Luci in the Sky

Now firmly in control of her famous family’s holding company, Luci Baines Johnson is flying high.

March 1998By Comments

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON once asked her mother how she wanted to be remembered. Lady Bird Johnson, Texas’ reigning matriarch, responded with the kind of Southern, salt-of-the-earth remark that comes naturally to her: “I made a lot of little lists in my life, and I checked a lot of things off.”

As she sat behind her desk at the Austin offices of radio station KLBJ, Luci consciously mimicked Lady Bird when I asked her to reflect on her recent accomplishments. “I’ve checked a few things off my own list,” she said. And, indeed, it has been a time in which Luci, who had played the role of “professional daughter” all her life, has finally come of age. Five years ago, she took her mother’s place as chairman of the board of the LBJ Holding Company, the parent organization for the Johnson family’s business interests, whose combined value is estimated to be $150 million. Last May she completed her long-delayed undergraduate studies, earning a degree from St. Edward’s University, a small Catholic college in Austin. In July she turned fifty and, with her husband, investment banker Ian Turpin, negotiated a merger of the Johnson family’s Austin radio holdings with those of a Virginia-based company—the first openly aggressive move that the LBJ Holding Company has made since the bust. “All my life I’ve reacted to large events that were going on around me,” Luci said, holding a cup of coffee and watching the steam rise. “Now I’ve decided to act.”

None of us escapes our biology and heritage, and certainly not Luci Johnson, whose birthright is bigger and more glaringly public than most. Her father, Lyndon Baines Johnson, has been dead for 25 years, a period of time in which her mother emerged as a power in her own right by reinterpreting their White House years, protecting her husband’s memory, running their business, and championing a cause: wildflowers. As Lady Bird grows older—she is now 85—Johnson watchers are beginning to ask who will carry the flag. In Texas, at least, the flag is in Luci’s hands. In 1996 the LBJ Holding Company bought out the family business interests held by her elder sister, Lynda Bird, who is married to U.S. senator Charles Robb of Virginia and has staked her claim on the Potomac, near the family’s old Washington stomping grounds.

As we talked, Luci signed letters using the initials she shares with her parents and her sister in a script that is, loop for loop, a carbon copy of Lyndon’s. “I can’t help it,” she explained with a shrug. “Like many other girls, I learned to write by sitting at my father’s desk and tracing his signature.” The initials, the signature, the business, and the tendency to wear her high hopes and her idealism on her sleeve are only part of the legacy she has inherited. Physically, Luci is a dead ringer for LBJ’s strong-willed mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, a well-educated woman who was the primary source of her son’s fabled ambition. Luci has Rebekah’s dark hair, piercing gaze, and pale, finely drawn features, the ones that give her the appearance of a Southern lass—even in middle age. Evidence of her family ties is on view in her office: It is filled with family photos, along with notebooks full of speeches and press clippings, and framed commendations from half a dozen or so national charities that she has supported. They are reminders of what she called, with a heavy sigh, “the privilege and weight of my heritage.”

What weight, exactly? The answer seems obvious, but it is spelled out movingly in a letter her mother recently read aloud on the television program Nightline. In the spring of 1964, six months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lady Bird wrote to LBJ to encourage him to run for the presidency on his own—but not without realizing that the entire Johnson clan would pay a price. “In the course of the campaign and in the ensuing years,” she noted, “you—and I—and the children—will certainly get criticized and cut up, for things we have done, or maybe partly-in-a-way have done—and for others that we never did at all. That will be painful.” Lady Bird’s prediction came true, and Luci’s acceptance of criticism has been part of her coming of age. “At some point I learned that I couldn’t control what people thought of my parents, my sister, or me,” she said. “Now I just try to do what I think is right for me.”

Her struggle to make her own life, separate from her family, started in adolescence. At thirteen she established her own religious identity by attending mass and eventually converting to Catholicism (Lady Bird is Episcopalian; Lyndon was born Baptist but joined the Disciples of Christ at age twelve). At sixteen, when she was a junior in high school at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C., a student burst into her Spanish class with the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. At first no one said anything about her father, and she wondered if he, too, had been shot. Later that afternoon, she saw one of her father’s Secret Service agents walking toward her on campus, and she knew instantly that her father had become president of the United States. “I tried to run the other way,” she recalled. Not long after that, she changed the spelling of her name from Lucy to Luci. “I didn’t have a name like Elizabeth that I could shorten, so I changed the spelling,” she said. “It was my way of going out on my own a little.”

