A Lady First

She was a small-town girl, a wife and mother, an environmentalist, a civil rights activist, a media mogul, and the only person who could tell the president of the United States to go jump in a lake. But more than any of those things, Lady Bird Johnson was, to her dying day, exactly what we always imagined her to be.

September 2007By Comments

I first met Lady Bird on a rainy day in November 1994. I had gone to her home in northwest Austin to interview her for an article for this magazine on the occasion of her upcoming eighty-second birthday. We met in the kitchen, where she made coffee, leaning on a steel cane. Her hair was completely gray, her face creased with lines, and even though it was overcast and we were indoors, she wore a pair of sunglasses with large white frames. To be in her presence that day was both moving and unnerving. She was clearly arthritic and going blind from macular degeneration, and these ailments made her seem vulnerable; yet as she stood at the stove, dressed in a pleated navy skirt, cotton blouse, and black lace-up shoes with crepe soles, it was impossible not to feel intimidated.

Sam Rayburn called her “the darn greatest woman who ever lived,” and Lady Bird Johnson’s was indeed a remarkable life. Born in the small East Texas town of Karnack, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1934 as the 21-year-old bride of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was then a congressional aide; twenty-nine years later she became the first lady when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the wake of her death in July at age 94, tributes and speeches touted her graciousness and fortitude, her highway beautification campaign that helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement, and her dedication to racial equality.

Today, many younger Texans have no memory of Lady Bird at the height of her power, and those who do may be inclined to think of her as belonging to the past, a woman who brought her husband coffee and newspapers in bed, ironed his shirts, and quietly tolerated his excesses. But one of the secrets to Lady Bird’s success was that she always dealt from strength, never weakness. Publicly she pretended to be a traditional stay-at-home wife and mother, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Hers was a life of cultural transition. During the 38 years she spent as Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, married life in America underwent several upheavals, and Lady Bird’s public image can be seen as a bridge from the less visible roles inhabited by wives of the forties and early fifties to the era of women’s liberation. Though her demeanor and style may now seem faintly anachronistic, she was remarkably effective as a first lady, more so than some of her “modern” successors.

Ever the warm and generous host, she quickly set me at ease that day in her kitchen. “Do you take your coffee black or with sugah?” she asked, and the way she rolled that velvety r—not disguising her Texas accent but proudly flaunting it—completely won me over. Like her, I was born and raised in East Texas. Her traditional appearance and slow, Southern speech reminded me of all the Texas women I’d grown up with—my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts. The fact that she felt no need to feign sophistication made her immediately real to me.

This may be impossible to fathom in today’s Texas, where every place you go has Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and all the other chains, but there was a time when character was utterly formed by the physical place in which one was born. Lady Bird was a child of deep East Texas, a place that used to be as different from West Texas as rural Mississippi is from the Painted Desert of Arizona. The ancient trees, exotic plants, and mossy swamps formed a crucial part of her emotional inheritance, as they do mine. In fact, I came to believe that the chief features of her personality—her determined graciousness, her remoteness, her ability to burn anger behind a calm veneer, her down-to-earth nature, her ambition—were all derived from that early landscape.

I spent eight hours that day interviewing Lady Bird about the major events of her life. After the article came out (“Lady Bird Looks Back,” December 1994), it still seemed to me that a great deal more could be said about the former first lady, so I decided to write a biography of her. We had already gotten to know each other a little, and over the next three years, Lady Bird was very kind and helpful with my project. She sat for a series of interviews and encouraged friends and family to talk with me as well. (Lady Bird was published in 1999 by Scribner.)

While researching my book, I visited the Brick House, the two-story, ten-room Southern mansion in Karnack that Lady Bird’s father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, bought for her mother, Minnie, after he had become rich. Taylor owned a large plantation, two cotton gins, and two country stores. Though his house was grand, it had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity on the day in 1912 when Claudia Alta Taylor was born (her nickname came two years later, and stuck). During my visit, I stood at a window in her bedroom and looked out at the view of a small front yard and a narrow road winding through a double wall of pine trees. I pressed my nose against the glass, as she must have done a thousand times, and saw how the horizon was completely obstructed by that wall of trees. Like many young girls in East Texas, Lady Bird grew up isolated from the rest of the world by the insular nature of her physical surroundings.

