoe you can imagine."
Agness adds the icing to this cake: "Oh, and Tom, remember that dress rack she had in her closet? She had one of those mechanical racks just like the dry cleaners that, zoop! brought her clothes right to her fingertips."
Clearly a good anecdote. They both chuckle. Did it ever make it into their column?
"Oh, no, Agness says, a little rattled at the notion. "That's not what we do. You mustn't print that. We're just observers at these things. We just write about what happened. Tom and I, we're just little ol' background people. That's all we are.