He was coarse and obnoxious. A big, overbearing, profane, restless, ambitious Texan who pushed and prodded and wheeled and dealed his way from poverty in the Texas Hill Country to the most powerful office in the world.
She was soft-spoken and eloquent. A gentle, quiet, polite, and comforting presence for her father, her husband, her children, and her country. As the social fabric of the United States began to tear during her husband’s Administration, she found a way to literally beautify the nation.
On November 17, 1934, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a 26-year-old secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg, the member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 14th Congressional district of Texas. Johnson was a tall, gangly, anxious, antsy young man. So driven was Johnson that he made sure to personally answer every letter which arrived in Kleberg’s office — whether the Congressman deemed them important or not. Johnson had started his career as a teacher, but it was politics that he was drawn to and politics which he was obsessed with. Very few people truly knew Lyndon Johnson, but everyone who came in contact with him knew that he was somebody. Lyndon’s confidence in himself was never quite as high. Throughout his entire life, Johnson felt he needed to press on further and faster in order to prove himself.
On November 17, 1934, Claudia Alta Taylor was 21 years old. When she was born, Claudia’s nurse said “She’s as purty as a lady bird” and the nickname had stuck. Almost nobody called her “Claudia”, she would always be “Lady Bird” and it was a fitting name. Lady Bird’s mother died when she was just five years old and her beloved father, a wealthy man actively engaged in business, couldn’t provide all of the attention she must have hoped for. What he could provide for his lonely daughter was opportunity. Although she came of age in a time (during the Great Depression) and a place (southern Texas) where women rarely received a thorough education, Lady Bird was able to make the most of her intelligence and determination. Not only did she attend college, but Lady Bird graduated from the University of Texas with two bachelor’s degrees — one in history and one in journalism. Following her graduation, Lady Bird hoped to teach in an exotic locale such as Hawaii or Alaska, “But all that never happened because I met Lyndon.”
On the night of August 1, 1934, Lyndon and Lady Bird met for the first time, introduced by a mutual friend, Eugenia Boehringer Lasseter in Austin. Though their initial meeting was brief, Johnson asked Lady Bird if she would meet him for coffee the next morning and she agreed. Lady Bird nearly had a change of heart on the morning of August 2, 1934 and was close to leaving Johnson stood up on what was supposed to be their first date. That morning, Lady Bird was scheduled to meet with an architect in downtown Austin who the Taylor family had hired to remodel their mansion, the Brick House in Karnack, Texas. The architect’s office happened to be next door to Austin’s Driskill Hotel and Johnson — sitting alone inside the hotel’s coffee shop — spotted Lady Bird walking by. Johnson urged Lady Bird to join him and when she did, one of the more unique marriages and partnerships in American political history truly began.
Lyndon Johnson hated wasting time. His entire life seemed like a race against the clock. Most of the men on the Johnson side of his family tree had lived relatively short lives before dying of a heart ailment. Johnson always felt that he would not live long, and he often lived each day as if he were going to die that night. Whether it was in the jobs he worked prior to entering public service or in his political career, Johnson wanted results and answers, and he wanted them immediately. In his personal life, Lyndon Johnson was really no different.
As they enjoyed coffee and breakfast at the Driskill Hotel during their first date, Johnson peppered Lady Bird with dozens of questions and bombarded Lady Bird with his own feelings, goals, worries, and intentions. Lady Bird was a well-refined, polite young lady with impeccable social skills, so she must have been taken aback by Johnson’s unabashed energy and intensity. Yet, she was also captivated by Johnson’s passion. After breakfast, Lady Bird accepted an invitation to take a drive through the rural areas surrounding Austin. An early version of LBJ’s legendary “Johnson Treatment” persisted throughout their whirlwind afternoon together. By the time Lyndon dropped Lady Bird off — after spending just a few hours together and meeting her for the first time only 24 hours earlier — he had proposed marriage.
