‘Coco Chanel said to me, ‘Oh, so you’re the Texan!’’
The indefatigable Lynn Wyatt on a lifetime of culture and couture.
By Jerry Stafford
Photographs by Robert Polidori
‘I’m gonna put on a style show for you!’ The unequivocal Texan timbre reaches her eager audience even before the socialite and philanthropist Mrs Lynn Wyatt descends the dramatic staircase of her home to enter her exquisitely appointed salon. Centre stage she is framed by two 1980s Andy Warhol silkscreens stencilled emphatically with those unmistakable ruby lips, emerald eyes and gilded leonine coiffure. A perfectly sculpted 1960s Pierre Balmain ivory evening gown with jewel-encrusted shoulders is the first in a succession of haute-couture silhouettes to be selected from the enviable wardrobe of surely one of the world’s most elegant women, whose notoriety both as a style icon and an indefatigable benefactress and fundraiser has for the last 50 years remained as constant and as unchallenged as her size-zero figure and gravity-defying mane.
I am a guest at Mrs Wyatt’s beautifully decorated home in the Houston neighbourhood of River Oaks, where she divides her time between a busy schedule as vice-chairman of the Houston Grand Opera, executive committee member of the Alley Theatre and trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with the demands of a sprawling ranch in south Texas called Tasajillo and the breath-taking houses she has had in the south of France including the Villa Mauresque, Somerset Maugham’s Moorish fantasy in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, as well as a villa perched above Beaulieu-sur-Mer with stunning views of the Côte d’Azur. While she epitomises an iconic American style, she has also championed European fashion throughout her life, and she is as sublimely elegant in Parisian couture while walking the streets of Vienna with Rudolph Nureyev as she is heading up the Yellow Rose of Texas Ball in a marigold soufflé of Oscar de la Renta flounce.
Karl Lagerfeld, inspired by her ever-faithful choice of black and white at Chanel, even coined the phrase: ‘Black and Wyatt’.
Next up back at the homestead is a 1980s couture cascade of concertina pleats and rosettes in bordeaux ‘taffetas changeant’ by another one of her all time favourites Yves Saint Laurent. She has not only been dressed by these couture giants for many years but has numbered them among her closest friends. Karl Lagerfeld, inspired by her choice of black and white at Chanel, even coined the phrase: ‘Black and Wyatt’.
As she turns on her heels and works the gown to its best advantage, she enthuses, ‘I love this dress. This is what I would call a “drop-dead dress”. I wore this in Paris ,and I wore it in New York. But then I put it away because it’s too memorable!’
As she walks us through a heady mix of several more decades of Ungaro, Valentino and Chanel haute-couture gems in anticipation of photographer Robert Polidori’s tribute shoot, Wyatt is herself an unforgettable and intoxicating mint julep of Southern charm, wit, politesse and intelligence; it is no surprise that she has also numbered among her closest friends some of the the world’s greatest performers, writers, political and cultural figures including Truman Capote, Plácido Dominguez, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Grace Kelly and Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Not only is Wyatt one of the most revered hostesses both in her own homes and on the global fundraising circuit, she has also enjoyed a 50-year marriage with oilman Oscar Wyatt who in the 1950s mortgaged his Ford for $400 and turned it into the Coastal Oil Corporation with annual sales of $6 billion. They have raised four equally energetic sons.
Mrs Wyatt has never shunned the light either in her private or public life, unlike another infamous Southern Belle, Tennessee Williams’s Miss Blanche Dubois, who could not ‘stand a naked bulb’. She has played an important centre-stage role as one of her city, state and country’s most popular ambassadresses for the past five decades and more recently, she has even trodden the boards for one of her most beloved institutions, the Houston Grand Opera, as a performer in the musical Showboat.
Mrs Lynn Wyatt, we applaud you!
‘A force of nature and a style icon.’
Elton John, performer
Jerry Stafford: You made your stage debut at the Wortham Theater Center which houses the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet earlier this year…
Lynn Wyatt: I have been the vice-chairman of the Houston Grand Opera for about 30 years.
