Long obscured by her husband's shadow, Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson emerges in this first comprehensive biography as a figure of surprising influence and the centering force for LBJ, a man who suffered from extreme mood swings and desperately needed someone to help control his darker impulses.
Expertly researched and written, Lady Bird draws from rare conversations with the former First Lady and from interviews with key members of Johnson's inner circle of friends, family, and advisers. With chapters such as "Motherless Child," "A Ten-Week Affair," and "LBJ's Midlife Crisis," Lady Bird sheds new light on Mrs. Johnson's childhood, on her amazing acumen as a businesswoman, and on the central role she played in her husband's life and political career. A vital link to the Kennedys during LBJ's uneasy tenure as vice president and a voice of conscience on civil rights, Lady Bird is portrayed here as a political force, strikingly different from the somewhat minor figure depicted in previous works on LBJ. Especially fascinating today, in light of the enormous attention now focused on the private lives of our leaders, are the personal details about her marriage to a man whose extramarital affairs were widely discussed.
In this intimate portrait, Russell shows us the private Lady Bird -- not only a passionate conservationist but a remarkable woman who greatly influenced her husband, his administration, and the country.
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About the Author
Jan Jarboe Russell is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Prize for Best Book of Nonfiction. She is a Neiman Fellow, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News, The New York Times, Slate, and other magazines. She also compiled and edited They Lived to Tell the Tale. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell, Jr.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Marriage, the Ultimatum
Lady Bird Taylor's life with Lyndon Johnson began with an ultimatum. "Let's get married," an overwrought twenty-six-year-old Lyndon wrote her from Washington shortly after the two met on a date in Austin on August 1, 1934. "If you say no, it just proves that you don't love me enough to dare to marry me. We either do it now, or we never will." It wasn't that Lady Bird didn't love him. She loved him at first sight.
A few days after they met, she visited a friend, Emily Crow Selden, in Dallas and took a large photograph of Lyndon with her. Lady Bird pointed out Lyndon's good features, noting his exceptional height, his slim frame, his thick, wavy hair, his rakish good looks. "Well, his ears are a little too long," acknowledged Lady Bird. "But he doesn't take a good picture."
Later that night, after the two girls had gone to bed, Lady Bird told her friend that she was crazy about Lyndon Johnson, that she loved his drive, his directness, his ability to take charge. She confided that he had asked her to marry him on their first date. There was something about Johnson that drew him to her.
At the time, Johnson was working as an administrative aid to U.S. Congressman Richard Kleberg, heir to the fabled King Ranch. Kleberg was a rich playboy who left the day-to-day running of his office to Johnson, who in effect served as the district's surrogate congressman. While Kleberg played poker, went to horse races, and traveled to Mexico, Johnson made speeches on his behalf, handled constituent complaints, ran the office, and instructed Kleberg, whom he called "Chief," how to vote. Johnson's willingness to fill a void, to take charge, was part of what attracted Lady Bird.
From the beginning, Lady Bird recognized Johnson had the two qualities she most admired in a man: ambition and perseverance. She had never met anyone who asked such personal, probing questions, who looked her straight in the eye, and who exuded such energy. Lyndon seemed, she told her friend, as if he were headed straight to the top.
Emily was flabbergasted. Lady Bird had always been so sensible and solid. Unlike her other college friends, Lady Bird had never skipped a test to go shopping for a new dress or indulged in angel food cake with whipped cream.
The idea of judicious, obedient Lady Bird doing anything sudden or on impulse, especially marrying a complete stranger who had no money, seemed inconceivable to Emily. Even then, Lady Bird was the kind of person who could size up a situation quickly, especially her own place in it, and not be immobilized by indecision. This quality stood her in good stead at that moment and many others in her thirty-nine-year marriage to Lyndon Johnson.
In the fall of 1934, Lady Bird Taylor found herself standing at a crossroads that would have paralyzed most young women of her generation. At twenty-one years of age, she had graduated cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin with not one but two degrees, in history and journalism. A pragmatist to the core, she had also earned a teacher's certificate, and knew shorthand as well.
When friends asked her what she wanted to do, Lady Bird told them that she was considering applying for teaching jobs in Hawaii or Alaska, the most glamorous places the soft-spoken Texas native could envision.
Her aunt Effie Pattillo, a Southern spinster who had raised Lady Bird after her mother died in 1918, had urged her down an unbeaten path. Effie wanted Lady Bird to become a reporter for the Washington Post, or failing that, a drama critic for the New York Times, maybe even a ballerina.
Effie was one of those prototypical women from the Old South, so gentle in spirit that she wouldn't crush a violet or kill a fly, but at the same time so infirm of body that she spent her evenings sipping medicine from small brown bottles to quell the pain of migraines and ulcers. All Effie's hopes and dreams were concentrated on Lady Bird. She encouraged her niece to think first of a career, not a family.
The other path was well worn and traditional: she could do as her father expected and stay in Karnack, a small East Texas town located in a narrow, dense pine forest on the edge of a wide swamp, and continue to supervise the redecoration of her family's two-story Southern mansion, which had been built by slaves on a six-hundred-acre plantation in 1843.
However, at that moment, the Brick House was the last place on earth Lady Bird wanted to be. Though Lady Bird kept it a secret from her friends, her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a tenant farmer, country merchant, and the richest man in Harrison County, was ending his second marriage. The stout, domineering Taylor, then a sixty-year-old patriarch with a legendary reputation as a philanderer, had married a much younger woman, Beulah Wisdom.
Miss Beulah, as she was known in Karnack, had short black hair that she wore in a 1930s bob and was so high-spirited that she was often seen speeding through the hills of East Texas in Taylor's old Desoto, leaving a cloud of red dust behind her. "Miss Beulah was one fine-lookin' woman," said Dorsey Jones, an old Black man who lived near the Brick House. "She was full of spit and vinegar, the kind of woman only a rich man could have."
Like almost everyone in Karnack, Beulah worked for Taylor. She was his bookkeeper. Beulah's father also worked for him as the manager of one of his cotton gins. Not long after she married Taylor, Beulah fell in love with one of his hired hands, and ran off with him. Taylor, who was not the kind of man to restrain his own passion or forgive anyone else's, flew into a rage. "I threw $5,000 at the two of 'em and sent 'em packin," Taylor boasted some years later to a relative. "It was the best $5,000 I've ever spent." His divorce was finalized in September 1934.
Miss Beulah presented Lady Bird with still another option that may not have otherwise occurred to her, that of fleeing her father's control. Two months after the divorce, on the morning of November 17, 1934, as the sun streamed through a grove of ancient cedars and a flock of guineas scattered noisily on the Brick House's front lawn, Lady Bird left her father's home in Lyndon Johnson's Ford roadster convertible.
Originally they were headed for Austin, a four-and-a-half-hour drive away, but an hour out of Karnack, Lady Bird found herself unable to resist Johnson's constant avowals of love. "I guess what settled it is when Lyndon really made me understand that he had done all he could to persuade me to marry him, and he just couldn't stand to live in a state of uncertainty," said Lady Bird, indicating that she knew that Johnson would end the relationship if she continued to make him wait. "I just couldn't envision going on without him," she recalled mournfully.
As a young woman, Lady Bird felt different with Lyndon Johnson, happy, free, as though she really were a bird and finally flying. Somewhere on the edge of East Texas, Lady Bird finally agreed to marry him.
"When?" she asked him.
"Tonight," he said, without hesitation.
Johnson pulled off the road, stopped the car, and telephoned a political crony, Dan Quill, who was then the postmaster of San Antonio. In his rapid-fire voice, Johnson explained that he and Lady Bird wanted to be married that night at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in downtown San Antonio.
They had decided on San Antonio, rather than Austin, because Lady Bird didn't want to offend her many friends from college by not inviting them to what amounted to an elopement. "Austin was my past," she explained. "Austin had too many ghosts of old dreams. I needed to break from it -- everything was going to be different from now on."
The man Johnson put in charge of the ceremony, Dan Quill, was short, stocky, and constantly chewed on a cigar. Like Johnson, Quill was committed to Roosevelt's New Deal. He had helped Johnson run Kleberg's campaign in the special election to Congress earlier that year, and was accustomed to Johnson's habit of giving orders and expecting instant action.
"Fix everything up!" Johnson barked. Then the telephone went silent. Quill knew he wouldn't hear from Johnson again until nightfall, and that he better get busy.
All through the fall day, as Lady Bird and Lyndon drove across 425 miles of Texas, Quill hastily planned Lady Bird's wedding. There were many problems to solve, but Quill found solutions -- political solutions -- for all of them.
In those days couples had to be physically examined before getting a marriage license. Since there was no time for either Lady Bird or Lyndon to visit a doctor, Quill wrote the license himself and convinced the chief deputy clerk at the courthouse to sign it. Quill's next hurdle was to persuade the Reverend Arthur R. McKinstry, a high church Episcopalian who presided over the wealthiest pulpit in town, to marry two strangers on short notice. McKinstry was adamant: he would not do it.
