Love Letter to a Letter

During Enron's brief, Icarian lifespan, the company was known by its logo -- the tilted E.


A block of granite occupies the wedge outside Enron's headquarters that once held a prominent example of its constructivist heraldry. (Frank Ahrens-The Washington Post)

A capital sans-serif E, rotated 45 degrees counterclockwise, was the company's ubiquitous symbol. Large, lighted chrome versions of the E -- illuminated in red, blue and green -- were prominently displayed around the company's Houston headquarters. Four-foot-high letters were staked outside, flanking the building. A granite base once held one of the Es; a matching block now occupies the cradling wedge.

A rotating E -- it came to be known as the "disco E" -- lighted with LCDs, spun inside the building's lobby, visible from the sidewalk.

With the company's downfall, accusations of executive malfeasance emerged. The tilted E became known as the "crooked E." (Which, by the way, looks remarkably like the tilted E in the Dell logo on the laptop right in front of me.)

Come bankruptcy, however, the Es -- tilted or crooked -- became something more than just the typographic symbol of corporate corruption (and a gift from heaven for news-graphics editors everywhere). The Es were worth actual cash money.

In fall of 2002, at a Houston hotel, the company auctioned off everything that wasn't tied down -- computers, chairs, desks -- 53,000 items in all. Including the Es.

Houstonian Fred Massey bought one of the four-foot-high Es. Why? Well, why not? He had $10,500 burning a hole in his pocket, evidently. At the time, he told the Houston Chronicle his wife wanted it for a coffee table.

I called Fred to see if I could come look at his E. It didn't seem like too personal of a question.

Turns out, Fred sold his E a couple of years after he bought it.

Why?

"Well," he said, "it was much larger than I thought." Fair enough. An E's a big vowel, not like your skinny capital I.

So he put it up for sale.

On eBay, naturally.

Massy ended up selling the E -- for the same amount he paid for it -- to a Boston banker whose name he couldn't remember.

Oh, well. E-z come, E-z go.

The "disco E" fetched $33,000 in December 2002. Its resting place remains unknown. It was bought by a mystery man who made the winning bid and then swept out through the hotel lobby without giving his name, pausing only to tell reporters: "It's a Christmas present for someone who has everything." Then, he zoomed away in a gray Ferrari.

The Chronicle copied down the Ferrari's license plate number and engaged in a little public-records diving to try to ascertain the man's identity but couldn't nail it down. It's just as well. It's romantic to think of the disco E twirling somewhere secret and intriguing -- perhaps in the middle of a circle of Houston druids, or 33rd-degree Freemasons.

Another of the four-foot Es now rests in a far less-glamorous space than it originally occupied.

It was the first E put up for auction. The owner of a Houston chain of bargain computer retail and repair shops known as MicroCache sent his top salesman, Jimmy Luu, to the auction to buy it. Luu came home that day one E heavier and $44,000 lighter. Luu enjoyed some brief celebrity as a keeper of the E. "The reason we bought this was to preserve this business icon," the company's lawyer said at the time. At a second auction shortly after, Luu lost the bidding for the second four-foot E to Massey.

I called Luu to ask him about the E. Did MicroCache get its $44,000 worth? Did the letter deliver?

"It was fun," Luu said. "It was good for business when we started out."

But after a few months, he said, "everything just died out.

"It's just sitting there for nothing now," Luu said.


An unlikely museum: One of Enron's Es lies in repose inside this commercial building. (Frank Ahrens-The Washington Post)

I drove out to the MicroCache store to see the E, to see where it has lived for the past three-plus years.

This MicroCache branch is a one-story block building squatting hard by I-45 southeast of downtown Houston, next door to an adult video store. It is a long way from the glimmering skyscrapers of Energy Gulch, the strip of downtown Smith Street where Enron, Dynegy and a dozen other oil and gas companies reside.


One of the Es on display at MicroCache in southeast Houston. (Frank Ahrens-The Washington Post)

Open the barred doors of MicroCache and walk into the tight space; $59 computer monitors crowd the shelves. A technician works on a computer in the back. The E has its own little windowless room, just to the left of the front door. The walls are painted black and the E sits in a stand against the back wall. The day manager flips on some track lighting trained on the E. The polished chrome shines.

I ask: Do people come by to look at it?

The manager smiles a little: "Sometimes." Seems like ancient history, that momentary celebrity, that groovy notoriety of Enron paraphrenalia. This is what it feels like to become a footnote in history, tossed into the pop-culture dustbin along with the Whip Inflation Now buttons. It's hard not to feel a little bad for the E, like a forgotten grandparent in a nursing home. "I used to E somebody," it might think.

I take a couple of pictures and the manager flips the lights back off. The E's moment is over.

By Frank Ahrens |  April 23, 2006; 9:30 AM ET  | Category:  Enronia
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Comments

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The "E" is supposed to look like an electric plug.

Posted by: MJ | April 23, 2006 11:31 AM

The Enron logo was designed by the well-known graphic designer Paul Rand. Rand is also responsible for the logos of ABC, IBM, UPS, Yale University Press, Cummins Engine, NeXT, and Westinghouse. The Enron logo was one of Rand's last works.

Posted by: Charlottesville, VA | April 23, 2006 01:42 PM

Finally! An article about Enron that I understand. Enron: the new Whitewater. Thank-e.

Posted by: e-z | April 23, 2006 07:11 PM

Yes, thanks to Charlottesville for pointing out that the Enron E was created by master corporate logo-maker Paul Rand. Here's a tribute page to the late designer: http://www.dlsdesign.com/paul_rand/.
And here's the Wikipedia page on Rand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Rand.

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | April 24, 2006 01:21 AM

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