Patrick Summers, our artistic director and conductor, said to me: ‘We’re doing Showboat. I want you to play the Lady on the Levee.’ And I said, ‘What?!’ He said: ‘It’s a speaking role: a cameo.’ The Lady on the Levee is a woman of a certain age; Lillian Gish played her once. It’s eleven lines, but I had to memorise every word. I’d never done anything like that before. I was very uncomfortable with it at first. After every performance, Patrick would ask me whether I was having fun. And I would say, ‘Not yet.’ Finally after the fifth or sixth performance I said to the assistant director: ‘In one hand I’m holding onto my escort, and you’ve given me this lovely parasol as a prop for the other. Can I ditch this parasol?’ And so I did. After the next performance, the curtain had barely dropped, and the assistant came in and said, ‘Oh Lynn your voice projected to the very back. It was amazing!’ I replied, ‘I guess getting rid of the parasol really freed me up!’
So you enjoyed it in the end?
I would get these ovations after my part, and Patrick said to me: ‘You know you’re not supposed to get this?’ and I said ‘Never mind, Patrick. I’ll take the ovation!’
Let’s turn the clock back to your childhood. Your family owned a department store in Houston, Sakowitz. Is this where you got your first taste for fashion?
It was. My Grandma used to tell me that I always had style right from the beginning. When I was about 16, I wanted to work in the store. So my daddy put me in the ‘Junior Miss’ department. All of these young girls would come in and would ask my advice. So I’m thinking: ‘Should I tell them the truth when something doesn’t look right or make the sale?’ Truth is always the best thing, isn’t it? So I would always tell someone: ‘You know that really isn’t doing anything for you, but let me show you something better.’ And so I started getting my own little clientele, I enjoyed that. Before the school year we would go to Sakowitz with my mother and she would say, ‘Pick out what you want!’ I’d pick out plaid skirts and sweaters, and we would go into the fitting room. I would try them on, and she would say, ‘You can only get five pieces’. I had probably 14 pieces in there. But it taught me to really think about wearing this with that or how can I change this around. That’s why I am such an accessory nut. Just by osmosis – I’ve been around fashion for a long time – I love it. I love it, but it’s not the main part of my life.
When did you start getting involved in the civic and cultural institutions for which you are now one of the greatest benefactors in this city and in your country?
Well, thank you. I began to get seriously involved in the 1970s.
In the States, raising funds for institutions is very important as opposed to the often state-funded system in Europe. Could you explain how you approach that?
One has to be passionate about whatever one’s raising money for. When I was raising money for the 50th anniversary of the Houston Grand Opera, I was in the south of France. I would call people at 4pm Houston time. People would say, ‘Lynn, I don’t even like opera’. But Elton John, who had agreed to come, was my hook; I knew if somebody wanted to come to see Elton John and had never been to the opera before, they would come now! We finally had a free simulcast at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. A friend of mine who had taken her daughter called the next day, and said: ‘My daughter loved it. The first thing I asked her after the show was, “How did you like Elton John?” And she said, “Oh, Elton John was great, but how about that tenor?!”’ I said, ‘I rest my case’.
So it’s this passion that drives you?
I think the arts are the soul of any city. I think that the appreciation of beauty just opens up your soul and heart: it enriches the soul. It defines a city.
When you were growing up as a young woman, did you have any mentors who inspired you to do this kind of work?
I grew up in a very privileged household. It was just my brother and I. My parents always taught me to give back to the community; my mother was very much affiliated with the Society of the Performing Arts. I too am interested in the performing arts, the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Ballet, the Alley Theatre, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. I’m also involved in The Star of Hope Mission for the homeless; I’m entering my 22nd year with them. And my husband likes to give to medical affiliations. That’s a good balance.
‘Mrs Wyatt typifies America, especially Texas, with such refinement reminding me of a heroine from Henry James. She is generous, welcoming and warm. She has championed European fashion like no one else; I adore her.’
Manolo Blahnik, shoe designer
I love entertaining. I agonise over the placement: the people really make the party. You can have the perfect lighting, good music, delicious food, everything, but it’s still the people that really make the party. I’ve been blessed with friends from all over the world that stay in touch. When they would come to town, I would have a seated dinner for 50 people at that house. We’d have dancing in the entrance hall afterwards. But also I would have 20 people or 14 people. I always have a guest of honour because I think that throws a little more excitement into it. We also lived in the south of France for about 40 years where we had a villa. So I had lots of parties there too.
