The Best of the Texas Century—Lifestyle

December 1999By Comments

Socialite of the Century

For more than thirty years Lynn Wyatt, the blond-maned Sakowitz heiress and wife of oil and gas tycoon Oscar Wyatt, has spent her days shopping, lunching, and flying off to Europe to take in a fashion show or attend a party. She’s a fixture in New York, she summers on the Riviera, and when she’s in Houston, she occasionally serves as honorary chairwoman of a charity gala. Ho-hum, right? In truth, no Texas socialite has been as mesmerizing. Andy Warhol painted her portrait. Everyone from Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis, Jr., to Monaco’s Princess Caroline and England’s Princess Margaret has dropped by her Houston mansion. In the mid-seventies she made the International Best Dressed List three years in a row, and she is still regularly photographed for the fashion bibles Women’s Wear Daily and W. What is it about Wyatt? It’s not just her beauty and her natural sophistication (Houston writer Clifford Pugh once called her the “Last of the Glossy Group”). She loves playing the rich Texan, greeting people with “How are yew” and showing off her Texas roots. When she was asked by Princess Grace to host one of Monaco’s premier social events, the Bal de la Rose, in 1981, she turned it into a country and western party with longnecks and barbecue. Runner-up: Electra Waggoner was always known as a clotheshorse. In the early 1900’s the daughter of North Texas land and cattle baron Tom Waggoner bought $20,000 worth of clothes at Dallas’ Neiman Marcus in one day, then came back the next day and spent an additional $20,000. But it wasn’t until after her divorce from Easterner A. B. Wharton that she became the state’s first great international socialite, buying a three-block-long estate in the Turtle Creek area of Dallas and throwing magnificent parties, occasionally even hiring private trains to move them across the country. Skip Hollandsworth

Party of the Century

The Shamrock Hotel’s Opening Night Gala on March 18, 1949, was the biggest, brashest, most outrageous party Houston had ever seen. Broadcast live on NBC radio with host Dorothy Lamour, the extravaganza put Houston on the map, sparking a national media sensation and heightening Texas’ larger-than-life image. “Diamond” Glenn McCarthy, the flamboyant wildcatter who was the inspiration for Giant’s Jett Rink, built the Shamrock. The oilman decorated it in 63 shades of green and outfitted it with an emerald swimming pool so vast that you could water-ski across it. He spared no expense for the hotel’s debut, which drew the likes of Ginger Rogers and Errol Flynn as well as the Kilgore Rangerettes and a crowd of Houstonians who became so rowdy that NBC pulled the plug on the broadcast mid-program. All told, the revelers drank more than 12,000 bottles of champagne before the night was over. Runner-up: On June 11, 1926, oilman Edgar Davis threw a lavish picnic in Luling for family, friends, and co-workers to celebrate his sale of an oil field to Magnolia Petroleum; at the time it was the state’s biggest oil deal. The tab for the picnic was $5 million. Pamela Colloff

Do-gooder of the Century

Edna Gladney of Fort Worth was so famous for her crusades to care for abandoned children in the first half of this century that a film was made about her life, Blossoms in the Dust, starring Greer Garson. Gladney was barely twenty years old when she made unwanted children her cause in life, first working to improve the conditions on a poor farm, then becoming superintendent of the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society (later renamed the Edna Gladney Home). By the time she went into semi-retirement in 1960, the childless Gladney had placed more than 10,000 babies with adoptive parents and successfully lobbied the Texas Legislature to have the word “illegitimate” kept off birth certificates. Runner-up: Clara Driscoll, the daughter of a wealthy Corpus Christi ranching family who crusaded to save the Alamo. Among other things, in 1903, when she was 21, she put up the money to buy the long barracks adjoining the chapel, thereby preserving the “cradle of Texas liberty.” Skip Hollandsworth