Lady Bird said no to his immediate proposal. Not only did she barely know Lyndon Johnson, but earlier that morning she had even considered skipping their coffee date. But while she declined Johnson’s marriage proposal, she didn’t deny her interest in him. Later, she would say of their first date that Lyndon “told me all sorts of things that I thought were extraordinarily direct for a first conversation…about how many years he had been teaching, his salary as a secretary to a Congressman, his ambitions, even about all the members of his family, and how much insurance he carried. It was as if he wanted to give me a complete picture of his life and of his capabilities.” In truth, that’s exactly what Lyndon wanted to do. Although she turned down his proposal, Lyndon and Lady Bird spent several days together that week before Lyndon returned to Congressman Kleberg’s office in Washington. Johnson couldn’t leave her alone because he wanted “to keep her mind completely on me until the moment I had to leave for Washington.” By the time Johnson went back to the Capitol, Lady Bird had met Johnson’s parents in Johnson City and Lyndon had met Lady Bird’s father in Karnack.
Lady Bird’s father, Thomas, was an old-fashioned Southern gentleman and Lady Bird was his youngest child and only daughter. A successful businessman and self-made man, Thomas Taylor didn’t seem like the type who would mix well with impatient, boorish Lyndon Johnson from the Hill Country. Lyndon himself was full of nervous energy as he and Lady Bird drove to Mr. Taylor’s Brick House mansion near the Texas/Louisiana border. He was worried about whether the wealthy Mr. Taylor would look down on the Johnson family’s hardscrabble roots and hoping to conduct himself in a way that would impress both Lady Bird and her father.
Thomas Taylor told his daughter exactly how he felt about Lyndon Johnson. After Taylor, Johnson, and Lady Bird had dinner at the Brick House, Mr. Taylor excused himself and asked to speak privately with his daughter. With Lyndon no doubt concerned in the other room, Mr. Taylor held nothing back. “Daughter,” he said, “you’ve been bringing home a lot of boys. But this time you’ve brought a man.” Mr. Taylor adored Lyndon Johnson.
Scheduled to return to Washington, D.C. the very next day, Lyndon again proposed to Lady Bird that night. Once again, she turned down the idea of a quick marriage, but she encouraged him with a kiss before he started his long drive back to the nation’s capital. They had only known each other for a few days and she had declined two marriage proposals during that time, but Lady Bird “had a queer sort of moth-and-flame thing” she later said. “I knew I had met something remarkable, but I didn’t know quite what.”
Once Lyndon Johnson returned to Washington, he continued his pursuit of Lady Bird Taylor. If he didn’t talk to her on a long-distance telephone call from Congressman Kleberg’s office, Johnson wrote a letter to her every single day. Lyndon was always consumed by work — particularly answering the Congressman’s correspondence — but things had changed after his visit to Austin. Johnson would still work on the mail as soon as he arrived at the Capitol each morning, but before he did anything else he would find a quiet room and write his daily letter to Lady Bird. To his co-workers, it seemed that every conversation or event or issue would remind him in some way or another of Lady Bird. It was so unusual for Johnson to put so much focus on one of his own interpersonal relationships that the people he worked with at the time would distinctly remember the change in his ways even years later after he had been President of the United States.
Back in Texas, Lady Bird Taylor was having a similar experience. “I had never before considered myself a lonely person,” she later said. But she “had spent so much of my life by myself that I had gotten used to being alone.” The whirlwind that was Lyndon Johnson made an immediate impact on her. “Lyndon came into my life and in one week’s time he had become so much a part of me that when he left, I felt his absence terribly. It was embarrassing to admit that so much could happen in such a short time. Here was this man I barely knew talking about marriage and I was seriously considering the idea.”
While Lyndon kept pressing the idea of marriage, Lady Bird’s heart agreed with Johnson while her mind told her that perhaps she should wait. She still barely knew the man, and being married to the secretary of a member of the United States House of Representatives wouldn’t have provided any woman with a sense of security. Lady Bird had inherited money from her mother’s estate and her father was a wealthy man, but she was unsure of how Lyndon might be able to support her. She was also unsure about being a political wife, telling Lyndon in one letter, “Oh, I know I haven’t any business — not any proprietary interest — but I would hate for you to go into politics.”
Lyndon was certain of two things that he wanted and needed in his life. One was politics and though he was just a Congressional secretary, he was also intensely studying how Congress worked and building a foundation and network of political contacts back in Texas with his voluminous correspondence from the office of Congressman Kleberg.
The other want and need was Lady Bird Taylor’s hand in marriage. On October 23, 1934, Johnson wrote Lady Bird a letter from Kleberg’s office that expressed both of those wants and needs. “This morning I’m ambitious, proud, energetic and very madly in love with you,” wrote Johnson. “I want to see people — want to walk thru’ the throngs — want to do things with a drive. If I had a box I would almost make a speech this minute. Plans, ideas, hopes — I’m bubbling over with them.” The hope that bubbled most intensely was his dream to walk down the aisle with Lady Bird.
