A typical tycoon until 10 years ago (with 25,000 apartment units and $300 million to his name, he likes to feel he's acquired a certain security), Harold found his life turned upside down after he was smitten with Carolyn Shulman, then 33 and a $500-a-week secretary who was the granddaughter of Jakie Freedman, one of Texas' most celebrated gamblers. Never one to resist an impulse, Harold, who had just left Shirley Harris—then his wife of 27 years and mother of his children James, Joanne, Judy, Janet and Jane—moved his twice-divorced inamorata into a house in tony River Oaks.
With Carolyn's encouragement, he began to emerge from his gray-flannel cocoon. A longtime big-band fan, he regaled party guests with renditions of Fascinating Rhythm and Embraceable You. For $25,000, he rented the Houston Symphony, which accompanied him in a concert of Gershwin tunes. For $100,000, he cut the first of his four albums. (None of them, including Farb Sings Jolson and An Evening with Harold Farb, was intended for the record stores; Harold hands them out as party favors.)
Although their courtship was marred by spats and breakups, Harold and Carolyn wed in 1977. The bride married into a million-dollar annual allowance. This provided her with an entree to Houston society, which looks favorably upon those with a Texas-size bank balance. Without a glance back, Carolyn set about becoming a fixture on the fund-raising circuit.
Since then, the couple (separated since last winter) has been the toast—or at least the talk—of Houston. Local gossipmongers trade tales about her extravagances and his unorthodox hobbies. Whispers one prominent Houstonian: "Harold's records have become closet collector's items, they're so bizarre." Snipes another: "All the wealthy women in town look down their noses at Carolyn. They think the Farbs are nouveau."
Neither Harold nor Carolyn was raised in the embrace of high society. The erstwhile Mrs. Farb grew up in a middle-class Houston household, while Harold's father was a Houston entrepreneur who made his mark with a four-theater chain of movie houses. One of the first Houston developers to cater to the lucrative singles market, Harold began to build complexes complete with discos and recreation centers—ventures that helped boost his annual income to an estimated $30 million. His empire notwithstanding, "I've never been superambitious or splashy," Harold says. "My father was conservative financially, and I live well, but not riotously."
Still, there's an unmistakable flashiness about his "fun things," as he calls them—bibelots like the Carlyle restaurant, a white marble temple named after his favorite New York hotel, where Harold, 60, croons '40s favorites for the after-dark patrons. After performing on a drop-in basis for months, he made it official on Sept. 22, when he opened a 10-day engagement at the club. A full house heard the multifaceted magnate deliver his renditions of My Funny Valentine and I Had the Craziest Dream.
Harold's Ultra magazine, meanwhile, has been pitched at the same high rollers who order $19 steak au poivre at the Carlyle. Ninety percent of its readers are college-educated, and their mean household income is $212,000, according to the latest readership survey. Harold wants the magazine to be "a class act," but in truth Ultra is marked less by class than a fierce concern for status. Ads for diamond watches, gold bullion and the Carlyle are punctuated by breathless reports about the comings and goings of Texas socialites, until recently including Carolyn.
Ultra's audience responds to its moneyed voice: Associate publisher Tedd Cohen cites a letter from the advertising director for Gump's, a luxury department store, telling of the Texan who spotted a $12,000 necklace featured in one of the store's Ultra ads, hopped a plane for Houston, strolled into Gump's with the magazine under his arm and asked to buy the bauble.
Reader impulsiveness aside, Ultra isn't yet pulling in profits for Harold, who has plowed $3.5 million into the two-year-old publication and has set a $5 million limit on his investment. In any case, Harold's hobbies are attracting less attention these days than his love life. The Farbs' divorce trial was brief but satisfying, at least for Carolyn, who successfully contested a prenuptial agreement that would have limited the settlement to a mere $1 million. She was awarded $28 million in cash and assets—including a $5.3 million mansion and its contents, two Rolls-Royces, a Jaguar and assorted furs and jewels. She also received a small piece of Harold's mind. In a sworn deposition, he accused her of neglecting him in favor of organizing endless charity balls, adding, "I really don't know what it would take to satisfy Carolyn. There are only so many clothes and so much jewelry anyone can wear."
In search of consolation, Harold has been dating 13 women by actual count (his own), including 60ish actress Eva Gabor. But for all his celebrated—and costly—diversions, Harold has hardly forgotten his capitalist roots. In the coming months, he will direct the Farb Companies' plunge into commercial real estate even as he works on his rendition of Swanee. And if Houstonians find his amusements more absorbing than his apartment complexes—well, let them. As Harold says philosophically, "People will talk about you regardless."
The Apartment King of America, Houston's Harold Farb, believes in making dreams come true. Not yours, his. For that, a single Harold Farb, no matter how rich, is not enough. So, depending on the time of day, the day of the week, or the phase of the moon, there is Harold Farb, the recording artist; Harold Farb, the proprietor of a $6.5 million restaurant-nightclub; Harold Farb, the founder of Ultra, the magazine for "high-fashion, high-profile, high-society Texans"; and Harold Farb, the recently divorced husband of a silken social climber with a yen for outrageous consumption.