As the wife of the president of the United States, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson was renowned for her graciousness, dignity, and poise in the national limelight, for her charm and effectiveness as a political speaker, and for the capabilities she displayed in her role as First Lady, as a public figure of the first magnitude. When she was young, however, few who knew her would have dreamed that she possessed such qualities.
As a girl, a young woman, and a young wife, in fact, Lady Bird (she was given her nickname by a nurse because “she’s purty as a ladybird”) was not a person to whom other people paid much attention. During her childhood—in the East Texas town of Karnack—the reason was her manner. The lonely little girl, whose mother died when she was five and whose older brothers were off at school for much of the year, lived alone with her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a tall, burly, ham-handed owner of a general store and cotton gin, loud and coarse, who “never talked about anything but making money” and was known as “Mr. Boss” throughout Harrison County. While apparently fond of his daughter, he didn’t know what to do with her and packed her off alone at the age of six, a tag around her neck for identification, to her mother’s spinster sister in Alabama. Lady Bird was raised by her aunt, who moved to Karnack. Frail, sickly Aunt Effie “opened my spirit to beauty,” Lady Bird says, “but she neglected to give me any insight into the practical matters a girl should know about, such as how to dress or choose one’s friends or learning to dance.”
Lady Bird loved to read, particularly in a beautifully bound set of books that had belonged to her mother. She memorized poems that she could recite decades later, finished Ben-Hur at the age of eight. As for other companionship, the handful of students at Karnack’s one-room school were almost all children of the itinerant black sharecroppers who worked her father’s 18,000 acres of red clay cotton land; they seldom stayed for long, since her father was notoriously ruthless in his treatment of tenants behind in their rent. “I came from…a small town, except that I was never part of the town—lived outside,” she says. During her high school years in nearby Marshall (she graduated at fifteen), the lonely little girl became a lonely young woman. Despite her expressive eyes and smooth complexion, she was considered plain, and her baggy, drab clothes seemed almost deliberately chosen to make her less attractive. To the other girls, preoccupied with dresses and dancing and boys, she seems to have been almost an object of ridicule. Says one: “Bird wasn’t accepted into our clique….She didn’t date at all. To get her to go to the graduation banquet, my fiancé took Bird as his date and I went with another boy. She didn’t like to be called Lady Bird, so we’d call her Bird to get her little temper going….When she’d get in a crowd, she’d clam up.” In talking about her, they recall a shyness so profound that it seems to have been an active fear of meeting or talking to people. Lady Bird’s own recollections are perhaps the most poignant. “I don’t recommend that to anyone, getting through high school that young. I was still in socks when all the other girls were wearing stockings. And shy—I used to hope that no one would speak to me.” She loved nature, boating on the winding bayous of Lake Caddo or walking along its shores (“drifts of magnolia all through the woods in the Spring—and the daffodils in the yard. When the first one bloomed, I’d have a little ceremony, all by myself, and name it the queen”), but the boating and walking were also usually “by myself.” So deep was her shyness that, as a high school senior, she prayed that if she finished first or second in her class, she would get smallpox so that she wouldn’t have to be valedictorian or salutatorian and have to make a speech at graduation. (She finished third.) The school newspaper joked that her ambition was to be an old maid.
Although she remained silent and retiring at the University of Texas, indications of determination and ambition began to appear. Instead of returning to Karnack when she graduated in 1933, as her father and aunt had anticipated, she insisted on spending an extra year at the university, so that she could obtain a second degree—in journalism, “because I thought that people in the press went more places and met more interesting people, and had more exciting things happen to them.” Attempting to overcome her shyness, she became a reporter for the Daily Texan and forced herself to ask questions at press conferences. Nevertheless, the attempt seemed to be a losing one. Except at press conferences, one friend recalls, “she was always pleasant, smiling, and so quiet she never seemed to speak at all.” Her best friend, Eugenia Boehringer, despaired of making her more outgoing or even of persuading her to change her style of dressing; despite the “unlimited” charge account her father had opened for her at Neiman-Marcus, she still wore flat-heeled, sensible shoes and plain dresses, of colors so drab that they seemed deliberately chosen to avoid calling attention to herself. And despite her journalism degree, when college ended, she did return to Karnack. It was on a visit to Austin some months later, in September 1934, that by chance, in the office in which Eugenia Boehringer was working as a secretary, she met Lyndon Johnson, who was then assistant to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg. Eugenia and Johnson were friends; through her, he already knew who Lady Bird was; he immediately asked her for a date and on that first date he asked her to marry him, which she did in November.
After her marriage, there was an additional reason that people did not pay much attention to Lady Bird Johnson: