TELL ME THIS

TELL ME THIS

Neal Spelce is a legendary media professional and a witness to presidential history. Due to spending part of his career with President Lyndon Baines Johnson, his life course changed as he shares in his new book, With The Bark Off, A Journalist’s Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media. This exclusive excerpt is chock full of his recollections of the Johnson family, as well as Spelce’s point of view on today’s media landscape. 

Photography courtesy of Neal Spelce

THE 1960 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN 

When LBJ ran against John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960, there was an obvious contrast in age and style. JFK was youth personified—that was his image—and LBJ countered with his seasoned experience. His campaign slogan was “A Leader to Lead the Nation,” and he used that famous profile photo (the correct side) with a little gray in the temples. He worked that to his advantage, insisting that every now and then you needed someone with a touch of gray in their hair, a sign of maturity. His approach was “Kennedy is a young senator, but I’m the Senate majority leader.” 

KTBC covered the 1960 primary from the Texas perspective, especially when LBJ was having a function in Austin. There was an aura about The Man. Trailing after him with cameras, we knew we were a part of history being made. 

Our station was a very interested observer of the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, when LBJ was selected as vice president. I wasn’t there; I watched it on television. We knew the players on the Texas side. His trusted aide and the future governor of Texas, John Connally, was a key supporter and a leader in LBJ’s effort for the nomination. 

LBJ and JFK hadn’t been enemies, but they were combatable. (Bobby Kennedy despised LBJ until the day Bobby died.) To butcher an Ann Richards analogy, JFK was born on third base, and LBJ was born in the dugout. There was an enormous difference in their personalities, upbringing, culture, and geography. And yet they knew they had to come together to map a strategy for the Democratic campaign against Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. 

After he was selected as the VP running mate at the July convention, LBJ took the Texas Capitol press corps to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and I was fortunate to be invited. The White House press corps was also there covering the discussions. The two running mates considered the occasion an opportunity to get to know each other better in a casual setting and in a different light. 

When I arrived, the Kennedys were throwing a football on a grassy lawn leading down to the waters of Nantucket Sound. It struck me as a summer home where everybody was on permanent vacation. The presidential candidate and the vice presidential candidate were wandering around the lawn, and the press was observing their every move. 

The public scrutiny didn’t seem to bother the Kennedys. They didn’t appear to be posturing; they were being themselves, wearing sneakers, khakis, and open-neck shirts. Their press conferences were informal, un- like those in previous administrations and today, where everything is well scripted. When JFK approached the press corps to make a statement, he didn’t wear a tie or a jacket, per tradition, usually just a golf shirt. He was open and direct about their plans: “Lyndon is going to work the South, and here are a few other things we’ve decided on.” 

On one occasion, Jackie Kennedy very graciously came outside to say hello to the press. What a beautiful lady! She was pregnant with John Jr. at the time, and she was positively glowing. Like everyone else in the country, I was impressed with her. She wasn’t trying to make headlines; she was simply an elegant and charming hostess greeting her guests. She understood the importance of good relations with the media. 

There was a special moment for me when I was standing with both JFK and LBJ on the porch at the compound, and LBJ asked, “Neal, you want to get a picture with us?” 

“Well, sure.” 

Vern Sanford, who was the Texas Press Association’s executive director, was there with his camera. “Vern, come over here and take a picture,” LBJ said. 

Sixty years later, it’s hard to believe, but I actually appeared in a photograph with LBJ and JFK. It’s an absolute treasure—the young Neal Spelce standing between two monumental figures in twentieth-century American history who would eventually serve as presidents of the United States. And there I am, shaking Jack Kennedy’s hand and looking into the eyes of Lyndon Johnson. 

Back at KTBC, everyone saw the photo and a joke went around the station: “Neal, you certainly know who your boss is, don’t you?”

LBJ ASCENDING, 1961–1963 

Once LBJ became vice president, his Secret Service detail was in and out of the KTBC building in Austin all the time. We had some fun with them. I owned one of those retractable pointers that professors use, and I would get on the elevator with the agent assigned to elevator duty and pull out the retractable pointer like a walkie-talkie and speak into it—“Secret Service on the elevator, stand by”—and collapse the pointer and put it away. Their heads would jerk around. When I went into the lobby: “In lobby now. Secret Service clearly visible.” I would do that every time there was a new agent, and I was lucky they didn’t throw me to the floor. 

I had been to the LBJ Ranch for small events before he became vice president, but it was when he served as VP that the ranch became a folksy, comfortable gathering place for world leaders and a familiar geographical reference in the public mind, like Hyannis Port and Warm Springs, Georgia. And of course, when he was president, the ranch became known as the Little White House. 

LBJ loved hamburgers made at the Night Hawk, a beloved institution among Austin’s most popular restaurants. The original place was located at the south end of the Congress Avenue Bridge and had been in business since 1932. Harry Akin was the owner and later elected as mayor of Austin, and he was an early supporter of LBJ. Every time the Johnsons hired a new cook, LBJ would phone Harry Akin and tell him, “Harry, I have someone I want to send down there. I want you to teach him how to make those burgers like you make them.” 

LBJ’s favorite was the Frisco Burger, with its Thousand Island–like special sauce on a buttered and toasted bun. After the cook was trained, LBJ would sit in his suite above the KTBC studio and eat Frisco Burgers the way they made them at the Night Hawk. 

Harry confided to me that LBJ was the one who told him to integrate the Night Hawk. He said, “You’ve got to lead on this, Harry. We’ve got to serve Negroes.” 

Harry had already been hiring minorities to work in his kitchen and as wait staff for many years, but serving African American diners was a bolder step during those volatile times. When he decided to integrate his restaurants, there was no muss, no fuss. He just did it. I don’t remember anyone making a peep. 

During that same period, in the spring of 1960, African American students from UT and the historically black Huston-Tillotson College had begun to conduct sit-ins at the lunch counters downtown on Congress Avenue at Woolworth’s, the Kress five-and-dime store, and other variety stores and department stores. In Austin, there were demonstrations on both sides of the integration issue, but by May of that year, thirty-two lunch counters and restaurants in Austin had voluntarily desegregated. It was a relatively quick and peaceful transition. 

LBJ really did surprise people. As a southerner, he was able to push for social progress and accomplish many things that were not expected of him. Observers assumed that a northeastern liberal like JFK would lead the charge on progressive social issues, but it took a liberal southern Democrat to get things done. He achieved significant success because he’d come up through the Senate and knew how to twist arms. Literally! I’d seen him do it. He would lean over you with that large physical frame and tell you exactly what you needed to do or say. 

With Lyndon Johnson serving as vice president and later as president, Austin was becoming more visible in the national consciousness. When- ever world leaders arrived, they’d have to land at Bergstrom Air Force Base (now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport) outside Austin and then be driven or choppered out to the ranch in Stonewall, Texas, which is sixty miles away. The ranch had a small runway that could handle two- engine planes, but not the larger ones. Whenever LBJ or someone else was due to land, the Secret Service would rush out to the landing strip and chase the deer away so there would be no mishap while the plane was touching down. 

In time, Austin became an extension of the ranch itself, not only be- cause of the proximity, but also because the White House press corps would stay in Austin when there was a newsworthy event at the ranch. They usually stayed in the Driskill Hotel downtown, and besides their coverage of LBJ, they soon they began writing sidebars about the charming college town. 

Previous presidents didn’t have a colorful ranch. LBJ owned cattle and horses and an expanse of land along the Pedernales River. (The proper Texas pronunciation of that river is PURR-de-NAH-liss.) He provided deer hunting and exotic game. By Texas standards it was little more than a gentleman’s ranch, but he had a ranch foreman to make it official—and the barbecue was fantastic. 

LBJ had great fun with his visitors. He enjoyed entertaining them. I could see him get a twinkle in his eye whenever he was about to pull a prank on the tinhorns. He loved to drive around his ranch and check on his cattle, and on a few occasions I went along for the ride. He owned a small German-made Amphicar convertible, lagoon blue in color, that could float and maneuver on water. But he didn’t tell his guests it was an amphibious vehicle. They’d get in the car and he’d say, “Let’s go look at the ranch. I’ll show you my cattle. I’ve got this bull out here you gotta see.” 

The Pedernales River flows through the ranch property and runs over a little dam, and although passengers can’t see this from a car, the water is streaming over the top of a road. LBJ would drive along, talking about his property and pointing out its woodsy features to the visitors, and then he’d suddenly head straight into the moving water. They didn’t know he was driving on a little strip of road. At other times, he’d shout that the brakes had failed and he’d steer the car splashing into a small lake. While the terrified passengers were catching their breath, he would laugh and guide the amphibious car toward dry land. 

BOTH SIDES JOURNALISM 

When Barry Goldwater was running against LBJ in 1964, the Republican presidential nominee booked a campaign stop in Austin, in the heart of LBJ country. Goldwater was a pilot, and he flew his own plane, a fairly large DC-3. We reporters headed out to the old Mueller airport in East Austin, and when Goldwater rolled to a stop on the landing strip, we were out there with our cameras. His sup- porters were there, too. He pushed open the pilot window and stuck his head out and waved to the crowd. “I’m glad to be here,” he said. “When I took off from Phoenix, they asked me if I’d ever been to Austin and if I knew where it was. I said, ‘No, I’ve never been to Austin, but I’m gonna fly east and when I get to a fairly good-sized city with only one TV tower, I’m going to land.’” 

Folks were amazed that I put that on the air because it was “critical of LBJ’s family ownership of the KTBC-TV station.” But I said, “It was a great quote.” 

In all the years I was working at KTBC as a reporter and then as news director—making decisions about what stories to air and what not to air—never once did LBJ or the Johnson family give orders to cover this and not that. There were newsworthy events at the LBJ Ranch, and we’d go out there with reporters from all over the nation to cover a prime minister or some other visiting dignitary. That was news. But we were never told “you must come.” 

In one case, Walter Jenkins, one of LBJ’s trusted aides, was arrested for a sexual liaison in a men’s room in Washington, DC, and it was a serious scandal. Mrs. Johnson was very supportive of Jenkins, but in spite of her objection, President Johnson accepted the aide’s resignation. 

I ran with the Jenkins story on the air, and the next day I received a call from Time magazine. “Spelce, we’re just checking around the coun- try to find out how this Walter Jenkins story was covered. How did you cover it in Austin?” 

“We led with it at ten o’clock last night.” The caller said, “You did?” 

“It was the top news story of the day,” I said, “so we led with it.” 

They were trying to find out if KTBC had buried the story because it was negative toward LBJ and his family. Our coverage was indicative of how we handled the news at KTBC, even when it wasn’t advantageous to our owner. 

That objectivity had been instilled in me by the University of Texas School of Journalism and by Paul Bolton. He was a stickler for getting a story accurate before putting it on the air. Get it first, if at all possible, but get it right, and let people draw their own conclusions based upon what you report. Don’t hide it, don’t dodge it. If it’s out there, it’s out there, and it’s your job as a reporter—as someone who’s conveying important information—to present the facts. The topic doesn’t matter. You want the viewers to say, “Wow, I didn’t know about that.” 