In his most unctuous voice, the rector explained to Quill that holy matrimony was a very serious matter, and he needed time to counsel the young couple about the gravity of their commitment. "I simply can't do it," the minister said.
"Well, this young man is in a hurry," snapped Quill. "He has to get back to Washington. There's no reason why you can't marry them legally. I'll never do this to you again, but they want to be married in your church this evening at 8:00 P.M. Please do this for me!"
McKinstry might have held firm, but he owed Quill a favor. A few months earlier, Quill, although a Catholic, had nonetheless pulled some strings in Washington and arranged for St. Mark's to have a second-class mail permit, which saved the church $12 a month -- not an inconsiderable sum in 1934. McKinstry was indebted to Quill, and on this particular day Quill called in his marker. Reluctantly, the minister agreed.
At about 6:00 P.M. that evening, Lady Bird and Lyndon arrived at the Plaza St. Anthony Hotel in downtown San Antonio and rented two rooms, side by side. Lyndon went off in one room with Quill and a couple of lawyers, Henry Hirshberg and Oscar Powell, who wandered over from the courthouse down Presa Street. Lady Bird retired to the room next door by herself. She telephoned Cecille Harrison, a college roommate who lived in San Antonio, and asked if she could drive downtown and be the maid of honor at her wedding.
"I'm getting married at 8:00 P.M.," Lady Bird told her friend, in a voice that Cecille later described as suppressed excitement. "Will you come stand up with me?"
Cecille, a thin, airy blond, was thrilled by the idea of a spur-of-the-moment wedding. It sounded like an adventure to her. She grabbed a black satin cocktail dress from the back of her closet, and hurried down to the hotel, where she found her friend seated by a window gazing down at the San Antonio River. Cecille had always thought of Lady Bird as self-contained, someone who kept her own private counsel, but never more than at that moment.
As Cecille recalled, Lady Bird seemed serene and absolutely sure of what she was about to do, yet she was not giddy or excited, as one would expect a bride to be. Rather, an air of poignancy surrounded Lady Bird like gauze. In fact, she was terrified.
"If you give me a quarter," the bride-to-be told her friend, "I'll jump out of this window."
Lady Bird had good reason to be scared. She was being given what the whole world would one day recognize as the "Johnson treatment." From the moment he met Lady Bird, Lyndon Johnson had carried on a relentless campaign to get her to marry him on his terms and his timetable. Take me or leave me, he told her. As a bachelor who was about to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress, Johnson needed a wife and he recognized that Lady Bird -- shy, intelligent, and rich -- was a good choice. Their courtship and marriage established the dominant pattern of their relationship. No matter what happened, the focus was always on him.
However, the directness of Lady Bird's gaze out the hotel window and her confession of fear to her college roommate indicated that the twenty-one-year-old woman understood the exact nature of the bargain she was making. Many years later, others would speculate that Lyndon had married Lady Bird for her father's money, and that the moment the wedding was over, she became his full-time servant.
While it's true Lady Bird adapted her life to his -- filling his ink pens and his lighter, laying out his clothes, suffering his wrath, and ignoring his indiscretions -- it's also true that she never considered herself a servant, or a victim, not then and not later in her life.
In fact, she viewed herself in the opposite way: as a woman strong enough to control and contain an ego as colossal as Lyndon Johnson's. On the eve of her eighty-second birthday, she sat on her porch in Austin, Texas, and said, "Ours was a compelling love. Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment."
In love and life, Lady Bird Taylor Johnson has always been a realist: she understood early that she brought to her marriage what Johnson most needed and was unable to give -- loyalty. Simultaneously, she also understood what he offered her: freedom, a way out of the lonely, isolated world of her childhood. "We were a good match," she said. "I guess you could sum it up by saying we were better together than apart."
The land that formed Lady Bird is dark, wooded, secretive -- hermetically sealed from the outside world by tall stands of trees that form a barrier to intruders. The people of deep East Texas have always mistrusted outsiders, while to the west, Texans like Johnson thrive on the raw energy of newcomers. The Johnson home in the Texas Hill Country is open, a gentle progression of hills and draws set against the long, flat line of the horizon.
By contrast, the view from Lady Bird's upstairs bedroom at the Brick House was completely blocked by trees. The feeling in that high-ceilinged, drafty room is of living in quarantine. As a girl, Lady Bird grew up behind a wall of hedges, swamps, and virgin forests. From her bedroom window, the horizon was invisible and the light was refracted. The light on the land shines down in thin, timorous streams, fighting its way to the ground through layers of trees.