An overlooked aspect of Lyndon Johnson’s life and character is his sensitivity. In later years, that sensitivity was highlighted by insecurity and moodiness. In the autumn of 1934, that sensitivity allowed him to articulate his feelings to Lady Bird with astonishing clarity and demonstrated an impressive ability to recognize and express exactly what he was doing and why he was proposing marriage so quickly:
“I see something I know I want. I immediately exert efforts to get it. I do or I don’t, but I try and do my best. You see something you might want. You tear it to pieces in an effort to determine if you should want it. Then you wonder why you want it, and conclude that maybe the desire isn’t an ‘everlasting’ one and that the ‘sane’ thing to do is to wait a year or so, and then if you still want it, to decide at that time whether or not you should make an effort to get it.”
At the beginning of November 1934, Lyndon Johnson couldn’t wait any longer. It was obvious to him that Lady Bird loved him, and he knew he loved her. Lady Bird was still turning down Lyndon every time he pleaded with her to marry him immediately. They had only known one another for about three months, but Lyndon forced the issue by pulling his Ford roadster into the long driveway at Lady Bird’s father’s mansion, the Brick House, in Karnack, Texas. “Let’s get married,” Lyndon said. “Not next year, after you’ve done over the house, but about two weeks from now, or right away. We either get married now or we never will And if you say goodbye to me, it just proves to me that you just 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.”
Lady Bird was still torn and turned to her father for advice. “Bird,” said Mr. Taylor, the successful businessman who admired the guts and determination of Lady Bird’s suitor. “Some of the best deals are made in a hurry.” Thomas Taylor’s words seemed to validate one of Lyndon Johnson’s frequent exhortations in his letters to Lady Bird, “Why must we wait…to begin to do the things we want to do forever and ever?”. On the evening of November 16, 1934, Lady Bird Taylor finally said, “Yes”, and agreed to become Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson.
Just because Lady Bird agreed to marry him didn’t mean that Lyndon was satisfied. The very next day, November 17, 1934, the newly-engaged couple drove nearly 400 miles to San Antonio, Texas. Lyndon had a friend in San Antonio who owed his political career to Johnson. Dan Quill had been appointed postmaster in San Antonio after Johnson recommended his nomination to his boss, Congressman Richard Kleberg. Johnson knew it would be difficult to find someone who would agree to marry him and Lady Bird on such short notice, but Quill was determined to return the favor for Lyndon. As the couple drove to San Antonio from Karnack, Quill used his influence to acquire a marriage license for Lyndon and Lady Bird on almost no advance notice. More impressively, Quill was able to talk an Episcopalian priest into marrying a couple that the priest had never met and who had only been engaged to be married for a few hours.
With obvious reluctance because he had no prenuptial meetings with Lyndon and Lady Bird, the Reverend Arthur E. McKinistry nevertheless officiated a wedding on the evening of November 17, 1934 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio. Quill served as Johnson’s best man, a surprised local friend of Lady Bird’s served as Maid of Honor, and there was just one other witness to the ceremony. When Reverend McKinistry asked for the rings, the wedding ceremony was paused as Quill ran across the street to Sears, Roebuck and brought back a selection of wedding bands for the couple to choose from. After paying $2.50 a piece for the temporary rings, Lyndon and Lady Bird places them on each other’s fingers and were officially proclaimed husband and wife.
The Johnsons — lanky Lyndon in a perpetually rumpled business suit and petite Lady Bird in a basic lavender dress — celebrated their wedding with a dinner at a restaurant on the rooftop of St. Anthony’s Hotel two blocks south of the church. They spent their first night of marriage together at San Antonio’s Plaza Hotel. The next morning, the newlyweds drove to Corpus Christi and caught a train to Monterrey, Mexico for a brief honeymoon. One of the earliest pictures of the couple shows them standing in a boat while visiting the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. For Lady Bird, the honeymoon was an eye-opener in many ways. A passionate lover and advocate of natural beauty and wildlife, Lady Bird was thrilled to explore the scenery and culture in Mexico. The honeymoon, however, also gave her an indication of the live she was beginning. Lyndon spent a significant amount of time talking about politics and itching to get back to Washington. As Lady Bird would later say, “I was a born sight-seer, but Lyndon was a born people-seer. He indulged me on that trip, but the truth is he wasn’t much intrigued.” After Mexico, Lyndon and Lady Bird moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., and their life together truly began.