Today, there are so many ways for individuals to get news. With the Internet and twenty-four-hour cable news, viewers can go anywhere and find whatever they want to find, with whatever stripe they may want to put on it. But back in the 1950s and 1960s, KTBC was the sole source for television news in Austin and we had a serious obligation to cover it accurately and make sure the facts were correct. I always tell folks, “Don’t rely on a single source. Whenever you’re looking for news, broaden your scope. If you want to watch a left-leaning channel, watch a right-leaning channel as well, so you can balance your judgments and make up your own mind.” 

In today’s world, that attitude is considered quaint and out of step with current realities. Sometimes I sound like a Pollyanna, even to myself, but that’s the way I roll. 

In my view, polarization is a problem in our society. Most people watch or read to reinforce their own worldviews. And although they’re passionately engaged, they’re missing something if they don’t explore various websites and check other programs and read this blog or that article. I love to go to the online aggregator sites that represent different viewpoints and report on a variety of subjects. I encourage people to get a more complete picture, so whatever their position may be, it’s either reinforced or questioned. It’s important to challenge our assumptions and biases. 

Now in my seventh decade as a reporter, I’m often asked, “What do you think about that story that broke today, Neal?” I usually respond, “I was fascinated by it.” Not believing the story, necessarily, but fascinated by the news itself. After so many years in the business, I’ve found a way of standing back and looking at things philosophically. 

I’m intrigued by what the left does and what the right does and how everybody reacts to that. I don’t get caught up in “I’m taking his side, and the other side be damned.” I think it goes back to that journalistic train- ing. You’re trained to walk into a situation, whatever it may be—a city council meeting, a public hearing on rising water bills, a school shooting—and analyze what’s going on, what’s newsworthy, what’s most im- portant to your audience. And then you write the story. You don’t get caught up in “Don’t quote this person, but quote this person.” The pursuit of balance and objectivity has carried me forward throughout my long career. 

News analysts are everywhere now, but they’re not really that new. I can remember back in the early days when Eric Sevareid would come on CBS as an analyst and commentator. Dan Rather told me one time, “I envision what happens in Eric Sevareid’s life. I can see him waking up, putting on his robe, padding to the front door in his slippers, and picking up several newspapers and reading through them. And then he gets on the phone and says, ‘I think I’ll talk about this today,’ and calls that person and they go have lunch, usually with a martini. And then Eric comes to the office and sits down and writes his piece and records it and goes home. What a life!” 

Dan was out there getting punched in the gut, stalked, and shot at, but there’s Sevareid having a martini at lunch. 

To be fair to Eric Sevareid, he’d covered the fall of Paris to the Germans in World War II and later parachuted into Burma from a crashing airplane, so he deserved those martinis, because he’d earned his status as a commentator. I watched his analysis over the years, and I’m not sure he ever took a hard right or hard left position. He’d say, “Here is this and here is this, too, and there’s going to be a big battle over this, and we’ll have to watch and wait and see.” 

A turning point in polarization may have come with the popular “Point-Counterpoint” segment of 60 Minutes, which aired from 1975 to 1979, a weekly debate between liberal Shana Alexander and conservative James J. Kilpatrick. It was famously satirized on Saturday Night Live, with comedian Dan Aykroyd (Kilpatrick) often replying to Jane Curtin (Alexander), “Jane, you ignorant slut.” I’m not sure if it was the humorous satire or the “Point-Counterpoint” segment itself, but that formula exploded all over country, a harbinger of the future. 

Today there are entire teams of folks out there analyzing, pontificating, and arguing “I’m right, you’re wrong.” It’s sometimes entertaining, but usually produces more heat than light. 

After I left daily television, I was often brought back to analyze the voter returns during election night coverage. One evening during a state- wide race, I was sitting on the set with the anchor and co-anchor, and I had my yellow pad and pencil in front of me. As election returns came in, it was my job to announce that at 7:00 p.m., this candidate was ahead, and at 8:00 p.m., South Texas had not been counted yet and voting in Houston was heavy. That kind of thing. It’s what computers do now, but all I had was a yellow pad and a number two pencil. 

The anchor sitting next to me wasn’t the brightest bulb on the porch, and when I said, “We’d better keep an eye on this. The margin is narrowing, and it looks like the other candidate may win,” he said, “Really, Neal? He’s been behind all night long. How can you say something like that?” And I very calmly and quietly said, “Because of the trendline and votes that are still uncounted. South Texas is normally going to go in this direction, and they’re not in yet—and that could put this candidate over the top.” 

That’s the kind of pad-and-pencil analysis I did back in the day, and that’s the way I like to watch election returns now. But the computers are so far ahead of everybody, they calculate results down to the minute and report, “We can now declare a winner in the congressional district northeast of Dallas.” Not to mention, “Hey, California and the West Coast, the election is already over and we’ve declared a winner. Your vote is superfluous.” 

The Donald Trump election of 2016 is a great example of how analysis can go awry. All the ratings and data showed that Hillary Clinton was going to win. I’d been watching a lot of television coverage, and I stayed up to speed on what was happening. Two or three days before the election, I made the comment, “Trump can win this.” I mentioned that to a pollster who was polling for Trump and the Republicans, and he said, “There’s just no way.” But I insisted, “I don’t think the polls are right.” 

I’m not claiming credit for predicting Trump’s victory, but when I was seeing such large, passionate crowds at his rallies, I tried to figure both sides journalism out, “Who the heck are these folks who are so angry and engaged?” And I realized that those folks were not being polled because they were “anti- media” and “anti-polling”—“I’m not going to talk.” Nobody looked at their numbers. But sitting back in my armchair and watching news coverage week after week, I could see what was taking shape. So when I made that “bold prediction,” I was dismissed, but it came to pass. 

It’s the job of the reporter to analyze what’s happening with a cold eye to the truth. Polling has become essential, for better or worse, to that highly competitive media world that has emerged over the past thirty years. Unfortunately, the polls sometimes drive public opinion instead of the other way around. I have examined polls, and even conducted polls when I ran my PR firm, and I know that you can direct the results by how you phrase the questions. 

When John Connally was running for governor of Texas for the first time in 1962, he was not well known and he was running against a sit- ting governor, Price Daniel, who was pretty doggone popular. One of Connally’s tactics was to encourage his supporters to vote early. It was a unique idea at that time, and reminiscent of what candidates do today. His campaign would contact the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers and say, “I understand there are big crowds at the polling places right now, voting early. You ought to send a reporter out there and find out what’s going on.” 

Of course, it was a set-up. The reporters would ask the early voters, “Who are you voting for?” and the response was usually, “I’m voting for John Connally.” 

Governor Price Daniel’s response was, “My voters can go vote tomorrow.” 

But the overall effect was it looked like an enthusiastic groundswell for this unknown candidate named John Connally. The press was being manipulated by his campaign. It wasn’t the first time that a political campaign had outmaneuvered an opponent, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. 

Spelce’s memoir, With The Bark Off, A Journalist’s Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media, is published by the University of Texas Briscoe Center for American History. It is available in hardcover, e-book, or audiobook on Amazon.com, or wherever fine books are sold. For more info, or for a personally signed, first edition copy of the hardcover version, visit NealSpelce.com.

 

The Society Texas conversation continues with Neal Spelce, author of With The Bark Off, in this exclusive interview… 

 

Lance Avery Morgan: Neal, With The Bark Off is the name of your new book. Can you share the background on that title and why you chose it?  

Neal Spelce: With The Bark Off is a phrase that I first heard inside the LBJ library, used by Lyndon Johnson. He was talking about what was going to be in his presidential library that was then just getting ready to open. The grand opening had so many important people in attendance, including presidents, in the audience. I thought was such a neat phrase. He was saying that in the library, everything is there. In other words, nothing was hidden…it’s all there. He said that it’s not going to just show the joys and triumphs, but the also the sorrows. So, when I started writing this memoir, it’s straight forward. It’s all true. Everything that I write is true…with the bark off

The very first time I heard that phrase, LBJ walked up to me just before the ceremony when the library opened. He said, as I followed him to the bathroom, “Neal, I want you to listen to my speech.” I said, ‘All right, sir, be glad to.’ He started reading his speech on three by five cards. What he said about the library was true…it was with the bark off. 

LAM:  You two never missed a beat with each other, it seems. LBJ is a big part of your book and he was a big part of your life. Tell me about that if you don’t mind, Neal.

NS: We’re kind of re-living it through this memoir, but I first saw LBJ when I was a 12-year-old barefoot kid in Raymondville, Texas in 1948. I heard this helicopter outside and a voice come over a loudspeaker saying, “Come on down to the softball field, we’re gonna have a little rally.” It turns out it was LBJ campaigning in 1948 for the U.S. Senate. My brother and I stood there, fascinated by a helicopter, which we had never seen before.  

Fast forward to when I got to the University of Texas, I had a fantastic professor named Dewitt Reddick, who knew I was interested in broadcasting, journalism, and television. This was in 1956. He told me that Bill Moyers, working at KTBC TV in Austin, was getting ready to leave. “Do you want me to recommend you?” he asked. I said, “Oh, hell yes.” So, I was hired at KTBC, which was owned by the Lyndon Johnson family. The first time I met LBJ face to face was after I started working there on a part-time basis as a news writer. Paul Bolton, the news director said, “Do you want to meet the Senator?” LBJ was the senate majority leader at the time, and I was in awe. I don’t remember much about the initial meeting, except that he told me, “Neal, I just want you to know that whenever you shoot a picture of me, this is my good side,” as he turned to his left. From then on, I started covering him as a senator, vice president, and president. That included covering (and following him) to Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and events out at the ranch. He was a larger-than-life presence who had a huge impact on me.

LAM:  LBJ really made an impact on the world. As I read in your book, he seems to have made significant impact on you and your career. 

NS: I think he would have made an impact no matter who he was. Sure, he was impactful by virtue of the offices that he held. But, later, LBJ had an impact on me as a person. I followed him to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts when he was just nominated with John F. Kennedy….I was part of the press corps there. Here I am, with John F. Kennedy and LBJ, and he says, “Neal, come on up here. You want to get your picture made with us?” The same thing happened in India where he met with the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He asked me to join him in a photo at the Taj Majal. I never did follow him to the White House. But after he got back to Texas, he hired me to help with the dedication of the LBJ Library. Actually, I was paid by The University of Texas because the school built the LBJ library. They asked me to chair the library opening event, which was a six month job. I worked with him daily, and out at the ranch, in meetings to get the opening going. So, he was quite a presence. At that point, I wasn’t as overwhelmed by him because of the familiarity by being around him so much. No question he had an impact on my life. A bunch.

LAM: You write about LBJ throughout the book, which is especially touching to me, because you two are both larger than life personas that represent Texas. So, it was really terrific to get to know you, and LBJ, more through your writing. 

NS: This book is about people and the extraordinary experiences that were opened up to me, particularly by LBJ.  I will tell you that the book is not about politics, as you well know. The book is about personalities and politicians, with LBJ being the most dominant because I had the longest and closest association with him, although not on a political level. Instead, it was a personal level and on a reporting level. So, I never got caught up in any of the politics. 

