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A Chat with Author and Filmmaker Steven Fenberg


Fenberg (center) with his partner Harry DeJonge and his mother Lenore Fenberg at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

HIS BOOKS AND FILMS TELL THE STORY OF “MR. HOUSTON,” JESSE H. JONES

By Melanie Saxton

Steven Fenberg enjoys a fascinating life as an author, an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and curator of Houston’s backstory — one molded and shaped by the iconic Jesse H. Jones, who was nicknamed “Mr. Houston.” Fenberg loves nothing more than discussing the relevance of Jones’ impact on our local and national landscape and why that matters today.

Looking back, it seemed destined that he would one day become an authority on Jones’ life story, as their backgrounds intersected. Fenberg’s grandparents moved to Houston in 1944 and bought five acres and a house on Post Oak Road, which is now Evergreen and 610. Their first store, Nolen Jewelry, was located in a two-floor building built by Jones in 1914, where the Chase Tower stands today. Fenberg’s parents, aunts and uncles all came to Houston after World War II to help run the business, which adjoined Jackson Seed Store.

Fenberg’s father, Morton, bought the seed store in the 1950s to expand the family’s jewelry and camera business from Capitol to Travis, and later to a state-wide chain. “A farm supply store in the center of downtown shows that not that long ago Houston was still pretty rural,” he says.

Downtown Houston became young Fenberg’s stomping grounds, and he rode the bus from his childhood home in Bellaire to see movies at the ornate Main Street theaters. “After we expanded to Travis Street, I got to watch parades from the store windows. I had the best seat in the house!” he says.

The City Auditorium was across the street from the store entrance on Capitol and hosted everything from operas to wrestling. Fenberg recalls that the wrest­lers on Friday night television shopped at his parent’s store, and he was wowed by their size and celebrity status. Jones Hall replaced the City Auditorium in 1966, and as a teenager he enjoyed attending performances there. He also started a high school social group for special needs children — the Nite Owls — at the Jewish Community Center that still meets today.

 

Curating the Story

Fenberg graduated from University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in business and became a writer. He was hired by Houston Endowment — the philanthropic foundation established in 1937 by Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones — to write a biographical sketch about the noted couple. “I felt like I had come home when I went to work at Houston Endowment in 1992,” Fenberg recalls. “It first had offices in the Bankers Mortgage Building, built in 1907 by Jones, and moved to the Chase Tower on the same block where my family’s first store had been and where I had spent most of my childhood.”

During Houston Endowment’s relocation, a trove of Jones’ personal and business records were unearthed from old file cabinets and safes, enabling Fenberg and architectural historian Barrie Scardino to assemble a vast archive of Houston’s early business history. The collection is available for viewing at Rice University’s Woodson Research Center. Fenberg also conducted an oral history project to capture the memories of people who had known Jones personally, including Stanley Marcus, John Kenneth Galbraith and Denton Cooley.

 

Books and Films

Fenberg’s research sparked the idea for a documentary film, and he was both executive producer and co-writer of Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones. The film, narrated by Walter Cronkite, was broadcast nationally on PBS and earned Fenberg an Emmy Award in 1999.

Fenberg expanded on the film and wrote Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good, a biography published by the Texas A&M University Press in 2011. The 611-page book, with a cover endorsement by former Secretary of State James Baker, details Jones’ monumental contributions during early Houston’s development, both World Wars and the Great Depression. “Jesse Jones built Houston’s tallest buildings, raised the funds to develop the Port of Houston, and was the most powerful person in the nation next to President Franklin Roosevelt,” says Fenberg. Among its many awards, the book received the 2011 Texas Institute of Letters Carr P. Collins Award for Best Nonfiction Book.

Today Fenberg specializes in telling compelling institutional stories and most recently wrote Remarkable Experiences: The Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Per­form­ing Arts, and helped produce a film about the 50th anniversary of Jones Hall. Always mindful of Jones’ ongoing influence, the book and film share how Jones Hall transformed the performing arts and fulfilled Jones’ vision for Houston.

 

A Lasting Legacy

Houstonians are surrounded with schools and buildings named in honor of Jesse Jones, such as the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, the Jesse H. Jones Rotary House International, the Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center in Humble, and the Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Pa­vil­ion. However, not everyone knows the history behind Houston’s most iconic citizen. According to Fenberg, Jones put Houston on the map. He helped finance and build the Houston Ship Channel before the onset of World War I and turned Houston into a thriving port city. Jones owned and published the Houston Chronicle until his death in 1956 and developed the city’s downtown skyline with dozens of buildings.

While Jones’ name is synonymous with Houston, what resonated with Fenberg was Jones’ approach to capitalism and public service. He explains, “Jesse Jones understood he would prosper only if his community thrived, whether it was local, national or international, so he was constantly supporting and nurturing his city and his nation. He wanted to create a community where everyone had the opportunity to succeed.”

Jones’ national accomplishments during the Great Depression and World War II also captivated Fenberg. As chairman of the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Jones initiated and managed massive New Deal agencies that saved homes, farms, banks and business and built consequential infrastructure throughout the nation, all at a profit to the U.S. Treasury. Fenberg realized that Jones’ contributions were models for today, and he saw a correlation between those early indispensable undertakings and current debates about developing renewable energy resources and building resilient infrastructure after Hurricane Harvey.

 

More About the Author

Fenberg enjoys both an urban and rural life. He and his partner Harry divide their time between their home by the Brazos River near the Brazos Bend State Park, which is near his mother’s home, and their Amsterdam apartment near Harry’s family in neighboring Belgium. Fenberg devotes part of his time to No More Victims, a local organization that helps children whose parents are in prison. He was one of AIDS Foundation Houston’s earliest volunteers and in the late 1980s, when AIDS was in its infancy and inspired fear in many, he wrote AIDS: Just Say Know, an educational play that was presented in venues throughout Houston and as in-service training for police officers and teachers. He recently served on the board of Congre­gation Emanu El, of which his grandparents were founding members, and is an honorary trustee of the Aubrey and Sylvia Farb Community Service Fund.

Fenberg’s book, Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good is available on Amazon. For more information about the author visit his website, stevenfenberg.com. For more on the documentary film Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones, visit pbs.org/jessejones.

 

Jesse Jones’ 1929 Gulf Building (now the JP Morgan Chase Building) remained Houston’s tallest skyscraper until the 44-story Humble Oil Company Building opened in 1963. (Photo – Woodson Research Center)

 

Jesse Jones at the Rice Hotel with his granddaughter Audrey Jones Beck, who donated the renowned John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Photo – Woodson Research Center)

 

Fenberg’s family’s first store in Houston – Nolen Jewelry (far left) – was in Jesse Jones’ 1914 Wells Fargo Building at Capitol and Travis, now the site of Chase Tower, Houston’s tallest building. (photo – Woodson Research Center)

 

Fenberg with JJ, his Jack Russell Terrier.

 

Susan Vaughn Clayton (seated left) and Mary Gibbs Jones, who sold war bonds from a desk in a Washington, DC, government office building during World War II, sell bonds to their husbands, Will Clayton and Jesse Jones. (Photo – Woodson Research Center)


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