1. Archive

The loyal Lady Bird



By Jan Jarboe Russell

Scribner, $26


Lady Bird Johnson, now 86 years old and living in Austin, Texas, initially cooperated with biographer Jan Jarboe Russell on this book. But three years into their collaboration, the former first lady abruptly ended the interviews. Russell's questions had gotten too personal, and she had written an article in the online magazine Slate that Lyndon Johnson's accent made him sound like "the last of the big hicks." LBJ had been dead almost 25 years, but an injured Mrs. Johnson was still functioning as his chief defender, as Russell explains in the introduction to this absorbing, well-researched biography.

Lady Bird's identity and power came solely from her husband, acknowledges Russell, a contributing editor at Texas Monthly who has covered the state's culture and politics for 25 years. But Russell's new biography also reveals a first lady of surprising power who greatly influenced her husband and his administration. While often viewed as a minor figure in the numerous books written about LBJ, she in fact played a central role in her husband's life and political career.

In rare interviews with Lady Bird and a number of her friends and associates, Russell comes up with a provocative new look at an extraordinary woman and her extraordinary marriage. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in an antebellum home in 1912 near the tiny community of Karmack, she got her nickname from a black nurse, who pronounced her "purty as a lady bird." Her mother, Minnie, died when Lady Bird was 5, and a maiden aunt moved in with the little girl and her two older brothers and their rich, philandering, domineering father. Enduring a nickname and a hooked nose that embarrassed her, Lady Bird fought back by excelling in school. She made straight A's in her senior year, headed off to college at age 15, and graduated cum laude from the University of Texas with degrees in history and journalism.

In 1934, Lady Bird met LBJ and was smitten. A 26-year-old administrative aid to U.S. congressman Richard Kleberg, heir to Texas' fabled King Ranch, LBJ proposed to her on their first date, and they were married 10 weeks later.

Life changed dramatically for Lady Bird when she moved from Texas to Washington in 1934 with her new husband. LBJ rose early and worked from his bed, conducting meetings while Lady Bird hid under the covers. LBJ expected to be served coffee in bed every morning, along with the morning newspaper, and he expected his wife to have meals ready at all hours of the day and night.

"When asked if she resented doing any of these chores, Lady Bird said, "Heavens no. I was delighted to do it. I adored him,' " Russell writes. "To hear her talk about him is to understand how happy she was just to be in the same room with him, to listen to him talk long into the night with friends, to simply breathe the same air."

The real challenges in her marriage would come later as the driven, politically ambitious LBJ became increasingly demanding and difficult to live with and relied increasingly on his wife. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, for instance, LBJ joined the Navy and left Lady Bird to run his congressional office in Washington. An unpaid substitute, Lady Bird saved money by sharing a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with Nellie Connally, whose husband, John, was LBJ's congressional aide and who had also joined the Navy.

Using her inheritance and the skills she learned running her husband's office, she would later buy a radio station in Austin and become a savvy businesswoman.

"In time, she became a multimillionaire in her own right _ the only first lady in history to have built and retained a fortune with her own money," writes Russell.

But the biggest challenge Lady Bird faced was LBJ's infidelities. Perhaps his most famous fling was with Alice Glass, the mistress and later wife of Charles Marsh, the wealthy publisher of The Austin American-Statesman and one of LBJ's primary patrons. Good-looking and smart, Glass was also "openly seductive, the very embodiment of all that Lady Bird repressed in herself," Russell writes. The affair went on for years and was common knowledge, but Lady Bird maintained a lifetime of official silence about it, telling friends she never really believed it happened.

Russell also writes in some detail about LBJ's special friendship with Helen Gahagan Douglas, the former actress and California congresswoman who lost her bid for the U.S. Senate to Richard Nixon. Several former LBJ staffers told Russell the two _ both liberal Democrats whose desks were close together in the House of Representative _ had been lovers.

LBJ could also be the ultimate bad boy with women, once placing a hand under the skirt of a female friend sitting next to him in full view of Lady Bird, who ignored it. And he bragged about having sex with half a dozen women in the White House.

"Everyone felt sorry for her," a longtime acquaintance of Lady Bird told Russell. "He (LBJ) yelled at her. He ordered her around. He left her alone at the most important times of her life, and made no secret of his affairs. Still, she stayed loyal."

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, her role model in the White House, Lady Bird refused to play the part of the wronged wife. Instead, she battled her private misery by spearheading worthy causes, including the beautification of America and her crusade on behalf of the environment. In one of their many conversations, Lady Bird confessed to Russell:

"Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but made me more than I would have been. . . . All I can say is I had a great love affair. No matter what, I know he loved me best."

In the end, her bargain, difficult as it may have been at times, paid off, Russell concludes: "Lady Bird wound up with it all _ their family, their vast fortune, even the admiration that the public has denied her husband."

Elizabeth Bennett is a free-lance writer and reviewer in Houston.