LAM: It shows, as I was reading your book, what a small world this is. You had written about when you were at the ranch with the Johnson family, and touring Fredericksburg, when the German chancellors came to visit the U.S. after JFK was assassinated. My family was one of the founding families of Fredericksburg.

NS: Oh, no kidding?

LAM: It’s such a weird, small world story. My great grandmother passed away on Christmas Eve of 1963. You may, or may not remember this, but LBJ and the chancellor attended my great-grandmother’s funeral while they were in Texas during that time. 

NS: Oh, wow.

LAM: Because my family had helped the Johnson family so much over the years, LBJ wanted to show the German chancellors, not only small town America in Fredericksburg with its German roots, but also how people would come together in death of someone who was a German American. My older brothers recall that LBJ, the chancellor, and the Secret Service sat in back of the pews behind my family.

NS: Yes, that was when they went to the church. LBJ felt a kinship to the Hill Country, and nearby, simply because they were neighbors. When LBJ was working to get elected to Congress in the early stages, he worked on developing the Highland Lakes under Franklin Roosevelt by bringing electricity and flood control to the area.

LAM: LBJ made a big difference in a lot of lives and it helped spur the growth of this region then. 

NS: Oh, it really did. Your family experienced that human side of him that most people don’t witness of world leaders. Speaking of a small world, that brings a quick little story to mind that further demonstrates what you’re taling about. When I was with LBJ on a trip to Pakistan in 1961, he saw this camel beside the road, with its camel driver. At that point, LBJ stopped the motorcade, got out and walked over and said, “I wanna meet him.” He walked over to him just like he might be campaigning in Caldwell County, or something like that.

LAM: Every handshake is a vote. 

NS: Right. But he said to the camel driver, just in passing as he was leaving, “You come see me now.” So, the press picked it up saying he invited this camel driver to the United States. Oh my goodness. It turned  into a major publicity coup in the sense that he brought the camel driver here to the ranch in the Hill Country. By example, LBJ made a big to-do about electricity, flood control, and getting water and irrigation into this area and helping the farmers. Then, LBJ he called up his friend Henry Ford and said something like, “Henry, this guy’s got a camel and that camel’s gonna die someday. So can you give him a Ford pickup truck?”

LAM: Can you imagine? That’s so great. I mean that attention to the detail of every person like that. That’s the mark of a great politician for sure.

NS: It really is.

LAM: Neal, you’ve known so many fascinating people, especially from your work in public policy. Tell me about why you found it so fascinating and made a career of it.

NS: Well, you know, that’s a good question. I guess I’ve always been very, very curious and that’s a mark of a reporter. You’ve got to have curiosity so that you want to check into things and find out what’s behind what is happening. With Austin as the state capitol, you’re always surrounded by political activities like the state legislature, even on down to the city council. As a reporter, you always covered those things because they were newsworthy. So, I just literally became wrapped up and intrigued by the people who were involved. Plus, you know, and there were some rascals in that group. As well as statesmen. I knew one guy who was getting ready to run for the U.S Senate as a state senator and he says, “A six-year term in the  United States Senate? You could almost be a statesman if you didn’t have to run for reelection that often.”

LAM: Right. Being curious is an asset.  

NS: When I went to Columbia University on a CBS fellowship in news and public affairs, I went down and got news credentials at the United Nations because I wanted to be a part of it and see what was going on. That was when Nikita Khrushchev was banging on the table with his shoe. And that’s when Fidel Castro came up to New York City and was a part of the UN General Assembly meeting. Of course, the President of the United States and all the world leaders were there. So, I got inoculated with all of this and you know, for some reason it is just became part of my DNA, I guess. 

LAM: Thank goodness it has been because the stories that you reported on have made a real big difference to lots of folks. In your book, you recount with such precision, so many events in your life. Can you tell me how events can shape a journalist’s career…like it has yours?

NS: I go back to my journalism training, which frankly is different from today. You’d jump into a story, and you try to find out as much as you possibly can without bias. Then, you report it and let the people who are reading, or seeing, the story make up their own minds. It impacted me in the sense that I was able to see just about every side to a story and that there are often more than two sides to any given story. I always had a fascination to find out those sides. You know, I covered Barry Goldwater when he ran against LBJ. Sure, I was working for the LBJ-owned TV station, but people didn’t think anything about that. I didn’t think anything about that, either. I mean, here’s a guy running for president, so I say, we’ve got to cover him. 

LAM: You must be objective no matter what.

NS: Yes, exactly. And that was maintained throughout, even during the time when I was actually on the UT payroll for the library dedication. While I was working directly, and answering directly, to LBJ on the development of his library, there was no politics involved in that. In fact, we had to advise him, and say, “You know, Mr. President, you don’t have an exhibit here on Vietnam. And he said, ‘Oh my goodness’. And Vietnam was such a big part of his presidency. So, they changed the exhibit. 

LAM:  Vietnam was such a political thorn in his side for so many years.

NS: As he said, with the bark off. I’m sure Vietnam was painful for him. But he didn’t dodge it. He didn’t want the war and never really saw peace from it.  It took a toll on him.  I wasn’t involved in his politics. I came to be more fascinated by people, like the Bush presidents, as individuals and public servants, more so than their political leanings. Then, many politicians liked each other, or at least respected each other. Like with Texas governors, Ann Richards and John Connally, both opposite sides of the political spectrum people. I remember at John Connally’s funeral, I walked up to Ann Richards and she said to me, “God, I miss John. He helped me so much when I was governor.” There’s a humanness to these people who have these big titles and big responsibilities. They’re public servants and, human beings. That’s what I think kept me more intrigued and interested in them as individuals, rather than them as political idealogues. Hey, when you sit in a bass boat with two former presidents like the Bushes, with just the three of us fishing, you get a feeling for them as individuals. Plus, I wanted to find out about the relationship of father and son who ended up both leading the free world and I got a lot of insight into them as individuals. That was my main interest. 

There’re so much that is a part of people that has kept me fascinated by the political aspect of everything. For instance, John McCain. I traveled with him when he was campaigning for president and worked with him on his speeches, not policy. It was just about how to deliver and communicate. We would have drinks and dinner after a long workday, or go to his hideaway in Sedona, Arizona. He would let his hair down and I asked him how in the world someone could endure five and a half years of torture in a prisoner of war setting like he did.

McCain earlier would ask me, “Neal, tell me about LBJ.” And later I said, “Senator, let me ask you about your time in the Hanoi Hilton.” That was a joking reference to the POW concentration camp.  It was quid pro quo with the two of us giving and getting information. So, he talked about the torture and about how his fellow prisoners saved his life when he was at rock bottom and couldn’t even feed himself. He told me that because he had been tortured so horribly, he lost his arrogance. He began his military career as a feisty Navy Top Gun pilot but while he was a prisoner of war, he was broken and learned how to rely on his fellow man. His fellow prisoners saved his life. They kept him alive when he was on the verge of death. 

LAM: You had mentioned the phrase, and you don’t hear this very often anymore, public servant. It feels like we’re sort of operating on kind of on a different planet with all the changes going on. And certainly, in Texas, and today’s media world. What are your thoughts about that? Have we progressed, for lack of better terminology?

NS: Well, we’ve certainly evolved.

LAM: Evolved. Yes, that’s perfect.

NS: Now when you hear me say this, remember I’m coming from being an observer, rather than someone who’s involved in it. What I’ve observed is that the world has not only changed, but the method of communication has changed so dramatically and drastically with a 48-hour, 24 hour and even immediate news cycles on your computer, TV sets, and phone. People tend to learn more, but I’m not sure they actually are more educated from what they are seeing. They are getting more reinforcement for whatever biases they start out with. So, to be a public servant, and this is me drawing a conclusion here, you don’t have to appeal to everybody that you used to when you ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas, where the entire state had to be your constituency to win. 

That’s carried down to a local level, too. Now, everything is compartmentalized. If you’re a Republican, you only have to appeal to only the Republican base these days. Same with the Democrats. LBJ had a phrase for that. He said, “What we’re striving for is the greatest good for the greatest number.” It has a nice ring to it, but it also is so important for politicians to sit there and realize, ‘Hey, I may not represent those views, but those people have concerns. And I’ve got to be sure I take care of those concerns as well.’ I’m not so sure today that drives public service. 

LAM: I agree a hundred percent. Information doesn’t necessarily connote knowledge. 

Neal, I’m so excited to be thinking about the second installment of your book next year.  Before we end, let me ask you about the UT Tower shooting in 1966 that was such a big part of your career. That must have been a life changing day for you. 

NS: It was. The Tower shooting was very emotional for a lot of people. For me, it’s history and cannot be ignored, even as horrible as it was, and is, to this day. I don’t mind talking about it. In fact, I, I feel like we need to talk about it so that we can learn from it and understand it today. You know, for instance, if that event had not occurred as it did, we wouldn’t have had EMS develop as it has today. Or, SWAT teams. There was no way that any police force of any kind anywhere could handle that sort of event then. No one was ready for it. So, it has caused a lot of change in the world. That was the first of its kind…for a guy like Charles Whitman to climb up on top of the Tower in 1966 and indiscriminately start shooting people. No one could imagine what was happening, even though they were standing in the midst of it. They would  walk out on the Drag and think ‘what’s going on here’ and bang, there’s a shot and maybe they got shot themselves. In fact, when Claire Wilson, the first victim, by the way, was eight months pregnant he shot her directly in the womb. And then he shot her boyfriend who was walking beside her and killed him. She survived. Who knows what was going through Whitman’s mind.

People all over the campus just looked up and stared at the Tower, still not realizing what was happening. They couldn’t comprehend the scope of it. It was a hundred degree day. Sirens were screaming. People were shouting as gunshots were going off, both from the ground and from up above. The sensory aspect of the whole thing is still hard to describe. It was unreal in that sense. I can still hear and see, and almost feel, what was going on long ago. My job reporting on it was to make sense of what was happening. And I, too, didn’t know. Nobody had any perspective. If it happened today, you would have perspective, but at that time, it was just so horrible and out of the ordinary. And I think that’s the reason people today are still so caught up with it. And, remember, that was 1966, more than a half century ago. 

Why do people still recall? Well, the UT Tower is still there. It hasn’t changed one bit, except it has some barricades up at the top that you can’t see from the ground very well. The second reason is it occurred out in the open and our television cameras captured all of that on film. That film is still out there today. In fact, I have shared that film with everybody who wanted to use it. With the Abraham Zapruder film of when JFK was shot, he sold that film to Life magazine and others. He made a lot of money. With this event we gave it all away because it was history. I didn’t view it as a way to make money. And, I became the repository for all that film. Over the years of the last half century, I’ve made that film available to any news organization, or to anyone wanting to write a paper about it. By the way, we re-play much of my live on-the-scene broadcast, the sounds, the interviews and all in the audiobook version of With The Bark Off on Audible.com. 

LAM: I’m glad you were there to lend your perspective, Neal, and lend your perspective to everything, with this new book, With The Bark Off. We are all so excited for you and are proud to call you a fellow Texan. It was an honor to speak with you. 

ARM CANDY

ARM CANDY

This summer, it’s all about feeling as light as a feather and as free as a bird. With this season’s most important accessory, the signature bag, we’re presenting some sweet options in captivatingly candy colors to carry as you conquer the world.

