The Grand Gesture

Texans with true style have an unerring authenticity in the way they carry and adorn themselves, and they tend to believe that it’s very important that others take notice. A lot of notice.

March 2009By Comments

A few months ago I went to the funeral of my old friend and former employer Tom Alexander. I had worked as a paralegal for Tom when I first moved to Houston. I was in my twenties, and he was an infamous trial lawyer, handling, among other things, various high-profile divorces. He was a smallish man who, like his even higher-profile colleague Joe Jamail, was often compared to a bantam rooster; he drove Cadillacs—big, old-fashioned ones, with fins—and favored sport coats in golfing shades of peach, chartreuse, scarlet, or myriad madras combinations thereof. Tom walked faster than most people could run, had a voice that sounded like a firecracker popping off, and had the meanest secretary on the planet, a tiny, brittle, bottle-blonde who knew everything about everyone, including Tom. I had just come back to Texas from an experimental college in Massachusetts, and to say that working in Tom’s office was a tonic would be an understatement. I was back home, where eccentricity was an art form. My parents had hoped that working as a paralegal might lead me to be a lawyer instead of a starving writer, but in fact it was watching Tom take such joy in doing what he loved that convinced me to leave the firm to do the same.

As it happened, Tom died within days of Clyde Wilson, his private investigator of choice. Clyde was as tall as Tom was short; he had only one good eye and liked to take the fake one out and roll it around on his desk to show it off. His cramped office, in a converted but never updated ranch-style house off I-10, contained a fireplace he liked to use, regardless of the season, when he was interviewing people he thought might lie. He liked to see them sweat, he told me. Clyde also had a parrot that, he claimed, kept its mouth shut. I quickly fell in love with Houston and my life there because, it seemed, you couldn’t turn a corner without running into someone like Clyde Wilson or Tom Alexander.

So I felt, in those days after their deaths, that a part of Texas and a part of Houston had died with them, an irrepressible need for self-expression that had been eclipsed by Houston’s growth and sophistication, and for a while I felt very sad. At the time I was also reading The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, in which Bryan Burrough declares the death of the old Texas, the one created by flamboyant oilmen like Clint Murchison and Glenn McCarthy. Deep in mourning and self-pity, I was inclined to agree with him—until I got an e-mail from a woman I know named Kristi Schiller. Kristi is a former Playboy centerfold turned entertainment reporter turned cosseted wife of a very wealthy oilman. She said she could not meet me for lunch the next day because she was having twenty kindergartners to her home for her daughter’s class Christmas party. The tables were set up around the pool—pink umbrellas and nice pink tablecloths too—and one of the town’s best caterers was preparing grillades and grits. The reindeer were arriving at seven a.m. I wanted to forward the e-mail to Burrough with the suggestion that maybe he hadn’t spent quite enough time researching his book.

Self-examining though I am, it never occurred to me to wonder why I am so drawn to masters of the grand gesture, people like Clyde Wilson, Tom Alexander, and Kristi Schiller. The attraction has always seemed natural, like craving tamales and barbecue or enduring summer heat, a part of my psychic landscape. The truth is I am a hopeless style addict, doomed by both genetics and environment. My mother has great style, but so, of course, did many other people I grew up with in San Antonio, including the wife of a local architect who wore china poblana skirts long before they were knocked off by New York designers, and my favorite high school English teacher, who kept her bun in place with varnished chopsticks. I am not equating style with being fashionable; it is entirely possible to dress impeccably and have no style at all. People with true style have an unerring authenticity in the way they carry themselves and in the expectant, hopeful expression they wear on their faces when they greet the day.

A hint of narcissism is not a drawback; people with great style tend to believe that it is important that others take notice—a lot of notice. In Texas, with our endless mintings of new rich, style has been nearly synonymous with excess, but it has just as much to do with humor (for example, Ann Richards and that great quip about George H. W. Bush’s silver foot) and fearlessness—a need to put inside-the-box thinkers on notice. Mickey Leland, one of Texas’s first black state legislators, debuted in a dashiki in 1973; the license plate of the enormous car he drove up to the Capitol displayed just two words: “SO BAD.”

