All About Elyse

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

By then Elyse had encountered her own health travails. At the age of 31, at the height of her Hello, Dolly! phase, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recalls it, haltingly, as "terrifying." Her normal verbal ease deserts her on the subject. "You know what was more terrifying?" she asks. "The second bout, when I was 34, that's not right, 35. That was terrifying. Terrifying." Even at the time, says one friend, she didn't talk about it: "There was no woe-is-me stuff. The negative kind of doesn't exist for her." If anything, the experience amplified Elyse's think-and-do instincts. "Oh my god! I'm not waiting six months for something good to happen," she explains. "I want it [here she confers two brisk raps on a tabletop] right now!"

On she forged, eyes on the prize. Elyse had achieved the rarefied River Oaks lifestyle without the cash to match. But the onset of the real-estate bust allowed her to escape a Galleria-area rent house owned by the Houston Post's then-gossip columnist, Marge Crumbaker, and take up residence in the residential holy-of-holies, River Oaks itself. She found an affordable lease on an unassuming two-story house; perched on a tiny corner lot where Bellmeade meets San Felipe, it was one of those dwellings that appears to cling to the neighborhood like a limpet. One long block away down San Felipe, amid white pillars and velvet lawns, sat the expansive colonial mansion owned by the Laniers. The girl who had been displaced from the "Jewish River Oaks" had arrived -- through her own wits -- at the real thing.

Splinters of light shoot through the vast gray expanse of the convention center's George Bush Ballroom. The source, high on a dais above a sea of Houston nabobs, is Elyse Lanier. Or more properly, the golden fittings on her big sunglasses and baroque-pearl necklace, which glint with every turn of her head as she takes inventory of the crowd -- catching an eye here, throwing a smile there. Even in her dark lace cardigan and muted silk dress, she stands out from the Tribe of Suits that has assembled to hear the mayor's State of the City address on this late January noon. She murmurs to her husband, discourses animatedly with the suit to her left, stares intently into a compact to reapply her lipstick. Then, as the remains of lunch are whisked away before the speech, Elyse fixes her gaze upon her husband's countenance. She draws close; she lifts her napkin; she gravely wipes a crumb from the chief executive's mouth.

It is a telling gesture. And it is a gesture completely consonant with the image of herself as high-powered geisha that she has cultivated since October 25, 1984, when Bob suddenly proposed to her -- "You want to get married tonight?" -- as she rode with him to the airport. The couple had been dating a little more than two months; Bob's wife had died of breast cancer just three months before that. "I knew thinking it over and planning a wedding wasn't gonna fly," grins Elyse. There was a frantic search for a judge. Bob flew on to Austin. Elyse bumped Loraine Dinerstein out of a chair at the beauty parlor.

They were married that evening at the Texas Supreme Court, and the next morning Elyse watched Bob chair a meeting of the state highway commission -- the first of the endless generations of meetings she has made it a wifely point to attend. That night they attended a dinner party at Lady Bird Johnson's ranch, and Houston banker Ben Love made much of the fact that Elyse kept fetching Bob coffee. "I remember him laughing," says Elyse, "and commenting that Margaret wasn't getting his coffee."

That's pretty much been the story ever since: Elyse conspicuously doting on Bob, Bob conspicuously loving it. But if over the years the union has acquired the aura of a distinctly old-fashioned fairy-tale match, it didn't strike everyone that way at first. There was, inevitably, unkind talk -- that Lanier had undergone too speedy a resurrection after his late wife's death; that the astute Elyse, as a friend of the family, had known Bob would soon be on the market and set her sights accordingly. Some of Lanier's five grown children -- two of whom still lived at the Lanier mansion -- subscribed to this view; when Elyse made the quantum move from Bellmeade to the Big House with her son and daughter, nobody would have mistaken the blended family for the Brady Bunch. At one point, a disgruntled Lanier sibling removed a portrait of Bob and Liz Lanier from the wall and cracked it asunder, announcing that "that's what has happened to this family."

Elyse won't comment on the incident, which in varying versions has attained the status of an underground urban legend. "These things will happen," she says amid silences and uncomfortable mmmms. "We did the best we could," she ventures. "Bob said he read somewhere that there are five things you can have going against you [in a remarriage], and if you have one it's difficult. We had all five. Let's see ... money ... death ... age difference ... religion ... what was the last thing?... children! How could I forget that?"

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