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'Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson' by Jan Jarboe Russell

LBJ’s first lady remains his fiercest defender

Sunday, August 22, 1999

By Elizabeth Bennett

 
 

Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson

By Jan Jarboe Russell

Scribner
$26.00

   
 

Three years into her research for this book, Jan Jarboe Russell got an icy letter from Lady Bird Johnson abruptly ending their interviews. The former first lady, now 86 and living in Austin, Texas, had been freely cooperating with Russell until the longtime writer for Texas Monthly wrote an article saying 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, Russell explains in this absorbing, well-researched biography.

It includes new details about how demanding and disloyal the former president could be, particularly to his own wife. It examines Lady Bird’s life as a mother and finds it lacking. And it portrays her as an “eternal girl” of the 1950s who stood by her man regardless of how he treated her.

Lady Bird’s identity and power came solely from her husband, as Russell makes clear, but the former first lady wielded surprising influence. Often viewed as a minor figure, she is shown to have played a central role in her husband’s life and political career.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor 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, making straight A’s in her senior year. In 1934, after graduating cum laude from the University of Texas with degrees in history and journalism, Lady Bird met LBJ and was smitten.

A 26-year-old administrative aide to U.S. Rep. 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, D.C., in 1934 with her new husband, who would soon be elected to the House.

LBJ rose early and worked from his bed, conducting meetings while Lady Bird hid under the covers. He 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.

Using her inheritance and the skills she learned running her husband’s office, Lady Bird 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 Representatives -- had been lovers. LBJ could also be the ultimate bad boy with women, once placing his 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.

But, 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 free-lance writer and reviewer based in Houston.

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