Bad Girl of the Century

In the early fifties a nymphet with tropical green eyes and a body that would stop the Dow Jones taught the puritans of Dallas the pleasures of sex, and they taught her their version of justice. Stripper Candy Barr got fifteen years for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, but her real crime was shaking her fanny at the establishment. Candy’s activities had been an open secret for some time. She popped her G-string at smokers and SMU fraternity parties, and she starred in Texas’ most famous stag film, Smart Aleck. Trouble started when Candy became the headliner at the Colony Club, in the heart of Dallas’ business district. Not only did people read about her in the dailies and hear about her at the country club, but a life-size cutout of Candy in her skimpy cowboy outfit, pointing a toy pistol under a cocked leg, greeted shoppers strolling along Commerce. Suddenly, both guilt and repressed fantasies were unleashed, and the police and prosecutors went to a lot of trouble to put her away. The evidence was likely planted, and her trial was a four-day farce in which the judge took snapshots of the shapely defendant. Runner-up: Miss Jessie Williams, the kindly madam who in 1905 took over a little house of prostitution in La Grange that would become known as the Chicken Ranch and turned it into a whopping business, servicing many of Texas’ finest young men. Gary Cartwright

Preacher of the Century

The white-haired, white-suited W. A. Criswell came to Dallas’ First Baptist Church in 1944 and turned it into the biggest Protestant church in America, with a reported membership of 30,000 in its early-nineties heyday. Nobody could stir a crowd like Criswell, who is part theologian and part thespian. During one eighteen-year stretch at First Baptist, he preached the Bible all the way through, word by word, his voice so powerful that he didn’t need a microphone to reach his audience. Today, when his health permits, the 89-year-old Criswell participates in Sunday services as a kind of pastor emeritus. Though he no longer shakes the downtown church’s rafters with his trombone of a voice, he still kneels on his Bible for the morning prayer. Runner-up: Let’s face it—flamboyant evangelists have been far more popular in Texas than the most pious ministers, and the best of the lot was Robert Tilton, Dallas’ goofball, blow-dried television preacher who in the eighties used to get on his desk and roll around in the letters people had sent him. After a series of scandals at his Word of Faith church, Tilton moved to Florida. Too bad. We miss the way he used to wave his arms around and speak in tongues, then glance at the television monitor to make sure he hadn’t messed up his hair. Skip Hollandsworth

Good Old Gal of the Century

While we do have our share of socialites and beauty queens, the greatest Texas women are its good old gals, sassy, earthy straight talkers who can flirt magnificently with men and make them look like idiots without their even knowing it. During Prohibition in New York in the twenties, the most popular performer at the illegal speakeasies was a flashy former cowgirl from Waco known as Texas Guinan. A onetime trick rider in a circus, Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan moved to Los Angeles and appeared in more than two hundred two-reeler films in the early 1900’s (including Little Miss Deputy in 1919). At the age of 38 she moved to New York, where she made a new career for herself as a nightclub emcee. Billing herself as “that two-gun Texas gal,” she greeted her audiences with “Hello, suckers!” as she was rolled onstage atop a piano, and she had a habit of thumping tennis balls into the crowd during her act. Runner-up: Ann Richards is not only smart, she is a smartass—which is why it was so much fun to have her in public life. Of course, her great line at the 1988 Democratic convention about the elder George Bush’s having been born with a silver foot in his mouth could well have been one reason George W. entered the race for governor, leading to her defeat. Skip Hollandsworth

Pretty Young Thing of the Century

Texas is renowned for creating the latest bombshell every fifteen minutes (from beauty queens like Phyllis George to models like Jerry Hall to Playboy playmates like Anna Nicole Smith), but no one has had the endurance of Farrah Fawcett. Although her career has consisted of a few television commercials, a single season twenty years ago on Charlie’s Angels, one well-received Off-Broadway play, and a smattering of films (mostly TV movies), she is still, at the age of 52, a source of endless fascination—just as she was in the sixties at the University of Texas, when the line of fraternity men hoping to meet her at her sorority house went around the block. Witness her most recent appearance on David Letterman, in October: It turned out to be one of his highest-rated shows this year. Runner-up: Jayne Mansfield, the busty Dallas blonde who in the fifties became a B-movie queen. After attending Highland Park High School in Dallas, then studying at SMU and the University of Texas, Mansfield moved to Los Angeles, where she was soon starring in such epics as Female Jungle and Too Hot to Handle. Skip Hollandsworth

