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She's been dirt poor; she's been filthy rich. Rich was more fun. She married three times, divorced twice, found her true love, and lost him to cancer. At twenty-one, she was told she would soon die. She lived. Doctors said she'd never be able to have children. She had 'em. She's bargained with God, dictators, and Democrats. She's partied with princes, presidents, premiers, Barbara Walters, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Tom Hanks, and Francisco Franco . . . though not all at the same time. She captivated ...
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She's been dirt poor; she's been filthy rich. Rich was more fun. She married three times, divorced twice, found her true love, and lost him to cancer. At twenty-one, she was told she would soon die. She lived. Doctors said she'd never be able to have children. She had 'em. She's bargained with God, dictators, and Democrats. She's partied with princes, presidents, premiers, Barbara Walters, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Tom Hanks, and Francisco Franco . . . though not all at the same time. She captivated powerful men with her feminine charm, and then persuaded them toward unlikely political alliances through her formidable intelligence. She waltzed with Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace, dressed in men's clothes and smuggled herself in a barrel across the Pakistani border, threw a Roman-themed party so extravagant it was featured in Life magazine, and survived a Soviet gunship attack in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Joanne Herring, the Houston socialite portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film Charlie Wilson's War, is far more colorful, funny, and likable than any screenwriter could have guessed. The former Texas television anchor is known for her improbable fight with the mujahideen against the former Soviet Union. But her full story-with all its God, guns, and Gucci glory-has never been told. Born in the man's world of Texas in a time when women had limited choices, Joanne Herring blazed a trail with allies as unlikely as Charlie Wilson, Pierre Cardin, and President Ronald Reagan . . . and in so doing forged new paths for women in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and America.
—Pakistani President Musharraf- 10th President of Pakistan and former Chief of Army Staff for the Pakistan Army
"Joanne Herring is an extraordinary woman who was and still is a real catalyst for peace in our world. Here is her story for the first time in her own words about how she worked with Charlie Wilson and others to bring change to one of the most troubled parts of the world, and about what she is doing today to do the same. All of us who love and know Joanne, knows that she never gives up."—George Bush 41st President of the United States
"I love the way Joanne speaks so passionately and with such knowledge about the plight of the Afghan people and all she is doing to help them."—Winston Churchill III
"Joanne Herring is a very difficult woman to say no to."—Charlie Wilson, The True Story of Charlie Wilson, History Channel
"The inimitable and gorgeous Joanne King Herring, smarter and better in life than on any movie screen!"—Barbara Taylor Bradford
"I have known Joanne all my life. She walks where others fear to tread and never quits. She is a flash of light in a dark world."—James A. Baker, Former Secretary of State
"The world is beating a path to her door because of her charm, intelligence and beauty."—Adam Curtis, Current Affairs, BBC
How does it feel to have a film made about you? Awful! CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (played in the movie by Philip Seymour Hoffman) said in George Crile’s book, Charlie Wilson’s War, “It began with a Texas woman… She’s the one who got him interested.” That was true, but I almost choked when I read the original script for the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. What if a movie showed Charlie arriving at your party with his administrative assistant and you imperiously ordered her to retrieve a martini with two olives before you even said hello? My mother would have died of embarrassment!
My southern style would be, “Come on in, honey. What would you like to drink? This is my son Beau. He’ll introduce you to the other guests. Charlie and I need to talk.”
This script had Charlie’s aide sitting on the stairs, drunk, between two trained greyhounds. Trained for what? To guard the stairs! They were to prevent interruptions during “hot-tub parties.” No, sir, that is not me. My role in the script was horrible. I was a Christian who was sleeping with every unidentified man in sight and using “Jesus” as an exclamation point. This caricature of me was terrible. I was portrayed as the worst pseudo-Christian in history, spouting the F-word like the guy who prays loudest at church on Sunday and cheats you at the office on Monday. If it was bad—it was me! In my spare time I caused 9/11. The last scene was the Pentagon shooting up in flames. The script actually said, “Joanne and her conservative Christians caused 9/11.”
I knew that whatever they said about me in this film was going to follow me for life. The script would be a record of what people remembered—even my sons, my grandchildren, and their children’s grandchildren. Imagine having your grandmother immortalized on film, wildly swilling martinis (with two olives), wallowing in bed with strangers, and spouting “F*%k!” while dancing on the flames of the Twin Towers!
I was very happy with the book that George Crile wrote, and I was thrilled about the movie—until I read a purloined copy of the script. I was also distressed about the script because it was about the manipulation of Congress and the worst side of American politics.