And yet these same woods that hemmed her in were a cherished retreat, especially after her mother died, when Lady Bird was only five years old. She had few memories of her mother; in one, Minnie was walking barefoot through the woods, her skirts damp with dew, carrying a bouquet of wildflowers. Later, as a young girl, Lady Bird herself took to the woods for comfort and solace. In Karnack, her regular playmates were two black girls, who also had nicknames: Doodle Bug and Stuff. “I was a child of nature,” she told me in our first interview. “I went wherever I wanted to go, and if I got lost, I’d come across some black person, most likely, and they would recognize me. ‘Which way is it back to the Brick House?’ I’d ask. And they’d show me the way home.” Every year she would look for the first daffodil of spring to bloom and name it Queen.

Lady Bird’s love of wildflowers and her commitment to protecting the environment grew out of the memory of her mother’s dew-damp skirt. Minnie was an environmentalist herself, albeit a quirky one. After her husband purchased the Brick House, Minnie built a birdbath in her front yard and fed the birds all year long. In 1910 she established the Save the Quail Society in Karnack to protect the birds from hunters, including those who hunted on the several thousand acres around her husband’s farm.

Inadvertently, Lady Bird’s mother also provided her a way out of East Texas. Minnie had an extensive personal library and filled the Brick House with books. After she died, her daughter learned to read from these volumes, paging through expensive leather-bound travel books about faraway places and poring over the legends of Greece and Rome. As little Lady Bird studied the Silk Road to China or the lakes of Italy, the view outside her bedroom window enlarged. When she graduated from Marshall High School, in 1928, the prediction of her classmates was not that she would grow up to be a celebrity or the wife of a wealthy man—the standard fantasies for girls of her age and class. Instead, she was imagined in the yearbook as a future explorer, a “second Halliburton, poking her nose in unknown places in Asia.”

But Lady Bird was never an impractical dreamer. When she was a child, her father used to lecture her on the “valueofadollar,” rattling off the phrase as if it were one word. In the fall of 1930, during the depths of the Depression, she enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, one of few young women with the means or the desire for a higher education. She set her sights on a career in either teaching or journalism. All that changed on an August day in 1934, when she met a handsome 26-year-old aide to Richard Kleberg Sr., a U.S. congressman from South Texas, and was, as she put it later, like a “moth to the flame.”

Shortly after her marriage to Lyndon, she moved into a one-bedroom furnished apartment on Kalorama Road, in Washington, D.C. Lyndon earned $267 a month at the time. He kept $100 for a car payment, and Lady Bird used the rest to pay the bills. If from her mother she had taken a love of nature and books, from her father had come a keen business sense and a reputation for thriftiness. In 1937, when Lyndon ran his first race for Congress, she asked one of his advisers how much it would cost. “About ten thousand dollars,” she was told. She immediately phoned her father in Karnack and asked for the entire amount. Six years later, she used the last of her inheritance to purchase KTBC, a small, debt-ridden radio station in Austin with no nighttime franchise. Lyndon, then a congressman, used his political influence to help push Lady Bird’s application for a broadcast license through the Federal Communication Commission. Lady Bird served as president of the family business, hired staff, and kept a close eye on the books, while Lyndon’s political influence helped build and protect their fortune. (For years, Austin had only one television station—Lady Bird’s—and the perception was that this was due to Lyndon’s clout at the FCC keeping away competitors.)

No matter how rich she got, Lady Bird never lost her appreciation for the “valueofadollar.” In the White House, the Johnsons made news by turning off the lights in order to cut down on the electricity bill. She shopped the after-Christmas sales for her clothes. Following one of our interviews, we went to lunch together in Austin. We talked about the changes she’d seen during her life. When she and Lyndon were born, Texas was a rural state. The largest voting bloc was made up of farmers. “He was a son of the courthouse steps,” she said, as she sipped a glass of iced tea. “He loved going to the county seat on a Saturday afternoon and mingling with the old farmers with their drooping mustaches. They would chew tobacco and sit, looking very intently at you, as if they were peering into your mind to get whatever you were talking about.” The picture she painted of Texas that afternoon no longer exists, but it once did, and on that day it was wonderful to see it through her eyes. Before we left, I noticed her pick up a few packets of Sweet’N Low from the table and slip them into her bag. There was something so familiar about that gesture—the reminder of the importance of the penny saved—that I felt the past rise up between us. “Wasn’t that a won-n-n-duh-ful lunch?” she said. “One of the very best,” I replied.