Redneck of the Century

In the seventies an oil refinery construction worker named Gator Conley was considered the best dancer and mechanical-bull rider at Gilley’s, the now-defunct country and western nightclub in Pasadena that took up three and a half acres and could hold more than six thousand people. Women lined up to get their turn on the dance floor with the man an Associated Press reporter once described as “redneck elegance personified.” When the movie Urban Cowboy was shot at Gilley’s in 1979, director Jim Bridges put Conley in several scenes, including the dance contest, which he won. Slim Pickens was so impressed with Conley’s dancing in the film that he called Conley “the honky-tonk Fred Astaire.” Says Conley, who now works as an air conditioning maintenance mechanic and is on his third wife (he met her at a pawnshop): “I used to dance or ride the bull six straight hours a night.” Although he won’t reveal his age (he’s probably in his late fifties), he still likes “getting out there and doing a twirl,” he says. “People from the cities might call me a redneck, but that’s fine with me. I think we could use some more people who spend their days working with their hands and then spend their nights treating the ladies real nice.” Runner-up: author Larry L. King, who introduced redneck thinking to the Eastern intelligentsia. During his days at Harvard on a Nieman fellowship, he became famous for acting like a cowboy hick. He wrote brilliant magazine stories about his life as a West Texas redneck and made a small fortune when he co-wrote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the successful Broadway musical that was full of redneck characters. Skip Hollandsworth

Architect of the Century

A Washington Post article once described O’Neil Ford, the irascible, cigar-chomping San Antonio architect who died in 1982, as “the nation’s leading architect, although the nation may not know it yet.” Much of the nation still hasn’t heard of him. But if you view any of his creations—from San Antonio’s Trinity University and the Tower of the Americas in HemisFair Park to the Texas Instruments semiconductor plant in Dallas—you’ll understand why he was considered a genius at using materials like stone, brick, and wood. More than anyone else, Ford preserved the indigenous character of Texas architecture from the encroachment of what he called “bulldozer mentalities” and “that nasty modern stuff.” Runner-up: In the thirties and forties, when Houston’s elite began moving into the River Oaks neighborhood, most of them looked to one architect—John F. Staub—to design their new home. He created a grand but traditional look, graceful and never too showy, that has made River Oaks one of the most enduringly elegant neighborhoods in the country. Skip Hollandsworth

Bandits of the Century

The legend of high-spirited Dallas outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has endured ever since lawmen gunned them down on a lone country road in 1934, ending the most notorious crime spree in Texas history. Beginning in 1932, the quick-tempered duo indulged in a bloody tour of Texas and the Midwest, killing fifteen people—some during bank heists, others just for kicks. Photographs of the gangster and his cigar-smoking moll, on the run from lawmen in eight states, were featured in local newspapers alongside poems that Parker had penned, including one that foretold their demise: “Some day they will go down together/and they’ll bury them side by side/To a few it’ll be grief/To the law a relief/But it’s death to Bonnie and Clyde.” By the time Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his men caught up with them in Louisiana, firing a total of 167 bullets at the doomed lovers, they had been transformed in the popular imagination from cold-blooded killers into Depression-era folk heroes. Crowds mobbed their bullet-riddled Ford, some people cutting off locks of Parker’s hair and even trying to pocket Barrow’s trigger finger as a souvenir. Runner-up: Two days before Christmas in 1927, ex-con Marshall Ratliff—dressed as Santa Claus—and three associates tried to rob the First National Bank in Cisco, resulting in a deadly shoot-out with local police officers and the largest manhunt in Texas history. After a sensational trial and a failed attempt to escape from the Eastland County jail, Ratliff—a.k.a. the Santa Claus Bandit—was lynched by an angry mob. Pamela Colloff

Professional Texan of the Century

Tom Mix, the leading silent western movie star of the twenties, was beloved by the world as the hero in immaculate white suits and fancy boots who always saved the rancher’s daughter from villains. To improve his image, he claimed to have been born and raised on a ranch near El Paso. Nope. Mix was from Pennsylvania, and only traveled through Texas on occasion. But he was one of the first to capitalize on the fact that the rest of the country thinks of Texans as an exotic breed—and he taught future generations the value of promoting their Texas roots, whether real or imagined. Runner-up: No one is better at spouting cornpone lines about Texas than CBS anchor Dan Rather. Skip Hollandsworth