Her first night in the White House, she and a friend lit a fire in the fireplace that quickly got out of control—an incident that made headlines around the country. She spent the rest of her first week there cleaning smoke stains off the walls. From then on, she regarded the White House, she said, as “the Great White Zoo.” At nineteen she married a National Guardsman, Patrick Nugent, hoping it would allow her to lead a less public life. But it really didn’t: Even if she never lived in the White House again—not even when Patrick went off to Vietnam—she still had to endure unpleasant visits there. Some nights she would hear the protesters out in front of the gates yelling, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”—a memory that continues to haunt her. “There aren’t enough walls to isolate you from that,” she said. (Of course, being tethered to LBJ wasn’t always so bad; sometimes you were part of history. In the summer of 1967, a few days after the birth of her son, Lyndon, who is now a lawyer in San Antonio, his grandfather went to Glassboro, New Jersey, to meet with Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin. Kosygin had a message from the North Vietnamese: If the Americans would stop bombing, they would start peace talks. “I understand you have grandchildren,” LBJ told Kosygin. “My first grandchild was just born. . . . Let’s get to work.”)

Then there was the issue of Luci’s relationship with her sister—and the natural sibling rivalry between them. Not surprisingly, LBJ himself was partly responsible for fanning the flames. In the mid-sixties an Associated Press reporter, Frank Cormier, asked the president if he was at all concerned that his daughters, who had grown up in public, would be able to make private lives for themselves. Lyndon, trying to compliment both girls, replied, “Lynda Bird is so smart that she’ll be able to make a living for herself. And Luci Baines is so appealing and feminine that there will always be some man around waiting to make a living for her.”

Such comparisons intensified the tensions between the girls, though Lady Bird did her best to tamp them down. In 1966 a newspaper carried a positive story about Luci’s bridesmaids and a negative one about Lynda’s eluding the press on a trip to Washington. In her memoir, A White House Diary, Lady Bird wrote about how she felt seeing such stories side by side: “And now in a way, it’s daughter against daughter. Luci has certain qualities that make her wonderful with the press and Lynda has characteristics that give her a bad time with them. The moral is, we must be careful—no rifts within our inner forces.” All these years, Lynda and Luci have followed their mother’s line—no public rifts—while working, as many daughters do, to define themselves against their father’s type. For example, when Luci, long divorced from Nugent, married Ian Turpin in 1983, she decided not to take his name. It was a break from the traditional role her father had envisioned. “I took my maiden name back once very reluctantly,” she explained, “and I just never wanted to go through anything like that again.”

Three years ago, she took another step at redefining herself as someone smart enough to earn her own way—by going back to college. She had been forced to drop out of Georgetown University’s School of Nursing in 1966 because of a prohibition against married students, and instead of enrolling elsewhere, she had a baby. “Every single day for three decades, it gnawed at me,” Luci said. She was the first Johnson woman in three generations not to graduate from college: Lyndon’s mother had a master’s degree, Lady Bird graduated from the University of Texas with not one but two degrees, and Lynda also graduated from UT—with honors, no less. In 1995, finally accepting that reality and the accomplishments of her own daughters (28-year-old Nicole and 23-year-old Rebekah are alums of UT and Montreal’s Concordia University, respectively, and 22-year-old Claudia is a senior at Boston University), Luci enrolled at St. Edward’s. She graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and a degree in communications; her diploma hangs on a wall in her office. “I didn’t need a university degree to be chairman of the board of the LBJ Holding Company,” she said, lifting and lowering both of her hands in the dramatic way her father used to. “I didn’t need to do it to earn a nickel more. I did it so I could put a lifetime of feeling inferior behind me. I did it for myself.”

Now her attention is focused on the family business. During the drop in real estate and oil prices in the eighties, two Texas banks owned by the Johnsons—Bank of the Hills in Austin and First National in Yorktown—were closed and sold by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The family lost an estimated $14 million. At the time, Luci was living in Toronto, where her husband’s business was located, and Lynda was in Virginia. Everyone in the family realized that by being out of Texas, they had violated one of LBJ’s cardinal rules: “The best fertilizer for any man’s ranch is the footsteps of its owner.” The family restructured the company and sold a television cable company it owned, and Lynda sold her share back to the LBJ Holding Company. “Since then,” Luci said, “we’ve been in the rekindling business.” These days the Johnsons’ business profile in Texas is a fraction of what it was when LBJ was alive and Lady Bird was involved on a day-to-day basis. The LBJ Holding Company employs about 150 people and owns five radio stations. Ian is the president of the company and runs the business. Luci goes into the office most days and functions as much more than a figurehead: She was the one, for instance, who pushed for the creation of the company’s HQ Business Centers, which rent office space to start-up businesses.

She is also buying real estate, primarily in Austin. She and Ian are part owners of the Towers of Town Lake, a 180-unit luxury condominium on the shores of Town Lake, and they have recently begun turning the art deco—style Brown Building in downtown Austin, which housed the first offices of KTBC—the first radio station bought by Lady Bird back in 1943—into loft apartments. The Brown Building was also once the Austin office of Brown and Root, the Houston-based construction company owned by brothers Herman and George Brown, who helped finance LBJ’s rise to power. And the LBJ Holding Company also bought another downtown office building, the Norwood Tower, a Gothic Revival—style structure around the corner from the Brown Building. “My mother calls it ‘frozen music,’ because of its architecture and memories,” Luci said. “When we bought it, I felt like we were saving a Texas treasure. I checked it off both of our lists.”

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