All About Elyse
Thick gray fog gobbles the tops of downtown's skyscrapers; a damp chill sidles through the sparse lunchtime crowd huddled on folding chairs in front of City Hall. It's not the weather that Elyse Lanier would have chosen for her Valentine's Day sing-along here at City Hall park -- but that scarcely matters. The mayor's wife radiates like the truant sun: beaming her Olympic-caliber smile, she settles the crimson folds of her Chanel cape over her vibrant red suit and leans into the shoulder of her husband, who warbles gamely to "Me and My Gal."
Beside the shambly Bob Lanier, a roughhewn presence with a gap-toothed grin, Elyse emits an aura of unabashed glamour. At her wrist, earlobes and neck winks a glittering ransom of David Webb jewelry; her bright red lips and outsize Chanel sunglasses leap out against her pale skin, her immaculately sculpted crown of short, sable hair. "You're the cream in my coffee," croons the mayor, tapping one dark wingtip along to the band on-stage, managing to look at once vaguely uncomfortable and ineffably pleased.
Around them, the riotous glories of Elyse World unfold in banks of pink-and-white cyclamen and jillions of tiny white lights twined densely on the trunks of the plaza's live oaks. From the first days of Lanier's mayoral ascension in 1992,
this bosky, long-neglected piece of downtown turf has been his wife's pet project. Now white wire hearts swing from the trees, along with red and white puffballs left over from Fourth of July; from the long reflecting pool sprout giant hearts of twisted aluminum, a surreal vision on their chunky red pedestals. An occasional pungent whiff of manure filters from the dormant rose beds so dear to the First Couple's hearts. Another song winds down; Elyse fixes her signature adoring gaze upon her mate as he quietly mouths its final words -- "Beauty and the Beast."
It is an improbable tableau in which the chief executive of the nation's fourth largest city finds himself: corny and showy and somehow disarming; calculated for effect yet resolutely warm -- much like Elyse Lanier herself. This Valentine's Day, as ever, Elyse is busy wrapping her cerebral, slightly awkward husband in a romantic, feel-good mantle that renders him more accessible. More human. More attractive. If she lends him social ease and polish, the 69-year-old mayor returns the favor by lending his 47-year-old third wife stature and clout -- not to mention the kind of millionaire's lifestyle that, before their marriage ten years ago, the ambitious saleswoman of high-ticket jewels sampled only through her liberal expense account, or the kindness of her well-heeled clients.
It has proven a bargain on both sides. On their own, neither would have attained the broad civic, state and even national stage they now occupy. Together, though, the famously inseparable couple has forged a political partnership that amounts to more than the sum of its parts -- and to more than the snipers and Elyse-detractors ever would have predicted. The First-Lady-to-Be made such a tempting target with that awesome armory of Very Large Jewelry; those three appearances on the Houston Chronicle's Best Dressed list; the proudly unfashionable defer-to-your-man credo that she voiced so devotedly, and so often. After the Whitmire years, when an austere feminist widow set the tone, Elyse came as a shock to the system. Ditsy socialite, whispered the caricaturists. Shades of Nancy Reagan and Eva Peron, griped the political cynics.
They miscalculated. Three years into Bob Lanier's reign, Elyse has dodged the poison darts and avoided shooting herself in the foot, although she has nicked a well-manicured toenail or two, or three. The carefully non-controversial civic niche she carved for herself picked up gravitas as she snowballed along: the trivial-sounding "flowers" became "beautification" became "downtown revitalization" became the great Bob theme, "Neighborhoods to Standard." Even her look transmuted from mega-groomed '80s Trophy Wife, all bouffed and brightly clad, to a sleeker, soberer dress-for-success style in which earth tones rule (only the monumental jewelry has remained the same). Now, thanks to an appointment by then-governor Ann Richards to the University of Houston board of regents, Elyse Lanier seems poised to go after that most elusive of prizes: recognition as a woman of substance.
