H-Town Diary

There and Back Again

Sometimes you have to leave a place to love a place.

By Robert Leleux March 15, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

During my childhood spent on a ranch outside of Houston, my driving desire was to escape to New York City, the first place I ever loved.

My passion for Manhattan, like all first loves, was absurd and absolute. When I was seven or eight, my mother and I checked in to the Plaza Hotel for a week of shopping and theater—in memory, we seem to have spent the whole of the oil boom striding through gilt and marble lobbies, a flurry of fur and French luggage. (I’d imagine that, in those flush, petroleum-rich years, Texans must have racked up more frequent flyer miles than at any other time in our history. I remember a lady who used to book one seat on the Concorde when flying to Paris, but two when traveling home—one for herself, and the other for her new dresses.)

Back in Texas, we spent every available minute in Houston, mostly at Neiman’s, a place my mother held in the kind of holy reverence that Catholics reserve for the Vatican, but Manhattan was another thing entirely. From my first Fifth Avenue afternoon, my fate was sealed; soon after turning eighteen, I packed my bags and booked a flight for New York City.

At the time, I had many good reasons for running away. Knowing what I know today, I’m certain I wasn’t the only gay kid in my high school, but I was the only obviously gay kid. This was well before school districts were successfully sued for tolerating bullying, and for a year or so, I was spat upon every day by a series of slack-jawed hoodlums who are now serving hard time in Huntsville prison. I hope. Anyway, I don’t know how many of you have ever been spat upon, but trust me, it’s overrated. And every time somebody hurled spit or unprintable epithets in my direction, I planned my exit strategy, and pictured how happy I’d soon be, yukking it up at Barneys, and how miserable they’d soon be, pumping gas in Dogpatch.  

But after moving to Manhattan, the most extraordinary thing occurred. I suddenly realized that there was something I’d loved about Houston all along but had always been blind to. Perhaps it was the fact that Houston was the place my mother took me to escape the unpleasantness of my childhood. As a little gay boy stuck out on the ranch, I’d dreamt of becoming a writer and leading a glistening life of cocktail parties abuzz with witty women in glamorous gowns. At the time, I believed this to be a fantasy of New York—but in truth, it was a fantasy of oil-rich Houston. In my Plaza-fueled reveries, I managed to convince myself that once I got to Manhattan, every night would be the Grand Gala Ball. 

The truth about the Big Apple was disillusioning. I soon grasped that although there are many lovely things about New York, if what you’re after is drinking champagne from a satin slipper, if what you desire is the company of larger-than-life characters draped in even larger jewels, then you really can’t do better than Houston, Texas. (I recall, years ago, a socialite who delighted in stroking the “Batista rubies” that hung about her neck. I still have no idea what Fulgencio Batista, the notorious Cuban dictator, had to do with that lady’s sparkling neckwear, but how the thought of it captured my imagination!)

What, you may ask, inspired this revelation? My first long-term exposure to proper Yankees. I’d come to New York City to attend Sarah Lawrence College, where many of my classmates had graduated from the kind of posh prep schools that make most Texans’ Stetsons shrink. (I’ve always believed, by the way, that the secret of the Bush family’s staggering success in the Lone Star State is that your typical Texan harbors a paralyzing inferiority complex when it comes to pedigreed New England WASPs.) It’s a fine thing to spend time among that patrician, Lilly Pulitzer-ed breed of lily white Northeasterners, because it makes you realize that, as my grandmother would have said, “Their veins are filled with sugar water.” That’s a real ladylike way of saying that they’re just a bunch of limp, sallow, real superior-actin’ sons of bitches, who’ve managed to make a way of life out of being anesthetizingly dull. To be fair, though, how could any people who grew up without Marvin Zindler, Mattress Mack, Maxine Mesinger, or the Shamrock Hilton be expected to understand true joy? 