In the San Antonio of my youth, expressing one’s style took a different form than it did in Dallas or Houston. The understated old rich of my hometown were satisfied enough with the age of their money that they didn’t feel compelled to display it like those bumpkins in the rival cities (probably because their fortunes were no match for those in the bigger cities). San Antonio also posed the everyday challenge of living in a city where the prevailing cultures were German and Latino, a civic combo not unlike oil and water or, more to the point, Ritalin and Prozac. In other words, this was a place where citizens believed it was a sin to appear in white shoes before Easter but also celebrated the bacchanalian Fiesta week every year, wherein debutantes from the finest families wore bejeweled $50,000 handmade gowns while riding atop floats carpeted with zillions of paper flowers.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be a duchess?” my mother asked me when I was in college, and now, in middle age, I wonder why I was so determined to decline. Maybe because when I was five, someone buttoned me into a stiff organdy dress and whisked me to the converted mansion that was the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, where I was given a long ribbon and made to dance the maypole with other hapless children. The maypole! In Texas! This activity made sense only in context: In insular San Antonio, the oldest families were determined to prove their sophistication to the outside world (“Pay no attention to those witless show-offs in Houston and Dallas; we alone know how to behave . . . ”), even if the outside world ignored them.

Of course, it was that very insularity that encouraged bizarre behavior. To be both flamboyant and secretive is a great trick, and the adults I grew up around were masters at just that. The wealthy scion my father worked for when I was young always changed clothes several times—from the velvet jacket to the smoking jacket to the paisley psychedelic jacket—during the lavish drunken parties in his airy, Saltillo-tiled hacienda. He also kept a herd of Shetland ponies on his property (we rode them while the adults were drinking) and filled his sprawling, rock-lined swimming pool with icy spring water. He enunciated like Lionel Barrymore and flew around with his mother in a DC-3 that had, I was told more times than I care to remember, “flown the Hump in Burma.”

All of this I accepted as normal; it just went into the mix with my Brownie troop, homework, and Barbies. That some of these scenes might have been more complicated (that the man might have been deeply troubled, for instance) was never broached, because that would have been the end—of the parties, of the illusion that this tortured soul was something more than just an odd fellow. This gift for mass deception was San Antonio’s major contribution to Texas style, and it comes from the city’s Latin origins: You learn early to put a sunny face on things, to celebrate eccentricity without examining its origins, to demand a place of prominence in the zany, ongoing parade. Getting out of town was a blessing—there’s a lot of oppression that goes along with overlooking the secret lives of others—but leaving home did nothing to allay my deep and abiding attraction to those who exhibit that strange mix of qualities that make up what I think of as Texas style.

Despite cable TV, the Internet, and the integration of Texas into a homogenized American culture, you can still pick out a Texan in a crowd. We remain not so far removed from the forces that shaped us: a culture that evolved in isolation in a place that for many decades was defined less by its cities than by the emptiness of the countryside, and what lay under all those endless acres. The discovery of oil swiftly changed some very poor people into very rich, very showy people. A possibly apocryphal story I grew up hearing had one Texas doyenne spying her friend’s new bling and sniffing, “I always thought it was gauche to wear diamonds in the daytime.” “That’s what I thought,” her friend retorted, “until I got some.”

A stereotype was born. Two classic, frequently cited reports on Texas boorishness were a 1939 issue of Life magazine that depicted Texans as if they inhabited a foreign country—spending excessively, shooting guns from strange positions, fondling female mannequins in men’s restrooms at private parties, and otherwise acting like rubes—and John Bainbridge’s witty 1961 tome, The
a compilation of articles that ran in the New Yorker, that set in stone the trope of the flashy, dunderheaded, big-spending Texan. But as most of us know, Texans were and are more complicated than this, and the most stylish reflect a history of wanting to be loved but also wanting things their own way, pretty much all the time, no matter how they get it. People who have what I think of as Texas style have often survived great loss, financial and otherwise—Boone Pickens comes to mind—and still maintain the powerful optimism that for generations has been bred in the bone.

You know it when you see it. Ann Richards had it in public, and George W. Bush had it (sometimes) in private; John Connally had it pretty much all the time, and LBJ had it in the Senate but not in the White House. Molly Ivins, oddly, had it mostly when she wrote. Oscar Wyatt has it, while the head of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, does not; Selena had it, but Eva Longoria has it mostly when she is playing the scheming, resourceful Gabrielle Solis on Desperate Housewives. Paul Newman nailed it in Hud; Matthew McConaughey has it only when he appears in those smoldering magazine ads for Dolce & Gabbana. Men who run barbecue and beer joints tend to have it, while owners of chic restaurants and wine bars do not; the Daughters of the Republic of Texas do not have it, while cheerleaders at certain West Texas high schools have it in spades.