It is impossible to do justice to the story of the relationship of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson in just a simple essay. It is worthy of (and has been the sole subject of) entire books. There are so many levels, so much depth, and such extraordinarily complexity to their marriage that a definitive history requires thorough study and an ample commitment of time and space.
We do know that Lyndon Baines Johnson was not always the greatest husband. Just as apparent, however, is that Lady Bird Johnson was indeed one of the greatest, most influential, most loyal wives in American political history. As First Lady, she not only understood her position in her home, but recognized the opportunities that she had to serve her country. “The Constitution of the United States,” Lady Bird said, “does not mention the First Lady. She is elected by one man only. The statute books assign her no duties; and yet, when she gets the job, a podium is there if she cares to use it. I did.”
Exceedingly capable, Lady Bird expanded the role of First Lady and marshaled all of her intelligence, ability, and beliefs in order to become a transformational activist in American life. Every First Lady since Lady Bird has played an influential role in the lives of Americans, and that’s not solely because of Lady Bird but mostly so. Whether it was her campaigns for environmental protection and conservation, beautification, her support for civil rights, or her advocacy for those suffering from poverty or social injustice, Lady Bird was a force for positive change.
It is her most important role, however, which is often overlooked. Lyndon Johnson was not easy to live with. His larger-than-life personality and overflowing ego was constantly engaged in a see-saw battle with insecurity, a lack of confidence, and an overpowering fear of failure. In every election that Johnson ever contested, there came a point where he was dominated by the thought that he would lose and all but decide to quit the race before Election Day. In almost every one of those elections (and he only lost one election in his long political career), LBJ fell seriously ill shortly before Election Day. Whether it was due to Johnson’s tendency to work himself to exhaustion or partly due to a psychosomatic condition is not completely clear, but Doris Kearns Goodwin would later write that “Personal rejection was so unbearable to Johnson, so mortally threatening, that withdrawal was necessary…Episodes of rejection, actual or apprehended, seem[ed] to cripple Johnson’s faculties and even, at times, interrupt his normal state of physical health and vitality.”
It was Lady Bird who could calm him in troubled times. While Lyndon Johnson is remembered as a political maestro, particularly in legislative politics, Lady Bird had great political intuition and knew how to handle Lyndon himself. LBJ could be cruel and coarse — not just to his colleagues and staff, but to Lady Bird. In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, Lady Bird admitted as much. “Our was a compelling love,” she said. “Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment.”
That humility was not false humility; it was Lady Bird’s characteristically earnest belief. Yet, she arguably offered him more than he offered her. When he was sick, she helped care for him. When he was depressed, she helped make his life as easy as possible. She motivated him in a way that nothing else could — not even his intense drive to prove himself or ceaseless ambition for the power to help change things. If Lyndon Johnson was a hurricane — a force to be reckoned with, Lady Bird Johnson was the quiet breeze and warm sunshine which helped settle everything in the storm’s wake. I’m not sure Lyndon Johnson made Lady Bird more than she could have been, but I’m positive that Lady Bird helped LBJ become who he was.
In many of the books and interviews that I’ve read about the lives and times, accomplishments and failures of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, I have frequently come across the word “anchor” to describe her influence on the 36th President of the United States. The intent of that description is to demonstrate how she helped LBJ remain grounded. It’s a positive label, but it’s not the word that comes to my mind when I think about their unique relationship.
Instead, the word that comes to my mind is a word that Lyndon Johnson probably heard many times when he was just out of college and teaching at a small school for impoverished Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas. The word is “brújula” and it is the Spanish word for “compass”. Lady Bird wasn’t Lyndon’s anchor. She was his “brújula” — the compass which helped him find his way.
Lyndon Baines Johnson could never stay in one place, so an anchor wasn’t what he needed. LBJ was always on the move, always going somewhere. Perhaps that’s why he knew he needed Lady Bird before she realized how she felt about him. He recognized what she could be for him, and he couldn’t let her get away. For Lyndon, in a life full of historic accomplishments, it might have been his best decision. Until the day he Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973, whenever he was lost, whenever he was disoriented, whenever he found himself wondering where he was, where he was going, and if he could go on, there was Lady Bird — his brújula — to guide him on his way.