SHOW ’EM YOUR PEARLY WHITES

This mini hand-held bag with a chunky pearl-shaped shoulder strap by Simon Rocha is an ideal conversation starter, perfect for a summer wedding or brunch with your best pals. $995. At Shop-US.SimonRocha.com.

LET THE SUN IN

The Bikini Girls graphics on this Sunshine Stopper bag are a tribute to the visionary sensitivity of the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. It recalls the atmosphere of the disco era and expresses the free and universal femininity that distinguishes the Fendi spirit. $3290. At Fendi.com.

GOLD STANDARD

This mini Kenny top handle bag, made of pink satin and silk, with a gold finish monogrammed chain, also has a padlock with the Givenchy signature. A day to evening bag never looked more shapely. $1690. At Givenchy.com.

PATTERN PLAY

This bag is perfect for carrying from dinner to the after party in Aspen. The versatile multi-colored pattern goes with everything from wild brights to elegant neutrals, don’t you think? Price upon request. By Marian Paquette at The Garden Room, Austin.

TALLY HO, OFF WE GO

This equestrian themed Colormatic Kelly bag from Hermès will surely add vibrancy to any ensemble. Plus, there’s no doubt it connotes deep-seated joy wherever you go. Price upon request. At Hermès.com.

CHIC CITRUS

Hayden Lasher’s Lizzie bag is made of canary yellow calf leather with yellow patent piping and a darling signature bow. The sweet surprise inside this treat? A powder blue suede interior. $1500. At HaydenLasher.com and TheSIL.com.

SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT

Say bonjour to a unique collector Lanvin bag. The Pencil Cat purse is embellished with a precious sculptural handle. It was inspired by an andiron belonging to Jeanne Lanvin and designed by the French designer Armand-Albert Rateau. $4750. At Lanvin.com.

THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER

If ever there was a statement bag, it is this Balenciaga top-handle bag in shiny crocodile-embossed calf leather. The rolled, padded top handle also accommodates a convertible strap drop. $2700. At NeimanMarcus.com.

BEAUTIFUL DYNAMITE

BEAUTIFUL DYNAMITE

When Amarillo-born Cyd Charisse became a movie star in the 1950s, no one who knew her in Texas was surprised. She was a strong-willed woman whose combination of brains, beauty, and talent made her one of the era’s most popular silver screen favorites. From overcoming a polio-inflicted childhood to becoming one of the most prolific dancing stars ever, her story one is of luck, determination, and triumph.

 

By Lori Duran                    Photography courtesy of Archival

DANCING LADY

No one glided across the screen quite like native Texan Cyd Charisse. When I saw her dance with Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings or with Gene Kelley in Singin’ in the Rain, she made it look effortless. I never realized she had to overcome polio as a child and had persevered and recovered from the dreaded affliction with childhood dance lessons…and then she kept dancing the rest of her life to the delight of millions. She was always in step with her hoofing talent, and was a beautiful representative of professionalism, grace, and strength. These qualities led her to a life in show business, and she became one of the most sought-after performers in Hollywood. In fact, she danced with the top male dancers of her time. Charisse described dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as dancing with “two of the greatest dancing personalities.” Even though the studios’ interest in musicals was waning by the end of the 1950s, and since her strength was in dancing, her options were diminished. In the 1960s, Charisse moved on to other opportunities by working in television and even did some stage work with her husband. She inspired others with her victory over polio and dedication to her craft which she executed so beautifully throughout her well-lived life.

Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo in 1922 and was named after her aunt Tulla and uncle Ellis. The panhandle town of Amarillo is about as Texas as it gets. According to the book, The Two of Us by Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse (as told to Dick Kleiner), Charisse’s great-great paternal grandmother, Matilda Smith, had been one of the area’s earliest settlers. The family struck it rich with oil, yet the riches did not last beyond a generation. Her father, Ernest Finklea, owned and operated a jewelry store, while her mother, Lela Finklea, ran the household in which Tula grew up. The loving and stable upper-middle-class home also included Charisse’s younger brother, who called her Sid instead of Sis. The nickname stuck, with the eventual spelling becoming the now familiar, Cyd.

 

When she contracted polio as a six-year-old, her family had her take ballet as part of her recovery to build back her underdeveloped and thinned muscles. In The Two of Us, Charisse said, “one side of my back was slightly atrophied.” Her father loved ballet and encouraged his daughter to excel in it and according to Charisse, whenever a ballet troupe came to Dallas, the family made the trek to see them, a journey of 365 miles across the mostly rural highways of the era.

 

As luck would have it, Charisse truly loved and continued to dance for the rest of her life, gracing screens across the world. She was a gifted dancer who was driven to practice daily, and as a pre-teenager, she was sent to California for more intensive dance instructions. In 1934, as a 12-year-old, she joined the touring troupe, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she was trained as a ballerina in the Russian tradition. This is also where she met her first husband, Nico Charisse and in 1939, at the age of 17, they were married.  They owned and operated a Los Angeles area ballet school together. In 1942, the young couple had a son, Nicky. And just before World War II. Charisse and her husband were obtaining mostly uncredited dancing roles in Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, their marriage didn’t last, and they divorced in 1947, but that wasn’t the only thing about her life that changed.

 

MOVIE STAR MAGIC

The motion picture studios she went to seeking a contract liked everything about her except the spelling of her first name, so they modified Sid to “Cyd.” Charisse remembered later, “I had no delusions about myself. I couldn’t act…I had never acted. So how could I be a movie star?” She gradually received more parts in various movies and in 1946 signed an exclusive contract with MGM. The studio was the king of Hollywood musicals then, and their slogan boasted All The Stars In Heaven. She shared with close friends at the time, “Ballet is a closed world and very rigid; MGM was a fairyland. You’d walk down the lot, seeing all these fabulous movies being made with the greatest talent in the world. It was a dream.” That same year she landed a dancing part in the successful film, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).

On that set, she would meet her second husband, crooner Tony Martin, who also starred in the film. They married in 1948, and by 1950, Charisse had two young sons, a new husband, and a stellar career. She was talented, drop-dead gorgeous, and possessed a slender physique standing 5’6” tall. She seemed taller when she danced because her legs, once wasted by polio, were long and slender. Moviegoers idolized her as well as other famed dancers of the era. Samantha Bonds, of the James Bonds film series, once said, “It has always been a dream of mine to be Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse.” She was one of the few who danced with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in motion pictures.

Charisse was truly electrifying on-screen with her nearly perfect size 8 figure (in today’s terms, a size 4) that was accentuated with a wasp waist and gamine-like legs. She was a major presence in several important musicals of the 1950s and was often displayed in scenes of dreaminess, aloofness, or elegance. Charisse didn’t have a singing voice, so her vocals were dubbed, and movies roles emphasized her dancing, especially during the 1950s golden age of musicals. Some of her best-known movies were Singin’ In The Rain, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Deep In My Heart, It’s Always Fair Weather, and Silk Stockings. Her dancing was so provocative that Charisse recounted much later, “The censors were always there when I was on the set. When I was held up in a lift in Deep in My Heart…they were up on ladders to see if I was properly covered.”

In 1952, Singin’ In The Rain was one of the most successful movies of the year and provided Charisse with her initial monumental break into show business. There was a $5 million insurance policy on her talented legs, which was also likely a publicity move at the time. In the film, she made her initial impact by playing an aloof, beautiful woman who is then melted by the love of “the right man.” She has a vampy, torridly memorable scene dancing with Gene Kelly while wearing a slinky green dress accessorized with a long cigarette holder. They dance again in the film while she is wearing an elegant white dress in a dream-like setting. The film’s release established her as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous talents. In 1953, The Band Wagon provided her first leading role. Her character could not fall in love with Fred Astaire until she abandoned her high art pretensions. She stole the show when she danced in it, wearing red sequins. Charisse would later look back on her career and share, “I can watch Astaire anytime. I don’t think he ever made a wrong move. He was a perfectionist. He would work on a few bars for hours until it was just the way he wanted it. Gene was the same way. They both wanted perfection, even though they were completely different personalities.” Charisse, standing at 5’6” to Kelly’s 5’7” and Astaire’s 5’9”, were matches made in heaven.

In 1954’s Brigadoon, another tremendous hit for MGM, Charisse played the woman Gene Kelly’s character loves. She lives in a town, Brigadoon, which materializes only once every 100 years. Charisse later said this was her favorite Gene Kelly musical and commented on the difference between Kelly and Astaire as dancing partners afterward. “My husband could always tell whether I’d been dancing with Kelly or Astaire that day,” Charisse mused. “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.” In 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather, her character had encyclopedic memory that intimidated Gene Kelly’s character, and she was haughty until corrected on Shakespeare. In 1957, she stretched her strengths further in Silk Stockings as a beautiful but ice-cold Soviet commissar. Even in a plain gray suit and playing the part of a stern Russian communist, Charisse was spellbinding. In the privacy of her hotel room, she twirled the luxurious silk stockings she had obtained to replace her communist uniform’s black tights. At first, her character doesn’t believe in dancing, but she ultimately capitulates to the male lead character, played by Astaire, and to the city of Paris.

NEW CHAPTERS UNFOLDED

However, movie musicals had passed their peak when Charisse’s character melted for Astaire’s in the late 1950s. Silk Stockings turned out to be her last major musical and due to MGM’s change in administration from movie kingpin Louis B. Mayer, budgets were slashed and there was no priority placed on musicals.  Unfortunately, musicals were her forte, and she was deemed expendable in an era of changing movie consumer tastes. “If I had to give up either acting or dancing, I’d choose to keep dancing,” said Charise. She then appeared in dramatic roles to strong reviews, like Party Girl (1958), costarring with Robert Taylor, and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), sharing the screen with Kirk Douglas. She was cast in Marilyn Monroe’s last film, Something’s Gotta Give (unfinished, 1962), since Monroe requested Charisse play the secondary female lead of the 20th Century Fox film, as an interesting sidenote to Hollywood history. The two enjoyed an easy camaraderie, and since they shared the same publicity representative, Charisse and Monroe had always been professionally supportive of each other. Charisse appreciated all her peers, and the feeling was mutual. Fred Astaire was known to have said of Charisse and their many dance scenes, “She was beautiful dynamite. When you dance with her, you stayed danced.”

 

In 1959, Charisse and her husband, Tony Martin, starred in an unsold television pilot for a family dramatic series, Night People. Martin played a nightclub singer, and Charisse was his spouse. After offers for movie roles declined in the 1960s, Charisse acted on the dinner theater circuit and made guest appearances on variety TV and in European films. Starting in 1974, the That’s Entertainment film series premiered celebrating old Hollywood movies, including the MGM musicals where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse had danced together. Their dance number, Dancing in the Dark, was a pivotal part of That’s Entertainment and remains an unforgettable dance scene for both Astaire and Charisse. In 1976, Charisse teamed with her crooner husband, Tony Martin, for a series of successful nightclub revues.