One of your regular guests, particularly in the late 1960s, was Princess Grace of Monaco. Can you tell me a little bit of your relationship with her?
I first met Princess Grace at a special World’s Fair in San Antonio. We just hit it off like a house on fire. She was already married to Prince Rainier. She found out that we had a villa in St Tropez, so she would invite us up to the palace for concerts. She and Prince Rainier would come to our parties, and we would go up to stay at their mountain house. She visited me many times in Houston. In fact, she was coming to America and was going to be visiting me when she had her horrible, deadly car wreck. She was such a loyal friend – I appreciate loyalty and friendship above anything. It was after she died that Prince Rainier called me and he wanted to make a Princess Grace Foundation; he wanted me to do the first gala. So I had the first gala in Washington DC instead of New York because New York has so many events. President Reagan was in the White House at the time, and I was lucky enough to know both him and his wife. So I asked Nancy Reagan if she would have a cocktail reception in the White House. In the evening, I had Julio Iglesias performing who had never been to the States before. The next day, there was a style show and brunch at the State Department. I said to Plácido Domingo, who was also a guest, ‘I have you seated next to Mrs Reagan, so you have to be on time.’ He said, ‘Lynn I am rehearsing in New York!’ and I said, ‘Well you’re just going to have to get there, otherwise I’m not going to put you next to her.’ Anyway he came, and then he ended up singing with Julio!
You travelled extensively at this time particularly in Europe, and you started to go to couture shows and become close with certain couturiers.
I had travelled to Europe with my parents, but I had never gone to see haute couture. And Oscar said, ‘I want you to go to Chanel.’ He loves classic clothes. So I went, and I had no idea about the intricate questions they ask, or how they take your measurements, and how they valued what I would choose. I would say, ‘Listen, I live in Texas, and I can’t just come over for a fitting every minute.’ So they made a mannequin of my body. The workmanship! I can turn my gowns inside out, and they are just as beautiful! I have the greatest appreciation for these loving hands that take 100 hours to do some embroidery. I had the opportunity to meet Mademoiselle Coco Chanel in the 1960s. I was thrilled. She came into the studio, she didn’t stay long, but she said to me, ‘Oh, you’re the Texan!’
Who were the other designers that you got to know personally?
I started to work with Emanuel Ungaro and also Hubert de Givenchy, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent. And I became really, really, really close friends with all of them. I would go to their shows and then we’d go out to dinner. Emanuel came to Houston, and I had a big party for him for 50 people. He still remembers what I served! It’s so flattering when people still remember – it warms my heart.
And Hubert de Givenchy?
He’s wonderful! I still talk to him. I called him on his birthday; he called me on mine. Every time I go to Paris, we have dinner together. He is a gentleman’s gentleman. He is just so special – and it goes back to loyalty. He still keeps up with me, and I keep up with him.
And Yves Saint Laurent?
I was never part of his close entourage, although I would see Betty and François Catroux in Paris. I liked him very much, and I appreciated the part of him that was very shy. He would sometimes come into the dressing room, but I never had the closeness with him that I had with the others.
‘I would have the astronauts over to my house for dinners all the time. In fact, Alan Shepard gave us a framed picture he took of the moon.’
Space exploration in the 1960s of course made Houston the focus of international attention. How did you experience this time?
That was exciting. I would have the astronauts to my house for dinners all the time, the first eight astronauts like Alan Shepard. In fact, it was Alan Shepard that gave us a framed picture of a flag that was on his jacket when he went to the moon and another picture that he took of the moon. My husband Oscar loved flying, he was a pilot, and we had several airplanes so he and Alan would talk airplanes. There’s something about pilots; they are doers, they can make up their minds in a split second. They are comrades, and they love each other immediately. He wrote on one of the pictures there: ‘Dear Lynn and Oscar, this is what happens to old aviators’. It was so cute.