The filmmakers had never met me. Christian conservative Republicans have no place in the Hollywood realm. We are valued only as targets for fun, for spoofs, and for playing corrupt businessmen or villains. I don’t mind the politics because I welcome other opinions, but I knew none of those customarily assigned roles were accurate in this case. I knew it because I lived it.
I kept asking the studio people, “Don’t you want to talk to me?”
“You’re paying Julia Roberts a lot to play me. She doesn’t want to talk to me?”
“Julia likes to play her roles the way she sees them,” I was told.
I got the script by a miracle achieved by my childhood friend Anne Baker Horton, the cousin of James Baker, former secretary of state. She asked her daughter-in-law, June Horton, who was vice president of the William Morris Agency, to try to get it. Though it could have cost her her job, June, who was very powerful and very clever, went out on a seriously frail limb to obtain it for me.
When I first read the script, I wept, wailed, gnashed my teeth, and said, “I am going to sue.”
“No, you are not,” said June. “You are a public figure. You have no rights.”
“No rights?” I said. “This is America! What do you mean I have no rights?”
“Do you know a big-time famous lawyer who has a reputation for winning cases against the odds?” she asked.
“Do I know a big-time lawyer? You bet your bippy! He just won a case for a guy who killed his neighbor and cut him into pieces; he got a ‘not guilty’ verdict. That’s my man!” Dick DeGuerin charged sixteen million dollars a case. A bit beyond my pocketbook.
“I’ll write the letter,” June said. “All we need is his letterhead, his signature, and his reputation.”
I dressed in my “go see the best lawyer in the world” outfit and waltzed into Dick’s office, hoping he would help me. After hearing my story, he said, “Joanne, you are a southern lady. I shall not only handle this letter for you with pleasure, but I would never dream of charging you. Southern women must be protected.”
Shades of Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes combined. I was overwhelmed! Southern customs had never seemed so beautiful as they did now, when I needed a Sir Galahad on a white horse. Well, I got ’im. But that’s not all I got!
June wrote a very diplomatic letter, as planned. It was faxed to Dick with the admonition that he did not have to do a thing but okay it for his secretary to type, then sign and send it. Saturday morning I got a call from his secretary asking if I wanted to read the letter before Mr. DeGuerin sent it. “No,” I cooed. “I know what is in the letter. Just send it with my deepest gratitude.”
Monday morning I received a copy. This was not the same letter. To my horror, Sir Galahad had crafted a letter that threatened Tom Hanks and Universal Studios with hanging, burning, and disembowelment! “Farewell, cruel world,” I thought, envisioning the jail in which I would spend my life after Tom Hanks and Universal Studios got through suing me. I waited for my summons to court.
In the interim, June had lunch with the head of Universal Studios, who said, “I don’t know what we are going to do with that crazy woman in Texas who is threatening us with hanging, burning, and disembowelment.” (He, of course, didn’t actually use those words. He used the F-word.) But then he said, “I guess we’ll have to do something about it.”
Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks’s production partner, called me and asked, “Why are you unhappy?”
“Because,” I answered, “you have turned me into a hypocritical, bipolar tart.”
He laughed, as I had hoped he would, and then I proceeded to tell him the true reasons I was so unhappy.
“One minute, I am spouting Christian values in Jesus’s name,” I explained. “The next, I’m rolling in bed with some man, drinking martinis with two olives. I say I am a Christian, then shout ‘f^#k’ when I’m mad and say ‘Jesus’ when I’m surprised. The tart part needs no explanation—who are all those men I’m in bed with anyway?”
Gary listened and backed me. The F-word came out. It didn’t fix everything in the script, but it was a step.
Later I got another call from Gary inviting my son Robin King and me to the set of the movie in Morocco so that we could all “get to know each other.” Then he invited us to Hollywood, where he had planned all kinds of exciting things, such as a dinner in our honor with Tom, Julia, Philip Seymour Hoffman, director Mike Nichols, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. So my next Sir Galahad/Rhett Butler in this adventure was named Gary. He was a darling, very charming, and made the difference for me.
It was the documentary my son Robin and Charles Fawcett, the director, made in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion that was the reason Charlie Wilson and the world originally got interested in the war. When George Crile was writing Charlie Wilson’s War in the 1990s, he had called Robin endlessly to get his views for the book. It was a difficult time, as Charlie had been indicted by a grand jury for alleged corruption. In truth, he was a patriot who gained nothing but pain for trying to stop communists in various parts of the world. But in the strange political world of Washington, bad things sometimes happen to good people. Robin refused to talk to Crile because he feared I might be drawn into the controversy surrounding Charlie. (Indeed, I was questioned by the grand jury.) Charlie was ultimately never charged, and returned to full service in Congress.