But not just yet. Today, it's lovey-dovey time. Elyse and Bob take the stage to exchange poems. "We'll kind of read 'em to each other," explains the mayor. "I'll dedicate this to Elyse and...." He trails off, plunging into a surprisingly eloquent delivery of Robert Burns. "O my love is like a red, red rose," intones the mayor. Elyse's smile could bust the wattage meters. "She's so smug, standing up there with her fella," whispers mayoral press secretary Sarah Turner, Elyse's onetime business partner and longtime confidant. "This is typically Elyse. It's probably the most Elyse event you'll ever go to."
Elyse's tribute to Bob turns out to be a latter-day non-verse with all the charm of a post-therapeutic greeting card -- "You are the special kind of person the world needs more of" -- but she reads it with utter conviction, and not an iota of embarrassment. As always, the spotlight agrees with her. When she finishes, the mayor laughs out loud, his face blending sheepishness and genuine delight. Soon the two are swaying on-stage with the band; "Our love is here to stay," sings Elyse, her face turned up to Bob, who stands at a slight remove, turned fractionally away from her. The two know all the words to the old chestnuts, and they sing with innocent gusto to the scattered schoolchildren and elderly church ladies on the seats below. At the conclusion of this unlikely mayoral lounge act, they descend to schmooze and sign autographs, the swooping tails of Elyse's long red cape floating as theatrically as any royal robe.
Elyse Lanier's throaty, soothing voice purrs through a private dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel, where members of the Downtown Houston Association have gathered to bestow their "Courage to Challenge" awards. She poses for photos with the winners -- people who have run marathons in defiance of cancer, triple bypasses, AIDS and other grave diseases -- small-talking vivaciously, touching people easily and often, deploying all those politically useful ribbon-cutting and ceremonial skills that are second nature to her (and 99th nature to her husband).
Elyse is a natural choice to keynote the luncheon, having herself soldiered through two mastectomies and reconstructive surgery in her 30s, plus a recent bad scare with breast implants of the sort that may lead to auto-immune or connective-tissue disorders. But she turns what is meant to be an inspirational talk on courage into a buoyant commercial for her beautification projects and her husband's administration. Words like "great" and "fabulous" and "exciting" bounce through the air. She even shoehorns in an appeal for City Hall landscaping donations. ("I'm $20,000 short," she announces coyly, "so for anyone in this room, here's my phone number.")
Selling, she's in her element. ("Retail," she will say later, "is in my heart.") She's less comfortable with introspection, that diving beneath the surface that might produce the poignant and powerful speech that the occasion seems to demand. What she summons up instead is a collection of bromides: "You have to think positive." "You regret what you don't do, not the things you do." She skims over her health crises; "I was not thrilled this summer when I found I'd have to have surgery again for what seemed like the millionth time" is as far as the First Lady takes it, offering that "you have to get on with it" and "you can't dwell on your problems." As a "This I Believe" manifesto, it's numbingly banal stuff.
It is also deceptively banal stuff. For underneath the sincere platitudes and decorative surface, Elyse Lanier is the kind of strong-willed, tenacious character who could animate the pages of some rich and delicious American novel. Edith Wharton, the turn-of-the-century chronicler of New York's upper and monied classes, would know her for good material. So would Judith Krantz. So, perhaps, might Henry James. In her fierce belief in herself, in her determination to grab the brass ring, Elyse is profoundly Houstonian. And her trajectory from working girl to River Oaks consort to the top of the world -- literally, now that she and Bob have agreed to split the penthouse floor of the chi-chi Huntingdon high-rise with Maxxam mogul Charles Hurwitz and his wife -- traces a mythic Houston path.
It began at 3421 North Parkwood Drive in Riverside, the then-grand East End neighborhood that functioned, back in the socially restrictive 1950s, as what Elyse terms "the Jewish River Oaks." Her father, Willie Bauer, was successful enough in the oil business to ensconce his young family (wife Ida; sons Tyrone and Seymour; and youngest child Elyse) in a two-story brick house on a promising block. Next door lived Sammy Finger, of the furniture clan; further along were businessman/banker Billy Goldberg, later to become a power in Democratic circles, and Kenneth Schnitzer, who went on to become one of the city's big-league developers. The Bauer house stood on a modest lot, but it had a view to better things: directly across a park-like, wooded ravine stood a brace of white-pillared mansions set among velvet lawns and sweeping driveways.