You already knew Truman Capote in the 1960s. Tell me about him coming to Houston and staying at the house.
l first met him at a party. He had this voice that throws people off for the first five minutes, then you realise how brilliant he is. We sat in a corner, and we talked and talked and talked. Somebody asked him, ‘How did you meet Lynn?’ And he said, ‘It was her emeralds that brought us together.’ [Laughs] He would tell all of these funny stories. We became very, very close. He came to stay with two duffle bags, and I said, ‘These are so heavy!’ I asked my butler to take them upstairs. I saw him pick them up and said, ‘Truman, what do you have in those duffle bags!?’ ‘My books.’ [Laughs] He was probably the best raconteur I have ever met: he would have me on the edge of my seat. He would love to talk to Oscar because he loved businessmen. He would make Oscar laugh. Finally Oscar would say: ‘I have to leave you two down here to talk. I have to get up at 6 o’clock tomorrow.’ And we would talk and talk. He was one of a kind.
‘I would have wonderful times with Andy. We would always go out to Mr Chow for dinner where everybody went on Sunday nights.’
Another one of a kind is Warhol, whom I presume you would have already known by this time?
He was a great visionary, a great genius. I met him through Fred Hughes who worked with him at the time. He was very shy, but when he came to Houston we connected. I decided that I wanted a portrait. Andy was really the John Singer Sargent of our time. So he came to my house, and he took Polaroids of me. I forgot about it for a while and then I found out that he had done four portraits. I said, ‘I’m not going to buy four.’ So I asked him for the two that he thought went best together. I would have wonderful times with Andy. We would go out to restaurants; he would always go to Mr Chow where everyone went on Sunday nights. And I would have lunch with Andy and Fred alone. Andy was a great listener. I find a true artist is an observer.
‘For me, she is the ideal Texan.’
Karl Lagerfeld, fashion designer
Another great artist that your name is linked with through your work at the Rothko Chapel is Mark Rothko. Can you say a little bit about the chapel?
I had always gone to events at the Chapel when Mrs de Menil was alive. I was fortunate to know her, but it was only when I was asked to chair the 40th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel that I really became closely involved in its programme.
The de Menils are at the heart of Houston’s cultural history and development. Can you talk a little about your relationship with Dominique and Jean de Menil?
I knew them as a couple. I had such admiration for Mrs D, and we would have wonderful talks together. I contributed to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, which was built by her son François de Menil and was the last project to be completed by her in her lifetime. One day she invited me to this long dark rectangular room – this would later be Richmond Hall, the Dan Flavin Installation at the Menil Collection. She was at the opposite end of the room and said, ‘Come in Lynn, come closer.’ So I started walking towards her, and the room grew a bit lighter. As I came closer to the light, she said, ‘Stop!’ So I stopped. ‘Now, look up.’ I looked up, and there were these paintings adhered to the ceiling, 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from Lysi in Cyprus. I was so overcome, I had to lie down on the ground and look up because it was so powerful, so beautiful. She said, ‘I know you’re very spiritual.’ Like her, I believe that all religions are good, and they all preach love and kindness. She was a visionary. How many contemporary artists have museums named after themselves? The Rothko Chapel and the Twombly Museum, both designed by the de Menils, who had this vision of making museums for living artists.
‘When everybody was doing “The Twist”, I got a trophy for it. My stomach would start hurting because I would be twisting so hard.’
The 1970s were known as a decade of hedonism. How did you experience the heady era of the 1970s? For example, did you go to Studio 54?
I went to Studio 54. It was happening. What changed everything was the presence of a disc jockey and dancing. It started earlier when everybody was doing ‘The Twist’; I got a trophy for it in the late 1960s or the early 1970s. My stomach would start hurting because I would be twisting so hard. So if I knew I would be going out dancing, I wouldn’t eat that much for dinner. And I loved dancing at Studio 54. They took it to another level. The creativity plus the fact that Steve Rubell did not let everybody in. That doorman had more power than anybody, and that made people want to go even more! After every dinner party that I would go to in New York, people would get up and leave after the dinner and go to Studio 54. Nightclubs! Even in the South of France when we had our villas, we’d go to Régine’s. It was a major change. I met Liza Minnelli then, and she would come and stay with me in the south of France every year. I love her. Those days, I was travelling a lot to Europe. I met Mick Jagger, who is fabulous, a real musician and very intelligent man. He was so interesting, in a surprising way. He is very, very smart.
