Claudia Taylor Johnson
The First Lady Known as “Lady Bird”
by Anne Adams
The wedding party gathered in the bride’s home for pictures when it happened. Just as they were lining up, Yuki, a small white mongrel, wandered into the room. The bride’s father, who was particularly fond of the dog, scooped him up with a suggestion. “We’ve got to have Yuki in the picture! We can’t have a family portrait without him.”
However, the bride’s mother had a different idea. “That dog is not going to be in the wedding pictures.” The bride’s father was about to object when his wife barked an order. “Mr. Bryant, get that dog out of here right now! He will not be photographed!”
And Mr. Bryant, a White House electrician who was also the mansion’s dog handler, removed Yuki. It was clear that when Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson spoke even the President responded.
For “…nobody, not even the President, stood up to that tone of her voice. And Lynda, the bewildered bride, breathed a great sigh of relief and everybody smiled for the wedding camera.” (From the book Upstairs at the White House, by White House Chief Usher J.B. West, p. 380).
If Lady Bird Johnson displayed a sense of determination and purpose that had made for a more tasteful wedding picture, she had learned those traits early. For such qualities had became second nature as she grew up through her motherless East Texas girlhood then through an advanced education to a new life as a congressional wife, businesswoman, and later First Lady.
Born Claudia Alta Taylor in December, 1912 in the eastern Texas town of Karnak, she was the daughter of a prosperous storeowner/landholder, and his wife. The child acquired her lifelong nickname while still an infant. Her nurse may have found the name Claudia Alta too difficult to say, or perhaps she was being affectionate with her new charge but she mentioned the baby was “pretty as a lady bird” (beetle) and it stuck. When Lady Bird’s mother was killed before the child was six, the saddened father decided to keep his daughter with him at the store instead of leaving her at home with servants. Eventually her aunt Effie Patillo, her mother’s sister, arrived to be a surrogate mother and would remain so for many years.
Lady Bird attended the local schools along with the children of her father’s tenants, but when she reached high school age she needed to leave town. At first she and her aunt moved to the nearby town of Jefferson where they lived in an apartment during the week and returned home on weekends. After two years of such an arrangement Mr. Taylor deemed Lady Bird mature enough to drive herself to school so he provided a car so she could drive the fourteen miles over dirt roads to Marshall where she finished high school.
When she graduated at age 16 Lady Bird attended an Episcopal girls’ school in Dallas, with Aunt Effie living nearby. Equipped with her own checkbook and a department store charge account, she was living in effect as an independent young woman – a small town girl in an urban environment. She was sustained by a prudent concept of finances and a deep religious faith. Though raised as a Methodist, she attended a local Episcopal church and joined that denomination.
After graduation from high school, Lady Bird enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and continued to be a fine student. By 1934 she had completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Her education completed, she could have returned home to be with her father, but before she could she met a young man in a friend’s office.
A former teacher, and at the time assistant to a congressman, Lyndon Baines Johnson was not only politically ambitious but was also enthralled with the young Miss Taylor. Within a few days he had not only told her his life story, but also proposed, then whisked her off to meet his family and that of the Congressman. The sensible Lady Bird kept her perspective about the courtship, as she introduced Lyndon to her father and gained his approval. Back on the job in Washington, Lyndon continued his courtship with letters and calls, and when he returned to Texas he was anxious for an answer to his proposal. After some initial hesitation, she finally agreed. Then early one morning in November, 1934 Lyndon called a friend who was a postmaster in San Antonio to ask him to make the arrangements for a wedding to be held that same evening in that city. The Episcopal minister asked to perform the ceremony was initially hesitant because he did not know the bride or the groom, but when the friend explained that the groom had only one day available to be in town the clergyman relented.
The bridal party gathered but there was one complication. Just before the ceremony was about to begin Lady Bird asked Johnson a sensible question. “You did bring a wedding ring, didn’t you?” “I forgot!” Johnson snapped his fingers, and his friend hustled across the street to a Sears and Roebuck store. Since the friend had no idea of size, he had to take a tray of inexpensive rings back to the church to find one that fitted. The friend paid $2.50 for a ring as a wedding gift and the couple was married. (All the Presidents’ Ladies by Peter Hay, p. 86-88)
Because of his political ambitions and interests, Johnson sought and received enthusiastic approval for his wife from his political mentors. The new Mrs. Johnson found her new life exciting and her husband devoted as they settled into a small Washington apartment. Lady Bird managed the household well and from the beginning learned to accommodate her husband’s impulsive whims which could range from a late night working spree or bringing home unexpected guests.