In 2007, the movie people begged for scenes from Robin’s film, which Robin refused to release. The first script had been so damning of me, he was afraid of how they might use the footage. It always saddened me that he did not get the credit he deserved for the important part he played in documenting the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.
No one believed the Russians were invading and that the atrocities were taking place. Robin’s film, made in 1981, long before the 2003 book release and the 2007 movie release of Charlie Wilson’s War, proved these attacks and showed world leaders and all those who saw it the truth. Nothing could have been done in the 1980s without his film. He stayed in the war zone for a year helping these beleaguered people. Even though he got some media recognition in the early days and was interviewed by the networks recently, I was still happy when he was finally recognized for his work by the Motion Picture Association of America in a ceremony in 2008.
When we arrived on location in Morocco, Tom was there to greet us. “I’ve been in love with you for six months,” he said. “I have your picture pasted all over my office. Let me give you a kiss.” I was happy to comply. Tom, who was as charming, beguiling, and endearing as he appears on screen, went out of his way to make us feel special. For instance, it was very muddy there on location, so he said, “The queen can’t get her feet wet”… as he scooped me up and carried me to the car!
The trip to Morocco changed everything because the filmmakers got to know me.
One day I noticed a man in the distance on top of a hill. “Oh, there’s Charlie,” I said.
“No, that’s Tom,” someone replied.
I was amazed. Charlie had back problems and an unusual way of holding himself. Tom had so fine-tuned the impersonation that he had even learned to stand like him. He had obviously studied Charlie very closely. But no one seemed interested in studying me. They were all so nice, which made it hard to understand why portraying my real personality did not seem to matter.
When I met Julia, she was absolutely charming, and even more beautiful than she is on-screen. She introduced me to her husband and showed me pictures of her children, who were enchanting replicas of their mother. Her husband was young, good-looking, and terrific. Julia had turned the tables on Hollywood men by marrying a younger, attractive, intelligent “trophy husband,” who obviously adores her.
In the end, I did matter to the movie’s star. I found out when I watched the movie’s DVD extras that Julia was interested more than I thought. Joanne’s “just so enigmatic and energetic…. She walks into a room; she’s a very bright light, so it’s intriguing to be that person and to try to pull that off as a complete, true human being. I think she likes keeping people on their toes and having people go, ‘She does what? She accomplished what?’ ”
But despite all this kindness shown to me by the filmmakers, the script remained unchanged except for the deletion of the F-word.
So I went to the most caring person I know who loves God—Ed Young, the minister of the Second Baptist Church of Houston, with forty-three thousand members. If prayer would help, there was plenty of it here. We bowed our heads and prayed.
During my Hollywood visit, I had said to Tom, “You are the most loved actor in America. Why would you make a movie that makes America feel bad? The script depicts Washington as a corrupt, manipulative place and the folks that run it as pretty awful. [I wasn’t the only one who got socked in the script.] Our country needs to feel good about itself. You need to buy Benjamin Franklin, by Walter Isaacson, and John Adams and 1776, by David McCullough—books about our founding fathers—and make movies that make Americans proud, just as they are proud of you.”
Six months later he called me from Hungary and said, “Joanne, we’ve changed the whole script. It cost us a million dollars. We like it and you’re going to like it.”
“We have done a really intelligent adult movie,” he said.
“Who am I sleeping with now?” I asked dryly.
“Is that obvious?”
“Yes,” he said.
“How is that obvious?”
“He has on a wedding ring.” He paused. “But there is still a little hanky-panky with Charlie. Joanne, remember, this is Hollywood.”
(Little did I know that his idea of “little” involved hot-tub scenes and greyhounds.)
“And, by the way,” he continued, “Gary and I did buy John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and 1776, and we’re going to produce them.”
“Thank you, Tom,” I said, breathing again, oh so happy, and deeply grateful to both Tom and Gary and to God.
Prayer had made the difference.
John Adams was made as a fascinating, historically correct miniseries. If you haven’t seen it, buy it, keep it, show it to your children, and give it to their schools. It is an enthralling way to learn history. The story of our founding fathers’ struggle to establish our republic will be just as relevant tomorrow as it is today.
When the movie was released in December of 2007, it was a thrill to attend the premiere in Hollywood. Tom proved to be the great American that we all love, and I’ll never forget Gary Goetzman either. Those who serve silently, serve best! He, too, is a great American.
Let’s not forget writer Aaron Sorkin, either, who wrote The Social Network and many others. He is a brilliant writer but a screaming liberal. I love him to pieces anyway. He is a sugarplum.
I was touched by these talented and caring men. My views were not their views. Their politics were not my politics. But we came together to tell a story important to our country, and it made a difference. It’s what I did with Charlie, and it’s what I am doing today. We’ve got to work together. We all win when we do!
And the new script? I had no idea what was in it. I thought positively and held my breath…
My family was full of raconteurs whose personal stories came tumbling out of the past as if from a cornucopia rich with history. Bedtime stories were always about the family. Here are a few.
My great-great-grandmother (the great-niece of George Washington) possessed courage. She bravely faced General Ulysses S. Grant, who burned, robbed, and destroyed everything in his path. When Grant arrived at her door, and announced he was going to make her home his official headquarters, she greeted him by saying, “You’re welcome in this house—as long as you conduct yourself like a gentleman. I expect you to return the house to me as you found it. Under no circumstances are you to come into my bedroom.”
This was an invading army, yet Grant actually complied! He burned every other building in the town (and even stole her husband’s tombstone) but never set foot in Great-Great-Grandmother’s bedroom. Good thing too. That’s where she hid the family’s treasures!
When the newspapers first started writing about me, believe me, they checked out whether I really was related to George Washington. I was, through his cousin Catherine and his sister Betty. My favorite story involves Betty.
In 1776, the Marquis de Lafayette was coming to her house for dinner, and Betty knew he would be expecting spirits. The war’s embargoes had caused shortages of everything, though, including liquor. Betty considered the tiny amounts of liquor left in her remaining bottles. She combined them and poured the mixture into a cut-crystal glass, to which she tied iridescent cock feathers, to make it more festive.
“A cocktail!” cried the delighted marquis.
Legend has it that Betty’s fancy creation was the first cocktail ever served.
“Uncle George” Washington was used mercilessly by my family to teach me how to behave properly. I constantly heard “Uncle George did this” and “Uncle George did that.” I tried to measure up to his high standards. There were many—too many—but I did my best… until the day my grandmother handed me a scrub brush and said, “Uncle George always washed out his own bathtub.”
Her credibility crumbled. The maid had just quit.
There were many lessons I did learn from the legend of George Washington—a sense of duty and the necessity for sacrifice, for instance. Over and over I’ve made choices between my children, my family, my job, and what I felt called to do. People considered only the public side of my life and what was written about me in the society pages. But fun has often played only a small part in my life. I have always had a sense of responsibility, and even amid the seeming frivolity, when I’m using often underrated or dismissed social tools, such as good manners, I usually have a serious goal in mind.
George Washington could charm anyone, but it frustrates me that no one ever writes that about him. Instead, he is always painted as a dignified, rather boring figure. History records that, in reality, he loved music, parties, and dancing. He was the best dancer and the best horseman in Virginia. He loved having fun. He was not the stiff, dull man that is often portrayed. How could a bore be twice elected unanimously to serve as the army’s commander in chief and the president of the United States?
Washington had important help from the French in winning America’s independence. Perhaps the French did it for political reasons—every country does—but without them, America could not have won. They provided troops and money at a crucial time, when Washington’s army had not been paid in more than a year and his men were deserting daily. The French fought the naval Battle of the Chesapeake—no American ships were even in that battle—without which there would have been no victory at Yorktown. Yorktown was the decisive battle of the American Revolution.
Washington convinced three important Frenchmen—the Marquis de Lafayette, Admiral Joseph de Grasse, and General de Rochambeau—to help our fledgling country, a treasonable offense! But he got these French men to support his American Revolution. They risked their reputations, fortunes, and lives because of Washington’s magnetism and his dream of freedom, equality, and opportunity. Ten years later, in the French Revolution, they lost everything except their heads.
I have become involved in Afghanistan again, a nation not too dissimilar to what our own was when George Washington was alive. The war machine of the Soviet Union was defeated by this small nation the size of Texas. We helped the Afghans then by supplying weapons and support, but not one American soldier died in that war. Though we owed the Afghan people a huge debt afterward, we left them a war-torn country, wounded and dying. That’s when the terrorists (the Taliban and Al-Qaeda) moved in. And that’s why I am now working to rebuild Afghanistan—to win the peace that that country, twice torn by war, so richly deserves. I want to help revive that country’s strength so that its people can stand up—and defend themselves so our American soldiers can come home.