Temperamentally, Lady Bird is like her favorite tree, the mesquite, which grows in the Hill Country, not East Texas. She is strong, resilient, immovable, capable of extracting all that she needs from the harshest of environments -- water, air, sun, and light -- in order to survive.
Her wedding day was chaotic and hurried, but nothing she saw from her window at the Plaza Hotel made her flinch. Unrest and chaos were not new to Lady Bird. She had known them all her life. For Southern women born in the early 1900s, a fundamental fact about life was that it was not rational. Southern women carried within them the history of defeat, the scars of slavery, and the imperceptible cycles of nature. There were two common ways for Southern women to deal with the inherent irrationality of their lives: one was to escape into the realm of dreams, maybe even madness, as did Lady Bird's mother and some of her other relatives. The other was to do what Lady Bird has done: accept things as they are, bury your grief in the ground, and concentrate on what has to be done next, on behalf of the survivors.
Like all Southern women, Lady Bird must be understood in relation to the bonds of her kin and her place. What she suffered in private as the wife of Lyndon Johnson -- his violent mood swings and his endless betrayals -- she suffered not because it was reasonable but because she loved him and believed that she could care for him and control whatever chaos he created.
If Franklin Roosevelt was Johnson's role model, Eleanor was Lady Bird's. Like Lady Bird, Eleanor was also a motherless child. Lady Bird lost her mother when she was five years and nine months old, and Eleanor's mother died when she was eight.
There were also similarities between the two women's marriages. Both of their husbands were unfaithful, and both women endured the betrayal by looking the other way and becoming involved in inspirational projects that had the effect of lifting them out of the depths of their own private misery. When news of FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer was first published, Lady Bird downplayed its importance by telling Nancy Dickerson, then a correspondent for NBC, that FDR's affair was like "a fly on the wedding cake." She dismissed Johnson's affairs in a like-minded way.
Historically, Lady Bird has benefited from comparisons to Lyndon. He was considered ham-fisted, gruff, and amazingly awkward for a man reputed to be so persuasive, while she is regarded as calm, gracious, understated, firmly rooted in nature. He gave us Vietnam, riots in the streets over civil rights, and the war on poverty. She championed an unlikely cause -- wildflowers -- that helped give birth to the American environmental movement.
But Lady Bird herself has always insisted that she and her late husband's fortunes -- like their initials -- be exactly the same. Her willingness to bear anything on behalf of her husband and her husband's memory has given her mythic importance in American life. Even now, friends and family members talk about the way he treated her with embarrassment. "Everyone felt sorry for her," said Virginia Durr, the liberal Alabamian who was the sister-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. "He yelled at her. He ordered her around. He left her alone at the most important times of her life, and made no secret of his affairs. Still, she stayed loyal." Even former Texas governor John Connally, one of Johnson's oldest friends, wrote before he died of LBJ's affair with Alice Glass, the mistress and later wife of one of Johnson's biggest supporters. Of Lady Bird's reaction, Connally wrote, "She handled the affair, I suppose, as well as such things can be handled: by behaving as if there were nothing to handle."
Lady Bird has always refused to play the role of the wronged wife. "I am not a saint," sighed Lady Bird during an interview, implying that she bears some responsibility for the problems in her marriage. "All I can say is I had a great love affair. No matter what, I knew he loved me best."
Behind the myth was the marriage, and, as Lady Bird implied, it was a complicated relationship. She knew about his affairs, but kept her stoic silence. The mystery is, Why, having made her bed, did she never publicly complain about it? LBJ's friends explain that Lady Bird understood Johnson's limitations as well as his greatness, and accepted him as he was. She would not do his enemies the favor of sharing her pain in public.
Theirs was a marriage of opposites. Lyndon Johnson was the embodiment of her own denied ambition. Over the years, it became clear that she could be as ruthless and savvy in business, love, and politics as he could be. What seemed like countless efforts to please him also had the effect of exerting her own control. Laying out his clothes for a trip, for instance, was her way of knowing about and subtly influencing his schedule. In the end, her bargain, difficult as it may have been at times, paid off. Lady Bird wound up with it all -- their family, their vast fortune, even the admiration that the public has denied her husband.
Johnson, on the other hand, saw in Lady Bird the answer to his own inconsolable need for comfort, and for unconditional love. She was the repository of his emotion and ideals. This is how Doris Kearns Goodwin put it in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: "Amid the most complicated intrigues and struggles of her husband's career she remained outwardly composed and reasonable. If his incessant demands and orders...or his occasional abuse in front of company became too much to bear, she possessed, or soon developed, a strange ability to take psychic leave....'Bird,' Johnson would call out at such moments, 'are you with me?' And straight off, her accustomed alertness and competence reappeared."
