All About Elyse

After years of making Mayor Bob presentable, Houston's First Lady is ready to get serious. Seriously.

Thick gray fog gobbles the tops of downtown's skyscrapers; a damp chill sidles through the sparse lunchtime crowd huddled on folding chairs in front of City Hall. It's not the weather that Elyse Lanier would have chosen for her Valentine's Day sing-along here at City Hall park -- but that scarcely matters. The mayor's wife radiates like the truant sun: beaming her Olympic-caliber smile, she settles the crimson folds of her Chanel cape over her vibrant red suit and leans into the shoulder of her husband, who warbles gamely to "Me and My Gal."

Beside the shambly Bob Lanier, a roughhewn presence with a gap-toothed grin, Elyse emits an aura of unabashed glamour. At her wrist, earlobes and neck winks a glittering ransom of David Webb jewelry; her bright red lips and outsize Chanel sunglasses leap out against her pale skin, her immaculately sculpted crown of short, sable hair. "You're the cream in my coffee," croons the mayor, tapping one dark wingtip along to the band on-stage, managing to look at once vaguely uncomfortable and ineffably pleased.

Around them, the riotous glories of Elyse World unfold in banks of pink-and-white cyclamen and jillions of tiny white lights twined densely on the trunks of the plaza's live oaks. From the first days of Lanier's mayoral ascension in 1992,

this bosky, long-neglected piece of downtown turf has been his wife's pet project. Now white wire hearts swing from the trees, along with red and white puffballs left over from Fourth of July; from the long reflecting pool sprout giant hearts of twisted aluminum, a surreal vision on their chunky red pedestals. An occasional pungent whiff of manure filters from the dormant rose beds so dear to the First Couple's hearts. Another song winds down; Elyse fixes her signature adoring gaze upon her mate as he quietly mouths its final words -- "Beauty and the Beast."

It is an improbable tableau in which the chief executive of the nation's fourth largest city finds himself: corny and showy and somehow disarming; calculated for effect yet resolutely warm -- much like Elyse Lanier herself. This Valentine's Day, as ever, Elyse is busy wrapping her cerebral, slightly awkward husband in a romantic, feel-good mantle that renders him more accessible. More human. More attractive. If she lends him social ease and polish, the 69-year-old mayor returns the favor by lending his 47-year-old third wife stature and clout -- not to mention the kind of millionaire's lifestyle that, before their marriage ten years ago, the ambitious saleswoman of high-ticket jewels sampled only through her liberal expense account, or the kindness of her well-heeled clients.

It has proven a bargain on both sides. On their own, neither would have attained the broad civic, state and even national stage they now occupy. Together, though, the famously inseparable couple has forged a political partnership that amounts to more than the sum of its parts -- and to more than the snipers and Elyse-detractors ever would have predicted. The First-Lady-to-Be made such a tempting target with that awesome armory of Very Large Jewelry; those three appearances on the Houston Chronicle's Best Dressed list; the proudly unfashionable defer-to-your-man credo that she voiced so devotedly, and so often. After the Whitmire years, when an austere feminist widow set the tone, Elyse came as a shock to the system. Ditsy socialite, whispered the caricaturists. Shades of Nancy Reagan and Eva Peron, griped the political cynics.

They miscalculated. Three years into Bob Lanier's reign, Elyse has dodged the poison darts and avoided shooting herself in the foot, although she has nicked a well-manicured toenail or two, or three. The carefully non-controversial civic niche she carved for herself picked up gravitas as she snowballed along: the trivial-sounding "flowers" became "beautification" became "downtown revitalization" became the great Bob theme, "Neighborhoods to Standard." Even her look transmuted from mega-groomed '80s Trophy Wife, all bouffed and brightly clad, to a sleeker, soberer dress-for-success style in which earth tones rule (only the monumental jewelry has remained the same). Now, thanks to an appointment by then-governor Ann Richards to the University of Houston board of regents, Elyse Lanier seems poised to go after that most elusive of prizes: recognition as a woman of substance.

But not just yet. Today, it's lovey-dovey time. Elyse and Bob take the stage to exchange poems. "We'll kind of read 'em to each other," explains the mayor. "I'll dedicate this to Elyse and...." He trails off, plunging into a surprisingly eloquent delivery of Robert Burns. "O my love is like a red, red rose," intones the mayor. Elyse's smile could bust the wattage meters. "She's so smug, standing up there with her fella," whispers mayoral press secretary Sarah Turner, Elyse's onetime business partner and longtime confidant. "This is typically Elyse. It's probably the most Elyse event you'll ever go to."

Elyse's tribute to Bob turns out to be a latter-day non-verse with all the charm of a post-therapeutic greeting card -- "You are the special kind of person the world needs more of" -- but she reads it with utter conviction, and not an iota of embarrassment. As always, the spotlight agrees with her. When she finishes, the mayor laughs out loud, his face blending sheepishness and genuine delight. Soon the two are swaying on-stage with the band; "Our love is here to stay," sings Elyse, her face turned up to Bob, who stands at a slight remove, turned fractionally away from her. The two know all the words to the old chestnuts, and they sing with innocent gusto to the scattered schoolchildren and elderly church ladies on the seats below. At the conclusion of this unlikely mayoral lounge act, they descend to schmooze and sign autographs, the swooping tails of Elyse's long red cape floating as theatrically as any royal robe.

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