Each June, the gay pride parade surges down Westheimer Road, packing more than 200,000 celebrants into Montrose, the Houston neighborhood that nurtured and sustained the gay community when it was young and embattled and just emerging from the shadows. One recent year, amid the feathers and the leather and the outrageous floats, a spectator might have caught a glimpse of a neatly dressed, very proper white-haired lady in her mid-eighties riding at the head of the parade in a Ford Fusion.
Like many moments in Montrose, this one was spontaneous. The older lady’s husband, a World War II bomber pilot, had missed the detour to downtown, and once in the parade, there was no way out till the end. True to her well-mannered Southern soul, my sweet mother smiled and waved back politely to the cheering crowds.
When Texas Monthly began, there was no gay pride parade. There was, however, a Montrose, and before it became a refuge for gays, before it became a magnet for artists, writers, musicians, bikers, pagans, seekers, chefs, Greeks, Cubans, misfits, and lost and found souls, before it became the birthplace of Texas’s counterculture, all of which it was by 1973, Montrose was where my mother was born. I was born there too. So when my mother took her unintentional star turn in the gay pride parade, right down the very street where she’d grown up, it was really just one Montrose meeting another. It was weird, yes, but weird is what for the past forty years Montrose has been so gloriously about.
My grandfather built our house in the new development of Montrose before World War I. It was in the 500 block of Hathaway, a quiet street just east of Montrose Boulevard. He planted a magnolia and a fig tree in the backyard. When my mother was a child, Houston was a small city of 140,000 people and Southern to its core. The knife sharpener came to the door; so did the milkman and the iceman and the seamstress. The Tower Theater was down the road, and my mother would walk there on Saturdays, pay a nickel to watch cartoons, and on the way home pick buttercups in the vacant fields for her mother.
Lyndon Johnson taught school nearby, Howard Hughes lived around the corner, and Clark Gable studied acting down the street. Judy Garland could have burst out of the door singing “Meet Me in St. Louis” and she would have fit right in. By the time we started Texas Monthly, however, Montrose belonged to Judy Garland’s fans. Montrose then could be roughly—and debatably—defined as the four square miles bound by Shepherd to the west, West Gray to the north, Bagby to the east, and the Southwest Freeway to the south.
Hathaway had become an extension of Westheimer Road, and our old house was in the heart of the Westheimer Strip, ground zero of Montrose. A few of the other old houses along the Strip were still occupied, mainly by elderly white people who hadn’t followed Houston’s inexorable move out to the suburbs. Prufrock’s bar, one of the seminal counterculture hangouts of Montrose, was on the next block, and Michelangelo’s, one of the first casual European-style restaurants that changed how Houston ate out, was a block past that. A tattoo parlor was across the street.
That was the beauty of Montrose in 1973. It was a laboratory of primitive capitalism, unimpeded by details like zoning or pretty much any other restriction. You had an idea, you scraped together a few dollars, you rented a cheap old house, and your dream of a record store, a coffee shop, a bar, a roller rink, an antiques shop, there it was, right next to someone’s home or a nursery school or a Greek Orthodox church. Each block was Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never knew what you were going to get.
In 1965, when Greg Curtis and I were seniors at Rice University, we moved into an old house on Westheimer, a few doors down from where the Brasil cafe and gallery is today, though nothing so upscale was near us then. There was a Trash and Treasure junk store across the street, a strip joint a few blocks away, and for us, a wonderful sense of freedom. While we were living there, Greg and I helped start a Rice literary magazine called The Thresher Review, which was a huge success among three or four people besides our mothers. Still, we liked working together, so when I was assembling the staff for Texas Monthly, I called Greg first.
I had been living near Montrose when Mike Levy came to see me in early 1972. Mike had an idea for a new magazine about Texas. He would be its publisher, and he was looking for an editor. We met, as I recall, over a chicken-fried steak at Phil’s. Mike reached into a small suitcase and started pulling out issues of Philadelphia and New York magazines at warp speed, all the time pitching his idea. “We can do this here! Texas is ready for this!”
My main qualification to be the editor, it seemed to me, was that I didn’t know enough about journalism to know what a crazy idea it was. Mike was passionate and persuasive, but it took me a few months to wrap up my job at the Houston Independent School District and come on board. At the district, I’d been in charge of public affairs, and the reporter who’d given me the hardest time was an A&M graduate named Al Reinert. I recruited him too.
Al wrote about Apollo astronauts in our second issue and about Montrose in our third. Our original guiding principle at Texas Monthly was that even though most Texans now lived in cities, they still shared a vision of a frontier Texas that united them no matter where they lived. Even if you worked at a downtown law firm, you wore cowboy boots and dreamed of