Houston, stranger than fiction
Tales of suicide, sexual and emotional abuse in River Oaks make this book asellout
Attorney Michael Phillips won't win any writing awards for his compelling, self-published Monster in River Oaks. But if there is a movie producer in the room, Phillips will surely score the big bucks for his chilling tale of an Exxon oil heiress and her family suffering at the hands of a modern-day Rasputin.
Already, the story has created such a buzz in 77019 circles and other pedigreed zip codes that the book has sold out and has gone into a second printing.
The tragic tale of a branch of one of the city's most prominent and wealthiest oil families has had tongues wagging from River Oaks Boulevard to Del Monte, the street where Joan Blaffer Johnson and her children fell under the diabolical spell of Dinesh "Dinny" Shah, a petite-bourgeoisie from Alief with almost mystical powers of persuasion.
Brazos Bookstores' Joan Moser has a waiting list for the next delivery of books, scheduled to arrive on Dec. 7.
"I didn't realize what I had. We sold out. Now we're ordering cases," she said. "I just completely overlooked its significance."
Barnes & Nobles isn't carrying the tome but the inquiries have been coming in regularly. Amazon.com, on the other hand, does list the non-fiction work in its inventory.
In the tradition of Tommy Thompson's 1976 Blood and Money and Alan Dershowitz' 1985 Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bulow Case, Monster in River Oaks follows the recurrent theme of big money leading to big trouble.
The tragedy of Johnson's slip from the edges of society into a desperate world in which Shah controlled everything from her fortune to her children's lives is sadly mesmerizing. Following the suicide of her estranged husband, Luke Johnson Jr., HIV-positive and at the time entertaining a string of male prostitutes, the widowed mother of three was left vulnerable to the influence of Shah and his partner David Collie. It began slowly and innocently enough with a meeting at a Bible study group at the home of Baron Ricky di Portanova, a now-deceased member of the Cullen oil clan.
Excerpts from a trial against Shah, quoted in the book, reveal the tortuous life that Johnson and her children lived under Shah's reign in the River Oaks household where he became a permanent resident. According to Phillips, Shah isolated and terrorized the family for years. The book details the misery from beatings, to child abuse, to Shah controlling everything from where the family bought clothes to which beauty salon they visited. A multi-millionaire, Johnson was reduced to buying underwear from Walgreen's.
The book is juicily peppered with the names of River Oaks residents and other high-profile Houstonians, some directly involved and others only peripherally including attorneys Paul Clote, Jim Perdue Jr., David Berg, Earl Lilly and the author Phillips, who represented Shah (a surprising revelation late in the book).
U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas, Jane Owen (also a Blaffer), Mary Cooley Craddock and St. John's School leaders Eric Lombardi and Sylvia Bartz have cameo roles.
Monster in River Oaks is well worth the read if you enjoy peering at the underbelly of the world of the rich and famous. It will make your skin crawl. At the same time, the story will provide hours of dinner table conversation in the coming months, particularly in those zip codes where the Brahmins live.
We will forgive the author for a few missteps that could have been avoided by a fact-checker.
Becca Cason Thrash, for example, lives in Memorial not River Oaks. Urban Retreat is located on San Felipe and not Westheimer and Lynn Wyatt does not spell her name with an "e." These are small offenses in the great scheme of this fascinating story.