The Magazine

Woman of Texas

The 20th-century journey of Lady Bird Johnson.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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Even her famous nickname comes linked with the complexities of that past. For years, the nickname “Lady Bird” was attributed to a black nurse. But Gillette says she told him that two black playmates, nicknamed “Stuff” and “Doodlebug,” had given her the name. She could not let that become too well known, though, given the sensitivities of black and white children mixing together in her earlier days. 

And her awareness of others with fewer advantages was not simply for show. The current director of the LBJ Library, Mark Updegrove, told me recently that she would invite whoever happened to be working at the LBJ Ranch to stop and have lunch with her. After her husband died, she and the house staff and ranch hands, who often were Latino, would break bread together.

Most readers will want to know to what degree Lyndon Johnson dominated their life together. This book does not give a clear indication. Yes, there are plenty of accounts in which Lyndon says this, and the Johnson family does that, and she describes him in a way that acknowledges his many sides, including this stream-of-consciousness depiction:

Marvelous. Contradictory. Great natural intelligence. Showman sometimes; hurtful sometimes; very often tender and giving.

Lyndon Johnson was undoubtedly a force of nature. Witness how he asked her to marry him on their first real date: She recalls being too astounded even to answer. But about three months later, they married—after what she described as a “ridiculous” ride. They left her home in Karnack one day—she still not certain she was going to marry him—and by day’s end they had arrived in San Antonio, where he had arranged a ceremony by phone from the road and, whoosh, they were married in an Episcopal church. 

So, yes, it would be impossible not to get caught up in that force-field. Yet we need to remember, too, that Lady Bird Johnson was a pioneering businesswoman in Austin in the 1940s, using her inherited wealth to buy a radio station, which she left Washington for a while to staff and run. Female entrepreneurs were hardly common then, or during the 1950s, and LBJ promoted her independence, encouraging her to go beyond her shyness and engage the public, saying things like: “You had two majors at the University of Texas, you can do that.”

William McKenzie is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News.

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