And of course style-wise in the 1970s, were you wearing American designers like Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, or were you still favouring European couture?
I love Halston! I love, love Halston!! I still have double-ply cashmere capes that he made. He made them in a special shape that you’re supposed to sling over your shoulder. He made it in this special form, and I’ve got it in every colour: black, black and white, camel… My choices, especially about haute couture, were classic with a little twist to it. I think that’s why the ones that I’m wearing in these portraits, I could still wear today.
Another American designer that that you also favour and obviously have a friendship with is Oscar de la Renta. What do you find inspiring about the work and the man?
Well first of all, I love the man! He understands what women want to wear to look pretty. That’s why they all go to him for a special wedding, for a special ball. I went to him to make a made-to-measure dress for my Yellow Rose of Texas Ball three or four years ago.
Tell me about Karl Lagerfeld!
Karl! I dream about Karl! First of all, I think he is a true genius. He captures the essence of what Mademoiselle Coco would probably be doing today, as well as, if not better than her. You also rarely see a person who is a creative artist and a businessperson as well. Those parts of the brain don’t usually go together – creativity and business – and Karl is a businessperson; I’ve seen him in action! He has a real business mind. For him, it’s a duel combination. He is also so brilliant and can quote what ever you want him to quote. He talks so fast and in every language that he speaks. One of the most wonderful memories that I have is when he asked me to go to Venice with him. It was for the Film Festival. To see Venice through Karl Lagerfeld’s eyes, I mean, I was swooning! I just fell in love with him! And even though I don’t see him that much, I’m still in love with that man.
He is planning to go to Dallas in December to show the Chanel Métiers d’Art collection.
I know. I hope I’m invited!
It’s the collection that Karl created in order to celebrate the work of the petites mains.
And there’s nobody that appreciates the petites mains more than I.
In the 1970s, Truman Capote was writing his infamous roman à clef, Answered Prayers, of which in 1975 he sold four chapters of the novel-in-progress to Esquire. This resulted in an uproar among Capote’s friends and acquaintances, who recognised thinly veiled characters based on themselves. Tell me about this. Did you feel betrayed by Truman?
Oh, not at all. I feel like Truman was really in love with these women. I think that we’re lucky that we weren’t talked about because that’s just the way it turned out. But I don’t think he expected it to turn out that way either. I think to be a real writer you have to observe. And he was a writer. We all knew that! He was an entertainer, but he was also an observer. It was his job, just like Oscar going to his office. It was where he drew from for his material. So I never thought of it at all like that, in terms of betrayal; I never looked at it in that light.
Other great observers are photographers, and you have been photographed by some of the greatest. Tell me about Slim Aarons, one of the great ‘society photographers’ from the 1950s through to the 1970s.
First of all, he loved photographing and would tell wonderful stories. He took a couple of pictures of my sons and would say, ‘I can’t put them in the magazine because you look like you’re their sister!’ I was also on the cover of Town & Country photographed by Norman Parkinson. I think that these photographers get the picture they want by talking with the person and understanding. They must be psychiatrists or psychologists as well as artists in order to make the person feel relaxed and do what they want them to do. Same with Helmut Newton…
‘Helmut [Newton] gave me so many pictures. There’s one with this gorgeous girl, and she’s nude – I have to keep telling everybody it’s not me!’
When did you first meet Helmut?
I met him and his wife, June Newton, in the south of France. We became very close and would see them often. I would come to the south of France in the first part of July, and they would be the first people we would see there. They would take me out to dinner, just the three of us; it was like a ritual. We would go to Rampoldi in Monte Carlo. One time he was commissioned to do a portrait of me by Texas Monthly, and he decided since it was a Texas magazine, he was going to put me in the oil fields. So he scouted a location, and there’s this portrait of me standing with oil fields in the background, and I have on this stunning Yves Saint Laurent cape that comes all the way down over this evening dress. He just knew exactly what he wanted. He was a great friend. I’m still friends with June, and this summer when I went to the south of France, we had lunch together. I’m loyal to my friends because they’re loyal to me.
I also believe you have a room in the house dedicated to his work.
