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Houston, TX
MARCH 2006
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Houston, TX @ National Geographic Magazine
By Mimi Swartz
Photographs by Michael O'Brien
In Houston's glitziest neighborhood, the competition to be top socialite is on.

There are those who assert that Lynn Wyatt's sale of her River Oaks mansion and her move to a smaller mansion nearby means nothing to the life and times of Houston. Wyatt is now a woman of a certain age, but she looks great: She's still a blonde, still appears at charity galas, and is still featured in the pages of Vogue and W. She's also the woman who for decades gave Houston its international social cachet, an extremely valuable donation to a city that, despite being the country's fourth largest, still smarts at the slightest suggestion of hickdom. During the height of the oil boom in the 1970s and early '80s, the Wyatt mansion was a party house for the likes of Princess Grace, Bill Blass, Mick Jagger—and a temple of envy for those who weren't invited. Hence any hint that she might be withdrawing from the spotlight fills Houstonians with an odd mixture of fascination and dread. "Lynn Wyatt is NOT stepping aside," insists Franci Crane, a well-placed observer of River Oaks manners and mores. "If anyone tried to take her on, they would be insane."

Yet this improbable madness is currently the talk of Houston's showiest neighborhood. Oil and natural gas businesses may be thriving again, and local construction companies may be profiting handsomely from the war in Iraq, but the real concern among a certain crowd—young, female, and rich—is who will succeed La Lynn if and when she decides to abdicate. "It's an aggressive she-wolf campaign," says a friend who knows her way around the River Oaks Country Club.

To understand the importance of this particular narrative, you have to understand the folkways of River Oaks. This pine-shaded, mansion-filled dreamscape of folly and ambition is both the geographic and mythical heart of Houston. Long an enclave of Houston's wealthiest residents, River Oaks, as opposed to, say, Philadelphia's Main Line or Manhattan's Upper East Side, tends to be more welcoming, less obsessed with pedigree, and more open to grand gestures and exhibition. The people who bought the Wyatts' mansion, for instance, immediately doubled its size, a move any male dog would understand. As Houston's ebullient former first lady, Elyse Lanier, told me: "I'm not moving out of 77019. It took me a long time to get here, and I'm not leaving." Once a friend told Lanier that by removing a fence in the yard behind her peach-colored mansion, she had made the house visible from the River Oaks golf course.

"Everyone can see you," he pointed out.
"Exactly," she said.

Here, more is always more. Yes, there are fine old families who keep their names out of the social columns and live (comparatively) modestly. Everyone pays lip service to admiring them. But they aren't really operating in the local tradition, like that of Silver Dollar Jim West, an eccentric millionaire who liked to toss coins from his chauffeur-driven limo, or Joanne Herring Davis, the widow of a natural gas king, who in the 1960s convinced a local Boy Scout troop to dress as Nubian slaves for one of her parties. The disastrous oil bust of the late '80s chastened the place considerably, but today River Oaks is back with a vengeance. The estates once occupied by oil tycoons and their couture queens have been taken over by a new generation of energy executives and investment bankers (the "new new money") who are reinterpreting the old crowd's flair.

Wyatt's staying power as reigning socialite is due largely to her ability to create an image that evokes both old and new money. She didn't come from enormous wealth—few in River Oaks did—but she got a boost from the self-made oil and gas fortune of her husband, Oscar (recently indicted in the UN oil-for-food scandal). Unlike many women who came of age during Texas' early struggle for social legitimacy, she knew how to look rich and restrained at the same time. Amid the voluminous silks and gargantuan jewels, there she would be, in a spare, gray Geoffrey Beene gown, wearing only one pin that just happened to be studded with many, many, many tastefully tiny diamonds. Her whiskey-and-cigarettes voice belied her behavior, which, in public at least, was beyond reproach.

The rules Wyatt created were as simple as they were largely unachievable: 1) marry unlimited wealth, 2) exhibit impeccable taste, 3) keep your accent but never sound dumb, and finally, 4) be nice, even if you don't feel like it. She knew that display wasn't a bad thing, you just had to be careful about what you showed off.

Wyatt's life was novel for its time, but her successors—the Ladies Who Would Be Lynn—must adapt to a different era. Some have chosen to play the game a bit more sedately. Courtney Sarofim, the daughter of Elyse Lanier, wasn't above party-girl behavior in her youth, but now she's the respectable mother of a three-year-old, drives an SUV, dines with her extended family on Sunday nights, and supports local charities. "The model used to be you went to Europe," Elyse Lanier says. "Now these young women are active in family foundations."

Becca Cason Thrash, a more traditional exhibitionista, has built on Wyatt's passion for fashion and spectacle. Once a publicist for Tootsies, a pricey River Oaks boutique, she married an heir to a natural gas storage business and now has a glass-ceilinged kitchen with a party room above, attends couture shows in France, and has made friends with Fergie and the Shrivers. Becca's fetes are organized with far more precision than the Iraqi invasion: The chic are fussed over, the overweight are not permitted, and at least one person usually falls into her gigantic indoor pool, accidentally on purpose.

The presence of George and Barbara Bush in Houston has politicized the competition. The Bushes are too studiously sedate to live in River Oaks (they chose a more nondescript neighborhood), but their friends aren't. Nancy Kinder, whose husband, Richard, escaped Enron long before its fall, was one of George W.'s chief Texas fund-raisers during his re-election campaign and now has a regular table at La Griglia, the River Oaks lunch spot of choice. Maria Bush, the new wife of the President's younger brother Neil, is suddenly a regular in River Oaks circles, as is her coterie of once obscure girlfriends.

And unlike in Wyatt's heyday, Houston now has its working rich like everyplace else. The wife of one scion is running a prestigious art gallery, another oversees a nonprofit organization covering the Houston arts scene. And Susan Criner, a talent booker for society parties and corporate bashes, has managed to become one of River Oaks' most well-liked hostesses—despite the absence of the obligatory billion, a signal change if ever there was one.

And so, Lynn Wyatt's River Oaks is a more worldly place, well-stocked with smart women who know from Birkin bags and Blahniks. Still, I'm grateful for the last vestiges of excessive excess.

Perfect taste, after all, isn't everything

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