Comical Texan of the Century

Silver Dollar Jim West, Jr., of Houston was the real-life version of the buffoonish hero seen on innumerable postcards and editorial pages—the bragging, larger-than-life Texan who has more money than he knows what to do with. Fat, eccentric, and rich as hell, West made his fortune from his father’s cattle-and-lumber empire and from his own luck with oil. By the early fifties he was worth $100 million. His holdings included several ranches, a mansion in River Oaks, eleven Cadillacs and a couple dozen other luxury cars (which he kept in a three-story garage that also housed his private radio station), four planes, and a fleet of jeeps that he used for hunting. He got his nickname from his daily habit of showering silver dollars on the common people around him, such as yardmen, bellhops, and his drivers. Like most stereotypical Texans, West had a huge appetite—although he was a diabetic, he would eat more than a dozen hot dogs at football games, and he used to take his own homemade butter with him when he went to restaurants. He wore thick glasses, a fifteen-gallon hat, giant gold belt buckles, and a diamond-studded Texas Ranger’s star. He often stayed out all night patrolling Houston with his friends on the police force, whom he would give cash gifts at Christmas—$100 bills for the brass, ten-spots for the beat cops. Runner-up: the stereotypical hapless Texas Aggie. Yeah, the professors at A&M are now splitting atoms and turning carrots maroon and creating new breeds of cattle, but what would we be like as a state if we didn’t have the Aggie joke? Which reminds us: Did you hear the one about the Aggie who moved to Oklahoma and raised the average I.Q. in both states? Michael Hall

Dish of the Century

Glorious in shades of russet, brown, and gold, the Tex-Mex combination plate is the earthly manna that unites Texans of all ages, creeds, and walks of life. It was first served in its typical form—an enchilada, a tamale or a taco, refried beans, and rice—at the Old Borunda Cafe in Marfa in 1887, then spread across the state like melted cheese. Texans should doff their hat to its inventor, Tula Borunda Gutierrez, the Escoffier of Tex-Mex. Runner-up: the chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, an offshoot of chuckwagon cooking regarded by Texans as their personal link to cowboy culture. Patricia Sharpe

Female Fashion Statement  of the Century

Okay, Texans didn’t invent big hair (go look at a picture of Marie Antoinette), but Texas women have mastered it. They’ve back-combed their hair until it looks like balls of tumbleweed, teased it and sprayed it until it looks as if they’ve got wings on their head, and even tried hair extensions. Although big hair remains the target of rabid eradication campaigns by modern hairstylists, we still go for it. As one Texas hairdresser says, “The bigger the hair, the closer to God.” Amen. Runner-up: the Southwest Airlines flight attendants’ hot pants, introduced in 1971. Come on, we dare you: Name one Texas fashion item that has had anywhere near the impact of Herb Kelleher’s little gimmick. Oh, yeah, that’s right: the hot pants worn by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Is this a progressive state or what? Skip Hollandsworth

Eccentric of the Century

Just about everyone has a favorite story about Texas’ most outrageous mischief-maker, Stanley Marsh 3: There was his grand entrance at John Connally’s bribery trial, wearing purple chaps and carrying a bucket of cow manure; his never-completed film about Lady Godiva, for which he persuaded his wife to don a flesh-colored leotard and ride on horseback through the streets of Amarillo; and his penchant for conducting business deals in his office while a pet lion sat at his feet. He wound up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list after he mocked Pat Nixon’s clothes and sent Spiro Agnew a shoeshine kit, suggesting that he find a new line of work. But Marsh will be best remembered for Cadillac Ranch, the ten vintage Cadillacs he buried in the prairie just outside Amarillo, hood-first and at the same angle as the Great Pyramids. Runner-up: Cereal magnate C. W. Post, who invented cornflakes and Grape-Nuts. After spending time in a sanatorium for a nervous disorder,he founded a utopian farming community in West Texas in 1907—now the town of Post—where he unsuccessfully tried to blast rain out of the sky with dynamite. Pamela Colloff