And like the inhabitants of San Antonio, those who live in other major Texas cities have their own variations on the basic style. It must have been almost overwhelming when H. L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, and Stanley Marcus were competing to define Dallas, a recipe for urban insanity if ever there was one. To my mind, Marcus won out. According to Bainbridge, as a young man Marcus would wear raccoon coats to football games despite 80-degree weather and appear at formal parties in full dress with a wide red ribbon draped across his shirtfront. He tried and largely succeeded in making people care about quality. Even if they were buying only a sewing thimble from Neiman’s, he asserted, it was a great sewing thimble because his store sold only great things. In the process, Marcus helped an entire city develop a complex (or an even bigger complex) about wearing the right thing to the right place at the right time of year. (“In Dallas, your shoes and purse have to match,” Tina Knowles, Beyoncé’s mom and a fashion designer, told me recently.) There is now a tyranny of style in Dallas, one so focused on replicating the pages of fashion magazines that it drains off a lot of fun. Something vestigial is at work here—too many people afraid of being laughed at. Even the latest Mary Kay Cadillac seems too understated. Thank the Lord there are still people carrying on the tradition of turning mere parties into open-air asylums for rich people, in the tradition of socialite Nancy Hamon, who once accessorized a Christmas-in-July event with imported snow and another time made an entrance at her own costume party atop an elephant.

Despite software zillionaires and venture capitalists, Austin has managed to remain the antithesis of Dallas, its best-known style icon being Willie Nelson. I appreciate the fact that this is the one city in Texas where style is not and has never been dominated by the very rich—but what Austin has always lacked, in my book, is an abundance of outsized ambition and an urgency about fulfilling it, something Texans with style almost always possess. (Willie has it; he just hides it better than most.) Austin is a government town at heart, and so shares with Washington, D.C., a certain doomed bureaucratic dominance where style is concerned; it doesn’t matter who is nominally in charge. Maybe Lance Armstrong will embody a new Austin model, with his towering if somewhat clouded achievement, his stormy love affairs, and his sprawling home that used an astonishing 330,000 gallons of water last July. He’s a rogue in bike shorts, and whether you like him or not, you can’t resist him.

And then there is my adopted hometown, Houston, which has for decades been ruled in style terms by two of the most determined women on the planet. The first is Lynn Wyatt, whose style can best be explained by an encounter I once had with her in London. I was there on assignment, and the magazine I was writing for had a trade agreement with an exclusive South Kensington hotel, the kind of place where even the shelf around the bathtub is lined with antiques. I would never be able to afford to stay in such a place on my own, and I had to summon every bit of social grace I had learned as a child just to get up the nerve to register. As further proof of my incompetence, my laptop was dead and I had no working plug or battery, so I had to set up shop in a small corner of the lobby, where there was a computer for guests. I was there one morning, inappropriately dressed in jeans and a soiled T-shirt, when I heard a growl that sounded like a Siamese cat that had just finished a delectable five-course meal.

Something in my brain triggered a small panic coupled with denial—no, it couldn’t be—a mini manners breakdown. It felt as if I were living one of those dreams when you go to school unprepared for a test and, besides, you are naked. Quietly I got up from my computer and peered around a Chinese screen to see . . . Houston’s own Lynn Wyatt. Her hair and makeup were done, but she was wearing a hotel bathrobe, chatting amiably and utterly unself-consciously with a transfixed hotel muckety-muck, all the while keeping an eye out for her husband, Oscar, who, she explained, was flying in from Houston with her dress for an evening gala. She looked better than any of the couture-clad thirty-year-olds who were vying to replace her back home; she seemed just as comfortable in a bathrobe and slippers in this posh hotel lobby as she would have been in her own home. The next day, I heard her asking a woman who resembled a European countess how she kept her skin so lovely. “Ponds,” the woman told her. Wyatt responded to this bit of intelligence as if it were the secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Wyatt’s sometime rival in the sixties and seventies was Joanne Herring, who has reactivated herself big-time of late, capitalizing on the popularity of Charlie Wilson’s War. (She was a major player in both the book and the movie.) I saw her at a premiere party a year or so ago. Like Wyatt, Herring had been a startling, breathtakingly sexy beauty in her day, and she still had it going on that night. She was close to eighty and wore a scarlet gown by David Fielding that she had owned for twenty years. She was more than happy to endure a long receiving line and had personal messages for everyone. (“I’ve read your work,” she told me, knowingly and not totally approvingly, but with a dazzling smile.) She was toasted at dinner by James Baker. Through it all, she wore a look of supreme triumph: Houston had finally realized that she hadn’t just been some ditzy society hostess but had been running, with Congressman Wilson’s help, a secret revolution in Afghanistan for, oh, twenty or so years. “I don’t think like I talk—slow and sweet,” she once told Kristi Schiller.

