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90 } 1919–1924 The Family Won’t Discuss It JESSE JONES WAS A TOWERING FIGURE by his mid-forties, physically and publicly. People were shorter then, and his imposing six-footthree frame, large square face, direct blue eyes, and head of thick, wavy, dark hair made him stand out in a crowd. So did his personality and reputation . No matter what else anyone thought, because of his contributions during the war and because of his close relationship with Woodrow Wilson, Jones’s stature was at new heights when he returned to Houston. Some people at the time called him “Mr. Houston” for all that he had done to help the city grow. A few called him “Ten-percent Jones” for the amounts they mistakenly thought he charged for loans and mortgages, or from the popular notion that he owned only ten percent of his holdings and the rest was on credit. They were wrong, of course. The loans on the Rice Hotel, for example, were almost paid off, and from the time Jones returned to Houston, he was offering to buy back the hotel stock from thosewhohadoriginallysupportedtheriskyventure.From1917to1919,the hotel made more than $1 million ($12 million in current dollars) after taxes.1 Jones also entertained offers on the hotel from interested buyers. He wrote to one inquiring agent, “If you have a purchaser for the Rice Hotel, 1. Financial statement, March 28, 1919, Jesse H. Jones Collection [UT]. The Family Won’t Discuss It 91 I will be glad to see him and go into the details. You must understand that I would not hawk such a property as the Rice or offer it promiscuously. It is a very valuable property and earning good money.”2 All kinds of things were happening when Jones returned home from Europe. Besides the buzz around the Rice Hotel, someone had offered to buy Jones’s Bankers Trust Company, a successful mortgage and loan operation . Someone else was competing with him for a big piece of land.3 The Harbor Board and mayor were moving toward buying land and building wharfs south of the Turning Basin, away from downtown. And Mary and Will Jones were about to divorce. In 1919, divorce was rare, usually scandalous, and often ruinous. In June, Will borrowed $150,000 ($1.8 million) against his 6,000-acre Deepwater farm, gave $50,000 ($600,000) to Mary “in contemplation of final separation,” used another $50,000 to pay “sundry items of indebtedness,” and took another $50,000 to live on. In August, he gave his power of attorney to Jesse Jones, turned over care of the rice farm and cattle ranch at Deepwater to his son, Tilford, and moved to San Francisco, where he soon began living with a woman named Mertz.4 Mary moved into the Rice Hotel and Will’s mother, and sister, Augusta—divorced herself three times—went to the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan for most of the summer and into the fall as the divorce proceeded. Jones had resumed his family duties. In early August he reported to his Aunt Louisa, “I forwarded your letter to Will, who has gone to California . . . I had a wire from [him] yesterday, stating that they had a delightful trip.” He then reported on the weather and explained why he was not staying at the “Boarding House” on Main Street but at the Rice Hotel , where nothing to date blocked the tall building from the prevailing breezes. He wrote, “Saturday night was so hot that I slept at the Hotel, and found it so much cooler that I decided to stay down [here] most of the time . . . Ike comes down mornings and brings my clothes and takes care of the rooms for me. I will go out to the house often enough to look after everything.” He continued, “Aunt Nancy is getting along as well as usual, considering the weather. She goes to the picture show almost every day, and takes a little ride.” He then added information about some investments he was making on Louisa’s behalf in the Bristol Hotel block 2. Jesse Jones to L. L. Thomas, June 28, 1919, Jesse H. Jones Collection [UT]. 3. Jesse Jones to Fred Heyne, February 16, 1919, Jesse H. Jones Collection [HE]. 4. Will E. Jones, contract with Bankers Trust Company, August 1, 1919, Jesse H. Jones Collection [HE]. 1919–1924 92 and suggested that she accept an offer on some old family property back in Pana, Illinois...


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