All About Elyse

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

So far her major contributors are the cream of the downtown establishment: the Brown, Cullen and Wortham foundations, and the Jesse Jones clan's Houston Endowment. Doubtless their desire to help landscape the city is enhanced by their desire not to offend the mayor's wife, who is said to have a highly direct -- even insistent -- lobbying style. It's all perfectly consistent with Elyse's right-this-minute, never-say-die psyche. And even people who argue that her donors' money might be better spent on weightier projects concede that Elyse is good at getting results.

She has become a fundraising draw for others as well. Need a star honoree for your charity luncheon/tea/fashion show? These days Elyse is just the ticket to fill up those tables. With her elevation to the ranks of the powerful, she has become a full-fledged Houston celebrity. The joy she takes in the heady mayoral life, and in the recognition both she and her husband receive as they move about the city, is obvious and disarming. She basks in the admiring national press Bob gets; she delights in hobnobbing with the likes of Prince Charles, Lloyd Bentsen, George Bush, Hillary and Bill Clinton. It ain't Pamela Harriman, but it ain't bad. In fact, Elyse looks as if she's having enough fun for she and Bob both.

If there's an Achilles' heel to her First Ladyship, it's a certain obliviousness to appearances that probably springs from her plunge-ahead self-confidence. The determination to stay upbeat can mean trouble sneaks up on you from behind. That's what happened when good-government gadflies questioned the propriety of Elyse's efficacious fundraising from city contractors to entertain the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She personally raised about $130,000 of the $260,000 that contractors coughed up, later protesting -- somewhat naively -- that her efforts had no connection to city business or politics. In her mind, she was just selling the city, a favorite theme.

Similarly, Elyse has not hesitated to cut Lanier family retainers in on city business. The engagement of her landscaper and party designer to implement her downtown projects finds echoes in her parks board tenure, when she got her colleagues to cut loose their public relations person and hire her own company, L&T Associates, instead. Board sources say Elyse had to be persuaded of the wisdom of conducting a bid process -- and that not everyone was pleased with L&T's work.

The flap over the Laniers' involvement with accused confidence woman Teresa Rodriguez also falls into the dangers-of-positivism category. Here Elyse's people-radar failed her: she befriended the woman now accused of bilking local socialites through a Ponzi scheme, helpfully advising her on such matters as clothing and jewelry. "She ended up buying nearly everything I like," says Elyse. (Rodriguez's fondness for frogs may well have originated in Elyse's River Oaks drawing room, in which every flat surface crawled with crystal, jeweled and enameled amphibians. When an attendee at one of her meetings voiced wonderment at the frogs' numbers, Elyse shot back, "Yeah, I've had to kiss a lot of 'em.")

Rodriguez's Lanier connection landed her a seat on the parks board -- Elyse's old turf -- where she was elected treasurer shortly before the scandal broke. Rodriguez's bankruptcy case turned up an invoice that named Elyse as having held $175,000 in David Webb jewelry at the Lanier mansion for pickup by Rodriguez, a circumstance that raised questions about whether the mayor's wife and the mayor's appointee had had a business arrangement. Elyse, rather typically, professes shock that anyone would think so. "I've never in my life had a business relationship with Teresa Rodriguez," she says with some passion. "I would swear it on my children, my husband and my jewelry."

She says she has no regrets about the Rodriguez episode. "What's to regret?" In fact, Elyse maintains there is nothing she would do differently as First Lady if she had the chance to live her husband's two terms over again; and that, indeed, "there's not a lot I would change about myself except my weight." These are notions totally in keeping with her character -- which has remained triumphantly consistent in the face of her ever-expanding universe. Queen of the city or no, Elyse is Elyse is Elyse.

Elyse Lanier looks uncharacteristically nervous despite her sleek new haircut and taupe-colored I-mean-business suit. Her hands, one of them sporting a small-scale armadillo wrought in gold, clutch together as she stands waiting to be sworn in as a University of Houston regent. This painfully early morning of February 16 marks the first UH board meeting for the woman who never finished her studies at the school; Bob Lanier himself is on hand to do the honors. As he finishes administering Elyse's oath of office, he grins so broadly one halfway expects him to break into song. Instead, as Elyse takes her seat among her heavyweight colleagues, Bob perches uncertainly in the front row. For a moment, the couple's classic positions are reversed. Then the mayor propels his lanky frame toward the door, murmuring to a couple of reporters, "I gotta go do my line of work now." Elyse waves good-bye as he leaves her to her brave new arena.

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