My parents always taught me that money doesn’t matter. “What matters,” they said, “is who and what you are.” There was always enough money. But many of those with whom I grew up were people of enormous wealth. My parents, William Dunlap Johnson and Maelan McGill, came from nice families, but both were orphaned and adopted by aunts and uncles with no children. One uncle was the founder of Gulf Oil, and the other owned hundreds of acres in Houston, which became Memorial Drive—so nobody starved. Isn’t it interesting that two orphaned children each had a childless aunt and uncle longing for children? See how God provides? And God provided me with a wonderful family.
Our house was on three and one-half acres on Kirby Drive in River Oaks, an elegant neighborhood. Ultimately, an Arab prince bought it.
There were no sidewalks because nobody walked anywhere. Nobody but me, that is! I had to walk to school. My family thought it was good for me. Other kids had chauffeurs and maids to drive them to school. Our family had a chauffeur and a maid too. But they never treated me in the style to which I thought I should become accustomed. It didn’t really matter how I arrived at school, though. No one paid me any attention, anyway.
I was tall—the tallest child, male or female, in the class. I had black hair, slanted brown eyes, and high cheekbones, which would serve me well later. But on a young child, such bones were not pretty. My mother, a ravishing redhead with aqua eyes, tried to make me feel good about my drab coloring. “Oh, I always wanted a child with black hair and brown eyes,” she’d say. She was kind, but I knew the truth: I was a little mouse.
Eventually, I grew into my bone structure and looked better. After my first divorce, I wanted a new look and a new life. I experimented with every color and finally decided to see whether blondes have more fun. Miss Clairol and I settled on blonde as my “natural” hair color. When people said I looked enough like my friend Eva Gabor to be her sister, I was flattered beyond belief. The sister of Zsa Zsa, Eva was the Hungarian actress who was known for her role as Lisa Douglas on the television show Green Acres.
But that was many years in the future. As a kid, I was quite plain. I was also skinny at a time when women had to be plump to be considered pretty, like Jane Russell, the icon of my generation.
And I was dyslexic. There are a thousand ways to be dyslexic, but, basically, it means your eyes play tricks. You read letters backwards. Numbers jump from column to column, changing the line of figures completely. You can’t read or add what you can’t see. Even today I often have to dial a phone number several times because the numbers keep jumping. When I type the word “had,” it comes out “dha.”
When I was a child, teachers and parents knew nothing about dyslexia. Undiagnosed children with dyslexia often become shy, defeated, or class problems. They are punished for “not trying.” When I was baffled in class, it was scary and humiliating. I’d try so hard but would almost always get the wrong answer. Before I went to school, my mother had read the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Bible to me. She knew that I had understood what she was reading. So when I did poorly in school, she realized that I was not dumb and kept right on challenging me. My mother’s belief in me helped me succeed despite this handicap—which prepared me to wage war against conventional thinking in my future.
When I was ten, we sold our house in town and moved to five hundred acres about ten miles from Houston. It was our family’s “country home,” and it was a copy of Mount Vernon, with a ballroom and a beautiful stable, replicas of those belonging to the governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. Five generations of us lived in that house near Houston.
One morning while getting ready to ride my horse, I felt something hard hit my leg. “Daddy!” I shrieked. “A snake!”
John, the stable manager, began to run toward me, but, to my horror, my father stopped him. “Kick it off!” he told me.
I felt betrayed. I could not believe my indulgent father was not coming to my rescue. I kicked it off, expecting a hug.
Then he said, “Kill it!”
“How?” I wailed.
“That hoe against the tree,” he directed. I grabbed it and brought it down hard on the snake, my heart pounding. The snake was dead.
“Rattlesnake,” my father commented. “Good work.” Then he calmly walked off.
Only later did I realize that it was a harmless king snake—and he knew it, too. Daddy upgraded it to give me confidence. He always said, “Children need to experience success or they won’t realize their full potential.”
It was a harsh lesson, but it worked. From my ten-year-old perspective, I had just single-handedly killed the most poisonous reptile on the face of the earth. I really needed that feeling because my classroom humiliation left me with no confidence. My father was teaching me that whatever happened, I could handle it.
“Never give in to fear—it interferes with winning,” he often said.
Winning came naturally to William Dunlap Johnson. He lettered in every sport, was first pick for pro football one year (over future Olympian Jim Thorpe), was the first All-American in the Southwest Conference, was elected to the honor society, and was voted “most popular man” and “most likely to succeed.” As captain of the football team at Texas A&M University, to inspire his teammates he refused to wear a helmet. In the 1922 Cotton Bowl Classic (which in those days was as big as any one of today’s New Year’s Day bowl games), he scored the winning touchdown—barefoot! Fear and failure were (and are) just not done in our family.