The cocoon of bourgeois comforts Elyse was raised in shattered when she was 15. Her father went bankrupt. Her parents divorced. Their financial circumstances having changed drastically, she and her mother decamped to a "little bitty" two-bedroom apartment off Stella Link. Both of them immediately went to work. Ida sold jewelry; the 15-year-old Elyse wrapped gifts at Houston Jewelry and Distributing downtown. From her uncomplaining mother, she drew the message that you stay upbeat and do what you have to do. The experience had a profound effect on the teenager -- one that she only came to recognize in recent years. "I guess my father was a man who gave up," she says quietly. "I have a very serious thing about success and hard work and never giving up."
After graduating from Bellaire High School in the lower rungs of her class (academics have never been her long suit), Elyse sold clothes at the downtown Neiman Marcus. Even at 19, she had her eye on the far horizon: when the legendary Stanley Marcus would come to town to rally the couture sales team on the third floor, Elyse -- who sold moderate togs one floor up -- would invite herself down to the meetings. "There wasn't any reason for me to be there," she remembers. "I just went."
It was the sort of chutzpah that served her well after an early, seven-year marriage to podiatrist Ronnie Robbins, her girlhood sweetheart ("Let's rephrase that, okay?" she laughs tartly. "I'm not gonna give him anything that positive."), ended in divorce in 1976. Elyse had been selling clothes at Esther Wolf, a posh specialty store owned by Robbins' aunt. Now, at age 28, with two young children to look after, she found herself without a job. When she heard a jeweler customer of hers was looking for a secretary, she applied -- lying about her typing and bookkeeping abilities to get her foot in the door.
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.
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?"
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."
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.
Elyse's unpretentious warmth and Bob's folksy, mush-mouth delivery mitigated the danger that they would come off as rich swells. So what if their house was on the block for $6.9 million? They had a personal chef, but by god, she specialized in greens and gravy and green-pea salad; they presented departing guests with monogrammed mementos, but ones that any Texan could relate to: plastic go-cups inscribed "Elyse & Bob." Indeed, so thoroughly did the Laniers embody Everyman's Houston dream that there was a magnificent inevitability to the thought of them as First Couple.
When Lanier beat Sylvester Turner in the ugliest runoff in memory, much ado ensued about Elyse's role. She wanted an office at City Hall, and was startled to find letter-to-the-editor writers and phone callers railing against such a notion. Even the Chronicle, while conceding the city might be getting a two-fer, wagged a cautionary editorial finger: "A Mrs. Mayor is not what the voters bargained for." Lanier decided to pay $202 a month out of his own pocket for a tiny office carved from Kathy Whitmire's old storeroom, and the waters calmed ... for about 20 seconds.
Elyse couldn't win. On the one hand, critics acted as if she might meddle in issues of substance; on the other, when she announced that her focus would be sprucing up Houston's public spaces with flowers, critics acted as if they'd prefer a combination of Mother Teresa and Eleanor Roosevelt. Why couldn't the First Lady tackle such pressing problems as homelessness, poverty, illiteracy? "These are the '90s," noted one columnist with asperity.
Elyse, however, was determined to be Elyse. She and Bob had talked it over; she would do what she was most comfortable doing. "It would look foolish if I said literacy was going to be my whole focus," explains Elyse. "I think people would see through that." She knew flowers, she knew pretty things, she knew she could help the city put a better face forward. It was as simple as that. And all too easy to lampoon. A skirmish flared when vases of Lanier roses that Elyse had brought to council chambers blocked TV angles; a Lanier aide took umbrage when cameramen removed them. Then there was the heist of several rose bushes from the $20,000 worth she got Shell to donate to City Hall park. Elyse was photographed gazing forlornly at the ravaged beds. She opined that the thief -- who later proved to be a homeless man nabbed in an eight-man police sting -- was "not a very nice person" who needed to "get a job, make a few dollars and go buy [himself] some rose bushes." It was one of those let-them-eat-cake-ish utterances that escape the First Lady's lips on rare and memorable occasions. And the image of eight lurking cops defending Elyse's fiefdom made the affair smack of a comic operetta.