[Laughs] He gave me so many pictures. He would sign them all, from the 1970s to the 1980s. And I had all of these pictures that he took of me, and I thought that I must hang them. And when he realised that I was hanging these pictures, he gave me more pictures, so I hung them up as well. There’s one picture with this gorgeous girl at the end of a diving board, and she’s nude – I have to keep telling everybody that it’s not me! Anyway, people would come in from New York and would ask to see the ‘Helmut Newton Room’! Finally Helmut found out about it, and Oscar said, ‘Helmut, don’t get too excited – it’s in the downstairs powder room!’ So, then he sent a picture of himself pointing his finger, and underneath it says: ‘I am watching you.’
‘She is as peppy as a little 16-year-old and so much more fun!’
Jean Pigozzi, philanthropist and photographer
One of the infamous parties you threw in Houston was to celebrate the opening of the film Urban Cowboy in May 1980, when you rode the mechanical bull at Gilley’s Club during the party.
Yes! It was a film with John Travolta and Debra Winger, and they wanted me to host a party at this place about 30 minutes outside Houston. So I rented out one of the movie theatres, and then had a big bus to bus us over there. We were all in Western garb! Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger came, and Jerry had on this fabulous gold bodysuit. I said to her, ‘Oh! Where did you get that? That looks fabulous!’ She said, ‘I borrowed it from George Hamilton.’ Andy Warhol came down too.
Can you remember your outfit?
I think it was a purple leather skirt with a jacket with purple boots and a purple hat. We were dressed up to the nines with a lot of fringe!
One of your closest friends is Elton John who has been a great supporter of a lot of the work you do. When did you first meet him?
He has been a good close friend for about 20 years. I met him in Houston. I had lunch with his then agent who asked me to Elton’s concert that same night, and he said that Elton wanted me to go to his dressing room before the show. So I went to his dressing room, and there was this rack of clothes about 14 feet long, on which were hanging the most fabulous outfits with the shoes that match and sunglasses in another case that match everything. And I said, ‘Wow, do you go on tour with this?’ He said, ‘This is just for tonight.’ ‘Just for tonight!?’ He said, ‘Yes. I’m away from home, and I like to make my choice at the last minute.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to see your real closet.’ He said, ‘I’d’ like to see yours.’ And he underlines yours. That’s when we became fast friends. Then he bought a villa in the south of France that was 15 minutes away from my villa. That’s where we really became close because we were together a lot then. He just loves entertaining and composing. And over the years, he has just turned out to be the most amazing human being. I gave the 50th anniversary gala for the Houston Opera, and I had Elton John come. He is so loyal, so smart, so funny, so amusing. And he’s so caring. I don’t know how to explain how loving he is. So it’s just a blessing to know him, for him to be my friend. I can’t say enough about this man.
And you of course come over every year for his White Tie and Tiara Party in Windsor. It feels like you’ve never missed one.
That’s exactly right. It was the 20th anniversary this year. In fact, it’s not even a White Tie and Tiara Party anymore; it’s called his White Tie Summer Ball.
I was interested to know who were the important opera singers and ballet dancers that you have met. I believe you met Rudolph Nureyev.
You’re sneaky. You know all of these things!
I’d love to hear about Nureyev.
He was brilliant, moody, exciting, opinionated, fun. One day, my husband was going to the OPEC meeting in Vienna, and I had read that Nureyev was going to be performing in Vienna. I had met him on Stavros Niarchos’s boat, and we had become fast friends. He asked me to come up on the higher deck with him while he stretched. I’m sitting there on this fabulous boat, the Atlantis, and he has Tchaikovsky blaring out. Here I am looking at this perfect specimen of man with the sun going down, the clouds just forming in the most beautiful pinks and reds, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t ever forget this!’ So back to Vienna, I called him to see if we could see each other there. He said, ‘Well I’ll be rehearsing, but I want to show you my Vienna!’ Fabulous! So the first night Oscar had dinner in this famous restaurant, and Nureyev said he’d meet me there after his rehearsal. Oscar was teasing me, saying he’ll never come. During dessert, I hear this rumble and I see Nureyev come in. He’s in a full-length cape with a knit cap over his head. He walks over, takes this black cape, twirls it around his head, and points his toe, puts his nose down to his toe, and does this fabulous bow in front of my chair. And the whole restaurant bursts into applause. I mean it was just so incredible. Then he asked Oscar if he could walk me home. He walked me through these little Viennese streets saying, ‘I want to show you this tapestry that I’m thinking of buying.’ From then on, Nureyev would to take me to all these places after his rehearsals. I mean he had girls and guys following him everywhere. I would say to him, ‘Why don’t you just turn around and wave at them? All they want is a little acknowledgement from you.’ He kept on walking, saying [laughs] ‘No way.’