A year after they were married Johnson left his congressional job to join the National Youth Administration back in Austin, and there they developed many friends and new connections. In 1937 he was elected to Congress, his campaign financed by a loan from Lady Bird’s father. She enjoyed the responsibilities of a congressional life and after several years in small apartments they acquired their own home. When World War II began Johnson served briefly in the Navy while Lady Bird managed his congressional office. After a few months President Roosevelt ordered the congressmen who had entered the military to return to their congressional duties, and Lyndon returned to Washington.
About this time, and using a bequest from her mother, Lady Bird and Lyndon acquired a small debt-ridden Austin radio station. Within a short time thanks to Lady Bird’s skilled management, the station not only began to turn a profit but would also be the beginning of a very prosperous family broadcasting business. Some critics claimed that Johnson’s political connections assured the company success, but a great deal of the success was thanks to Lady Bird’s skilled administration.
In 1944 after several failed pregnancies, Lady Bird finally gave birth to their first daughter, Lynda Bird in March, 1944 and then their second child Luci Baines in July, 1947. The girls were raised with the same love and devotion Lady Bird had been and they also developed a sense of proper priorities. It was a trait that helped assure them not succumbing to what could have been a heady atmosphere because of their father’s political advancement.
And Johnson advanced, serving in the House from 1937 to 1949, then in the Senate from 1949 to 1961. Lady Bird actively campaigned as she could, even going on tour alone. Her political involvement could only help her husband because she had made many friends and very few enemies during his political career. Though Vice Presidents were traditionally inactive politically while in office, Johnson took on several assignments under President Kennedy, as did Lady Bird for Mrs. Kennedy
Vice President and Mrs. Johnson were in the second car behind the Presidential limousine in Dallas in November, 1963 and as Johnson’s Secret Service man threw Johnson to the floor of their car and covered him, Mrs. Johnson ducked down as the car surged forward. Several minutes later she raised her head to catch a glimpse of the façade of the hospital where the President was dying. It was then she realized there’d been a shooting. A few hours later as the new President was sworn in on Air Force One, she was in the picture that became a part of American history, standing near her husband, as he took the oath of office, with Jacqueline Kennedy, still wearing her blood spattered suit, on his other side.
As the new First Lady, Bird assumed her own political role as she presided over a full White House social schedule while still pursuing her own causes as well as supporting her husband’s programs. One of her own interests was highway beautification that culminated in legislature in 1965 but she also represented a Presidential program when she served as honorary chairman of the National Head Start Program which enriched the lives of disadvantaged preschoolers. She continued to maintain a tape-recorded account of her daily “recollections and impressions” as Mr. West called it. These tapes were stored unheard until her account of the day of the assassination was used as part of the Commission investigation. Later they were all finally transcribed to be published for her book A White House Diary published in 1970.
Two major family events became national celebrations when both Johnson daughters married while President Johnson was in office. Both daughters had attracted public notice as they grew and developed into mature young women during their years in the White House. Luci, whose teenaged exuberances had been part of the White House news coverage, married Patrick Nugent in a Washington church in August of 1966. Then in December of 1967 Lynda married Marine officer and White House Aide Charles Robb in a White House ceremony. Luci and Patrick would later divorce and Luci remarry, while Robb later was selected to the Senate.
After leaving the White House the Johnsons returned to their Texas ranch, where the former President died of a heart attack in January, 1973. Shortly before his death they had donated the ranch house and surrounding property to the nation as an historic site, with the family retaining a life interest. Mrs. Johnson later received the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award in 1977, then the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.
At this writing (2005), Mrs. Johnson is now in her nineties, and continues to live at the ranch in Stonewall, Texas, and despite the inevitable health challenges, still continues to represent a dynamic and unique period of American history
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”