A Lady First

She was a small-town girl, a wife and mother, an environmentalist, a civil rights activist, a media mogul, and the only person who could tell the president of the United States to go jump in a lake. But more than any of those things, Lady Bird Johnson was, to her dying day, exactly what we always imagined her to be.

I first met Lady Bird on a rainy day in November 1994. I had gone to her home in northwest Austin to interview her for an article for this magazine on the occasion of her upcoming eighty-second birthday. We met in the kitchen, where she made coffee, leaning on a steel cane. Her hair was completely gray, her face creased with lines, and even though it was overcast and we were indoors, she wore a pair of sunglasses with large white frames. To be in her presence that day was both moving and unnerving. She was clearly arthritic and going blind from macular degeneration, and these ailments made her seem vulnerable; yet as she stood at the stove, dressed in a pleated navy skirt, cotton blouse, and black lace-up shoes with crepe soles, it was impossible not to feel intimidated.

Sam Rayburn called her “the darn greatest woman who ever lived,” and Lady Bird Johnson’s was indeed a remarkable life. Born in the small East Texas town of Karnack, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1934 as the 21-year-old bride of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was then a congressional aide; twenty-nine years later she became the first lady when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the wake of her death in July at age 94, tributes and speeches touted her graciousness and fortitude, her highway beautification campaign that helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement, and her dedication to racial equality.

Today, many younger Texans have no memory of Lady Bird at the height of her power, and those who do may be inclined to think of her as belonging to the past, a woman who brought her husband coffee and newspapers in bed, ironed his shirts, and quietly tolerated his excesses. But one of the secrets to Lady Bird’s success was that she always dealt from strength, never weakness. Publicly she pretended to be a traditional stay-at-home wife and mother, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Hers was a life of cultural transition. During the 38 years she spent as Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, married life in America underwent several upheavals, and Lady Bird’s public image can be seen as a bridge from the less visible roles inhabited by wives of the forties and early fifties to the era of women’s liberation. Though her demeanor and style may now seem faintly anachronistic, she was remarkably effective as a first lady, more so than some of her “modern” successors.

Ever the warm and generous host, she quickly set me at ease that day in her kitchen. “Do you take your coffee black or with sugah?” she asked, and the way she rolled that velvety r—not disguising her Texas accent but proudly flaunting it—completely won me over. Like her, I was born and raised in East Texas. Her traditional appearance and slow, Southern speech reminded me of all the Texas women I’d grown up with—my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts. The fact that she felt no need to feign sophistication made her immediately real to me.

This may be impossible to fathom in today’s Texas, where every place you go has Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and all the other chains, but there was a time when character was utterly formed by the physical place in which one was born. Lady Bird was a child of deep East Texas, a place that used to be as different from West Texas as rural Mississippi is from the Painted Desert of Arizona. The ancient trees, exotic plants, and mossy swamps formed a crucial part of her emotional inheritance, as they do mine. In fact, I came to believe that the chief features of her personality—her determined graciousness, her remoteness, her ability to burn anger behind a calm veneer, her down-to-earth nature, her ambition—were all derived from that early landscape.

I spent eight hours that day interviewing Lady Bird about the major events of her life. After the article came out (“ Lady Bird Looks Back,” December 1994), it still seemed to me that a great deal more could be said about the former first lady, so I decided to write a biography of her. We had already gotten to know each other a little, and over the next three years, Lady Bird was very kind and helpful with my project. She sat for a series of interviews and encouraged friends and family to talk with me as well. ( Lady Bird was published in 1999 by Scribner.)

While researching my book, I visited the Brick House, the two-story, ten-room Southern mansion in Karnack that Lady Bird’s father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, bought for her mother, Minnie, after he had become rich. Taylor owned a large plantation, two cotton gins, and two country stores. Though his house was grand, it had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity on the day in 1912 when Claudia Alta Taylor was born (her nickname came two years later, and stuck). During my visit, I stood at a window in her bedroom and looked out at the view of a small front yard and a narrow road winding through a double wall of pine trees. I pressed my nose against the glass, as she must have done a thousand times, and saw how the horizon was completely obstructed by that wall of trees. Like many young girls in East Texas, Lady Bird grew up isolated from the rest of the world by the insular nature of her physical surroundings.

And yet these same woods that hemmed her in were a cherished retreat, especially after her mother died, when Lady Bird was only five years old. She had few memories of her mother; in one, Minnie was walking barefoot through the woods, her skirts damp with dew, carrying a bouquet of wildflowers. Later, as a young girl, Lady Bird herself took to the woods for comfort and solace. In Karnack, her regular playmates were two black girls, who also had nicknames: Doodle Bug and Stuff. “I was a child

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