‘She is the best friend. I cannot say anything more… Or maybe yes… That she is super chic, beautiful, smart, witty, fun, a good mother and wife, in love with life.’
Valentino Garavani, fashion designer
Another one of your great friends is Valentino, whose fabulous red dress you were wearing at the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, which Dominique de Menil commissioned in 1990.
I’m thinking I may have worn too many ruffles. But it’s about the 1990s – we wore extreme things. Valentino is a loyal friend. I met him by going to his shows. I always said that no king lives better than Valentino. He has a way of style and life. I’ve been a houseguest at his chalet in Gstaad several times. He goes out to ski and when he comes back he looks exactly the same. His little cravat is perfectly done. His hair never gets out of place. His suntan is absolutely perfect. The most exciting party that I’ve ever been to was his big 50th anniversary in Rome when he rented the Coliseum. It was a three-day deal and had these incredible dancers swinging on beautiful Valentino red materials doing acrobatics like Cirque du Soleil. It was incredible with the most beautiful opera and music. Everyone was practically crying. So I went up to him afterwards, and I said, ‘There’s the Pope and then there’s Valentino’. [Laughs]
There was often a restraint to certain clothes in the 1990s. I wondered if you’re someone who favours simplicity and practicality when it comes to style.
Yes, I love to mix things and I love to accessorise. And I can wear a couture skirt with a black fitted H&M T-shirt and a black patent-leather belt!
Tom Ford was also an important figure in fashion in the 1990s.
I love his clothes. The latest thing I have from him is this sapphire-blue velvet jacket with sheer cut-outs. I am crazy about him. I had a good time with him when we were in India together. He’s a perfectionist, but he’s got a good sense of humour. He’s got great style, and his first movie I might add is really something. And he’s so handsome!
‘From the moment I first encountered Lynn walking across the terrace of Elton and David’s house in Nice, I was completely entranced. She has it all: style, grace, poise and beauty… and that’s all before you hear her speak… wow! What a voice! What’s so remarkable about Lynn, however, is that beneath the immaculate and beguiling exterior, there resides a rare humour, a fine intelligence and a steely resolve to fight for causes she fervently believes in. And to top it all she can have a soufflé whipped up at the drop of a hat!’
Jay Jopling, White Cube Gallery
You have many friends in the contemporary art world including some of the most influential gallerists. Jay Jopling is a good friend, and I believe he asked you once to help him out at the White Cube Gallery in London.
[Laughs] I can’t believe you’re going to bring up that story! He kept saying, ‘I really really like your voice.’ He said, ‘Would you mind talking on my voicemail on the weekends and just saying that my gallery is open on certain days of the week or whatever?’ I said, ‘Jay, you’ve got to be kidding.’ He came back to me and said, ‘I’m really serious. I want you to do this. We’re not going to have it forever’ So one day when I was in London, he asked if he could send a professional recorder from the BBC to record me. ‘I’ll have it all written down. But you can do your own thing as well.’ So at 11 o’clock, the man arrived with all of his equipment. He was looking around in my suite, and he finally found this closet. And he said, ‘Lynn would you mind going into the closet and saying just a few things over this mic?’ And I did.
Another organisation that you have been involved in Houston is ‘The Brilliant Lecture Series’. How did this series come about?
The idea was initiated by our founding director Scott Brogan – to have brilliant people speak to young people to inspire them. The first one was Queen Noor; she was wonderful. Since then Scott has come up with incredible ideas. Sidney Poitier and Maya Angelou came, and I interviewed George Clooney which was great. There were more adults there than children I might add! More women then men! And recently we had the Hungarian violin prodigy, Edvin Marton, perform with an amazing Stradivarius. He got a scholarship for Juilliard, and he performed for the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra when he was 12 years old. He put on a special performance that was unlike anything. There were four attractive women that played beautifully on the stage with him and then these two dancers came out to dance with him. It was absolutely mesmerising. We try to do things three or four times a year.