What Lady Bird offered then was balance. Her ability to take momentary leave from her husband and then return, no matter how great his abuse, gave him the inner strength to continue his drive for power, a drive he made for both of them. She was as fascinated by power as he was, and she had the added advantage of being utterly self-reliant. "Are you with me?" he asked, over and over in many forms and many places. Her reply was always and obsessively the same: "Yes."
On the day their life together began -- their wedding day -- Lady Bird was an orphan bride. There was no relative to see her to the altar. In fact, not a single member of her family or any of her friends, except Cecille, even knew that she was about to be married.
After the ceremony, she telephoned one friend and told her, "Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night," as if, the friend later recalled, "it was a little bit of a crime." No invitations were sent. There were no flowers on the altar, no music at the ceremony.
She didn't even have time to buy a traditional white wedding gown. The dress she wore was a lavender silk sheath that had appliquéd flowers on each shoulder. She had purchased it a few weeks earlier in a dress shop in Shreveport because it was frillier than most of her other clothes. Johnson had already lectured her on the need to choose more flattering dresses. He wanted to see her in lace and bows. Her silk wedding dress, slinky to the touch, was an early effort to accommodate him.
A few minutes before she left the hotel to drive over to the church, Lyndon turned to Dan Quill and asked him, "Did you get the ring?" Quill was speechless. Lady Bird and Lyndon had driven past jewelry stores all day long. Quill assumed Johnson would have at least thought to buy his wife a wedding ring. But already Johnson was not paying attention.
"Go get a ring," Johnson ordered Quill, who grabbed his hat, ran out the door, and walked across the street to a Sears, Roebuck store. Since he didn't know Lady Bird's size, he bought a dozen rings and placed them on a wooden stick and took them over to the hotel. One by one, Lady Bird tried them all on, until she found one that fit. Quill returned to Sears, Roebuck and paid $2.50 for the ring, returning the rest. "The dime-store ring answered the purpose," Quill later said. "I don't think Lady Bird or Lyndon were much concerned about the quality."
Still, no one asked Lady Bird what kind of wedding ring she wanted, not Johnson, not Quill, not even Lady Bird herself. Her feelings about an article of jewelry that she would wear for the rest of her life went unnoticed.
The ceremony itself was decorous and brief. There were only twelve people present, and it took fifteen minutes from start to finish. When the vows had been said, Lyndon led Lady Bird to one side of the church for a private embrace. At the altar, Reverend McKinstry shook his head and told the members of the wedding party, "I doubt this marriage will ever last."
What McKinstry and Johnson did not know is that Lady Bird had read the wedding vows before she took them. She had not only read them, but had also committed them to memory and had made up her mind to do whatever was necessary to make this marriage work.
"Have you read the vows?" she asked Lyndon before they were married. "Yes," he told her, somewhat sheepishly. "Well, I have, too, and I want to make sure you understand what's in them," she told him.
Over the years, the way Lady Bird would sustain herself in the hard periods of her marriage was to perform a solitary, private ritual. When she was alone, at night or in the early morning, she would take out her Episcopal prayer book, read the vows, and recommit herself to love Johnson, to honor him, to keep him, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, keeping only unto him. She trained herself not to think about or notice whether he was honoring his vows.
After the wedding, Lyndon, Lady Bird, and their friends had dinner at the roof garden of the Plaza St. Anthony Hotel. Before dinner was served, Henry Hirshberg, one of the guests, sent his brother-in-law to his house with the keys to a special wine locker that contained five bottles of sparkling Burgundy. As the members of the wedding party sipped the wine, Hirshberg, a stranger to Lady Bird, toasted the bride, who settled herself in a chair and listened to the music of a small combo and enjoyed the view of San Antonio's skyline.
It was a cool, clear night, and Cecille later remembered that Lady Bird and Lyndon started dancing the two-step and continued long past midnight. Everyone agreed they made a nice-looking pair. At six feet, three inches tall, Johnson towered over Lady Bird, whose head fit right into the crook of Lyndon's shoulder. She drew close to him on the dance floor as if she were nesting in his body.
However, as she moved across the roof of the Plaza St. Anthony Hotel in her lavender sheath, Lady Bird had no way of knowing that the nest she had just made was very much like the one she had fled. Although she did not realize it, there was a reason why she felt so instantly comfortable with Lyndon Johnson. He was a larger, more ambitious, more extreme version of her father, Boss Taylor.
Copyright © 1999 by Jan Jarboe Russell