When I learned that Lady Bird Johnson had died, I went back to the first volume of biographer Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, and read his chapter about her, and the subsquent story of their early married life. The Path to Power is the best of Caro’s three volumes; it is a stunning story not just about a future president, but also about Texas, and especially the Hill Country–a history that Texas writers had missed altogether–and one reason that the book is so revealing and so able to touch the reader’s emotions is that Lady Bird opened up to him. But when the book came out, with a portrait of Lyndon Johnson that was often unflattering, not to mention the story of his reputed affair with Alice Glass during the early years of his marriage, she cut off contact with him. This is a much abridged version of Lady Bird’s early years and her courtship and marriage, drawn from Caro’s work.
Claudia Alta Tayor grew up rich, lonely, and painfully shy. At the age of two, LBJ biographer Robert Caro writes in The Path to Power, she got the nickname “Lady Bird” from a black nurse. As Caro tells it, LBJ only courted rich girls, so it was fortunate that her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was one of the richest men in East Texas, with an empire of 18,000 acres and an antebellum house outside the little town of Karnack that was the finest in Harrison County. His fortune was built on general stores and cotton gins and loans to tenant farmers at 10 percent interest. Her cultured side came from her mother; according to Robert Caro, Minnie Lee Taylor owned “trunkloads” of beautifully bound books (and read from them to her daughter, of Greek and Roman myths) and went to Chicago for the opera season. But her mother died when she was five, and she was raised by her mother’s sister, who moved to Texas to take care of the young girl. Decades later, Lady Bird would say to Caro of Aunt Effie, “She opened my spirit to beauty, but she neglected to give me any insight into the practical matters a girl should know about….” She was so shy that she prayed that she would finish third in her high school graduating class, which she did, because if she were the valedictorian or salutatorian, she would have to make a speech.
She was a plain girl with no sense of style, but her boyfriends at UT described her to Caro as determined and ambitious. She got her teaching certificate, then went back for an extra year to get a second degree in journalism, fighting her shyness by learning to ask questions. Later she studied shorthand and typing–“the tools that can get you inside the door,” she told Caro. She had already determined that she would not go back to Karnack.
She met Lyndon Johnson through her first close friend: Eugenia Boehringer, the oldest sister of a high school classmate. Gene, as she was known, tried to get Lady Bird to buy better clothes, without success. Gene Boehringer worked for C. V. Terrell, the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, which in the 1930s was at the zenith of its influence as the agency that regulated the oil industry. Sam Ealy Johnson, LBJ’s father and a former state legislator, was a bus inspector for the Commission, and he had introduced Lyndon to Eugenia. The relationship never got off the ground–she turned down his request for a date–but, Caro writes, they remained friends, and when Lyndon passed through Austin in 1934, on his way to go back to Washington as a congressional aide, he called Gene and asked her to get him a date. She paired him with another woman who worked in the office. When Lyndon showed up to pick up his date, Lady Bird was there, visiting Gene. “[H]e quietly asked her to meet her the next morning in the coffee shop of the Driskill Hotel,” Caro writes. She wasn’t going to go, but she was in Austin to meet with an architect about doing some work on her father’s home, and the office was next to the Driskill, and, “as she passed the coffee shop, she saw Lyndon sitting at a table at its window.” When Lyndon realized she wasn’t coming to meet him, “he frantically waved at her until she did.” He took her for a drive, “showered her with questions,” talked about his ambitions to become somebody, about his salary, about his insurance–and asked her to marry him.
She told Caro that she had thought it was a joke; she had no intention of getting married. But Lyndon, though “excessively thin,” was “very, very good-looking, with lots of black wavy hair, and the most outspoken, straightforward, determined manner I had ever encountered.” The next day he took her to meet his parents, then to the King Ranch–the congressman for whom LBJ worked was a Kleberg–and the congressman’s grandmother told her she should marry Lyndon. She went home to Karnack but, still in the first week of their courtship, invited Lyndon and his traveling companion, another congressional secretary, to spend the night at her father’s house on their way to Washington. After dinner, her father told her, “Daughter, you’ve been bringing home a lot of boys. This time you’ve brought a man.” Again he asked her to marry him, again she was coy, but kissed him before he left. “I knew I had met something remarkable,” she told Caro, “But I didn’t know quite what …. I had a queer sort of moth-and-flame feeling.”