You know how, when Americans go to Europe, they become oh, so much more American? Well, living in New York taught me, to my amazement, that the greatest thing in the world to be is a Texan, and especially a Houstonian—Houston being the most Texan of all the state’s major cities. (In 1961, John Bainbridge wrote a bestselling book called The Super-Americans, in which he portrayed Texans as the embodiment of a heightened version of the nation’s virtues and faults, and I think there’s an argument to be made that Houstonians are the Super-Texans.) I’ve always believed that, way down deep, Austin really wants to be Berkeley, and Dallas wants to be Chicago, but Houston is just pleased as Punch to be Houston. I mean, our municipal sobriquet is the Bayou City, for heaven’s sake—a bayou being, after all, more or less a swamp. Houstonians possess such remarkable self-assurance, such an ornery kind of confidence, we’re proud to declare ourselves citizens of Swamp City, and if anybody doesn’t like it, then they can go straight to Dallas. 

I once saw a televised interview with Lynn Wyatt—to my mind, the blonde bombshell personification of what’s best about our fair city. When asked about her beauty, she smiled wryly and said, in her splendid Bacall purr, “Powder and paint make a girl what she ain’t.” I thought then, and I still think now, that there’s something about that statement—the blue-skied, Western, straight-talkin’ swagger of it—that made it the Houston-est thing I’ve ever heard. Yankees have an absolute mania for “subtlety.” In matters of fashion and hair and jewelry, they’ll less-is-more you until you’re dressed like a cat burglar, and your hair is plastered flat to your skull. But Houston is a fabulously more-is-more city, undaunted by the prospect of ruffles and flourishes, as evidenced by our towering coiffures—and also, perhaps more profoundly, by our rich vernacular. Grace Paley, one of my great teachers, always said that, in order to become a writer, you had to learn to listen to the world with two ears—one tuned to the classics, the exquisite English of Shakespeare, Byron, and W.H. Auden, and the other tuned to the language of the street on which you grew up. 

In my childhood home, filled with five generations of Houstonians, no one was merely ugly; he was “so ugly he had to slip up on the dipper to get a drink of water.” Mendacious fellows were “all hat and no cattle.” And no gathering was simply marvelous; it was “the most fun since the pigs ate little brother.” Reared in a milieu of such startling lyricism, how could I have helped becoming a writer? 

I first heard many of these colloquialisms from the scarlet-painted mouths of Houston women, who in my opinion are vastly superior to—stronger, savvier, and more capable of reconciling internal contradictions—their male counterparts. My partner Michael says, “The thing about the women in your family is, they’re ladies, yes, but they’re also bad-asses.” That’s certainly the case with my mother, but I think it’s true of Houston women in general. They don’t seem to find it difficult to stand by their guns (and even to fire them) while also maintaining perfect hair and makeup.  

Take my great friend, Susan DuQuesnay Bankston. A firebrand local journalist, founder of the blog Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, and the woman who first dubbed Tom DeLay “Hot Tub Tom” in the early ’80s, Susan dogged that man until he was eventually indicted in 2005 on conspiracy charges and forced to resign from political life. I once asked Susan whether she feared reprisal from the Republican establishment, and she said, “Oh, honey, I have come to consider tar and feathers fashion accessories.” 

And then there’s Candace Mossler, one of my all-time favorite Houstonians.  If Lynn Wyatt is the better angel of Houston’s nature, then Candy Mossler was its bubbly, blonde devil. In 1964, she and her hunky young boyfriend, who was also her nephew, were accused of murdering her multi-millionaire husband. Despite overwhelming evidence, Candy was acquitted of all charges, largely for reasons of personal charm, and in gratitude kissed each man on the jury as he filed out of the box. 

During the trial, she was confronted by a news reporter. “Mrs. Mossler,” he said, “you stand accused of adultery. You stand accused of incest. You stand accused of murdering your husband. Now, just what do you have to say for yourself?” Batting her eyes and smiling brightly, Candy Mossler replied, “Well, suh, nobody’s perfect.” 

Now, that’s Houston—a city where ladies may occasionally murder their husbands, but will not wear white after Labor Day. 

At the moment, “curated” is one of the most overused words in New York City. Suddenly, everybody, from the loftiest director of the Whitney to the lowliest clerk at Bergdorf’s, seems to be busily “curating” everything down to its barest elements, because god forbid anything might suffer from an excess of personality. And though, I, too, enjoy concision and refinement, there’s a part of me—the happiest, Houston part—that believes a touch of vulgarity to be a necessary component of joy. Today, I’m grateful to make my home in Manhattan and Houston—in a condo near the corner of Montrose and Alabama—the two cities that have made me an artist, and where, I have found, you can get anything you ever wanted. 

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