GET UP, DRESS UP, SHOW UP

Lance Avery Morgan has a few strict rules for living well.

BY DOROTHY HARRIGAN
Photography by Michael Thad Carter

 

For Lance Avery Morgan, presentation is everything. As a child, he was often reminded by his impeccably dressed mother, Carolyn Montgomery, to always be presentable and prepared to receive a guest. During our interview, Morgan talked about a few boyhood photos that really tell the story. “Have you ever seen a six-year-old child in a white dinner jacket?” he said with a boisterous laugh.

If you haven’t heard of Morgan, you may need to check your standing among the society set in Austin, Dallas or Houston. He is the co-founder and former editorial director of Brilliant magazine, as well as the former editor of The Elegant Texan, Verve, Cigar Lifestyles and Austin Monthly. His current editorial passion is The Society Diaries, a magazine and media platform that, in his words, focuses on the dynamic region of Austin, San Antonio, South Texas and Mexico. He also keeps very busy with his social philanthropy. Recently, he has been involved with both Two X Two for AIDS and Art in Dallas and HRC’s Black Tie Dinner, and he was just asked to be a member of the 2013 Style Council for DIFFA Dallas. In the midst of all this, Morgan found the time to write a novel, The Society Chronicles. It’s a work of fiction based on his experiences swimming in high society circles around the globe. The hero is Jake Gaines, editor of a luxurious lifestyle magazine called Dazzle.

As we met for an afternoon glass of tea at the Four Seasons in Austin, it was immediately apparent to me that Morgan would be hosting the interview and that I would be his guest. He was waiting for me in the lobby bar, dressed in a beautifully tailored navy jacket, a stiff white- collared shirt and the finishing touch of a purple satin pocket square. “I love a writer who is on time!” he said while giving me a strong hug. His cheeks were boyish, his hair ashy blond and his age was not to be revealed.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I needed to interview him at all. Ahead of our meeting, he had basically done all of the legwork for me. He emailed me a delightful document called “Lance At A Glance” that walks any would-be reporter through his notable personal and professional characteristics. A few examples: “speaks with a slight Southern drawl; collects vintage magazines; his favorite restaurant in the world is 21 in the Big Apple.” I was also given a full bio and a curated list of sources who were already standing by.

All this was convenient and generous, but it also subtly reinforced his artfully constructed facade. Every question I asked was greeted with a response that was at once informative, reflective, of the moment, spiritual, concise and quick-witted. When I asked him how he summons the energy to attend and even emcee so many charity galas, balls and cocktail parties throughout the year, he replied, “Every cause and every event matters because I know what goes into it. The chairs have spent a year of hard labor and earned nothing but a place in heaven. Ladies who lunch? More like ladies who launch!”

Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, editor at large for Southern Living and the host of the syndicated show Texas Living in Dallas, has known Morgan professionally and socially for years and was one of his first cover profiles for Brilliant. “Lance is one of the friendliest people I know,” she told me. “He is always looking for excitement, and that natural drive always lands him in the middle of the best stories.” Whitman can still remember one of her earliest interactions with Morgan. “He was so gracious with a ‘the more the merrier’ attitude when he was extending an invitation years ago  as I was first getting to know him. He wanted my entire family to come to a launch party—so sweet.”

I needed to get deep, suspecting there was a vulnerable, deep-feeling mushy center to the ultimate man about town. So I asked him what it was like to be a gay man in today’s political climate. His trademark optimism informed this topic too. “Everyone just wants to be treated fairly; it’s truly like having brown eyes or being left-handed. It’s a given, like civil rights. We’ll all be one big happy family, as they say.”

But as our conversation about LGBT issues continued, he revealed something that really did bother him. He spoke about how throughout his life he has always valued older things: vintage manners, expressions and of course, fashion. The loss of almost an entire generation of gay men to AIDS is a tragedy that haunts him every day. Morgan and many of his peers have been living life with so few mentors to look up to—a broken link to the past. “It still gets to me sometimes—just what we have lost,” he said.

To hear him tell it, childhood was delectable and idyllic. Morgan can remember entire outfits that his family wore growing up. The whole family had a shared sense of style and joie de vivre. His father worked for Slax Menswear, the leading men’s store in Austin at the time, and it was his business to look sharp. Sleek suits and accessories like cuff links and tie bars were a part of everyday attire. His mother wore colorful cashmere shift dresses with a long strand of pearls. “The ‘70s Mary Tyler Moore Show-type of career dressing and brightly colored separates were important and on trend for her.” But when he was two, his parents divorced and his father moved to California. He said that back then divorces weren’t the amicable, co-parenting situations so many are today. “I don’t believe in revisionist history,” he said, eager to change the subject. “The way things happened is the way things were meant to be.”