Loneliness helped me overcome dyslexia by making me a voracious reader; many people who have dyslexia often have difficulty and discomfort reading, but practice makes perfect. As a young girl, I taught myself the joy of constantly learning new things. I gobbled up all kinds of books in the family’s formidable library. Then my uncle sent me a state-of-the-art record player along with his classical music collection. The music helped me appreciate the great composers, while the reading awakened an interest in history. Mine was a self-education in the classics at the ripe old age of ten! I thought that was quite sufficient.
But my father and mother obviously decided that if I wasn’t pretty I should be educated. My father taught me when, where, and why. My mother taught me how. Later in life, my parents’ lessons helped me in ways I couldn’t have predicted: first in the building business with my husband, next in my television career, and finally when I visited the great palaces in England, France, Spain, and Italy. At the time I desperately needed to fit in.
My father’s sessions on art, architecture, and design were relentless and thorough. His tutorial continued for two years… and I hated every minute of it. (There was a difference between teaching myself and having my father force me to learn.) Without realizing it, however, I was acquiring knowledge and experience that I would return to again and again in the future when I had little else and needed those lessons. Another tool in my toolbox!
My mother instilled in me manners and the social graces to dress, talk, and dine appropriately. She even taught me the proper way to eat fruit with a knife and fork. She seemed to know everything that I would need to know as an adult when I was in lofty surroundings, however, not quite everything.
Years later, in the shah of Iran’s palace, when I looked around for the small knife traditionally used to put caviar on toast, it was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the toast. So I looked around and thought the only utensil that seemed appropriate was a fork, only to notice belatedly that the other guests were eating their caviar with a small spoon that I had only seen used for demitasse coffee. When they saw me use a fork, however, they immediately picked up their forks and joined me, making no issue at all of my ignorance. Their silent support was the most genuine example of manners and hospitality I have ever seen. But that was far in the future.
My first death knell came the year I was ten.
For a month my mother suffered a fever of 106 degrees caused by a strep infection of the blood. At that time, nobody survived this illness, let alone survived a month with a fever of 106. The only hope was to find a survivor who carried the blood cells that could cure her. The family sent out urgent newspaper and radio messages. Hospital records were searched. At last, a donor was found. By God’s miracle, Carlton Speed lived in Houston! His blood saved her life. I was to become wary every time a new decade arrives. Every ten years, without fail, my life has been marred by eminent tragedy.
At the time, the family sheltered me from knowing how serious her situation was. When I learned the details later, I shuddered. If my mother had died, you would not be reading this book. She never gave up on her little ugly dyslexic duckling. In fact, her recovery from that strep infection may have been inspired by the loss of her own mother when my mother was only twelve. She was a child of wealth and privilege in Dallas, a student at “the” Highland Park Academy, but life as she knew it ended when her mother contracted tuberculosis in an age with no cure. She died slowly, horribly—in front of my mother’s eyes. My mother’s father, a spoiled playboy, sold their house and left with all of the family money, abandoning his son and daughter.
My mother’s brother (twenty at the time) quit college to raise her until she was eventually adopted by her aforementioned aunt and uncle, and he later became editor of the Associated Press.
This experience led my mother to vow that she would never abandon her children. Not even disease could force her to break her vow. Without her, the ugly duckling in the story might never have had a chance to become a swan.
At age twelve my looks began to change. “I love her bone structure,” Paul Gittings, a renowned photographer, told my parents. His close-up of my face won an international contest. Suddenly, people thought I was okay.
With the ensuing attention my confidence grew and my life changed. Stories emerged that are still told today.
Lloyd Hand, who became chief of protocol for President Lyndon B. Johnson, loves to tell the story of “One-Step” Joanne as a teenager. He says he remembers stepping onto the dance floor where the boys were lined up to dance with me. As soon as one boy danced one step with me, another would cut in for his turn. After each cut-in, I’d squeeze the boy’s hand and whisper, “Come back.” And he would!
Today, it’s hard to imagine life in the late 1940s. Kids then accepted and followed the rules, which were strictly enforced. Parents were very protective. For example, each generation had a dance club to which you had to belong, or you were out. In Houston, members were carefully vetted by the parents, who were some of the city’s most influential people. The club I belonged to, Merrymakers, existed solely to introduce children to each other in the hopes that the “right” marriage into the proper family would materialize. The children dated from among this group or not at all. That’s just the way it was back then. Parents wanted to give their offspring the world with a fence around it. It isn’t possible, of course, but they tried.