 

“I’ve done about everything in show business except perform on Broadway. I always hoped that I would one day perform at the World Series of show business. If anybody tells you they’re not intimidated, they’re lying,” said Charisse years before landing her Broadway debut, at 70, in Grand Hotel in 1992. In later years, Charisse and Martin continued to stay in the social swirl in both New York and Los Angeles. In 2006 President George W. Bush presented Charisse with the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities, the highest official U.S. honor available in the arts. Sadly, Cyd Charisse passed away in 2008 of a heart attack at the age of 86, yet her films live on with Turner Classic Movies, on DVD and streaming. She was the consummate professional until the end and shared with Gene Kelly when he asked what she might eventually want written on her gravestone. Without hesitation, she replied it would be: People sometimes had a problem placing her face, but they never forgot her legs.

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TEXAS–SIZED AMBITION

When Jack’s commission ended, the duo decided to retire, and after much discussion, they chose Grace’s home state of Texas, specifically Salado. The society pages showed a photo of them disembarking an Air Force plane, with the heading, Famous World War II Fighter Pilot And New York Runway Model Return Home. Several Air Force officers, including Colonel Van Bibber and his wife Ruth, owners of the famed Stage Coach Inn, along with a dozen or so other officers, had also picked Salado as their retirement dream site. A group of them even went in together and built a short flight runway for the officer’s small private planes. Jack was content.

 

On any given day, Salado would be best described as a quaint little village, with an old-world atmosphere, nestled along the I-35 Highway between Dallas and Austin. With only 250 inhabitants at the time, it was merely a rest stop for weary travelers wanting a good meal. The Stage Coach Inn, a great place to stop and eat, pulled in many travelers.

 

Directly across the street from the Stage Coach Inn was a cluster of old limestone buildings, some with only a façade left. One of the buildings had a large opening on the wall that perfectly framed Mill Creek, surrounded by beautiful open pastoral fields. The thought of having a world-class couture salon in this little out-of-the-way town was unbelievable, if not laughable. But Grace Jones saw something more.

 

She had ideas of her own rumbling in her brain and told Jack that she wanted to use her world experience to open a boutique. In his mind, he envisioned a small dress shop where ladies could gather, gossip, have a cup of tea, and possibly buy a daytime dress. When he drew out a store sign on paper, it read Grace’s Dress Shop. Grace was speechless. Looking at his plans for the building, Grace was not happy. Her vision was nothing at all similar to Jack’s. A dress shop? The next thing she knew, he would be signing her up for weekly quilting bees. No, no, no, not for Grace Jones.

 

But she knew how to work with Jack and started planning one step at a time. He never saw it coming…the Grace Jones freight train. When they saw the old stone buildings on Main Street behind the Stage Coach Inn, they instantly fell in love with the limestone structure. It perfectly exuded provenance, history, and endurance. They had to get it. After much finagling back and forth, the building was finally theirs. But opening an exclusive clothing salon in the small out-of-the-way town of Salado was going to be hard enough. Getting those customers to the destination was as formidable a challenge as getting the very selective shoppers to buy. But Grace Jones knew from the get-go that her customers would be different. They would certainly not be looking for a shirt or a pair of jeans. Her customers would be looking for the world’s finest clothing, and she would carry the world’s finest clothing. Jack Jones could do nothing but surrender.  

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INTERNATIONALLY FASHIONABLE

The day before her iconic namesake boutique opened in 1962, Jones walked through her store’s enormous wooden front doors to check on the furniture’s final placement. Her designer, Bryant Reeves, had found beautiful and luxurious French parlor furniture pieces from an old 1870s home in Waco. An exquisite Austrian crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceilings just inside the door was the perfect accompaniment to the austerity of the old limestone walls and oak floors. A large oak table covered in pale marble, placed just off the side of the entrance, was the setting for Jones’s favorite bouquet of fresh flowers and registration book, awaiting to be opened for the first of her new customers to sign. Nothing over the top, just simple provincial elegance. This proud owner wanted her customers to see her excellent taste reflected in the store, therefore assuring them of the quality of her merchandise. The store was not gaudy or ostentatious in any way, just the quiet suggestion of old money and opulent good taste. Very old money.

 

Getting down to business, Jones knew exactly the designers she wanted to carry and which collections. Her vision was to offer her customers a service they could not find anywhere else other than possibly Neiman Marcus. Even if they had to drive a little out of their way to get to her store, she would make it worth their while. The salon would offer exclusivity, personal assistance, confidential showings, and ambience. Tea and cocktails, along with finger sandwiches and cookies and her favorite hamburgers, were delivered on silver trays, carried by uniformed assistants. Exclusivity was the true ambience.

 

Opening day arrived along with a line of limousines, Cadillacs, and helicopters.  The massive iron brand, with the name Grace Jones written out, was mounted on the roof above the front doors. It could be seen from blocks away, hanging in the air, as if an enormous branding iron had just burned Jones’s name into the hide of thin air. The parking lot was adorned with giant stone planters of red geraniums, her favorite of the month.

 

Almost immediately, the parking lot was full, and the large wooden doors opened for the crowd coming to see what Grace Jones had to offer. She had done a magnificent job of advertising. The salon was filled with the curious, of course, but among the visitors would be some of her most loyal customers throughout her store’s lifetime. This opening night would mark the start of a new endeavor for Jones, one that would would capitalize on her very best strengths and prior experiences to lead her to this final life challenge. She would call it serendipity, but others would call it dogged determination. Once she opened her store in Salado, clients started arriving daily with one goal in mind, and that was to shop at her eponymous boutique. Her enthusiastic customers came from all over the world, using the wide-open, smooth graded field behind the building for a perfect landing strip, even if it was a bit disconcerting to the cattle grazing the land.

 

With no training in business or merchandising, Grace Jones would, nonetheless, become an award winner year after year as one of only two destinations for couture in the State of Texas. Stanley Marcus and Grace Jones were inarguably the reigning royalty of fashion merchandising in the state. Her store became so iconic and recognizable that people would pronounce her name and the store name as if it was one and the same…simply Gracejonesofsalado. 

 

During the sixties and well into the millennium, Texas would become the mecca of pioneering intellectual, cultural, technical, and political dreams; the whole world would eventually have an eye on the happenings in Texas, specifically Central Texas. Among her favorite customers would be Jane Sibley, Liz Carpenter, Joan Brashear, Carolyn Farb, Gray Hawn, Stella Rowan, Bennie Green, Dr. Nancy Heerssen, Janie Briscoe, Bennie Green, Clair Mashburn, Miriam Cox, Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, Governor Ann Richards, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Kissinger, Meg Heyer, and Sandy Leech. A veritable blue-book of Texas Blue-Bloods.                                     

 

CELEBRITY COMPANY

Born in Salado, Liz Carpenter was the real deal when it came to Texas Women. She was as comfortable in the country walking barefoot in a creek as she was at a White House dinner in Washington, meeting Henry Kissinger. There was nothing pretentious about Liz…what you saw in public was authentic. She was completely comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes.

 

Jones and Carpenter could not have been more different. Jones was conscious of every move she made and every carefully chosen word that came out of her mouth. She was dressed perfectly from head to toe every minute of the day, always ready to make the best impression possible. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to her than her external presentation. Always dressed in the very best designer clothing with her hair perfectly coiffured, she was a study in sublime control.  

 

Liz Carpenter was a whole different story. Out front and loud with a laugh that could echo, she was funny, irreverent, incredibly entertaining, and brilliant. Always shooting from the hip, throwing out story after story, the room would be rolling in laughter while she entertained and held court. Carpenter, a force herself, was a real Texas whirlwind, gathering up friends and allies in her cyclone. She could pull people from every social and political arena and make a party out of it. She knew how to have a good time and especially how to tell a good story. Her friends worshipped the ground she walked on and constantly sought out her company like a group of camp followers. In addition, with experience in the White House, and as a reporter, she was confident holding her own in all conversations, anywhere, anytime, and with anybody. Carpenter, as a result, also happened to have an enormous amount of influence.

If there was a flaw to her presentation, it was her wardrobe. Carpenter had some lovely features…beautiful sparkling eyes that were always alive with curiosity, a Texas drawl that could soothe the soul, beautiful skin, wonderful silver hair that framed her face, and a fabulous smile. These were her best assets, and she learned to use them well. As for her attire, she just never understood what looked good on her. So, she left it up to others to tell her what to wear. 

 

When the news started traveling all the way to Washington that there was an haute couture salon in little Salado, Texas, Carpenter was fascinated. This state was her birthplace, and she could not imagine this type of store in Salado. So, the next time she traveled to Texas, she made it a point to visit the store and see about all this fuss. The day that Grace Jones and Liz Carpenter met, a best friend bond was permanently sealed. They hit it off immediately…two polar opposites without a thing in common, other than nearby birthplaces. But, they were both women from Texas, both born in the country. And they were both incredibly determined to get things done. This was the full extent of their commonality. Yet, their odd friendship would last for the rest of their lives.      

 

If there ever was someone who needed the help of a personal shopper, it was Liz Carpenter. Never one to pay much attention to her attire, she would show up in the most unflattering ensembles, always loud and always big. Her taste ran from bright to brighter, with red being her favorite color as if that needed to be said. “When Grace and I met, we really hit it off. It was instant liking. Our vibrations just worked together, although we are not at all alike. Grace is a perfectionist. She is always cool, never gets ruffled. While I can’t say the same for myself,” said Liz Carpenter at the time.

 

The reporter had asked Liz what qualities she most admires in her friend, Grace Jones. “Even more than the store and her history in the big war and her modeling career in New York, I would say that I am most impressed with what she has done to put Salado on the map. Opening a store that is now internationally known for its sophistication certainly brought our little town into the limelight. Who would have thought we would have fashions from Milan (Liz said Me-laann, true to her Texas drawl), Paris, and Rome in this tiny town? Certainly not me, who grew up here when Norwood store was our only place to buy gingham.” Liz went on to add, “I am especially proud of her having faith in Salado. Nobody encouraged her. They all said it was too far for people to drive, too inconvenient, too out of the way. No one would ever find her store. But she did it anyway.”

 

Houstonian Carolyn Farb regularly bought from Jones and modeled in fashion shows, especially those involving charity events and philanthropic fundraising. Farb has received many accolades for her work, including an honorary doctorate. As a woman always wanting to wear the very best, she frequently shopped at Grace Jones. “Grace was such an extraordinary fashion beacon,” shared Carolyn Farb. “People came from far and near to get her fashion advice. It is not as if it was easy to get to her store in Salado, but it was always worth it. There are not many like her. Then, the designers were revered, not like these characters today on television fashion shows. Grace introduced us to the very best collections with such conviction; we always felt secure with our purchases. Of course, Grace had her opinions, but I admired her greatly.”

 

Jane Sibley, the well-known and respected Austin Arts enthusiast and philanthropist, was one of Jones’s earliest customers and best friends. She and her husband, Dr. D.J. Sibley, became good friends with Jones, but Jane’s initial interest was the exclusive designers she carried in her store. “I could barely believe my eyes when I saw the designer labels,” mused Jane Sibley. “This was just a little off-the-road shop. My Lord!” Sibley was a perfect size for modeling, but even better, she had the personality and presence that the audience loved. More than one husband wanted to buy the gorgeous ensembles Sibley modeled on the runway hoping their wives would look as great as she did.

