My Life

Growing up in a clothing store, marrying an oil tycoon, palling around with Andy Warhol and Sir Elton John, hosting the grandest parties, wearing the chicest gowns, dining with princes and presidents, and other choice chapters from the fabulous adventures of Lynn Wyatt.

March 2009By Comments

Lynn Wyatt, photographed in a Carolina Herrera dress at the Houston Grand Opera on January 23, 2009.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

If there is one person who embodies Texas style, it is Lynn Wyatt. Tall and forever blond, glamorous without being pretentious, simultaneously sweet and shrewd, with arguably the most famous whiskey laugh in the world, she rose from a comfortable Houston childhood—her family started the Sakowitz specialty store chain—to become a global symbol of Texan hospitality and grace. In 1963 she married Oscar Wyatt, the infamous founder of Coastal Oil and Gas. She counts herself a BFF of the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Sir Elton John, and Liza Minnelli; has appeared in virtually every fashion magazine ever published; was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1977; and was made an officer of the French government’s Order of Arts and Letters in 2007. Having reached the grand age of 73, she agreed to pass on a few life lessons. Mimi Swartz

How did you develop your sense of style?

Being born into the Sakowitz family, I was always interested in fashion. My own style has developed through incredible influences. My mother taught me that a dress should not wear the wearer, my father that a woman should always be at her best inside her own skin.

I have never been conscious of developing a style. I never thought, “Now, Lynn, you are going to design yourself a specific look.” Style develops from the heart. Mine comes from the feelings I have inside—femininity, confidence, strength, and a sense of humor.

I noticed you have a well-placed photograph of Helmut Newton with the caption “I’m watching you . . . ”

Yes, when I told Helmut that I had a Helmut Newton room in our house, Oscar said, “Helmut, don’t get excited. It’s just the downstairs powder room.” People stay in there for twenty and thirty minutes at a time, just looking at his books and signed photographs all over the wall.

Style seems almost instinctual for you, when it isn’t for others.

When I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I began working as a salesperson in the junior miss department of Sakowitz. That was a responsibility, because I found, even in my young, inexperienced way, that the client, so vulnerable in the dressing room, was asking my opinion. Should I lie and make the sale or be honest, knowing that the outfit wasn’t for her? Truth is stronger than lies any day of the week. Soon I found my small, modest opinions building clientele.

So what’s your best advice?

If there is one word that could simplify this wonderful predicament, it would be “appropriate.” What is appropriate for the occasion? Who is the guest of honor? What is the age group? I dress for the occasion and add certain twists to amuse myself. Fashion should not be taken so seriously; you should have fun with it. In today’s economic climate “downsizing” is the appropriate word for everything. That old saying “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” is the complete antithesis of today’s world. I’m happily wearing my golden oldies, mixing and matching.

Style isn’t just about fashion, is it?

Style is a sign of creativity, of knowing who you are. The way you dress sends a message to the public about how you want to be perceived. What’s on your body reflects what’s on your mind.

Style is about how a person lives. Life is an adventure. If I am eating a steak, I go right to the center of it. I took my boys on safari to Africa. I went to the North Pole three times. Almost got my toes frostbitten off. When I came back home, I couldn’t feel my toes for maybe six months. I’d go to a dance and some dancer would step on my feet and say, “Oh, excuse me,” and I’d say, “Oh, don’t worry. I didn’t feel a thing.” My motto is “Live a lot, laugh a lot, love a lot, and be extremely grateful for all the gifts you have been given.”

In the sixties you began spending your summers in the South of France, entertaining everyone from Princess Grace and Andy Warhol to Christina Onassis and the Begum Aga Khan. Can you conjure up those times?

Our villa was called La Mauresque, which had been previously owned by the famous writer Somerset Maugham and was, of course, loaded with history. It had a high-maintenance clay tennis court, often played upon by serious and not-so-serious tennis buffs. One serious game I recall was Johnny Carson and Prince Rainier against Prince Albert and our son Douglas. Of course the game was won by the “gray-haired sly foxes,” as Prince Rainier called his team. I think there was an unwritten law that the head of any monarchy shouldn’t lose.

A few years later, Liza Minnelli and Mark Gero, her then new husband, and Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal were house-guests. Liza and Mark wanted to stay and be lovebirds at home. Gorgeous Farrah and Ryan were like Mr. and Mrs. America, always wide-eyed and smiling, looking fabulous and ready to go to any party I was ready to take them to. After the stunning success of Love Story, Ryan was the hottest heartthrob in Hollywood. One scorching day we were sitting in a bar, trying to cool off, when a beautiful young woman arrived with her father. Suddenly, in front of our table, she fainted from the heat. Ever the gentleman, Ryan jumped off his chair and put his arm under the girl’s head to elevate it. She opened her eyes and looked into his. Then she fluttered her eyelids and promptly fainted dead away. I suspect she thought she had died and gone to heaven.