At dances, the chaperones sat in stolid elegance against the wall. They resembled Mount Rushmore—never uttering a word but never taking their eyes off of us either. My mother insisted that I introduce myself to the chaperones like a “lady” should. I was the only child at the parties whose mother demanded this. I dreaded it, since the “cool kids” never talked to the adults, but I did it.
Over the next forty years, these parents (there were different ones at each dance) never forgot my good manners whenever I saw them. This tiny courtesy opened many doors for me and taught me the value of having the support of older people of position and power. They often act like a machete, cutting away brambles from your path.
My father told me to befriend everyone, not just the popular kids. That’s how I found many smart and interesting friends—it isn’t always the football heroes and glamour girls who stand by you. I learned never to judge a book by its current cover. Many “ordinary” kids go on to have extraordinary careers and lives.
I always remembered my own unattractive, unpopular years. My changed appearance didn’t eliminate the memories. But that time of my life helped me become a better, more compassionate person. To this day I enjoy helping the underdog.
But before I grew into that understanding, I sometimes handled my newfound gifts from God poorly. My new life was a gift from God, but I didn’t bother to consult Him on anything. I now turn to God first. “If it is Your will, please help me to accomplish this. If not, close the door,” I pray.
I have faced many closed doors.
We wonder why babies die. We wonder why we have wars. We wonder about the unexplained, the tragic, the incomprehensible. I know that God is not the source of these things. I also know we can’t control what happens to us. But we can control how we react. I so admire those who, by faith, have turned tragedy around and used it for good, changing the lives of others by their example.
When overwhelmed, we simply must walk on in faith, knowing that somehow this too will pass and that Jesus is there to walk with us into a better tomorrow. Time and again in my life, God has turned my tragedies into strengths that I would need in the tomorrows to come. Sometimes it takes years to see that, though.
World War II was raging during my junior high school years, but our little corner of Texas was largely untouched by the privations of war. My family did what our country asked. We moved into town to save gas. We tried to grow a victory garden, but nothing seemed to come up. We canned but couldn’t do anything with the canned vegetables because they were awful.
My father, an engineer, was working with McCloskey shipyards to develop the first all concrete boats. The Liberty ships were a success and were built, launched, and used toward the end of the war.
Another government edict was to invite servicemen for lunch. I did, to my mother’s surprise. Those eighteen-year-olds were bored to death with a thirty-seven-year-old woman and a twelve-year-old girl.
The summer after my first year in high school, my father, an engineer, had a contract to build an airport, roads, and housing in the jungles of Colombia as part of the war effort. What a marvelous opportunity to experience an exciting new world, right? Wrong. Fifteen-year-olds are not looking for adventure. I wanted to be with my peers. In Colombia, I feared my only social life would be with howler monkeys.
In most of the world today, you can just walk up to someone and start a conversation. But in Colombia in 1945, you had to be introduced. Lacking the proper introductions, young men began following me around as an American novelty. The most ingenious and attractive was Fernando Quintana, age nineteen at the time. He and his mother just “happened” to be in the hotel elevator at the same time as my parents and me.
“Señor,” his mother said to my father, “my son was so determined to meet your daughter that I agreed to accompany him in the hope of seeing you. I want to invite you to our home for dinner.” My parents were enchanted by this elegant lady and her wonderful invitation. Through Fernando’s family we met the most important people and saw a Bogotá that few Americans ever see. For me, interacting with influential foreigners on their own territory would become essential in my future. Another tool in the box.
There was a problem, however. Fernando did not know that I was only fifteen…
Oops! Time to go to the jungle!
By then my father had already left, and Mother and I missed the plane that was to take us inland to the jungle. To meet him, we had to ride a paddle-wheel boat pushing a barge up the Magdalena River. The cabins were not air-conditioned. The cow on the barge disappeared, and that night we had steak. My new puppy enjoyed what I could not swallow. This was another world.
The jungle was different from anything I’d known before. My parents spent every night at parties with an international group of engineers, scientists, doctors, and military people in our luxurious camp. For them this really was an adventure, but all I had was a wild horse and scorpions the size of lobsters.
Never one to suffer silently, I launched my campaign to go home. I wept. I wailed. “I am not going to spend the best years of my life in this jungle!” I protested. It had been all of three months so far. “No! No! No! I want to go home and now!”
“Where do you want to go? Hockaday?” asked my bewildered parents.
“Heavens no, I’m not that dumb!” An all-girl school was not what I had in mind.
Before making this announcement, I had reviewed all my relatives and where they lived. Bryan, Texas, had Allen Military Academy, Texas A&M University, and, of course, the high school, which meant there would be lots of men there. Cool!