 

By far, Grace’s favorite designer was Geoffrey Beene, a man of incredible and exquisite talent. His architectural genius, seen repeatedly in his designs, were Grace’s best-selling collections. Clean yet sophisticated, his collections always sold well. 

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DESIGNING VIRTUES

Geoffrey Beene was one of the very first designers to show in Jones’ salon. Upon arrival to show his newest collection, Beene grew slack-jawed at his first glimpse of the country back road entrance to this exclusive salon. But the sight of a huge grain mill across the street shocked him even more. With a bit of sneer, he asked, “Is that really a grain mill?” Grace Jones was quick to reply, “It certainly is. And we in Salado are very proud of it.”

 

The longtime receptionist at Geoffrey Beene, Joyce Hinklin, remembers Jones’s sophistication. “We all really loved her, but especially her accent. After I spent time around her and Mr. B, also a Southerner, I found myself talking just like them. Everyone would ask, ‘Joyce, why are you talking like that? You aren’t a southerner!’  And I’d tell them, ‘Lord no, I’m from the South Bronx!’ I just can’t help myself when I am around Grace Jones.”

 

As a special gift exclusively for Jones, Geoffrey Beene created an Ombre dyed multi-layered silk chiffon gown in one of his most ethereal creations. After it was photographed for Vogue, Beene had it carefully wrapped in tissue and asked his assistant to mail it to Jones with a card that read, I designed this for you.

 

Fashion leaders like Geoffrey Beene, Ron Amey, Michael Vollbracht, Count Sarmi, Jean Louis, Pauline Trigere, Bill Blass, Adolfo representative Oscar DeLavan, Mollie Parnis, Bernard Perris, George Halley, Christian Lacroix, and so many others who came to Salado had to blink twice to believe what they were seeing. Was it really possible that Grace Jones was showing and selling haute couture out of a rock bunker in the middle of nowhere? A rock bunker with its own landing strip.

 

Is it conceivable that some panicked, calling back the design studios to confirm they were at the correct address? Salado, Texas? But Jones always made the trip memorable for every designer who put forth the effort to trust in her. Count Fernando Sarmi, the Italian-born American fashion designer and businessman, squealed the first time he caught a glimpse of a cow behind the store. In his heavy accent, he was startled into asking, “Ewwww, Is that a coo?” Again, without haste but with a smile, Jones answered, “why yes, and it can moo, too.”

 

REALLY, IT’S A RUNWAY

One of the most memorable events held at her salon was a fashion show for Christian Lacroix. He was the newest darling of the fashion scene in the 1980s and regularly featured on the front page of every fashion magazine from Texas to Paris. Many stores in Texas, the state with more Lacroix customers than any other place in the nation, were all fighting for the exclusivity to carry his collection, with Neiman Marcus fighting the hardest. But Grace Jones was the only store chosen.

 

Upon arrival in Salado, Lacroix was startled and speechless to see that the runway for his show had been built in an open field behind the store. Crazy Texans, he must have thought. But as the limousines began arriving, he felt somewhat relieved. As the excited guests took their seats, the music began. Jones took the stage to introduce her guest designer, and after signaling to start the show, the music was turned up. The beautiful backdrop of Mill Creek running behind the stage and the ambience of the pastoral setting surrounding the audience must have been memorable. As the models Jones had hired for the event started their runway walk, the audience was already applauding. Then, out of the corner of her eye, Jane Sibley saw something moving to the far right. As she turned to see what it was, a cow lazily sauntered up and walked directly in front of the stage and then continued meandering through the audience. There was a loud gasp from the onlookers, and especially from Lacroix. But Jones just signaled for the models to keep walking; she never lost her focus. The cows were just part of the ambience, as far as she was concerned. Lacroix looked horrified. But at the finale, the audience gave his collection a loud standing ovation. He said that he wasn’t quite sure the applause was for him or the cow. He sold 150 dresses at this one show. Crazy Texans, indeed.

 

Another reminiscence came from the designer, Michael Vollbracht. “I worked for Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene and then went out on my own for a while, designing prints,” recalled Vollbracht. Grace was so gracious, supporting me in every way, including hosting a fashion show in Salado. Well, I know Texas…but I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I barely remember riding to one of the fashion shows…Grace was driving. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. Somehow, when the evening ended, we were all in a hot tub with Liz Carpenter.”

 

Grace Jones passed away in Salado in 2008. However, she will long be regarded as the First Lady of Texas Fashion, from an era of elegance we can recall fondly and with hopes that she would still have her favorite designers today. For more information on the book, visit http://www.gracejonesofsalado.com. 

DESIRE & DESTINY

DESIRE & DESTINY

When fashion designer Mary-Margaret Quadlander met Grace Jones of Salado, a fashion legend like no other, she had no idea that the friendship would have such a long-lasting significance. In an exclusive excerpt from her re-released book, Grace Jones of Salado: A Biography, join us as we learn how fashion’s modern roots in Texas glamorously began…and some of the fashionable personalities within it.

A WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS

When asked who his competition in the State of Texas was, Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus answered without hesitation, “Grace Jones of Salado.”

 

Grace Jones was a rare breed, a thoroughly practiced raconteur, and somewhat of an enigma. She would have told you that serendipity, being in the right place at the right time, was the lifeline of her success, but don’t be fooled; Jones could be a formidable opponent.

 

As a female pilot in World War II, Jones enlisted as a WASP. She and other Women Airforce Service Pilots flew and delivered fighter planes and along with many other unsung heroes, were an enormous support in winning the War. Then, while making a documentary about the WASP at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, a director from Hollywood noticed Jones running to a pilot class and stopped to ask if she would agree to be interviewed for the film. This was an example of serendipity that Jones often mentioned. The director gave her his card and suggested, because of her beauty, that movies might be in her future. Following her service during World War II, Jones moved to New York to pursue the director’s suggestion, but as luck would have it, the movies weren’t calling…but the runway was.

 

Jones worked as a fashion runway and television model for the premier New York modeling agency at the time, John Robert Powers. Following her marriage to Lt. Col. Jack Jones, an acclaimed “Flying Ace” Fighter Pilot, she also modeled in Germany, Japan, and Berlin. From those experiences, she was introduced to many of the prominent designers in the world and became familiar with their collections.

 

While stationed in Japan with her husband, Jones had the opportunity to learn and perform the Traditional Tea Ceremony. She was the very first American woman allowed to perform this ceremony in public in Japan. In Germany, her frequent bridge partner was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Jones took full advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, not knowing at the time that she was indeed designing her future.

 

If there was a word to describe the union of Grace and Jack Jones, it would be powerful. Together they created a bit of a dynasty, with newspaper society journalists following them all over the world: Berlin, Japan, Korea, Atlanta, and New York. Wherever they went, the public read about it. Photos of the handsome “Flying Ace” pilot and his beautiful wife, who also carried an impressive set of credentials herself, were seen in the society sections of all the top newspapers. They were the definitive Golden Couple.

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TEXAS–SIZED AMBITION

When Jack’s commission ended, the duo decided to retire, and after much discussion, they chose Grace’s home state of Texas, specifically Salado. The society pages showed a photo of them disembarking an Air Force plane, with the heading, Famous World War II Fighter Pilot And New York Runway Model Return Home. Several Air Force officers, including Colonel Van Bibber and his wife Ruth, owners of the famed Stage Coach Inn, along with a dozen or so other officers, had also picked Salado as their retirement dream site. A group of them even went in together and built a short flight runway for the officer’s small private planes. Jack was content.

 

On any given day, Salado would be best described as a quaint little village, with an old-world atmosphere, nestled along the I-35 Highway between Dallas and Austin. With only 250 inhabitants at the time, it was merely a rest stop for weary travelers wanting a good meal. The Stage Coach Inn, a great place to stop and eat, pulled in many travelers.

 

Directly across the street from the Stage Coach Inn was a cluster of old limestone buildings, some with only a façade left. One of the buildings had a large opening on the wall that perfectly framed Mill Creek, surrounded by beautiful open pastoral fields. The thought of having a world-class couture salon in this little out-of-the-way town was unbelievable, if not laughable. But Grace Jones saw something more.

 

She had ideas of her own rumbling in her brain and told Jack that she wanted to use her world experience to open a boutique. In his mind, he envisioned a small dress shop where ladies could gather, gossip, have a cup of tea, and possibly buy a daytime dress. When he drew out a store sign on paper, it read Grace’s Dress Shop. Grace was speechless. Looking at his plans for the building, Grace was not happy. Her vision was nothing at all similar to Jack’s. A dress shop? The next thing she knew, he would be signing her up for weekly quilting bees. No, no, no, not for Grace Jones.

 

But she knew how to work with Jack and started planning one step at a time. He never saw it coming…the Grace Jones freight train. When they saw the old stone buildings on Main Street behind the Stage Coach Inn, they instantly fell in love with the limestone structure. It perfectly exuded provenance, history, and endurance. They had to get it. After much finagling back and forth, the building was finally theirs. But opening an exclusive clothing salon in the small out-of-the-way town of Salado was going to be hard enough. Getting those customers to the destination was as formidable a challenge as getting the very selective shoppers to buy. But Grace Jones knew from the get-go that her customers would be different. They would certainly not be looking for a shirt or a pair of jeans. Her customers would be looking for the world’s finest clothing, and she would carry the world’s finest clothing. Jack Jones could do nothing but surrender.  

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INTERNATIONALLY FASHIONABLE

The day before her iconic namesake boutique opened in 1962, Jones walked through her store’s enormous wooden front doors to check on the furniture’s final placement. Her designer, Bryant Reeves, had found beautiful and luxurious French parlor furniture pieces from an old 1870s home in Waco. An exquisite Austrian crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceilings just inside the door was the perfect accompaniment to the austerity of the old limestone walls and oak floors. A large oak table covered in pale marble, placed just off the side of the entrance, was the setting for Jones’s favorite bouquet of fresh flowers and registration book, awaiting to be opened for the first of her new customers to sign. Nothing over the top, just simple provincial elegance. This proud owner wanted her customers to see her excellent taste reflected in the store, therefore assuring them of the quality of her merchandise. The store was not gaudy or ostentatious in any way, just the quiet suggestion of old money and opulent good taste. Very old money.

 

Getting down to business, Jones knew exactly the designers she wanted to carry and which collections. Her vision was to offer her customers a service they could not find anywhere else other than possibly Neiman Marcus. Even if they had to drive a little out of their way to get to her store, she would make it worth their while. The salon would offer exclusivity, personal assistance, confidential showings, and ambience. Tea and cocktails, along with finger sandwiches and cookies and her favorite hamburgers, were delivered on silver trays, carried by uniformed assistants. Exclusivity was the true ambience.

 

Opening day arrived along with a line of limousines, Cadillacs, and helicopters.  The massive iron brand, with the name Grace Jones written out, was mounted on the roof above the front doors. It could be seen from blocks away, hanging in the air, as if an enormous branding iron had just burned Jones’s name into the hide of thin air. The parking lot was adorned with giant stone planters of red geraniums, her favorite of the month.

