I don’t know which bodes worse, marrying a politician or marrying a writer. As much as the willingness of some people to wed writers in spite of our quirks and our inflated egos is of great comfort to me personally, the fact is we share with politicians a tendency to go missing—the candidate is compelled to devote evenings and weekends to shaking hands and raising money, while the scribe is always scurrying off to fashion another sentence. One seeks out a crowd, the other solitude, but either way they’re not always around when you need them.
Nadine Eckhardt was wife to both. You could accuse her, then, of being some kind of marital masochist, but you could also read her new memoir, Duchess of Palms, and understand the complicated appeal of each man, the author Billy Lee Brammer and the former congressman Robert Eckhardt. Both were liberal luminaries of the Austin political scene in the fifties and sixties, which has in the intervening decades been so burnished by nostalgia that it can come across as an extended beer-swilling lefty-intellectual bacchanal at Scholz Garten, with Brammer and Eckhardt as two of its tragicomic (and then something closer to just tragic) idealists.
Now, at long last, Nadine has published her version, “a secret history,” she writes, borrowing the label from University of Texas English professor Don Graham. In his 1995 introduction to a reprint of Brammer’s book, The Gay Place, Graham maintained that there was a history yet to be written of the women of that circle. Nadine takes up this assignment, though almost by necessity what that missing history turns out to be is the story of her two marriages. In other words, it’s still largely about the men—but also about how her relationships with them left her unfulfilled, continually longing for something other than the life she was living. Twice she sought out a certain position in the world via marriage, only to grow restless and try in turn to escape.
Exhibit A: a photograph that accompanied an August 1956 article called “They Take Their Wives to Work” in the American Weekly. Standing on the steps of the United States Capitol are Senator Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird, and they are flanked by four married couples, all employed by LBJ. Among them are young Nadine and Bill Brammer, who’d moved to Washington from Austin the year before, Bill having left the Texas Observer to work as a senatorial assistant.
“Housewives!” the article begins. “Instead of a day-long battle with dust, dirty dishes, lunch and dinner, would you rather lock the door on all that and go to work with your husband each morning?” The piece goes on to explain LBJ’s practice of granting secretarial positions to the wives of the men he hired (the better to keep them late into the night) and quotes Nadine: “Usually we have a sandwich at our desks for lunch, and it’s dark, most evenings, when we leave. But I wouldn’t change this for the world. I would rather be at the office with my husband and have a peep-hole view of history than stay home wondering what time he’ll arrive.”
In her memoir she is less chipper about that time. Already the mother of two girls, she was ambivalent about her marriage and resentful that she was expected to work and “carry the entire domestic load.” And while LBJ’s staffing philosophy may have brought wives in closer proximity to their husbands, it also brought them closer to the senator’s groping hands and to other men. “I was already straying sexually and emotionally, and had had several flings by the time the photo on the steps of the Capitol was taken in 1956,” she writes. “In it I look dazed and confused. I was.”
When Nadine Cannon first met Billy Lee Brammer, in 1950, they were undergraduates at North Texas State College, in Denton. He’d grown up in Dallas and she in McAllen, where she’d been a beauty queen, or at least a beauty duchess (the title of her memoir refers to a citywide honor she’d won as a teenager). Witty, well-read Bill—who called her the Duchess of Psalms—and Nadine, a fetching art major, aspired to sophistication; they drank Pernod and listened to Ravel and rebelled by tooling around Denton in his car while she screamed “shit!” at top volume, as he’d instructed her to do.
Marriage to Bill would have offered a possible shortcut to glamorous adulthood and a way of remaining a kid at the same time. (“He was my playmate,” she recalled after his death, in 1978.) She soon found herself pregnant, though, and considered having an abortion so that she could finish school, an option her mother favored. Among the Brammer papers housed in the Wittliff Collections, at Texas State University, is a poignant letter he wrote to her while she was visiting her family in McAllen that alludes to his wish that she keep the baby. “Rooter-Pooter—,” it opens, “Went to class today—first this week. Have been shopping and got you many kinds of prazunts… . Started to get you a new doucheee bag, but didn’t think it would look nice when you unwrapped it.” And then in one long paragraph he reports on Christmas gifts from his parents, a card from his aunt and uncle, new tires for his car, and numerous job prospects. In the middle of it all he writes, “Be happy. Don’t do nothing to yourself. If you don’t want what comes out, I’ll take it, and you can go flee away.”
She had the baby, and they moved to Austin. She fancied herself a Zelda Fitzgerald, the Southern beauty turned literary wife, never mind the fact that Bill hadn’t really written anything yet or that an unhappily married woman who spent much of her adult life in mental hospitals is an odd person to take as your role model. Then they were swooped up by LBJ and transported to Washington. Yet late nights spent answering constituent