But the flaps died down. Elyse persevered. Cynics may have smirked when during her privately funded planting drive before the Republican Convention she brought in her personal landscape architect to make sure the colors didn't clash. But the city looked swell, and many of the improvements made a permanent difference, from landscaping at the airports to such private projects as the lively flower beds at Shepherd near Greenbriar. Just driving by the rose plantings Elyse and Bob donated to Sweeney Clock Plaza can induce a lightening of the spirit. And it is impossible not to smile at the exuberant dottiness of the Elysian City Hall park, where she has commissioned Richard Flowers -- who once embellished the Lanier mansion for parties -- to create holiday looks to her taste. "Decorations I want big and exciting and grand," she says, adding that Central Houston Inc., not the city, foots the bill.
Elyse's hostess instincts made the leap to the civic scale, too. She has encouraged so many special events that the area around City Hall looks like a perpetual party these days. Raffish tents and towering stages sprout and melt away again; odd strains of music seem to beam in from another dimension. If there is life down there, thank Elyse. And if there are people sunning by the reflecting pool in little white cafe chairs, or lunching under umbrellaed, wrought-iron tables that seem to have migrated from Patio King, thank Elyse. Unless you're from the Texas Historical Commission, which considered removing the plaza's historic designation because original 1939 stone benches had been ripped out from around the pool. Think-and-do had struck again. Said an injured Elyse, "Times change and needs change. Maybe we came up with an idea they didn't come up with in 1939? Is that so bad?"
The parks and plants and parties were just Elyse writ large. But as the mayor's wife, Elyse discovered something new under the sun: the joys of clout. "My phone calls get returned so fast you wouldn't believe it!" she told an amused audience at a fundraiser for her husband's second campaign. Elyse had cut her fundraising teeth on the parks board, which manages donations of cash and land for the park system, but now she found her leverage had magically increased. During Bob's first year in office, Elyse lobbied donors so successfully that she felt compelled to start her own Houston Beautiful Foundation so she could control the money. "If I'm going to raise a half million dollars, I don't want to just send it over to somebody," she says. Sitting with Elyse on the board are her friend Barbara Hurwitz (wife of Charles) and downtown power broker Joe B. Allen, a major Lanier supporter. It's a tight circle that, according to Elyse, "we can expand when we want to."
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.
Her seat is near the high-powered center of the U-shaped table, bookended between banker John Cater and John O'Quinn, the hotshot plaintiff's attorney who is handling her suit against the manufacturer of her third set of breast implants (and who is fresh from a victory over Dow the day before). Cameras click and whir as the board settles down to business; already it's clear that Elyse's presence will boost the profile of this historically lackluster institution. It's just as clear that the institution will boost Elyse's stature, and that she was smart to ask for the post when a Richards administration official sounded her out about what sort of appointment might interest her.
Not everyone greeted Elyse's appointment with joy. Faculty purists groused that she didn't even have a college degree. Chancellor Alex Schilt, who was said to have favored politically connected attorney Jonathan Day for the post, may have had reason to feel discomfited. But the political realists on the restive faculty have high hopes for Elyse Lanier: they see her and the mayor as potential allies in their clash with administrators. They note that Elyse sat in on a key meeting last fall in which Schilt and board chairwoman Beth Morian defended the university's efforts to lobby for funds in Austin -- and from which Lanier came away unimpressed. Those reading the tea leaves should hear Elyse on UH lobbyists' argument that "we got cut but we didn't do so bad."
"Well, my god!" she exclaims later in her office. "I've heard my husband say it's not a victory if you didn't lose everything!" More tea leaves: her announcement that "the city now is looking at UH much more than it did before. I mean, we're watching the [legislative] bills in Austin."
Her use of the word "we" is pivotal. To expect Elyse to serve as a mere rubber stamp for Bob's views is probably too simplistic a view. She does not sound like the giddy geisha of yore as she opens the door to forging her own path on certain issues: her husband, she notes, "respects my judgment and opinion in several areas." Sure, she got the post because she's the mayor's wife. When a reporter suggested as much to her ("I think he thought that was really a slap") she told him "that was the best reason they could appoint me. I mean it is! Think about it! I thought that was really smart!" Indeed, it is precisely because of her connections and newfound fundraising clout that she may prove an asset to the university.