The virtues instilled by her parents—practicality, thriftiness, good manners, an open mind—served her well in what may have been the most significant episode of her time in the White House: the 1,628-mile train trip she took through eight Southern states following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Her message to the gathered crowds was that unless the South accepted the Civil Rights Act, its economy would be ruined and its fate consigned to the past. In stop after stop, she faced angry white picketers with signs such as “Black Bird Go Home.” But she carried on, and the fact that she was a Southerner herself ultimately convinced many people. Her husband had been seen as a traitor in the South for signing the law, but she was different. When Georgia senator Herman Talmadge wouldn’t return Lyndon’s phone calls, Lady Bird extended her own sort of olive branch—she made a public point of praising his wife Betty’s special recipe for ham cooked in two inches of Coca-Cola.

In an effort to understand more about the Southern strain of her personality, I went to Montgomery, Alabama, to interview Virginia Durr. Durr’s husband, Clifford, was a civil rights lawyer who had represented Rosa Parks in her legal challenge of segregation of passengers on public buses in Montgomery. The Durrs had met the Johnsons in 1936, when both couples were caught up in the excitement of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Durr explained to me that Southern women of Lady Bird’s age had coped with growing up in a world filled with the “unreason” of segregation by either becoming “unreasonable” themselves or by focusing on what has “to be done.” In her view, Lady Bird typified the latter response. She mentioned the night of President Kennedy’s funeral.

“As Lady Bird walked in her house, she began pulling off her hat and gloves to go to the kitchen to see if there was enough fried chicken to go around,” Durr told me. “And how many women have come in from burying their dead and gone to frying chicken so the survivors could be fed?” It was this impulse toward what Durr called the “immediate necessity” that elevated Lady Bird to greatness.

One of the conclusions I came to while working on my book was that where Lady Bird represented the best of Texas womanhood, Lyndon often represented some of the worst traits of Texas men. Though brilliant and astute, he could be a terrible bully, and his many alleged infidelities have been carefully chronicled by biographers. He presented me with a particular difficulty. In order to write the story of Lady Bird’s life, I felt it was necessary to address some of her husband’s darker dimensions. Yet on that first day in her kitchen, when I brought up the subject, Lady Bird yanked off her sunglasses and snapped, “When people ask me these sort of things, I just say, ‘Look to your own lives. Look to yourself, everybody. Fix yourselves, and keep your problems to yourself.’” It was the kind of stoic answer that was deeply ingrained in women of her time and place—the idea that personal problems must be borne alone.

Nonetheless, I felt I had an obligation as a biographer to probe how she had handled these challenges. As gently as I could, I began asking questions of those in her inner circle about key relationships. Generally, the answer was some version of former Texas governor John Connally’s appraisal that she had handled Lyndon’s affairs by “behaving as if there were nothing to handle.”

But Lady Bird didn’t like this line of questioning. She could not abide anything remotely unflattering to Lyndon. Finally, after I published an essay in Slate about the public release of his private telephone calls in which I referred to him as “the last of the really big hicks,” she withdrew her cooperation entirely. In December 1997 she sent me a letter stating her position. “I enjoyed my association with you—I liked you—and it is with sadness that I bring my participation in the book to an end,” she wrote.

By then, I’d interviewed enough people in her life to know exactly what had happened. Lady Bird had taken what those around her called her “psychic leave,” part of her heritage as a Southern woman. Confronted with certain unpleasant topics, she simply drew a veil between herself and the world. She always carried within herself a place of distant remove, a refuge not unlike the woods around the Brick House, and could retreat there in times of distress.

I had seen her do this once before, at a small dinner party for Katharine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post. The two women had been talking easily about their famous lives when the conversation shifted in a direction that made Lady Bird uncomfortable. Someone mentioned that Mrs. Graham had gotten on Lyndon’s bad side over the Post’s coverage of the Vietnam War. Mrs. Graham seemed eager to talk about the turmoil, but Lady Bird’s expression had suddenly turned dark. She withdrew her hands from the table and placed them in her lap. She focused her gaze downward on her plate. The small talk and yammering around the table instantly stopped. Her silence contained extraordinary power. Mesmerized, I watched as the conversation quickly shifted to something to Lady Bird’s liking.