 

Almost immediately, the parking lot was full, and the large wooden doors opened for the crowd coming to see what Grace Jones had to offer. She had done a magnificent job of advertising. The salon was filled with the curious, of course, but among the visitors would be some of her most loyal customers throughout her store’s lifetime. This opening night would mark the start of a new endeavor for Jones, one that would would capitalize on her very best strengths and prior experiences to lead her to this final life challenge. She would call it serendipity, but others would call it dogged determination. Once she opened her store in Salado, clients started arriving daily with one goal in mind, and that was to shop at her eponymous boutique. Her enthusiastic customers came from all over the world, using the wide-open, smooth graded field behind the building for a perfect landing strip, even if it was a bit disconcerting to the cattle grazing the land.

 

With no training in business or merchandising, Grace Jones would, nonetheless, become an award winner year after year as one of only two destinations for couture in the State of Texas. Stanley Marcus and Grace Jones were inarguably the reigning royalty of fashion merchandising in the state. Her store became so iconic and recognizable that people would pronounce her name and the store name as if it was one and the same…simply Gracejonesofsalado. 

 

During the sixties and well into the millennium, Texas would become the mecca of pioneering intellectual, cultural, technical, and political dreams; the whole world would eventually have an eye on the happenings in Texas, specifically Central Texas. Among her favorite customers would be Jane Sibley, Liz Carpenter, Joan Brashear, Carolyn Farb, Gray Hawn, Stella Rowan, Bennie Green, Dr. Nancy Heerssen, Janie Briscoe, Bennie Green, Clair Mashburn, Miriam Cox, Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, Governor Ann Richards, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Kissinger, Meg Heyer, and Sandy Leech. A veritable blue-book of Texas Blue-Bloods.                                     

 

CELEBRITY COMPANY

Born in Salado, Liz Carpenter was the real deal when it came to Texas Women. She was as comfortable in the country walking barefoot in a creek as she was at a White House dinner in Washington, meeting Henry Kissinger. There was nothing pretentious about Liz…what you saw in public was authentic. She was completely comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes.

 

Jones and Carpenter could not have been more different. Jones was conscious of every move she made and every carefully chosen word that came out of her mouth. She was dressed perfectly from head to toe every minute of the day, always ready to make the best impression possible. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to her than her external presentation. Always dressed in the very best designer clothing with her hair perfectly coiffured, she was a study in sublime control.  

 

Liz Carpenter was a whole different story. Out front and loud with a laugh that could echo, she was funny, irreverent, incredibly entertaining, and brilliant. Always shooting from the hip, throwing out story after story, the room would be rolling in laughter while she entertained and held court. Carpenter, a force herself, was a real Texas whirlwind, gathering up friends and allies in her cyclone. She could pull people from every social and political arena and make a party out of it. She knew how to have a good time and especially how to tell a good story. Her friends worshipped the ground she walked on and constantly sought out her company like a group of camp followers. In addition, with experience in the White House, and as a reporter, she was confident holding her own in all conversations, anywhere, anytime, and with anybody. Carpenter, as a result, also happened to have an enormous amount of influence.

If there was a flaw to her presentation, it was her wardrobe. Carpenter had some lovely features…beautiful sparkling eyes that were always alive with curiosity, a Texas drawl that could soothe the soul, beautiful skin, wonderful silver hair that framed her face, and a fabulous smile. These were her best assets, and she learned to use them well. As for her attire, she just never understood what looked good on her. So, she left it up to others to tell her what to wear. 

 

When the news started traveling all the way to Washington that there was an haute couture salon in little Salado, Texas, Carpenter was fascinated. This state was her birthplace, and she could not imagine this type of store in Salado. So, the next time she traveled to Texas, she made it a point to visit the store and see about all this fuss. The day that Grace Jones and Liz Carpenter met, a best friend bond was permanently sealed. They hit it off immediately…two polar opposites without a thing in common, other than nearby birthplaces. But, they were both women from Texas, both born in the country. And they were both incredibly determined to get things done. This was the full extent of their commonality. Yet, their odd friendship would last for the rest of their lives.      

 

If there ever was someone who needed the help of a personal shopper, it was Liz Carpenter. Never one to pay much attention to her attire, she would show up in the most unflattering ensembles, always loud and always big. Her taste ran from bright to brighter, with red being her favorite color as if that needed to be said. “When Grace and I met, we really hit it off. It was instant liking. Our vibrations just worked together, although we are not at all alike. Grace is a perfectionist. She is always cool, never gets ruffled. While I can’t say the same for myself,” said Liz Carpenter at the time.

 

The reporter had asked Liz what qualities she most admires in her friend, Grace Jones. “Even more than the store and her history in the big war and her modeling career in New York, I would say that I am most impressed with what she has done to put Salado on the map. Opening a store that is now internationally known for its sophistication certainly brought our little town into the limelight. Who would have thought we would have fashions from Milan (Liz said Me-laann, true to her Texas drawl), Paris, and Rome in this tiny town? Certainly not me, who grew up here when Norwood store was our only place to buy gingham.” Liz went on to add, “I am especially proud of her having faith in Salado. Nobody encouraged her. They all said it was too far for people to drive, too inconvenient, too out of the way. No one would ever find her store. But she did it anyway.”

 

Houstonian Carolyn Farb regularly bought from Jones and modeled in fashion shows, especially those involving charity events and philanthropic fundraising. Farb has received many accolades for her work, including an honorary doctorate. As a woman always wanting to wear the very best, she frequently shopped at Grace Jones. “Grace was such an extraordinary fashion beacon,” shared Carolyn Farb. “People came from far and near to get her fashion advice. It is not as if it was easy to get to her store in Salado, but it was always worth it. There are not many like her. Then, the designers were revered, not like these characters today on television fashion shows. Grace introduced us to the very best collections with such conviction; we always felt secure with our purchases. Of course, Grace had her opinions, but I admired her greatly.”

 

Jane Sibley, the well-known and respected Austin Arts enthusiast and philanthropist, was one of Jones’s earliest customers and best friends. She and her husband, Dr. D.J. Sibley, became good friends with Jones, but Jane’s initial interest was the exclusive designers she carried in her store. “I could barely believe my eyes when I saw the designer labels,” mused Jane Sibley. “This was just a little off-the-road shop. My Lord!” Sibley was a perfect size for modeling, but even better, she had the personality and presence that the audience loved. More than one husband wanted to buy the gorgeous ensembles Sibley modeled on the runway hoping their wives would look as great as she did.

 

By far, Grace’s favorite designer was Geoffrey Beene, a man of incredible and exquisite talent. His architectural genius, seen repeatedly in his designs, were Grace’s best-selling collections. Clean yet sophisticated, his collections always sold well. 

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DESIGNING VIRTUES

Geoffrey Beene was one of the very first designers to show in Jones’ salon. Upon arrival to show his newest collection, Beene grew slack-jawed at his first glimpse of the country back road entrance to this exclusive salon. But the sight of a huge grain mill across the street shocked him even more. With a bit of sneer, he asked, “Is that really a grain mill?” Grace Jones was quick to reply, “It certainly is. And we in Salado are very proud of it.”

 

The longtime receptionist at Geoffrey Beene, Joyce Hinklin, remembers Jones’s sophistication. “We all really loved her, but especially her accent. After I spent time around her and Mr. B, also a Southerner, I found myself talking just like them. Everyone would ask, ‘Joyce, why are you talking like that? You aren’t a southerner!’  And I’d tell them, ‘Lord no, I’m from the South Bronx!’ I just can’t help myself when I am around Grace Jones.”

 

As a special gift exclusively for Jones, Geoffrey Beene created an Ombre dyed multi-layered silk chiffon gown in one of his most ethereal creations. After it was photographed for Vogue, Beene had it carefully wrapped in tissue and asked his assistant to mail it to Jones with a card that read, I designed this for you.

 

Fashion leaders like Geoffrey Beene, Ron Amey, Michael Vollbracht, Count Sarmi, Jean Louis, Pauline Trigere, Bill Blass, Adolfo representative Oscar DeLavan, Mollie Parnis, Bernard Perris, George Halley, Christian Lacroix, and so many others who came to Salado had to blink twice to believe what they were seeing. Was it really possible that Grace Jones was showing and selling haute couture out of a rock bunker in the middle of nowhere? A rock bunker with its own landing strip.

 

Is it conceivable that some panicked, calling back the design studios to confirm they were at the correct address? Salado, Texas? But Jones always made the trip memorable for every designer who put forth the effort to trust in her. Count Fernando Sarmi, the Italian-born American fashion designer and businessman, squealed the first time he caught a glimpse of a cow behind the store. In his heavy accent, he was startled into asking, “Ewwww, Is that a coo?” Again, without haste but with a smile, Jones answered, “why yes, and it can moo, too.”

 

REALLY, IT’S A RUNWAY

One of the most memorable events held at her salon was a fashion show for Christian Lacroix. He was the newest darling of the fashion scene in the 1980s and regularly featured on the front page of every fashion magazine from Texas to Paris. Many stores in Texas, the state with more Lacroix customers than any other place in the nation, were all fighting for the exclusivity to carry his collection, with Neiman Marcus fighting the hardest. But Grace Jones was the only store chosen.

 

Upon arrival in Salado, Lacroix was startled and speechless to see that the runway for his show had been built in an open field behind the store. Crazy Texans, he must have thought. But as the limousines began arriving, he felt somewhat relieved. As the excited guests took their seats, the music began. Jones took the stage to introduce her guest designer, and after signaling to start the show, the music was turned up. The beautiful backdrop of Mill Creek running behind the stage and the ambience of the pastoral setting surrounding the audience must have been memorable. As the models Jones had hired for the event started their runway walk, the audience was already applauding. Then, out of the corner of her eye, Jane Sibley saw something moving to the far right. As she turned to see what it was, a cow lazily sauntered up and walked directly in front of the stage and then continued meandering through the audience. There was a loud gasp from the onlookers, and especially from Lacroix. But Jones just signaled for the models to keep walking; she never lost her focus. The cows were just part of the ambience, as far as she was concerned. Lacroix looked horrified. But at the finale, the audience gave his collection a loud standing ovation. He said that he wasn’t quite sure the applause was for him or the cow. He sold 150 dresses at this one show. Crazy Texans, indeed.

 

Another reminiscence came from the designer, Michael Vollbracht. “I worked for Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene and then went out on my own for a while, designing prints,” recalled Vollbracht. Grace was so gracious, supporting me in every way, including hosting a fashion show in Salado. Well, I know Texas…but I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I barely remember riding to one of the fashion shows…Grace was driving. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. Somehow, when the evening ended, we were all in a hot tub with Liz Carpenter.”

 

Grace Jones passed away in Salado in 2008. However, she will long be regarded as the First Lady of Texas Fashion, from an era of elegance we can recall fondly and with hopes that she would still have her favorite designers today. For more information on the book, visit http://www.gracejonesofsalado.com. 

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THE RICHES OF THE SEASON

THE RICHES OF THE SEASON

Our editorial team, truly high culture curators, has worked all of 2021 to bring you this ravishing list of inspiring gift ideas that we think are some of the finest selections you can choose to help make 2022 ahead the very best year ever.