These women continue to embody what I think of as Houston style, which is another variation on, or, rather, the essence of, Texas style. Yes, Murchison and Hunt were in Dallas, but their city was mainly a financial center, more straitlaced and given to conformity. The oil business dominated Houston, in contrast, and has set the tone for the way Houstonians live. The industry was, and is, volatile, unpredictable, undependable, and occasionally vastly rewarding—just occasionally enough to keep people hooked. The most successful Houstonians learned how to ride it out, “it” being whatever times were handed to them, with good grace. Wyatt and Herring, both married to oilmen at various periods in their lives, took Texas beyond the stereotype. They were global before the term became a cliché, and they knew how to play their Texas cards with a savvy any World Series of Poker champ would envy. Their lives weren’t always great—both endured difficult marriages, dicey family relations, and treacherous financial times—but they could always stop to celebrate life itself. The examples are endless—Boy Scouts dressed as Nubian slaves for one of Joanne’s famous parties; Lynn’s birthday fete where everyone was required to wear, the invitation stated, “red, red, red!” Their handiwork advanced their husbands’ bidnesses, kept their own faces before the public, and let everyone else enjoy themselves, even if only when reading about the antics in a social column. They knew what to maintain from Texas’s past and what to throw away—yes to fun and ambition, no to ignorance—and in that way extended the brand in a way no ad agency could ever hope to match.

Now many of the people who perpetuate Texas style tend to be more like keepers of the flame—Becca and John Thrash, with their parties around their huge, Roman bath—like indoor pool; Kristi Schiller, who has a blog that tells all, from her pheasant shoot in Scotland to her enough-is-never-enough desire to actually gain weight in 2009 (“I want to gain 200 pounds of pure, unfiltered waste—the equivalent of 700,000 calories in brownies, snickerdoodles, cupcakes, fudge, Blue Bell, Dr Pepper, M&Ms, pure butter sandwiches and guacamole milkshakes,” read a recent post). I love cyber-crashing the parties on plaintiff’s lawyer John Eddie Williams’s yacht in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean or God knows where else. (Note to drunken revelers: Remember, this is 2009. Pictures of you are appearing on the Web.) Irony has debuted as well. After society divorce lawyer John Spalding and his wife, Laura, bought John and Joan Hill’s mansion on showy Kirby Drive a few years ago, they hosted a Halloween party at which guests appeared dressed like characters from Tommy Thompson’s Blood and Money. (They passed around éclairs, the dessert with which Hill might or might not have poisoned his wife.) I am grateful to all these players on this sprawling, often silly stage; they go better with my morning coffee than depressing economic news. After decades of following such exploits, I still want to know how these people got where they are and why they spend what they spend; inevitably, their stories prove that life doesn’t have to be lived on a small stage. On the other hand, most of them are perpetuating the same game on an updated field instead of really advancing the ball.

Not to say that you can’t catch glimpses of the real thing: People are still coming out of nowhere to redefine Texas style. It helps to remember that a lot of our inherent exuberance comes from people who were just as happy about not being poor as they were about being rich; today’s most novel examples come not from society types but from people with new money to burn and not much else. Consider the clientele of Johnny Dang, who has a jewelry store tucked into a corner of the Houston Galleria’s third floor, right next to Neiman Marcus. Dang, a.k.a. TV Johnny, immigrated here from Vietnam in 1996, when he was 22. He is a small, intense man with glittering eyes. Trained in making jewelry by hand back home, he set up shop at a flea market on the 610 Loop at Martin Luther King Boulevard. It wasn’t long before word of his expertise spread to the homegrown rappers in that neighborhood; first they came for repairs, then they started dreaming up custom designs for Dang to make.

“The hip-hop customers came,” he told me, “and when I did the repairs, they’d say, ‘Hey, can you make this?’ I’d say, ‘I can do anything.’” The more famous his clients became, the more lavish the jewelry they asked Dang to make, and his legend grew. Houstonians like the late Pimp C and Bun B, Slim Thug, and Mike Jones made room for national stars like Master P and Kanye West. The entertainers wanted their names or the logos of their group spelled out in diamonds in giant pendants. Or the face of Jesus Christ fashioned in platinum and blue diamonds. Or a full-sized drinking cup made of gold, encrusted with diamonds, and filled on the inside with pink diamonds. (It came with a long gold chain, so it could be worn around the neck.) When Dang met up with rapper Paul Wall, the two started making grills, otherwise known as fancy dental retainers. Instead of using metal and cubic zirconia, however, the two used gold, diamonds, and other precious stones. Those became a big hit too. (“I always come up with something new,” Dang said, with Texas-size modesty.) Dang is now Harry Winston to an entire crowd of entertainers and sports stars, and even some white girls from River Oaks. His newer, younger Texas clients don’t seem so far removed from the barefoot wives of wildcatters who wandered, dazed, into Neiman Marcus generations ago, with the sudden understanding that their world had burst wide open and that they could make their own rules.

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