After the divorce, his two much older brothers, Rod and Larry, became the male figures in his life. His mother and grandmother raised them all to be productive, debonair and well behaved. “My mom has a very specific point of view for what it takes to raise successful sons. If I would screw up at the dinner table, the comment was ‘now if that happened when you were dining at the White House, how do you think the President and First Lady might react?’

I spoke to his best friend, Jill Skinner (the “Grace” to his “Will”), by phone while she was sitting in traffic in Los Angeles. Skinner and Morgan were roommates in the early late ’80s and ’90s when he first moved to the West Coast. I wanted to hear from someone who really knew him—what shaped him into the relentlessly driven person he is today? She hesitated a bit when getting into emotional territory. “He was raised to accept difficult times and challenges, to take responsibility for things and move ahead,” she said. “The whole family is like that; they never seem to dwell on anything. Maybe to a fault—no one ever dealt with or discussed anything that was negative. It’s ingrained. ‘Onward and upward’ is his favorite saying. He just looks for the next great thing. It’s one of the best things about him, but it can also be one of the most annoying things about him. I have to say, ‘Lance, sometimes I just need to wallow!’”

Nowadays Morgan is settling into a new family life. He has been with his partner, Rob Giardinelli, for almost two years. The pair met in Austin at a Halloween party where Morgan was dressed as a fighter pilot and Giardinelli was a doctor. “Let’s say I was a serial dater my whole

life, and I have loved the social aspect of what life is, and I’ve approached that robustly, and then I met this character named Rob Giardinelli who changed my life for the better. So he is easily the most incredible person I’ve ever met, and he’s full of heart and spirit. He’s just perfect; he’s just the perfect man. Wildly talented, wildly smart, wildly attractive.”

From Skinner’s vantage point, his relationship with Giardinelli has changed everything. “That has been huge,” she said. Giardinelli is the first guy that she’s aware of whom Morgan has introduced to his friends and family. For years he was so private that few people knew anything about his love life.

As for Giardinelli, he told me he was attracted to Morgan because of his wit and sunny disposition and the way he was “genuinely interested in everything I had to say.” He said that some might be surprised to learn that Morgan isn’t a big drinker and that he loves to leave a party early, while everyone is still having fun.

Last year was the couple’s first time spending the holidays together. Morgan remembers his first “big fat Italian Christmas” fondly. They spent a few days in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the Giardinelli family lives. As he described the trip, Morgan was as giddy as an anthropologist who had stumbled upon a long-lost tribe. “These are Northeasterners, and there are no filters. Everything is out there, and they are so full of tremendous love for each other, and for life, and food and wine!” Giardinelli said it has been a pleasant surprise to watch Morgan interact with his family. “My family isn’t the most conventional family in America,” he admitted.

Though it would seem as though these two are out every night of the week, Morgan insists that his favorite kind of evening is a night in at home. As he ran down his list of quintessential elements for a memorable at-home gathering, I was struck by his interest in the elite. After talking about how you should invite as many quirky people as possible and how they should never sit next to their spouses, he mentioned that members of aristocracy always tend to cut loose in a private home. “Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia is just the nicest, most normal guy you’ll ever meet.”

Skinner believes that he is drawn to the one percent because hanging out with them is the closest thing there is to time travel—the courtliness and old- fashioned decorum that he loves so dearly is a dying art. “He caters to the society crowd because it’s really the only place you can find that anymore.”

So when the tux is off and the TV is on, is there a private version of Morgan? When I pressed her, Skinner sounded genuinely excited to give me the answer. “No, there’s not. There truly isn’t! People have this impression that I know his deep dark secrets. He is who he is personally, professionally and publicly.”

As I spent more time in his world, I realized that what matters most to Morgan is the effort a person puts forward. He himself wakes up very early every morning, dresses to make an impression and does his best to make the people he encounters feel fabulous and important. It may seem like a shallow mission to some people, but it’s decidedly not to Morgan. “Everyone lives the life that they want to,” he told me, as our Four Seasons server dropped off the check. “If they want to live a bigger life and try harder, I find that interesting.”

And after meeting Lance Avery Morgan, so do I.