Queen For a Day
One of the tricky things about living with an obsession is trying to remember that other people don’t necessarily share it, and might even find it peculiar. For instance, like any Houstonian with a lick of sense, I happen to be obsessed with the late Dominique and John de Menil. But this condition, hopeless though it may be, does not require explanation, since—with a few wonderful exceptions—every ravishing thing about Houston can be traced back to the de Menils. They gifted the Bayou City with an embarrassment of masterpieces, a world-class museum and the Rothko Chapel, one of the landmark achievements of modern art. They brought a bevy of brilliant artists to town—Roberto Rossellini, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cy Twombly—and they forever bettered the cityscape by popularizing the sleek International Style of architecture, of which their house is a splendid example.
This house, a lithe Philip Johnson creation, now belongs to the Menil Collection, but isn’t open to the public—unless the beaming light of Vance Muse shines upon you. Mr. Muse, a man as marvelous as his name, is the communications director of the Menil, and a few weeks ago, on a glorious summer day in early December, he took pity on my obsession-rattled self and opened wide the doors of the de Menils’ old River Oaks residence for a private tour.
Accompanying me that idyllic afternoon was Vernon Caldera, who happens to be one of the ravishing things about Houston for which the de Menils can’t be credited. Vernon is a great artist and writer, with a keen visual sense, who can always be counted on to point out gorgeous objects I’m too dim to notice. But as it turned out, I didn’t need his help noticing gorgeous objects that afternoon.
When Vernon and I met Vance in front of the Menil Collection, he idly mentioned that he’d invited some friend of his to join our tour. “But she’ll meet us at the house,” he said. And indeed, by the time we pulled into the de Menils’ pink gravel drive, a black Jaguar was already purring by the front door. Vance parked his car and Vernon adjusted his sunglasses and I rifled through my bag for a pen when, all of a sudden, a shock of agony overtook my right forearm. I looked down, expecting to see fang marks, only to find Vernon pinching me. Or rather, not pinching me, but attempting to wrench my flesh from the bone like a bit of broiled chicken.
“What’s the big idea?” I said, stifling a scream and trying to massage my skin back into place.
“Loo-oook,” he whispered. “Beee-hind you!”
Fearing a trick, I cradled my arm out of Vernon’s ruffian reach, and as I did, Vance Muse said, “Robert and Vernon, meet Lynn Wyatt.”
A lark in far-off heaven sang. My mangled arm was rendered painless. Standing before us, Vernon and I, was Lynn Wyatt. The Lynn Wyatt. The unrivaled empress of Lone Star high society, the woman who made Houston chic to generations of jet-setters, the Oil Boom beauty who’s beguiled the Bayou City ever since she was little Lynn Sakowitz, of department store fame. A ray of golden sunlight emerged from behind a passing cloud, to form a halo from her shimmering blonde locks. No two gay boys have ever been happier.
I know there’s really no way for this not to sound pretentious, but do you remember those passages in Proust when little Marcel runs into the ethereal Duchesse de Guermantes in an orange bower or something, and suddenly gets way, way gayer? It’s as though, in her fabulous presence, his homosexuality just cannot contain itself. Well, on that hot winter day in the de Menils’ sun-dappled drive, Lynn Wyatt was the Duchesse, and Vernon and I were Marcel. Which is to say, we joined hands, and made the leap into hyper-gay.
Our voices rose at least a half octave, making me practically inaudible. Every time I opened my mouth, I’m sure, Pekingeses across River Oaks winced and went scuttling under divans.
“Oh, Ms. Wyatt,” Vernon and I yipped in unison, “it is such a pleasure to meet you.”
Then Lynn Wyatt said something. Something so enchanting, so soigné, so eminently swan-like that I immediately understood why she’s known the world over, from Midland to Monaco, as the great socialite and hostess of her age. She said, “Call me Lynn.”
And brother, she didn’t have to tell us twice. For the rest of that tour, it was Lynn this and Lynn that, and “Oh, Lynn, you are too, too divine!” and “Tell us, Lynn, how you stay so slim and gorgeous?” And then, whenever Lynn said something funny (and trust me, Lynn is so droll), Vernon and I would laugh like rich people in cartoons, with our heads tossed back, like this: “HaHaHaHaHa!” And then we’d sigh, rather ecstatically, and say, “Oh, Lynn.”
All in all, it was really one of the high points of my life. Except for one awful flash of worry when it all seemed too good to be true, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was probably dying of some terrible disease, and Vernon had secretly arranged for one of those Queen for a Day charities to have Lynn Wyatt come break the bad news to me gently.
But happily, Lynn Wyatt had not come to the de Menils’ house to tell me I was dying. She’d simply alighted, like a goddess from a silver cloud, because she’s such great pals with Vance Muse, and she felt like making two adoring gay boys’ day.
“Her being here,” I whispered to Vernon, “it’s like icing on the cake.”
“No,” he answered wisely, “it’s like having one cake and then getting a whole other cake, too.”
And truly, the de Menils’ house—which had, once upon a time, been our great thrill of the day—was its own cake. All of Dominique and John de Menils’ projects seemed to become strange and extraordinary adventures, and the construction of their house was no exception. In 1949, as Parisian émigrés newly settled in Texas and looked to build a home, they made the bold selection of Philip Johnson for their architect. On four bucolic acres in River Oaks, Johnson built them a modest, low-slung residence as simple and chic as a Savile Row suit. It’s a place that manages to give the impression of grandeur without being overlarge. Everywhere, thrumming in its electric air, is a sense of how terrific it must have been to be part of the life of this house—a notion, of course, that Lynn Wyatt was able to verify from personal experience. “You really got to talk to people here,” she told us. “When Dominique asked you to dinner, it meant you were in for the most fantastic conversations.”
Like many great architects, Johnson wasn’t just content with building your house, he wanted to decorate it, too. But unless you were some kind of nut for Barcelona chairs, this was not a good idea. Instead, the de Menils hit upon the inspired notion of hiring Charles James, a fashion designer known as “America’s first couturier,” as their decorator. James was a master dressmaker, to whom Chanel and Schiaparelli (and Lynn, too, by the way) turned when shopping for themselves. He set about adorning Philip Johnson’s minimalist structure with voluptuous draperies and furnishings, upholstered in rich velvets and moirés. Each of James’ chairs and settees has the soul of a ball gown: feminine, undulating and lush. But his real contribution to the house lies in his use of color. Flashes of rose and chartreuse appear in cheerful bursts throughout the house, as well as a lovely, fluttering blue in Dominique’s dressing room that neither Vernon nor Lynn could quite capture in language. “What color would you say
that is, Vernon?” Lynn asked. “Not baby blue, really. Or sky.”
“Not Tiffany blue, either,” he said. “Not satin.”
“Just think,” Lynn said, staring around the walls, “Charles James must have spent hours inventing this color; inventing the perfect blue for these walls. For this light. God, he was an artist.”
One cannot capture lightning in a bottle. And so, before too long—in what seemed like an instant, really—Lynn had to dash off to some committee meeting she was hosting. But before she left, she made a great point of talking to Vernon about Keep Houston Rich, the video blog he created to curate Houston’s cultural wealth, and to me about my writing. Vance walked Lynn to her car, and Vernon and I hung back in the de Menils’ doorway, waving goodbye, and watching her Jaguar stir up a glamorous cloud behind her. The very gravel kicked up by her tires seemed to sparkle and hang in the air like fairy dust. And as Lynn made the turn onto San Felipe, out of the de Menils’ jungle-y drive, I swear, our voices—Vernon’s and mine—fell back into their regular, all-too-earthly range.