All About Elyse

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

Most of all, Elyse and Bob enlarged each other's realms. He introduced her to a weightier circle that included the Democratic power-brokers with whom he regularly consorted, and in 1988 Kathy Whitmire ushered Elyse into the public arena with an appointment to the parks board. Elyse put her David Webb entertaining skills to formidable use at the Lanier mansion, hosting everything from political fundraisers to literary benefits to a Christian LaCroix charity fashion show that was the epitome of late-'80s glitz. The mansion was decked in black AstroTurf, black-skirted tables, little black chairs; Elyse wore her new Galanos; co-chair Georgette Mosbacher couldn't squeeze into her LaCroix sample; models sailed down the winding marble staircase in thigh-high poufs and major David Webb jewelry. M.D. Anderson got the ticket proceeds; Neiman's sold a lot of LaCroix. It was one of those events where numerous agendas came together -- an Elysian specialty.

The media took note of such doings. Elyse and Bob became fixtures in Maxine Mesinger's gossip column; their photos appeared with increasing frequency in the papers. During his 30-year marriage to Liz, Bob had been the subject of a few scattered business profiles; otherwise, the family lived according to the old-line Houston code that you would pay to keep your name out of the paper. Elyse, on the other hand, grasped the value (and the validating pleasures) of publicity. Her friends were invariably amused when she said she only suffered the spotlight for the sake of David Webb. Now she turned the spotlight on her husband, giving him a high profile that would soon prove useful.

When the profilers showed up, avid to chronicle the Lanier lifestyle, Elyse nurtured the shining myth of their marriage so deftly that it became part of Houston folklore. We learned about the fresh cigars she stashed by Bob's chairs, the stopwatch she kept handy so he could skip over TV commercials, the clothes she laid out for him each day. We learned of the couple's "pajama days," when Elyse would dismiss the staff, cancel Bob's appointments, and pad with him through the 18-room house in their robes and slippers. If it all seemed a bit much -- as when Elyse said life with Bob was "like going on a trip with someone who's done all the research" -- it had an undeniable storybook appeal. "I always thought that if you treat somebody like a king, they'd make you their queen," said Elyse in 1989. Given what was about to happen, the imagery was appropriate.

Oh, I would have loved to have been doing that in my 20s!" says Elyse Lanier fervently. She is sitting in the mayor's utilitarian conference room off the City Hall annex cafeteria, a symphony in butterscotch and cream and the full complement of David Webb gold. Bold earrings. Thick cuff. Broad choker. Two rings the size of cabinet knobs. An emerald-eyed lion pin the approximate width of a navel orange. The scenario that is lighting up her dark-rimmed blue eyes? A 21-year-old Pamela Churchill Harriman acting as emissary between her father-in-law, Winston Churchill, and cabinet member Lord Beaverbrook during World War II. Powerful men; critical times; another woman who used her instinctive feel for the male species to win clout and recognition.

Elyse was 43 when she took her first real bite of a world in which such tantalizing scope might be possible. In 1991 Bob Lanier ran for mayor, having resigned his Metro post after feuding with Whitmire over the construction of a rail system (she supported it; he didn't). Even before a "draft Bob" movement sprang up, Elyse had formed the conviction that her husband ought to be king of the city. She decided as much "the day I saw that he really had a major disagreement with Kathy." One former associate from the period remembers calls from Elyse asking, "Don't you think Bob would be a good mayor?" Some Bob-observers believe he was bored after quitting Metro in late '89; the energetic Elyse, who by nature wants lots going on in her life, won't say flat out that she encouraged him to run, but admits archly, "I didn't discourage him. I thought it would be great!" Lanier's youngest daughter, Holly, credits Elyse with paving the road to "the most fulfilling thing" her father has ever done. "I don't think he ever would have run for office if it weren't for Elyse," she says.

It was during the campaign that Elyse emerged more sharply as Bob's Left Brain. He crunched numbers; she booted up her superb social computer and her glad-handing skills. An image lingers from her days as a reigning River Oaks hostess: Bob planted in a rocking chair at a book-and-author event; Elyse eagerly working the room. Now that image blossomed. Lanier's campaign handlers advised Elyse to can the jewelry for the duration, and she complied; Bob traded in his chauffeured white limo for a Suburban. (Elyse's idea to use a rose as the Lanier logo got nipped.) The couple opted for constant togetherness on the campaign trail, never mind that they could have covered twice as much ground alone. She missed exactly two campaign events.

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