Alone Together

Serial infidelity. Public misbehavior. Private slights. And, strangely, love. The inside story of Lady Bird Johnson’s marriage to LBJ. And you thought Hillary Clinton had it rough.
On their honeymoon in Mexico. "He indulged me on that trip," Lady Bird said, "but the truth is he wasn’t much intrigued."

On November 18, 1934, the day after their wedding, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson drove from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico. The decision to go there for a honeymoon was mutual, but it was perfectly suited to Lady Bird’s taste. The red hibiscus blossoms, the broad-leafed banana trees, the impromptu serenades—not to mention the favorable exchange rate, making every purchase seem like a fantastic bargain—all combined to make Monterrey a natural place for Lady Bird’s transition from life on her own to Johnson’s strange new world.

The following day, they boarded a train to Mexico City. From the train, Lady Bird’s eye was continually drawn to the hundreds of shrines to the Virgin Mary that had been built along the winding roadways. As a Protestant, she was unfamiliar with the role that the Virgin Mary occupies as the embodiment of the ever-present merciful mother to Roman Catholics. “Those places by the side of the road seemed so strange to me,” she recalled. “I don’t know why, but the sight of little girls laying paper flowers at the shrines is one of the strongest memories I have of my honeymoon.”

She tried to engage Johnson in conversation about the shrines, but he wasn’t particularly interested in Mexico. Mentally, he was back in Washington. He spent most of their honeymoon talking about his work. “I heard a lot of big talk about how he wanted to be the best, hardest-working congressional secretary in Washington,” she recalled. He missed his friends and the round-the-clock action on the Hill. “I was a born sightseer,” Lady Bird said with a sigh, “but Lyndon was a born people-seer. He indulged me on that trip, but the truth is he wasn’t much intrigued.”

In Washington they moved into a modest one-bedroom furnished apartment at 1910 Kalorama Road. There, Lady Bird, who had never swept a floor or cooked a meal, set about trying to learn how to be a housewife. She, who had been waited on all her life by maids, now filled her days and nights waiting on Johnson.

He expected to be served coffee in bed every morning, along with the morning newspaper. He also expected her to pay the bills, to take care of his clothes, and to have meals ready at all hours of the day and night in case he or any member of his staff showed up hungry. When asked if she resented doing any of these chores, Lady Bird said, “Heavens no. I was delighted to do it. I adored him.”

In public Johnson often treated her as if she were invisible. Sometimes he would tell negative stories about her—about how she kept house or how she pinched pennies—in front of her in a group. “I thought if we went to a party, Lyndon would be with me the whole evening. He wasn’t. At first I was incensed. I was left alone with a bunch of strangers,” she recalled. Instead of showing her anger, Lady Bird realized that either she would have to work hard to win over Johnson’s friends, to become part of the circle, or she would have to reconcile herself to staying on the fringe.

During the day, she worked hard to take care of the chores at home as quickly as possible so that she could prowl around Washington on her own, often with a camera. She thought of herself as an explorer and wanted to document the places and events around her in photographs. Neither housework nor shopping held any interest at all for her.

She was ambivalent about her own wardrobe. Her lack of interest in clothes was one the few concrete expressions of her desire for some degree of independence from Johnson, who pushed her to look a certain way—even to the point of humiliation. He wanted her to look respectable but sexy. He liked bold colors—red, blue, green, and black—and straight skirts, not flared or pleated. If she walked into a room and she wasn’t wearing lipstick, he would bark, “Put your lipstick on. You don’t sell for what you’re worth.” If he thought her hair was too long or too short, he would order her to have it cut or let it grow. If some other woman was wearing a dress he liked, Johnson would point to her and ask, “Why can’t you look like that?” It was his bellicose way of talking, the kind of stereotypical, macho speech he had grown up with in Texas, and Lady Bird didn’t take offense.

In fact she even regarded Lyndon’s admonitions on clothes as backhanded compliments. “He thought I was good-looking and he wanted others to see me that way,” she explained. She viewed it as an indication that he was interested in her. “I had the idea that people were supposed to love me because I had an interesting mind, a kind heart, and a warm smile. I thought that Lyndon’s emphasis on clothes and appearance was the wrong system of values. He used to say that a lot of the people that I met would only see me once, and that the opinion they would form would persist. He wanted them to have a good opinion of me. By the world’s rules, he was right. I was wrong.”

One evening they went to see the movie version of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In the darkness of the theater Lady Bird heard Johnson sniffling. Moments later she heard loud sobs. The story of the Joad family reminded him of his own family’s poverty. Lady Bird was astonished that he was able to express such strong emotion over a movie. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it, both proud of him and puzzled. “He had a tender, sentimental side that he didn’t show very often,” she recalled.

She also remembers her long waits for him to come home. Night after night she would stand by her kitchen window in their first Washington apartment, watching for the headlights of his car

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