Another night Farrah and Ryan and I returned late, finding Liza and Mark waiting up for us. The newlyweds Liza and Mark were happy to hear about all of the parties but thrilled not to have to go. After about four o’clock in the morning, we realized that we were ravenous. Liza went straight to the kitchen and whipped up the best spaghetti Alfredo you’ve ever tasted. The stereo was playing, and all of a sudden she began to sing. And then she began to dance, using certain objects in our living room for props, like a lamp shade or dancing on the sofa. This went on for about 45 minutes. Watching this brilliantly talented, energetic, classy star perform just for us reminded me of a similar scene from A Star Is Born, when Judy Garland gives James Mason his own private song-and-dance show. It just boggled my mind. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to experience those very special moments. Liza is still today the epitome of entertainment.

Your annual theme parties—the Gypsy Party, the Safari Party, Think Pink, Havana—were famous the world over. Why theme parties?

On the Riviera, I started giving theme parties every year on my birthday. They were never costume parties, because I think giving a costume party makes people anxious. It was never a thing where someone would say, “Oh, my gosh, where am I going to go and get a costume for this event?” However, having a theme makes everyone become more of a participant of the party itself. One year the theme was Hollywood, and I gave out instant cameras to all the guests. With the flashbulbs popping, everybody looking drop-dead glamorous, the atmosphere was “red carpet” personified, except here were celebrities taking photos of each other.

Another year the theme was Red, Red, Red. Everyone—the men, the women—wore red. It was such a dramatic look. Even Prince Rainier wore red suspenders and red socks. The then—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was on the coast, and I had invited him. When he actually appeared, I was so flattered and honored, but then I told him that he had to wear red. “Otherwise,” I said, laughing, “I can’t let you in.” He said, “What? Me? Wear red?” Of course, red represented something much more than a color to him, being that his opposition was a socialist party. So he laughed and I said, “Well, this will do,” as I planted a red carnation in his lapel. He had a blast.

One of the people you were close to was Andy Warhol, who also had a unique style.

One night we went to Mr. Chow in New York, the hot place for Sunday night. He had his Polaroid camera, which I swear to you was a foot long. Andy was one of the first who had a Polaroid camera. It didn’t have one of those knobs that could focus, so he would move bodily forward and back and then a little bit more forward to focus the camera.

He was taking pictures of all of us at the table, but there was one TV star who was sitting at another table and he was dying to take her picture. It was Vivian Vance, from I Love Lucy. He so wanted a photograph of her but was too shy to go and ask her. So I said, “Andy, all I have to do is get up from the table and go and ask her. She would be so flattered to know that you want to take her picture.” This went on throughout the entire dinner. He would say, “Okay, go,” and the minute I’d get up, he’d say, “No, no, no,” and I’d sit back down. At the end of dinner, we walked past her table and she said, “Oh, hello.” Andy said to her, “Oh, Miss Vance, do you mind if I take your picture with my Polaroid camera?” Then I said, “Miss Vance, he has been looking at you longingly all night, hoping that you would allow him to have a picture taken.” She said, “I’d be delighted.”

So he takes the picture, puts it in the pocket of his leather jacket, and we go out into the snow and get into my car. We were not ten minutes away when I hear Andy say so quietly, “I think I dropped the picture.” I said, “What?” And he said, “Lynn, I am so embarrassed. Do you mind if we go back?” I mean, how considerate was that? I would have screamed, “Stop the car! I’ve lost the picture!”

We go back, and there is the picture lying on a snow-covered curb untouched. He was so happy to find it. That story epitomizes the real Andy Warhol, because he talked all night long about wanting to get her picture, finally gets the picture, finally realizes later on that he has lost the picture, and is so polite and horrified to ask me if I would mind if we turned back to get the picture. That is a beautiful person.

Weren’t you involved with the premiere of Urban Cowboy?

Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, was filmed in Pasadena, Texas, and I was asked to host the movie premiere in Houston. I said yes, for the proceeds to go to the mental health charity with which I was involved. So we rented a wide-screen movie theater, and then I had everybody come dressed Western chic. I had a black-tie dinner party the night before in our house on River Oaks Boulevard. Andy was there, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, and George Hamilton. John Travolta was adorable. Jerry Hall had this great gold cowboy outfit on. I asked, “Where did you get that?” And she said, “It’s George Hamilton’s.”

The next day, we had the film premiere and gave everybody drinks and popcorn. We then piled into big buses filled with champagne and hors d’oeuvres and rode down to Gilley’s [the bar where the movie was filmed]. That’s when the fun started. I mean, people getting on and being thrown off the mechanical bull, margaritas, a Tex-Mex dinner. Finally people ended up dancing on the tables like that was the dance floor. It was incredible.

Okay, so what did you wear?