“I want to go to Bryan and live with Great-Aunt Hettie,” I told my parents, never giving a thought to what Great-Aunt Hettie might think. The whole family almost fainted. “Oh, no, you’re not taking on Joanne,” they told Hettie. “You’re too old and she’s a handful. She’ll kill you.”
Despite the protests, Aunt Hettie agreed to take me in. Southern families are like that.
My great-uncle Charles Gainer, Hettie’s husband, was a former state senator and speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. He and Hettie were wonderful examples of the gracious society in which Texas was rooted. So I snagged one of my scorpion/lobster friends, put him in a jar of alcohol, and transported my jungle trophy to Texas.
Before I moved to Bryan, parties, clothes, and boys were all I thought about. Because of my dyslexia, I thought I wasn’t smart. I thought attractiveness was all that mattered because that was all I had. But Bryan High School changed my life. There, kids were not interested in society as I knew it. They took education and being part of a church seriously. After arriving, I realized that my values and priorities had to change.
One of the students who epitomized Bryan High School values was Bill Powers. He was student body president and the football team captain. He became a naval fighter pilot, one of the men who inspired the Tom Cruise character in the movie Top Gun. (He even looked like Tom Cruise.) Bill was always very kind and complimentary. He once told my son Beau, “The day Joanne walked in, I was smitten. She won contests, the leads in plays, and the offices of many clubs. She really didn’t seem to care about grades.”
But Bill, I did care about grades. Every kid wants to do well. I just didn’t make them. Although I knew that Bryan students were serious about their studies, I aimed my own efforts toward excellence at activities I was comfortable with, such as plays, operettas, and contests. I never thought I could do better than Bs and Cs—until the day the principal called me into her office. “Joanne,” she said, opening a file in front of her, “I’ve been looking over your grades.”
My heart plummeted and my smile faltered. I sat frozen, unsure of what to say.
She glanced up and gave me an appraising look. Then she said something that caused this mediocre student’s heart to leap: “You can do better. In fact,” she added in a voice filled with conviction, “you can make the National Honor Society. All you have to do is try.”
No one had ever said I could make good grades. The only praise I’d ever had was for extracurricular activities. But Miss Weddington saw beyond my facade to what was locked inside. If I hadn’t had the extracurricular activities to build on I could never have been able to believe what Miss Weddington said. After that, my grades improved dramatically. Her belief in me made the difference. I learned then that how people perceive you and how you perceive yourself can be very different. Often what we need is encouragement and success at something whether it be knitting or calf roping, just something.
From the dyslexia I developed a retentive memory. In the beginning I learned to memorize what the teacher said.
Excerpted from Diplomacy and Diamonds by Herring, Joanne King Copyright © 2011 by Herring, Joanne King. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 31, 2011
A peek into a glamorous life lived with a purpose. Joanne knows how to gain consensus and work an issue. A wonderful primer for novice politicians.
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Posted July 17, 2013
"Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars From The Ballroom To The Battlefield" by Joanne King Herring gloriously tells about her journeys in both her personal life and political matters. What she recounts would actually make for an interesting and watchable film. The following are some of the colorful details mentioned in the book:
Pages 54-61- What looks to be a press release on her "Roman Orgy" themed party that happened in July 1959. It is not what you think, some of the helpers that enthusiastically helped at her party came from the local Boy Scout group.
Pages 78-79- Herring mentions her meetings with such well known men as Sean Connery and the late Frank Sinatra.
Page 113-117-French politician Raymond Marcellin once proposed marriage to Joanne King Herring.
Page 171- She mentioned how her late husband Bob Herring would enjoy her company to the point that she accompanied him on many of his overseas business dealings.
There are also fascinating details on her relationship with the late politician Charlie Wilson. From her honest memoirs, I can only deduce that her late husband Bob Herring was her true love and Charlie Wilson helped heal her pain. I respect her apparent intent to be careful about what to disclose about her dealings with Charlie Wilson due to her being a Christian woman. In all fairness, she did disclose information that could have indicated that they were mutually in love with each other. It appears that Wilson may have broken her heart to the point where she felt naturally hesitant about ever rekindling the flame of romance with him. However, one of my caveats was that I was left hoping for more information on other get together dates they may have had (maybe other details could be featured in a movie on Joanne Herring's life?). Joanne King Herring also convincingly tells her side of the story on their (hers and Charlie Wilson's involvement) regarding information pertaining to what was covered in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War." Much more compelling information is included and "Diplomacy And Diamonds" by Joanne King Herring is a fascinating read for those who liked the "Charlie Wilson's War" movie and/or are curious about the life of a multi-dimensional socialite.