RAISING THE BAR

Part of the Wyatt collection of tableware and bar tools, Ralph Lauren’s guest-ready tea set is crafted from stainless steel and finished with equestrian-inspired saddle leather accents. Shine brightly as you entertain. $250. At RalphLauren.com.

YES TO THE DRESS

Pure happiness exudes from this fanciful, divine, dusty pink creation in this Rembrandt Dress by Greta Constantine. Floral adornments cascade down the side of the A-line gown, while a silk-wool tie at the neckline can be tied in delightfully numerous ways. Exclusively at The SIL, founded by Texas native Natalie Bond Bloomingdale. Made to order. $1,895. At ShopTheSIL.com.

SPARKLING STYLE

Nothing says personal style like a newly discovered vintage handbag. Mid-century Texan Enid Collins, founder of Collins of Texas, designed the most charmingly jeweled treasures that we think are ripe to be re-discovered and worn with state pride. From $100. At various auction and shopping sites.

THE ULTIMATE THROWDOWN

Why not give the gift of pure luxury with this Frette Chains Throw? Made of Italian-made virgin wool,  it is not only cozy but also adds a chic element to any room. Available in seven colors. $1,575. At Frette.com.

MASTER BUILDER 2.0

How can anyone resist this DIY Frank Lloyd Wright model building kit of the Guggenheim Museum? By Brand Little Building Company, it’s a high-fidelity architectural element that will look like it came from the master’s studio. $98. At Huckleberry.com.

CELEBRATE & CELEGRAZE

Instead of sending a fruit basket for a special occasion, try a personalized gift like this that is sure to be a hit. We recommend sending a charcuterie in the form of an initial, or perhaps a number if it’s a birthday. From $56. At BerryAndBrie.com.

HOW TO HOST WITH THE MOST

Take the guesswork out of your next dinner party or gala with the Astor Hostess Seating Chart, an indispensable tool for any entertainer who likes to make sure they host a successful event.. $550. At BlueCarreon.com.

IMAGINE THAT

Imagine the most perfect candle ever created…for you and your environment. Social-Lite Candles are the hit of the season–as gifts to loved ones…and yourself. The 100% soy candles come in four delectable scents, Make Mine Champagne, My Secret Past, Isn’t It Right, and Set To Jet, and come wrapped in gorgeous gift boxes:. $58 each. At DirtyBartender.com.

HIGHER GROUND

When you and seven of your best friends climb that mighty mountain, here’s where you should stay. The super tough 2-Meter Dome eight-person tent is purpose-built to help you thrive in merciless environments like the Himalayas and Antarctica. $5,500. At TheNorthFace.com.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

The perfect way to spend a winter evening? We think a puzzle is the ideal option, especially when it is so artful and worthy to hang upon completion. This one shown, Wet Kiss by Marilyn Minter, is a favorite. $100. At ArtXPuzzles.com.

CRAFTED FOR COCKTAILS

Nothing says the perfect host gift, or let’s have a breezy cocktail, more than a hand-crafted linen napkin by August Morgan, founded by Austinite Kate Hersch. The colorful and creative squares are not only a conversation starter, but also are so handy to have nearby. In dozens of catchy quips, we love them all. $44 for a set of 4. At AugustMorgan.com.

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

This is so cool you won’t want to relegate it to the basement. This Playing Court printed, wall-mountable mini ping pong table is perfect for hours of family fun, don’t you think? $1,470. At Mr.Porter.com.

DISCO’S INFERNO

Turn any favorite room into your own Studio 54-esque nightclub playground with this Kicko multi-colored LED revolving strobe light ball. You’ll surely impress your kids, as well as dazzle the neighbors. $29.99. At Amazon.com.

LONDON CALLING

The perfect, and we mean perfect, signature gift basket is from Fortnam & Mason in London. With an array of both the exotic and familiar, their famous hampers are chock full of bliss. We love most the hamper for four since it can make any al fresco occasion special. $722. At FortnumAndMason.com.

SURE, THEY MIGHT HAVE EVERYTHING

The ultimate host gift is something beautiful and unique, such as a stunning Maison Bijoux box. Beautifully hand-made with shell inlay and brass cladding. They are topped with agate slices and are truly like gems to behold. $240. At BlueCarreon.com. 

LET’S BE CLEAR ABOUT THIS

Experts know that a beverage can taste better when served in a fine glass. No argument here since we think the Margot decanter and Dearborn glass set is the elbows up favorite for sumptuous cocktails. $800. At FFerroneDesign.com.

KEEPING TRACK

Since entertaining will be back in force once again, wouldn’t you like to note those special times ahead? The Entertaining Journal is the perfect way–with plenty of room for menus, guest lists, outfits worn, and so many more details to savor. $125. At MrsJohnLStrong.com.

JEWELS FOR THE ROOM

Decorative pillows are the jewelry of any well-appointed room. Why not have vibrant, hand-crafted pillows to highlight your gorgeous space? Austinite Deborah Main offers a variety of vintage and rare fabrics, as well as new textiles to put a punctuation point in any room to make it feel even more couture. Custom orders available. From $384. At ThePillowGoddess.com.

SENSATIONAL SWEET TOOTH

Chocolate is always the perfect gift. The thoughtful and delightful creations by Austin-based Delysia Chocolates have put smiles on many faces by now. Clever as ever, look for more themed truffle boxes in 2022, such as this one, Taste of the South. $34.95. At Delysia.com.

HOME SUITE HOME

How about a suite of gifts from designer and luxe retailer Jonathan Adler? Bright, happy, and always colorfully graphic, we recommend the Maxime star coasters ($68), Arcade lacquer tray ($295), the Gilded lollipop holder ($148), and the Arcade lacquer boxes (From $98) and so much more. At JonathanAdler.com.

THE GIFT-GIVER’S GAMBIT

Thanks to the success of The Queen’s Gambit, chess is the hottest strategic pursuit these days, so why not choose this over-the-top set that is crafted of solid mahogany and is also an instant heirloom, too? $7,700. At Hermes.com.

DID I EAR YOU RIGHT?

This adorable cow earpods case also clips on to a bag as a novel accessory. We’re always misplacing ours, so why not have a Texas-themed festive reminder so they stand out? $610. At LouisVuitton.com.

THE SLOPES ARE DOPE

You’ll be mountain royalty as you whisk by in this colorful Burton Deep Thinker Snow Board 2022. It powers through fresh powder and chops like a boss yet holds a clean edge on firmer surfaces. In short, it’s an all-round ripper of a board for the high energy rider. $599. At Evo.com.

PICTURE PERFECT

Hop back in time when instant photos took 60 seconds with this cool Polaroid camera that is a special Saint Laurent edition. With its reflex lens, the photos promise to be clear and concise like never before. $1230. At SaintLaurent.com.

YOU PROVIDE THE ADVENTURE

Getting away from it all now has a new meaning. Be the cool kid who can be mobile in style in this Airstream 20X travel trailer. It’s self-contained with all you’d need to have for a spontaneous road trip. Starts at $48,900. At Airstream.com.

WHY WAIT FOR GAME NIGHT?

This Jenga-esque tumble tower is so cool and colorful that you’ll want to always keep this dyed 45 wood block sculpture in full view. Perfect for indoors or outside fun. $110. At ElysiaHome.com.

GLOBAL INSPIRATION

Any exotic locale is just a jet ride away. So, be inspired every day for your next getaway with a limited-edition image by Italian photographer Massimo Vitali. It’s sure to set off any room. Prices vary. At MassimoVitali.com.

SHE’S SUCH A DOLL

For the child who has everything, the Malle Maison Vivienne on-the-go doll house was designed as a collection piece. Iconic Louis Vuitton Courrier Lozine and Wardrobe trunks were identically reproduced in miniaturism to highlight Louis Vuitton craftmanship. $63,500. At LouisVuitton.com.

AT HOME ON THE RANGE

AT HOME ON THE RANGE

It’s not every day that a fine photographer gets a career retrospective. Now, Janell Kleberg’s most beloved photographs are on display at the Witte Museum in San Antonio so that the world can enjoy Kleberg’s point of view of the Texas ranch scene.

 

By Lance Avery Morgan

Photography by Janell Kleberg

 

“The winter fog cloaks the land and lays down a blanket of refreshing dew on everything, even during the dry years,” recalled Janell Kleberg about one of her photographs taken on the King Ranch. “A place where laughter and stories are shared at the end of a day with the satisfaction of a job well done. The morning feels fresh, the grass is grazed down around the roundup ground, and the tiny purple phlox is visible in the sandy soil and the bare spots between clumps of bluestem.”

 

That sort of bird’s eye view is what Kleberg offers to the viewer of her photographs from her three-decades-long career. She captures the spirit of the land and those who work it, with the same gusto she approaches life. In the exhibit, Live the West: Photographs by Janell Kleberg, currently on display at San Antonio’s Witte Museum, an audio component with a story about each photograph is prominently featured to capture the fleeting moments of strength, beauty, and grace of the annual roundup on King Ranch from the 1970s to the 2000s.  

 

“Helen Kleberg Groves has wanted this exhibit at the Witte Museum for more than a decade,” said Kleberg. “I carried a camera during the years we worked cattle and horses to capture the life and the era she loved. It was a remarkable time and place to remember, and Helenita will be so pleased,” she continued. The Witte Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of Texas from prehistory to the present. The permanent collection features historical artifacts photographs, art, textiles, dinosaur bones, cave drawings, and wildlife dioramas, all from Texas. With this exhibit, the museum visitor is transported through the lens of photographer and conservation ambassador Janell Kleberg to the dusty coastal savanna in the sweltering heat of August during the time when the cattle grazing over thousands of acres are corralled. It’s where horse and rider work together as the calf crop is harvested, the dry cows are culled, and the results of years of selective breeding are judged.

 

“You will see the smile on Buster’s face and the relaxed seat he has in the saddle, despite the impending duel with a seriously wild Santa Gertrudis cow,” shares Kleberg about one shoot on the range. Kleberg revealed further insight into the story behind the excerpts from Janell Kleberg’s letters to her college friend, Julianna Hawn Holt. “Those cattle were straight out of the brush, some who had avoided being gathered for years, and the dry cows would hook a horse at every pass in the herd. It was simply the best day ever. I am so glad to share it with you, and I think of you each time I find an image such as this. I know that you understand what it means and how this time will never come again. What luck to be there on that day.”

 

What luck to have Janell Kleberg’s talents to accompany the largess of generous support by Julianna Hawn Holt, the Caesar Kleberg Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, and the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, in collaboration with the Witte Museum to create this one-of-a-kind exhibit. These powerful partnerships work with the land and the resources that come from it, through science and education with and for future generations. “Janell Kleberg’s photographs illustrate the dignity of work on what we call the wild and vivid land of South Texas, said the Witte’s President and CEO Marise McDermott. “We are so pleased to host this extraordinary exhibition of Janell’s photographic witness to the King Ranch.”

 

Live the West appears at the Witte Museum through June 6 in the Russell Hill Rogers Texas Art Gallery and is included with museum admission. For more information, visit WitteMuseum.org.

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