All About Elyse

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

Through the years, the strains have eased, if they haven't vanished entirely. And as one source close to the family points out, "It all worked out for the best, so who cares how the relationship began?" Certainly no one could argue with the blissful face the newlyweds presented to the world. The ecstatic Elyse stopped reading her horoscope (she's a "400 percent Leo") the minute she got married; suddenly the present seemed infinitely more appealing than some imagined future.

She and Bob could be seen whizzing through River Oaks on a bicycle built for two (Elyse rode in back, of course) and pacing their mansion's grounds, plotting additions to Bob's beloved rose gardens. Elyse edited the synthetics from Bob's wardrobe; the man who had been known to wear a red shirt with maroon shorts found himself picking out suits that Elyse had sent over from Neiman Marcus and accepting compliments on his clothes. Elyse promptly made the Chronicle's Best Dressed list. Pre-Bob, she had been accustomed to buying "one outfit a year" from Neiman's couture guru, Sylvia Goldstein; now she could afford, as she puts it discreetly, "a little more." No longer did she have to depend on borrowed David Webb pieces for sparkle: her one-pin collection mushroomed as Bob marked special occasions with Webb baubles. He gave Elyse a King Charles spaniel, the status dog of the '80s ("This isn't a dog, it's an ornament," opined Bob) and for an anniversary presented her with a red Chrysler convertible ("to match her evening bag," a society scribe wrote breathlessly).

At first glance, Bob and Elyse made an unlikely pair. He inhabited the world of ideas, reading voraciously and flying in scholars whose work seized his imagination. She moved easily in the flashier world of surfaces, professing a marked disinterest in the written word and once telling a reporter, in an oft-repeated comment, that "the way I learn, as Bob has pointed out to me, is orally." But beneath those obvious differences, there lay striking similarities. There was the shared sense of humor ("They cracked each other up," recalls a friend who observed the early stages of the relationship). There was the shared tenacity and up-by-the-bootstraps drive: Lanier was very much the self-made man, a poor boy from Baytown whose childhood home had lacked indoor plumbing, a superachiever who quickly transcended his law degree to follow his prime impulse -- making a lot of money. Through banking and developing, Lanier made his first million by the age of 30; when Elyse married him, he was 58 and had been lured out of retirement by then-Governor Mark White to head the influential highway commission. During his wife Liz's long battle with cancer, he had researched relentlessly in an attempt to find a cure. In Lanier, Elyse had at last found a man for whom giving up was not an option.

The pair also shared an ideal of marriage so traditional as to seem almost antediluvian. Bob was of the old school that believed a wife tended to the home front. It was a woman's job to attend to the personal comforts he cherished. (He once said he fled the low-paying journalism field because he wanted "to have a brick house. Buy a car. Wear suits. Eat steaks.") He expected Elyse to quit work immediately and had a hard time understanding that she had to see David Webb through the vital Christmas season. "He said, 'You're married to me now ... you come with me,'" recalls Elyse. "I believe in women's rights," Bob once explained to a reporter, "but I believe in my own convenience more."

That was fine by Elyse. She made Bob her "first, second and third priority," adapting to his interests (sporting events, live and televised, became their passion) and his aversion to late nights -- even when it caused her a pang if Bob spurned a particularly juicy social event. Elyse was a strange hybrid of old- and new-style wife, an odd species of limited partner who wasn't about to stay at home. She became Bob's constant shadow: attending every meeting (to Bob's pleased astonishment) and accompanying him to his Landar development company, where she set up a pink-and-red office adjoining his and filled the place with bouquets and photos of flowers. When she and Sarah Turner launched their small L&T public relations business out of Landar, Elyse made it clear that her involvement was, as one reporter wrote, "just a hobby compared to her marriage." Declares Elyse, "I don't believe in going off and doing my own thing. If I'm going to do that, I don't need to be married."

At meetings of the highway commission or Houston's Metro board -- to which Lanier was appointed chairman by Mayor Kathy Whitmire in 1988 -- Elyse, clad in Chanel and David Webb, cut a high profile in the front row. The seeds of the couple's political partnership were sprouting even then: Elyse charmed the fascinated beat reporters, put the useful ones on her guest list and remonstrated zestfully with Bob's critics. (On one memorable occasion, she told Metro planner Paul Bay to quit arguing with her husband about rail.) Lanier has little tolerance for criticism, and so, by extension, does his wife; but Elyse is the one who is prone to taking names. "I can sniff somebody out in two seconds," she says, sounding mock-mean. "If I think somebody is gonna try to hurt him ... forget it! If I think somebody's first priority ought to be him and it's not...." She subsides into dark silence. "Mrs. Johnson," she offers, alluding to Lady Bird, "advised me when Bob was running for mayor to always forgive and don't forget. I try to always forgive," she laughs, "but I'm not quite the lady she is."

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