All About Elyse

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

Elyse Lanier's throaty, soothing voice purrs through a private dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel, where members of the Downtown Houston Association have gathered to bestow their "Courage to Challenge" awards. She poses for photos with the winners -- people who have run marathons in defiance of cancer, triple bypasses, AIDS and other grave diseases -- small-talking vivaciously, touching people easily and often, deploying all those politically useful ribbon-cutting and ceremonial skills that are second nature to her (and 99th nature to her husband).

Elyse is a natural choice to keynote the luncheon, having herself soldiered through two mastectomies and reconstructive surgery in her 30s, plus a recent bad scare with breast implants of the sort that may lead to auto-immune or connective-tissue disorders. But she turns what is meant to be an inspirational talk on courage into a buoyant commercial for her beautification projects and her husband's administration. Words like "great" and "fabulous" and "exciting" bounce through the air. She even shoehorns in an appeal for City Hall landscaping donations. ("I'm $20,000 short," she announces coyly, "so for anyone in this room, here's my phone number.")

Selling, she's in her element. ("Retail," she will say later, "is in my heart.") She's less comfortable with introspection, that diving beneath the surface that might produce the poignant and powerful speech that the occasion seems to demand. What she summons up instead is a collection of bromides: "You have to think positive." "You regret what you don't do, not the things you do." She skims over her health crises; "I was not thrilled this summer when I found I'd have to have surgery again for what seemed like the millionth time" is as far as the First Lady takes it, offering that "you have to get on with it" and "you can't dwell on your problems." As a "This I Believe" manifesto, it's numbingly banal stuff.

It is also deceptively banal stuff. For underneath the sincere platitudes and decorative surface, Elyse Lanier is the kind of strong-willed, tenacious character who could animate the pages of some rich and delicious American novel. Edith Wharton, the turn-of-the-century chronicler of New York's upper and monied classes, would know her for good material. So would Judith Krantz. So, perhaps, might Henry James. In her fierce belief in herself, in her determination to grab the brass ring, Elyse is profoundly Houstonian. And her trajectory from working girl to River Oaks consort to the top of the world -- literally, now that she and Bob have agreed to split the penthouse floor of the chi-chi Huntingdon high-rise with Maxxam mogul Charles Hurwitz and his wife -- traces a mythic Houston path.

It began at 3421 North Parkwood Drive in Riverside, the then-grand East End neighborhood that functioned, back in the socially restrictive 1950s, as what Elyse terms "the Jewish River Oaks." Her father, Willie Bauer, was successful enough in the oil business to ensconce his young family (wife Ida; sons Tyrone and Seymour; and youngest child Elyse) in a two-story brick house on a promising block. Next door lived Sammy Finger, of the furniture clan; further along were businessman/banker Billy Goldberg, later to become a power in Democratic circles, and Kenneth Schnitzer, who went on to become one of the city's big-league developers. The Bauer house stood on a modest lot, but it had a view to better things: directly across a park-like, wooded ravine stood a brace of white-pillared mansions set among velvet lawns and sweeping driveways.

The cocoon of bourgeois comforts Elyse was raised in shattered when she was 15. Her father went bankrupt. Her parents divorced. Their financial circumstances having changed drastically, she and her mother decamped to a "little bitty" two-bedroom apartment off Stella Link. Both of them immediately went to work. Ida sold jewelry; the 15-year-old Elyse wrapped gifts at Houston Jewelry and Distributing downtown. From her uncomplaining mother, she drew the message that you stay upbeat and do what you have to do. The experience had a profound effect on the teenager -- one that she only came to recognize in recent years. "I guess my father was a man who gave up," she says quietly. "I have a very serious thing about success and hard work and never giving up."

After graduating from Bellaire High School in the lower rungs of her class (academics have never been her long suit), Elyse sold clothes at the downtown Neiman Marcus. Even at 19, she had her eye on the far horizon: when the legendary Stanley Marcus would come to town to rally the couture sales team on the third floor, Elyse -- who sold moderate togs one floor up -- would invite herself down to the meetings. "There wasn't any reason for me to be there," she remembers. "I just went."

It was the sort of chutzpah that served her well after an early, seven-year marriage to podiatrist Ronnie Robbins, her girlhood sweetheart ("Let's rephrase that, okay?" she laughs tartly. "I'm not gonna give him anything that positive."), ended in divorce in 1976. Elyse had been selling clothes at Esther Wolf, a posh specialty store owned by Robbins' aunt. Now, at age 28, with two young children to look after, she found herself without a job. When she heard a jeweler customer of hers was looking for a secretary, she applied -- lying about her typing and bookkeeping abilities to get her foot in the door.

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