I had some purple-and-silver-suede cowgirl dress made, with these great-looking purple-and-silver boots and this big, fabulous purple hat along with turquoise Indian jewelry.

You chaired the first gala for the Princess Grace Foundation-USA in 1984 in Washington, D.C. That was a three-day event with a cast of VIPs. How do you create something special for people who are used to the best of everything every day?

Julio Iglesias, who then had never performed in the United States but was world famous, was going to be the entertainer at the gala on Saturday night. And I had invited Plácido Domingo to the gala and seated him next to Mrs. Reagan. In the limousine on the way to the party, an idea occurred to me. I said to Plácido and his lovely wife, Marta, “Do you know what would really make the evening incredibly special?” And he said, “Yes, what is that?”

“If you would do a duet with Julio.”

He said, “Oh, no, no, no. I never do anything like that when I can’t rehearse, when I don’t know the orchestra.”

I said, “The orchestra doesn’t have to play. It could just be you and Julio singing a cappella some simple song.”

He said, “Oh, I don’t know.”

And I told him, “Oh, people would just go crazy. Let me just introduce you to him.”

Then I took Julio aside. I said, “Julio, you know what would really make the evening fantastic? If you and Plácido would sing together.”

He said, “No, no, no, no, no. We haven’t rehearsed.” I knew they were right—they were both professionals. So I left it at that.

That night, Julio announced, “There is someone in the audience who I really admire and that is Plácido Domingo. Would you please stand up and take a bow?” Plácido stood up at Mrs. Reagan’s table, and everybody went wild with applause. And then Julio said, “Maybe if we applaud enough we can get him to come up to do a duet.”

They sang I don’t remember what, but everyone was fainting. Plácido and Julio were so pleased with the standing ovation that went on and on.

So you catch more flies with honey than vinegar?

I think the reason that I’ve stayed friends with anyone who is still my friend, as well as the famous people I know, is because I never take their friendship for granted. I appreciate them, and I never put them in any kind of embarrassing situation. I’ve been privileged to have met many people in my life, many who have remained loyal and wonderful friends for years. One should never take friendships for granted. Loyalty deserves to be earned. I don’t believe in asking someone to perform for nothing. When they perform, it’s their work. It’s like Oscar going to his office.

How did you bond with Elton John, who accepted your invitation to perform for the Houston Grand Opera’s fiftieth-anniversary gala?

I met Elton John about twelve years ago when he was performing in the U.S. His then manager invited me to a show and asked me to come backstage. All these fantastic, amazing clothes were hung up in perfect order in his dressing room, with shoes that went with the proper suit right underneath. It was so organized and so beautiful that I said, “I want to see your closet.” He smiled and said, “Well, I want to see yours.” Now, years later, this man has been the most incredible, thoughtful, concerned, fun, generous, loyal friend ever.

You’ve said that the Clintons are very charismatic too.

Absolutely. In the fall of 1994, Oscar and I were invited to a state dinner by the Clintons. Normally in September I’m still in the South of France, but of course I came home for that. We were in the receiving line for Hillary; the president was in another room. As we were introduced, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Thank you so much for coming, Lynn. I know you had to leave the South of France.” I thought, “Whoa, does this woman have the smarts!” She had obviously done her homework about every guest at the dinner. I said, “Are you kidding, ma’am? Was there ever any doubt that I would be here?” I had always admired Hillary, and now more than ever. I believe she will make an incredible Secretary of State. She’s diplomatic, strong, highly personable—in a word, a natural leader.

Obama has it too, no?

He’s elegant and dignified and definitely charismatic, like President Clinton. He is very respectful. Then he flashes that megawatt smile and you just aaaaaaahhhh. I met him at a friend’s Park Avenue apartment. He had just become the Democratic nominee that day. When he came in, everybody applauded. Then he said, “I’m going to come around and shake everybody’s hand.” So I was standing in line, and he got to me and he said, “Thank you so much for coming,” and I said, “Oh, I’m delighted to be here, sir.” He said, “I detect a Southern accent. Where are you from?” And I said, “I’m from Houston,” and he said, “I like Houston.” I said, “Well, Houston certainly likes you.” I thought, “Oh, he’s so personable, as well as so intelligent!”

It seems to me that now we are in a different time, when the show of extravagance has no place.

That was then and this is now. In this different economic climate, we are rearranging our priorities in an optimistic yet sober time of rebirth. We need to return to discretion, intimacy, and true values. In my opinion, ostentation has never been stylish. It has nothing to do with the amount of money anyone has; it has to do with values.

So style should never be confused with character?

At the end of the day, your character is the real you, in the dark, alone. It’s not something you develop in a crisis; it’s what you exhibit in a crisis. It’s what gets you through life at that difficult moment. Character is with you all the time, but you have to grasp it. You have to know that you can do what you thought you couldn’t do, no matter what you are wearing.

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