Capitol Affairs

What Nadine Eckhardt learned about love and work from her marriages to a novelist and a congressman.

April 2009By Comments

The LBJ Gang: Billy Lee and Nadine (far right) with the senator in a photograph from a 1956 American Weekly article.
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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 mail would not salvage an already troubled relationship.

Letters between Bill and Nadine document, obliquely, the decline of their marriage. The early missives are fond and laced with non-subtle innuendo (“my phallus yearns for your wombus”), but as time goes on, the letters’ main subject becomes money. In 1957 Nadine, pregnant with their third child, moved with her daughters back to Austin, while Bill remained in Washington, working for LBJ and writing his book. Even before they’d left Austin they had fancied themselves sexual pioneers, abandoning traditional mores, much like the characters described in The Gay Place. “We lied to ourselves and to each other, swapped partners, and acted on our own selfish motivations . . . rationalizing it later with intellectual verbiage,” Nadine writes in her memoir. But Bill had developed a distaste for the party-hopping and sexual adventuring, while his compulsive spending drove her nuts. “Dear Wife of My Youth,” he wrote to her in 1960, wishing her a happy twenty-ninth birthday. The next year they were divorced, just as his book was published to great acclaim.

A year later she married Robert Eckhardt, a Houston state representative whom she’d come to know in the course of working for another legislator. Seventeen and a half years older than she was, he struck her as more reliable than Bill. And as with her first husband, she could spot a man on the rise. He was considering a run for Congress: “I wanted it for him and for me,” she writes. “My vision was so compelling and my gut instinct so certain, I decided I would marry this mature, attractive, talented man, create a wonderful home life, help him achieve a congressional seat, and return to Washington as a congressional wife. . . . Subconsciously, I think I was the one who really wanted to go to Congress.”

So they trotted around to political meetings and parties and fundraisers, glad-handing and raising money until, in 1966, he won a seat in the U.S. House. It comes as no great surprise that a congressional wife’s actual lifestyle didn’t live up to her expectations. In Washington, Nadine found herself a de facto secretary and automaton on the dreary social circuit, while her husband worked long hours, went on junkets, and left her to clean up after him. But soon enough she discovered more-involving pastimes. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she consorted with activists who had taken up residence in Ralph Abernathy’s “Resurrection City” (a sprawl of tents erected on the National Mall to raise awareness of poverty); she befriended the blue-blood diplomat Averell Harriman; she entertained Daniel Ellsberg at her house in Georgetown; she developed a deep and abiding affection for marijuana; and she had an affair with a college student—by then older men had apparently lost their luster.

One of the great accomplishments of The Gay Place is its deft weaving together of the domestic and the political; in it, the coming storms of the sixties, rumbling in the distance, nudge everyone a little off balance. From reading Duchess of Palms, it’s clear that just a few years later even a writer as talented as Brammer would have had a hard time bringing it all together: One minute Nadine is sleeping with a college student, and the next she’s meeting the Nixons, a contrast almost too marvelous for fiction, satire excepted. But the craziness of her life in the early seventies keeps you from feeling much feminist remorse, keeps you from dwelling upon the question of what would have become of Nadine had she been born fifteen years later, or even just finished college. Had she, say, gone to law school and held down a steady job, could her life have possibly been as rich? She herself writes of watching Gloria Steinem with wistful admiration but also recognizes that one’s external circumstances don’t always indicate one’s level of happiness.

Still, she did nurse larger ambitions. In 1973 she decided for the second time that she’d had enough of Washington and announced she was moving to her and Bob’s rural Harris County house to grow vegetables. He would come home on weekends. Other friends from Washington and Austin came to visit, and “I treated them to good weed, good food, and good political talk on our screened porch.” During this period, journalist Myra MacPherson interviewed Nadine and Bob and their nine-year-old daughter, Sarah (who is now a Travis County commissioner), for a book on political marriages called The Power Lovers. Here’s Nadine describing the Washington social circuit: “You sit between some little gray men who talk about how they miss their golf course or how important they are on some damn inconsequential committee. Who wants to hear that shit?” Besides, she continues, it was more important for her to socialize with people in her husband’s district. “I may end up taking his place someday and I’m building up real good ties.”

Consider the distance between the American Weekly and The Power Lovers, between the cheerful office helpmeet who is “taken to work” by her husband and the cussing critic of Washington, contemplating her own run for office. She had come a very long way. But once again she found herself in an unsustainable marriage and, discovering that Bob was cheating on her with one of their friends, separated from him. He was at the peak of his career, she notes, just as Bill had been when they divorced. And all the time and work she’d invested in his career was gone; all that experience wouldn’t translate in the job market.

Ever restless, she opened a restaurant in Austin and later moved to New York to help run another restaurant, in the West Village. Eventually she moved back to Texas and worked as an assistant to Molly Ivins. Meanwhile, following the end of his congressional career and the breakup of his third marriage, Bob moved to Austin, and before his death, in 2001, he and Nadine and her daughters would gather in his unkempt backyard—perhaps the most idyllically familial setting in her book.

Assessing the character of Don Quixote, romantic par excellence, the literary critic Erich Auerbach once wrote that Cervantes’s would-be knight “is the victim of a social order in which he belongs to a class that has no function.” The Don’s lack of purpose in his own society, Auerbach writes, is what fuels his obsession with chivalry. A “fifties girl” in Texas may not have been as extraneous to society as Cervantes’s hero, the pursuit of liberal intellectuals not quite the same thing as tilting at windmills, but reading Duchess of Palms, I was reminded of that link between alienation and romance. But good thing she was so dissatisfied with the hands she was dealt, for her particular blend of discontent and idealism and rebelliousness shaped a singular, fascinating life.

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