Back in Washington, he changed his morning routine for the only time in his life, writing daily letters to her before going through the mail and the newspapers and calling her as well. He wanted to come down and talk about getting engaged. When she agreed, he drove from Washington without stopping and immediately began pressing her about getting married, right away. They drove to Austin to pick out an engagement ring, but Lady Bird refused to let him buy a wedding ring. She said she wanted to see Aunt Effie first. A spinster, Aunt Effie said she shouldn’t marry a man she hardly knew, to which her father would respond, “If you wait until Aunt Effie is ready, you won’t marry anyone.” When she got back to Karnack, Lyndon was waiting for her. She told him she wanted to go to Austin to ask Gene Boehringer’s advice, but Lyndon insisted on coming along, and they hadn’t gone far before he issued an ultimatum: “We either get married now or we never will. And if you say goodbye to me, it just proves to me that you don’t love me enough to dare to. And I just can’t bear to go on and keep wondering if it will ever happen.” When she said yes, Lady Bird told Caro, he let out a “Texas yip.” They drove straight to San Antonio and got married, without telling anyone in their families.
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I decided to honor Lady Bird’s life this way, for two reasons. One is that the Caro’s storytelling portrays the youthful Lyndon and Lady Bird as we knew them later in life — him as the irresistible force, her as someone, who, as an earlier boyfriend had described their relationship, “was really in control.” Lady Bird was not swept off her feet; she allowed herself to be swept off her feet. The other reason is that the national media will tell the story of their later lives and of her role in it better than I can. But we know all that: how the young bride who knew loneliness all too well opened her home to Sam Rayburn, the loneliest of powerful men (and how this was an essential step in LBJ’s rise to power); how she managed his congressional office when Lyndon went off to war; how the radio station that became the basis of the family fortune was bought in her name, allowing Lyndon to separate himself from favors granted by the FCC, and how she became a shrewd business manager; how, at a crucial moment of the 1948 Senate campaign, she asked her father for a badly needed $10,000; how, after Johnson became president, it was her misfortune to be compared to Jacquelyn Kennedy, her predecessor, because Lady Bird never had pretenses to glamor; and how she came to be appreciated as one of the great First Ladies, with her campaign to beautify first Washington and then the nation’s highways, through the Highway Beautification Actof 1965, which limited billboards to specific areas.
I have only one personal memory of Lady Bird. It came in the early sixties, at Camp Mystic, on the South Fork of the Guadalupe. My sister was a camper there, and she was a cabin-mate and sometimes-confidante of Luci’s. My mother and I drove up for the final campfire, and there was Lady Bird, the wife of the vice-president, shouting out for her daughter, loaded down with duffle bags, indistinguishable from the other moms. I was only a teenager, but her lack of pretension made an impression on me that I never forgot. Later, when I had started to work at the Capitol, she was appointed to the University of Texas Board of Regents. The redoubtable Frank Erwin was chairman then, and he ruled UT like a czar. I don’t know how she did it, but Mrs. Johnson put a stop to that.
Did Lady Bird live too long? She was confined to a wheel chair and had lost most, if not all, of her sight, but in one very important way, long life brought a special blessing. In 1993, with her permission, the LBJ Library began releasing the tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s telephone conversations. The tapes have been compiled into a book by presidential historian Michael Beschloss (Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 – 1964. (To listen to the tapes, click here.) One of the best of the tapes is a conversation with Lady Bird when she tells him that he MUST call Jackie Kennedy. Lady Bird lived to see her husband rehabilitated by history. While she was still alive, she could rest in peace.