Gift of the Century

Everyone knows that Stanley Marcus taught affluent Texans how to dress well. But his greatest contribution—the one that has had the most impact on Texas life, not to mention on the world’s perception of Texas—is the His and Hers gift, first featured in the 1960 Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. Even people who have no intention of ever setting foot in a NeimanMarcus store like to know what extravagant gifts Neiman’s is suggesting wealthy Texans bestow upon their loved ones each holiday season. The inaugural 1960 His and Hers gift was a $27,000 Beechcraft Bonanza airplane. Two of our favorites have been the fourteen-foot-long, two-person submarine that sold for $18,000 in 1963 and the $50,000 dirigible in 1979. This year’s item is intriguingly different: For $200,000 you can help preserve a piece of ecologically endangered land and then name it for yourself or a loved one. Runner-up: the Collin Street Bakery fruitcake. For generations Texans have been giving each other the famous fruitcake made in Corsicana. Now, if we could just find someone who eats it. Skip Hollandsworth

Restaurant of the Century

Texans today take fancy food and glittering big-city restaurants in stride. But fifty years ago, Texas was a provincial place. The restaurant that brought culinary sophistication to the state’s largest city was Maxim’s. Founded in 1949, Maxim’s flourished in downtown Houston at the corner of Lamar and Milam. In its intimate dining rooms, replete with red-flocked wallpaper and reproductions of French Impressionist paintings, overnight millionaires got a quick course in how not to embarrass themselves when confronted with three forks to the left of the dinner plate. Well-traveled Houstonians found a restaurant to equal those they knew in New Orleans and New York, with wine sauces and exotic specialties like pompano en papillote. But the genius of Maxim’s Luxembourg-born owner, Camille Bermann, was that he understood his customers. For the benefit of former roughnecks, he put a sautéed minute steak on the lunch menu and named it Oil Trash. Since 1981 Maxim’s has been located in quiet, posh quarters at Greenway Plaza, away from the busy downtown scene. Relative upstarts like Tony’s and Cafe Annie get the young society crowd these days, but Maxim’s hosts many private parties. Among its most faithful patrons are those who made their fortunes in the oil bidness. Runner-up: Mi Tierra, which successfully mass-marketed Mexican food to San Antonio and had the good sense never to become a chain. Patricia Sharpe

Trendsetters of the Century

Thomas Cronin and Frank Gerow, of course. You’re saying: Huh? In the early sixties these two doctors, working at the Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston, invented the silicone-gel breast implant, changing the Texas, um, landscape forever and giving Houston the wonderful title of Breast Capital of the World. Runner-up: In 1971 26-year-old Mariano Martínez, Jr., the proprietor of a popular Dallas restaurant, and his friend Frank Adams jerry-rigged a soft-serve ice cream machine to churn out vast quantities of frozen margaritas. The frozen margarita machine revolutionized happy hour, as Texans poured into bars and restaurants to freeze-dry their brains. Skip Hollandsworth

House of the Century

The Texas Classical, of course. You’ve never heard of it? Trust us, you’ve seen it. In the early eighties a young Houston homebuilder named Dennis Bailey transformed Texas when he started constructing what he advertised as the Texas Classical in the brand-new subdivisions west of Houston—three- and four-bedroom houses that were part gingerbread Victorian, part Georgian, part contemporary, part Boston brownstone, and part Colonial clapboard. Inside each house were towering foyers, expansive living spaces, winding staircases, floor-to-ceiling windows, bathrooms with skylights, and master suites with fireplaces and giant walk-in closets. Architects were disgusted: The houses looked like a disjointed mishmash of every style known to man. But Bailey’s home won sixteen awards at the National Association of Home Builders convention (including Best Home Design) in 1984, and today all the builders in the state’s newest suburbs seem to be doing their own version of it. You might see Bailey’s home as the ultimate symbol of the blandness of modern Texas, but for thousands of families, moving into a Texas Classical is their realization of the American Dream. Runner-up: the Big House at the King Ranch. The country’s first great ranch house, it doesn’t look half the size of the mansions being built by today’s new millionaires. But when you first see it as you come around the bend in the road, it takes your breath away, rising up from the South Texas plains like a castle. In her novel Giant Edna Ferber reportedly modeled the house at Reata, Bick Benedict’s ranch, on the King Ranch’s Big House. Skip Hollandsworth

Nightclub of the Century

From 1947 until the Texas Rangers smashed it to kindling in 1957, Galveston’s Balinese Room was the swankiest and most famous nightspot on the Texas coast. The crown jewel of the Maceo syndicate, the Balinese, with its South Seas decor, booked the top names in show business and attracted the highest of Texas’ high rollers. The casino was strategically situated at the end of a two-hundred-foot-long pier so that, in the event of a raid, there was time to fold slot machines into the walls and convert craps tables to bridge tables. On one occasion a raiding party was greeted by the band playing “The Eyes of Texas” and the announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, we give you, in person, the Texas Rangers!” Runner-up: The Starck Club, the great Dallas dance club during the go-go eighties, was always packed, especially its unisex restrooms. Then came the obligatory police raid in 1986, during which the upscale patrons threw so many drugs on the dance floor that the police dogs slipped on them. Gary Cartwright

Male Fashion Statement of the Century

In the fifties one of the great status symbols for Texas men was a pair of expensive dark-skinned Lucchese boots. The state’s first great upscale boot company, Lucchese was founded in San Antonio by six brothers, who made the boots Teddy Roosevelt wore up San Juan Hill. Luccheses were once so popular that you could park yourself at the shop in San Antonio and watch celebrities from around the country, among them John Wayne and Abbott and Costello, show up to get fitted. Runner-up: Although we’re finally past the era (thank God) when every Texas male thought he had to have a cowboy hat, the Resistol, first produced in 1927 in Dallas, remains part of the Texas myth. Resistol sells a million cowboy hats a year. LBJ was a contented customer, and J. R. Ewing’s Resistol sits in the Smithsonian. Skip Hollandsworth

Snack of the Century

The next time you bite into a “restaurant-style” tortilla chip, think of the salty little chip that started it all. In 1932 Elmer Doolin happened to eat an especially tasty corn chip at a San Antonio cafe, bought the recipe for $100, and went into business selling the chips as Fritos. (It was Doolin’s mother who earned her own place in history by pouring chili over a bowl of Fritos, thereby creating Frito pie.) In 1961 his Frito Company merged with potato-chip maker H. W. Lay and Company to become Frito-Lay. Today Fritos seem quaintly anachronistic, and their sales lag behind those of sister chips Doritos and Tostitos. But true Fritos fans don’t care. They just keep munching and eagerly await the January release of Frito-Lay’s microwaveable Frito-pie kit. Doolin would be proud. Runner-up: the irresistible chocolate-and-pecan candies called Millionaires, created by the Pangburn Candy Company of Fort Worth and now made (in Texas) by Missouri-based Russell Stover Candies. Patricia Sharpe

Soft Drink of the Century

If ever there was a soft drink that has made a virtue out of strangeness, it is Dr Pepper. Invented in Waco in 1885, it was named not for its inventor, Charles C. Alderton, but for the father of the erstwhile girlfriend of the owner of the drugstore where Alderton worked mixing fountain drinks. We’re sure you followed that. It also tastes like prune juice, although it doesn’t contain any and never has. Anyway, capitalizing on the drink’s strangeness, Dr Pepper was introduced to the New York market in 1970 with the slogan “Dr Pepper—So Misunderstood.” Today the soda pop that Forrest Gump drank at the White House is the number three soft drink in the country. Runner-up: Big Red, which tastes like liquid bubble gum and was also invented in Waco (in 1937). What’s with that city and its off soft drinks? Patricia Sharpe

Watering Hole of the Century

When Billy Lee Brammer wrote in The Gay Place about the fictional Dearly Beloved, an Austin beer garden where politicos and journalists debated affairs of state while seated at wooden tables under trees, he was, of course, writing about Scholz Garten. The venerable saloon a few blocks south of the UT campus has been a gathering place for generations of students and political junkies. Before liquor-by-the-drink, Scholz’s was the center of Austin’s intellectual universe every Friday night; in their drinking days, Bob Bullock and Ann Richards were regulars. Runner-up: the 90th Floor, Dick Harp’s New York—style jazz club on Dallas’ McKinney Avenue, where in the late fifties and early sixties Texans learned how to be semi-cool. Gary Cartwright

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