Two names passed from the Houston scene early this year, reminding us, as only the end of something can, how quickly the present becomes the past. One was Maxine Mesinger, the longtime society columnist for the Houston Chronicle, who died at the age of 75. The other was Coastal Corporation, the energy giant founded by the flamboyant oilman Oscar Wyatt, which was gobbled up by another Houston-based company, El Paso Energy, for $24 billion. By themselves, the two events, seemingly unrelated, made hardly a ripple on the surface of Houston life. But as symbols, they tell us a lot about what Houston used to be and is no more.
Maxine—she was a first-name figure—wrote about a town that seemed always to brim with self-confidence. John Connally squired Arab sheiks around the city; Baron Ricky di Portanova and his wife, Sandra, threw legendary parties in their River Oaks mansion; and everybody wanted to see and be seen at Tony Vallone’s restaurant on Post Oak. In Maxine’s columns, divided into sections with names like “Miss Moonlight’s Memos” and “She Snoops to Conquer,” the swagger survived, even when the price of oil fell from $35 a barrel to $30 to $25 to oblivion. That self-assurance defined Houston for me. I remember a visit to the offices of this magazine by two Houston business leaders, a banker and the head of an architectural firm, in early 1985, who came to protest a story called “Is This All There Is?” about empty office buildings and a skyline without cranes and other aspects of life in Houston after the oil boom went bust. The visitors objected to the damage they believed the story had done to Houston’s image. “We must never lose the momentum, never,” I remember one of them saying, as if a collective civic will had been engaged in restoring the price of oil to its rightful level, only to be thwarted.
Coastal represented the continuing hegemony of oil and gas over the Houston economy. The company came out of the bust stronger than it had gone in, thanks to the swashbuckling Wyatt. The major oil companies were bigger, of course, but they were faceless entities, often