And there’s also the Texan-French Alliance for the Arts. Can you explain a little bit about that?
About seven or eight years ago the French ambassador came to Houston, and I was seated next to him. He had the idea of having French artists come over and American artists going over to Paris. That turned out to be a wonderful exchange!
‘Lynn is about the coolest woman I know. I even have a T-shirt with her face on to remind me of my manners, decorum and hell, to have fun in my crazy life.’
Sam Taylor-Johnson, artist and filmmaker
It’s been interesting to observe you with the artist Robert Polidori, with whom we have been working with on our shoot for System. Describe that interaction and how you connected with him.
I met him for the first time the night he arrived in Houston at a dinner that was given by François de Menil; I connected immediately. He has an emotional side to him, and he even said, ‘I’m an emotional man.’ I ended up putting my arms around him, saying, ‘Oh, you’re just adorable! Adorable!’ He said, ‘And so are you!’ And he was telling me about his 18-month-old daughter, and I could tell that she was the light of his life. He’s a perfectionist. It’s the first time that I have ever known a photographer that takes only one picture, two pictures, period. He spent hours setting everything up, but I was in and out of there in 15 minutes. It shows how much of a perfectionist he is. He had a little piece of tape on the floor where I was to stand. He told me where to look on the walls. And if I varied just a little bit, he would say, ‘Go back four inches.’ And he really meant four inches, not four and a half! [Laughs]
On the last night of our shoot we did portraits at James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace on Rice University Campus which opened last year.
Turrell has that same incredible creativity. I love that and appreciate that. I am so open to new things. I’m not set in my ways. I’m anxious to learn, and I like it when somebody can even change my mind.
It’s a good quality to have.
Well, thank you. I think up until our last breath, we’re still learning.
And on that last night, you were wearing the magnificent black Ralph Lauren ensemble beneath the James Turrell Skyspace. Ralph Lauren is a designer who is exploring the manifestation of the American Dream in his designs.
I’m an Oscar de la Renta girl, I’m a Carolina Herrera girl and I am a Ralph Lauren girl.
You also keep up with the younger designers. You’ve recently been fitted by Roland Mouret in London for example.
I had heard about and seen some of his clothes. And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got to look him up!’ And sure enough, there was a small dinner party, and he was there. We started talking, and I said that I was a fan of his work. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to my studio tomorrow?’ So I did, and I got some incredible pieces from him.
It’s not only young designers you meet but also musicians. For example you know Lady Gaga. How did you meet her?
She was also a houseguest when I was at Elton John’s for his White Tie Summer Ball about three or four years ago. She was rehearsing for her performance at the Ball, and she came in to have lunch with us. Her skin is so beautiful! She’s just so young. Of course I think everybody is younger than me! I admired how she had such poise. She knew exactly how she wanted to perform and how she wanted everything to be. I had a wonderful time talking to her and when the performance and the gala were over, we came back to the house. Elton said, ‘Let’s put on our dressing gowns and meet downstairs.’ She and I started talking, and we hit it off. I’ll never forget, she said to me, ‘When I grow up, I want to be Lynn Wyatt!’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding! You’re only 19 years old. In three months, you’re not even going to see me in your rear-view mirror!’
Houston is now a city that is internationally recognised as a centre for the arts. How would you describe your hometown?
That’s a good question. This city is very sophisticated. It has become international. Houston has so much diversity. We are a third Hispanic, a third African-American and a third Caucasian. It’s amazing now how truly international it is. I love Houston. I am proud to be a citizen of Houston, and am proud to be born-and-bred here. My family goes back three generations, and it’s my family that really taught me to give back to this city and to give back to community. I try to give back as much as I can. And I don’t like to put my name on other things unless I’m really contributing and involved. There are a lot of things that you have to say no to, but I’d rather be passionate about something and give the most that I can to those things that mean the most to me.
And you do.