By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
Thus it was that Elyse Bauer Robbins landed at the tony David Webb Precious Jewels, then a tiny boutique operation stashed in the River Oaks Bank. In short order, the man who hired her was forced out by the New York owners. ("He wasn't doing the job exactly perfect," she recalls delicately.) Elyse saw daylight and dove for it. Instead of closing down the operation, she asked the owners, why not give me a shot at it? "You don't know what you're doing," they objected. "You're right," said Elyse, "but neither did he. What have you got to lose?"
Nothing, as it happened. Elyse turned things around and went on to make David Webb pieces staples among the cafe society that flourished and fizzed during the boom years. Her predecessor had allowed jewelry bills to go unpaid. Elyse got on the phone. "You either have to pay for it or bring it back," she admonished the laggards. "They did!" she marvels now. "Sometimes when you don't know better, when you don't know what you're doing, it's so easy to do it." For better and for worse, that instinct to plunge into strange waters has become a hallmark of the Elyse style.
"People told me they had never seen such a happy divorcee," she says, her laughter pealing up and down the scale. "I didn't have any pressure from anyone; I didn't have anyone arguing with me about what I should do with my children or my life." Exhilarated by her new arena, she quickly made the David Webb cubbyhole a hangout, a fun place to be. River Oaks Bank honchos Buddy Lander and Jimmy Lyon would invite her to have coffee on the second floor. "I thought I was the living end!" she exclaims, rolling her eyes. "When I'd go for a coffee break with the bankers, it was a whole new world."
That it was -- one full of rich, powerful men and the women who spent their money. Elyse traveled with duffles full of jewelry to Mexico City or Los Angeles, where she and the late publicist John Callas would set up in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire and toss parties for clients. At home she became a fixture at Tony's restaurant, always clad in an eye-popping array of costly David Webb pieces: big enameled earclips threaded with gold and diamonds; heavy gold chokers or long gold ropes strung with pearls and cabochon gemstones; rings as fat as quail's eggs; fist-sized pins and slinky-size cuffs in the solid-gold animal shapes that are a Webb signature. All of it was larger than life -- as Houston itself seemed to be in those days -- and the pieces broadcast an unmistakable message. Look at me, they trumpeted silently. I'm rich!
Extroverted and bursting with charming small talk, carefully coifed and made up, always ready with a compliment, Elyse made the perfect Tony's table companion. She'd remove a ring or a $10,000 cuff from her hand, pass it around the table or show it to the tablehoppers who stopped by, and voila! Someone like builder/banker Vince Kickerillo would snap it up for his wife. As boomtime Houston's temple of conspicuous consumption, Tony's was the ideal venue for Elyse to sharpen her sense of people, to hone the appraising social computer that she would later put to broader use as a fundraiser and political wife. She could explain who was who at the various tables and how they'd made their money, recalls one friend and client, who describes Elyse's entrances into the restaurant as remindful of the adoring dancing-waiters scene from Hello, Dolly!.
By example, Elyse helped establish the lots-of-large-jewelry look that reigns among Houston's hyper-accessorized socialites even today. She was so successful that her New York bosses opened a full-fledged shop in the Galleria. Ladies who lunch and the second wives who defined that heady era began sporting whole suites of David Webb as if they were medals. It was an aesthetic very much in tune with a town in which more had always been the watchword. Indeed, when Elyse talks now about University of Houston funding, her observation that "I just know more is much better than less" has the resonance of a personal and civic philosophy. And in the context of Elyse's full-blown David Webb look, even the bemusing excesses of her City Hall park embellishments suddenly make perfect sense.
Elyse took naturally to that complicated world in which relationships intertwine with a sales agenda. Clients were friends; friends were clients. Customers like Vince and Mary K Kickerillo thought her so much fun that they'd invite her on excursions to New York or Palm Springs -- once even buying her a full-length mink coat in preparation for a wintertime jaunt to the East Coast. Elyse had a way of taking clients under her wing, and one of the women she befriended in the early '80s was young Holly Lanier -- the daughter of her future husband -- who was preparing for a wedding. Holly's mother was ill with cancer, and Holly and Elyse struck up a fast friendship, with Elyse offering guidance on hair, makeup, clothing and jewelry. The two went to a fat farm together (even then, Elyse was perpetually fighting her weight), and occasionally Elyse would pay cheer-up calls on Holly's ailing mother, Liz Lanier. Elyse was legendary among her circle for being able to brighten a sickroom or a case of the blues: attorney Kenny Friedman, Elyse's ex-brother-in-law and the caretaker of Mayor Lanier's blind trust, recalls a late-night episode where she ordered up a chocolate souffle from Tony's, drove by to collect it in her housecoat (without getting out of her car, mind you) and hand-delivered it to the needy party.