"I get the sense from talking to her that she wants to show people, 'Look, I can do a good job on something other than flowers,'" reports one UH faculty member. Elyse knows perfectly well that her image has often been that of a lightweight. The awareness lies behind her blunt assertion that "I'm not stupid. But I'm more street-smart than book-smart." It is the subtext of her frequent proud references to the fact that both her children are in law school. "I just hope I'll be able to make some contribution," she says, her voice going quiet. "I can't tell you how or what, but I hope so."
Elyse joins the board when it faces hard choices: about the balance of power and the unevenness of quality within the multicampus system and about how to address the grim funding crunch in Austin. Although Elyse's buttonholing of all and sundry at George W. Bush's inaugural was perceived by some to be an awkward maiden attempt at UH lobbying, she may well be able to bring significant gifts from private and corporate donors into the fold. The possibilities click into focus when convenience-store millionaires LeRoy and Lucile Melcher enter the regents' meeting to receive thanks for donating a new $5 million broadcasting center to the university. Elyse follows their movements with laserlike attention; the minute the official presentation ends, she makes a beeline to the elderly couple, kissing both of them and chatting quietly, every Elysian molecule at full alert.
The potential to establish herself as a force in her own right makes UH the most savory of the many dishes on the First Lady's plate. She's got Hermann Park to think about: things began looking up for the long-languishing park, which by rights should be one of the city's finest, after Elyse persuaded her friend Barbara Hurwitz to organize a Friends of Hermann campaign. Too, Elyse has the refurbishment of Miller Outdoor Theatre on her mind lately, and her strong will is already making itself felt there. At a Miller advisory board meeting recently, Elyse took it upon herself to stamp out the dread negativity virus. When a member said they couldn't raise the kind of money to maintain Miller once it was brought up to standard, Elyse asked, "How do you know? It seems to me there's some way we could raise a couple hundred thousand a year." In this standoff, as in so many others, place your bets on Elyse.
Also on the table are the many little snacks the First Lady is fond of: quintessential Elyse stuff like calling NBA commissioner David Stern on behalf of the suspended Vernon Maxwell ("I still have hope for Vernon," says the optimistic Elyse); or inviting House Speaker Newt Gingrich to visit the Houston zoo, an idea that formed when she read a newspaper article that said zoos are Gingrich's thing. Just because she hasn't heard back from Gingrich, or from Stern, doesn't mean she's discouraged. After all, in the world according to Elyse, anything is possible. For proof she need look no further than the Sports Illustrated episode, when she was so irked by the magazine's decision not to publish a "World Champion Rockets" issue that she barraged their corporate headquarters with phone calls. When the chairman of Time-Warner wasn't available, she ended up speaking to the chairman of Time Inc. Days later, a company representative was on the line proposing a special commemorative issue and asking, "Okay, Mrs. Lanier, will you be happy with this?"
There's plenty more, of course. Bob's highly probable third (and term-limited last) mayoral campaign lies ahead. There's the post-political future to consider, too: Elyse, who once urged her husband to buy the Rockets, discloses that the couple's thinking even bigger. "There are several things I would love to own," she says, her eyes flashing as brightly as her earrings. "First and foremost would be a newspaper." That, she says, chuckling deeply, "would be so much fun." It would also move her to a formidable plane inhabited by the likes of Oveta Hobby and Katherine Graham.
And someone has to keep an eagle eye on those pots full of flowers around City Hall. The minute she sees something amiss she calls the parks department, she says with a mock growl, and asks, "Why is this wilting?" She's already consulting her frequent collaborators Danny Ward and Nancy Ames on next year's Christmas festivities. And she's mulling inviting the venerable Stanley Marcus -- the man whose sales talks she once crashed -- to address local civic leaders on how to better sell Houston. Sometimes life really does turn full circle.
As it has, in a way, when UH dropout Elyse Lanier emerges from a closed executive session of the regents after six straight hours worth of meeting. Her new peers file back into the ballroom at the University Hilton in preparation for the rest of the day's agenda. But some things don't change. Elyse excuses herself and rushes off to an open house at the HPD Family Violence Unit. Bob -- her first, second and third priority -- is waiting.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.