Authors: Lawrence Wright
Dominique commissioned Renzo Piano to design a serene museum to house her vast art collection, his first American building. The museum is cool and gray and perfect. Nearby is the de Menils’ most memorable contribution, the Rothko Chapel, a meditative space that provides a brooding counterpoint to the headstrong city. In front, there is a Barnett Newman sculpture,
which was intended to grace the Houston City Hall, but when the de Menils insisted that it should be dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., the city turned the gift down.
“Houston is a major philanthropy center, and they were the start of that,” Tommy Napier, the assistant communications director of the Menil Collection, told me, as he took Roberta and me through the de Menils’ home, which is now used for museum events. Designed in 1950 by Philip Johnson, the house is a flat-roofed, pale-brick, one-story affair, with a nearly windowless front, which some Houstonians initially mistook for a dentist’s office. “It was the first modern house in Houston,” Napier said. Certainly it provides a flagrant contrast to the antebellum-esque mansions of River Oaks. Across the back of the house is a long bank of windows, which in the Houston climate were fogged over like a shower stall. The furnishings, by the fashion designer Charles James, are riotously lush, not at all in keeping with the austere Johnson style. The dark living room has black Mexican floor tiles and a vivid yellow Rothko that nearly jumps off the charcoal-gray wall. The bar is a kind of enlarged Joseph Cornell box, filled with colored highball glasses and stuffed birds on a shelf under a Matisse and a Max Ernst. There is a phone booth with a schoolteacher’s pencil sharpener on a tiny desk, along with a Sunday missal and books of poetry by Anna Akhmatova. The door to Dominique’s bedroom is covered with red velvet, and yet the room itself is like a cloister. The de Menil aesthetic is informed by a monkish devotion to simplicity and an absolute rapacity for beauty.
The best museums in Texas are in Fort Worth. The Kimbell, gracefully designed by Louis Kahn—his last and maybe finest work, using parallel concrete vaults that ingeniously reflect natural light—is one of the most acclaimed buildings of modern times. It set a standard for the future, which was matched by Tadao Ando’s exquisite Modern Art Museum. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art (designed by Philip Johnson) houses a distinguished collection of Western art. These buildings showcase the artistry of Level Two and its power to elevate a culture; and yet the walls are practically bare of any great Texas artists.
There is a third level in my analysis, which is when a culture matures and, having absorbed the sophistication of Level Two, returns to its primitive origins to renew itself. One night recently in Houston, I had dinner with friends at One Fifth, a new restaurant opened by Chris Shepherd. He grew up in Tulsa and came to Houston to culinary school. Captivated by the diversity of cultural influences, he began prowling through the city markets and cafés, discovering a mix of cuisines that were all a part of the city around him. Shepherd was drawn to what he called the “underbelly” of the vast city. Just driving west on Bellaire Boulevard is like taking a world tour, through Central America, Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines. Suddenly the street signs are in Chinese characters. In 2011, Shepherd opened a restaurant in a former lesbian nightclub that he calls Underbelly. He subtitled it “The Story of Houston Food.” The menu changes every day, depending on what is available from the local farms, Vietnamese bakeries, the catch that day from the Gulf, and the whole animals that are brought to his in-house butchery. His wine list is annotated by the local rapper Bun B. He folds all of these influences into a cuisine that reflects the city that Houston is now. “I wanted to go from simple regional cooking to hyper-regional,” Shepherd told me.
Shepherd is a bear-sized man with bristling brown hair and an expression of intense concentration. His new restaurant, One Fifth, reflects the restlessness and imagination that he brings to re-creating a native cuisine. “I wanted to do the corners of Texas,” he said. “You’ve got East Texas, which is Creole, with the field greens and okra. In West Texas you have the Hispanic influence and the chiles. North Texas, you had the cattle drives. In the south and the Gulf, I wanted to give the sense of a true Southern fishing camp. Then in Central Texas you have the Czech and German influences.” To accomplish all that, he decided that he would reinvent the restaurant each year.
Its current incarnation was a steak house. We had ordered the chef’s board, which was brought to us by two waiters and stretched across the entire table—crispy pork shoulder, lamb Wellington, brisket, collard greens and bacon, sweet potato au gratin. I have to say that my favorite part of the meal was dessert—apple pie, cooked in a wood-burning stove so that the crust was slightly charred but the apples were still firm.
