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.

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.

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