But it was more than just a disinclination to discuss private matters that led Lady Bird to stop talking to me. My project depended on my being able to see her as an individual, apart from her husband, and this was something she resisted. “Your conclusions about me may well come at Lyndon’s expense,” her letter explained. “There is no way to separate us and our roles in each other’s lives.” As old-fashioned as it may now seem, Lady Bird saw herself as an extension of her husband and recoiled from any attempt to view her life apart from his. Her marriage was what defined her. “He was the catalyst; I was the amalgam,” she said, over and over. In other words, she poured herself into the mold of his life.

Their interaction was seamless, mutual. They perfectly counterbalanced each other. Lyndon brought her out of her shyness and exposed her to new and different ideas, and Lady Bird gave him what he most needed—loyalty. Neither could have succeeded without each other. Even Lyndon often said that he couldn’t have been president without her. She took care of his personal needs, having his size 17 shirts extended so they would stay tucked in his trousers, soothing his temper. But she did more than that. She helped draft his speeches and was one of the few people close to Lyndon who could offer criticism without fear of reprisal. My need to see her on her own terms—independent of her husband—was not just unacceptable to her. It was unthinkable.

As for infidelity, she had what may be a more realistic view of marriage than many. When former president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer became public, Lady Bird dismissed it as nothing more than “a fly on the wedding cake.” Today, this view of marriage seems out-of-date, antediluvian, but there remains about it something that is undeniably real. After all, marriage is not a fairy tale. Laura Bush has had to endure far fewer troubles in her marriage than Lady Bird did, and yet somehow the carefully scripted way that the Bushes interact makes them seem much less authentic.

Though some observers have seen Lady Bird’s role in the Johnsons’ 38-year partnership as unfulfilling, or even demeaning, for her it was empowering. She acted through the marriage, never outside of it. Love was a part of what bound her and Lyndon together, but loyalty, ambition, and self-interest played a part as well, from both sides. Despite her image as Our Lady of the Wildflowers, Lady Bird was tough (we may find out just how tough in coming years, when more of her private correspondence and telephone transcripts are released). She had an agenda of her own, one that seems strangely current. As during her husband’s presidency, the country is once again in an unpopular war, and the attention to the environment that she fought for has grown into one of the dominant issues of our day.

Looking back, what impresses me most about Lady Bird is how engaged she was. She never shrank from the tumultuousness of her times. Like her husband, she believed in the power of government to change things for the better. She used her role to effect change—fighting for the Highway Beautification Act, riding through the South for civil rights, visiting the poor in Appalachia. The small sign on her White House desk said it all. The sign read “Can Do!”

The first time I interviewed Lady Bird, I asked her about her faith. This is the kind of thing women from East Texas naturally talk about, and it somehow seemed rude not to bring it up. She was baptized in the Methodist church in Karnack, where her mother’s funeral was held, but when she was in junior college at St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls, she was confirmed as an Episcopalian. I asked her if she believed in heaven. “Oh, yes, I do,” she said. “I do know that there is something hereafter, because all this has been too significant, too magnificent, for there not to be something after. Heaven, to me, is a mystery, a place where I’ll know what all this—the events of my life—meant.”

The last time I interviewed her was in July 1997, at the LBJ Ranch. She gave a tour of the house, pointing out her husband’s bedroom, which she’d ordered left exactly as it was on the day he died, in 1973. We sat on the porch, and she talked about what a good year it had been for wildflowers, particularly the five-star Texas phlox. Our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a bus full of tourists. In 1972 the Johnsons bequeathed their home and the two hundred acres of ranchland that surround it to the National Park Service, and since then tour buses regularly pass through the gates to stop by Lyndon’s birthplace and the family cemetery where he is buried (and where she too is now buried).

She stood up from her chair, waved at the tourists, and said, “How are y’all? Are you having a nice day?” Some people might have resented the intrusion, but Lady Bird didn’t mind in the least. In fact, she enjoyed it, a reminder of her days as first lady, when she met what she called the “GP,” or the general public. After the bus was gone, she settled back into her rocker, gazed into the front yard that slopes down to the Pedernales River, and resumed the conversation about wildflowers. To the end, nature absorbed everything.

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