Transcendence is always rare, and the best examples of Level Three tend to be origin stories. Beyoncé’s album
absorbed the street talk and country music and the church choir of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, and enlarged the tablet of popular music. The National Wildflower Research Center, in Austin, quotes the limestone arches and tin-roof barns of the countryside to create an environment that is both familiar and new. One can look at the jubilant choreography of Alvin Ailey’s masterwork
for instance, which is a sumptuous re-creation of Ailey’s experiences in a black Baptist church in the flyspeck Central Texas community of Rogers. It is as if the artist had split the atom of consciousness and released its energy into the universe. Robert Rauschenberg, who studied pharmacy at the University of Texas before discovering himself as an artist, used the images of his native Port Arthur—windmills, derricks, even a bubbling tub of oil-field mud—to give a new language to modern art. He commented on the recession in Texas in the 1980s, caused by the crash in oil prices, to create what he called “gluts”: tire tracks, crumpled gas-station logos, and highway signs riddled with bullet holes, the detritus of the car culture that rules—and despoils—America. “I think of the Gluts as souvenirs without nostalgia,” Rauschenberg commented. This is what Level Three is all about: returning to one’s roots with knowledge, self-confidence, and occasionally, forgiveness.
Just then, rather suspiciously in my opinion, the Texas Senate decided to formalize the selection process, sabotaging my scheme to bribe the legislators. Jack Ogg, a handsome senator from Houston, convened a panel, proclaiming that its purpose was to “select the next poet lariat of Texas.” After that, every speaker who addressed the panel carefully spoke of “lariats,” not “laureates.” A few days after this perfunctory panel, the senators announced they had chosen a new poet lariat: Vassar Miller. This was the only time in Texas history that literary criticism has had an effect on state affairs.
One book often nominated as a candidate for the Great Texas Novel was
The Gay Place
, by Billy Lee Brammer. It’s actually three novellas pressed together, with a single towering figure, Governor Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker, based on Brammer’s real-life mentor, Lyndon Johnson. Billy Lee had worked for Johnson in Washington, when he was Senate majority leader.
Billy Lee had died of a methamphetamine overdose by the time I moved to Austin, so I never got to meet him. In the book, the only one he ever published, he captured a brief moment in Texas history, in the late 1950s, when liberals had a foothold in the capitol and Austin was a highly sexed beatnik outpost (that hasn’t entirely changed). It was the first novel to stake a claim on modern, urban Texas. Billy Lee was unfortunately too chaotic to produce another book that might have secured his reputation as a true Level Three artist. I once had lunch with one of his ex-wives, Nadine Brammer, who remembered the time she took Billy Lee to a hypnotist to try to cure his smoking habit. As they were going up on the elevator, she suggested that maybe Billy Lee should also try to get rid of his kleptomania. “No, I want to keep that,” he said.
Billy Lee wrote for the
the muckraking liberal rag in Austin that had been home to Willie Morris, J. Frank Dobie, and a number of writers I admired. In 1971, I drove down to Austin from Dallas for an interview. Roberta and I had just returned to the United States from Egypt, where we had taught for two years at the American University in Cairo. We were living with my parents while I searched for a job.
was a beacon for ambitious, smart-ass youngsters like me. It was co-edited by Molly Ivins and Kaye Northcott. Molly was six feet tall, red-haired and big-boned. At her side was a black dog named Shit. Molly could spin out resonant Texas witticisms that became classics as soon as she uttered them. Jim Mattox, the attorney general, was “so mean he wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brains were on fire.” Kaye was Molly’s physical opposite—diminutive, with small, fine features and large, scholarly eyeglasses. They were the Mutt and Jeff of Texas liberals, respected even by the politicians they lampooned, because the
made Texas politics into a recognizable genre, something to be savored. It set us apart. Perhaps because of Molly’s continental education, the
began to resemble a left-wing French publication, with its satire and scathing exposés. We all became a little more Parisian, more amused by ourselves, and disdainful of newcomers who couldn’t crack the code. I desperately wanted to be a part of the scene, but my interview with Molly went nowhere. I had no experience and nothing to show, so I drove back home, despairing of ever becoming a writer.
Molly refined Texas stereotypes into an art form, like a Jewish comedian in the Catskills. Her 1991 collection of columns spent twenty-nine weeks on the
New York Times
bestseller list, making her a national celebrity at the same moment that Ann Richards got elected as governor. They were lashed together in the public imagination, the pair of them defining a particular kind of Texas woman—earthy, progressive, sharp-tongued, and unafraid of men, no matter how big their belt buckles.
McMurtry hasn’t delivered another broadside on the current state of Texas letters, so I asked Steve what he thought. “The state of Texas literature is defined by writers worrying about the state of Texas literature,” he said grumpily. “Why is everyone in Texas so anxious about defining a regional literature when nobody else feels the need to do that? Anything you say reinforces the provincialism. Just let it be what it will be.”