If you take her out of history and plant her in the wilderness, it’s easy to see the person she is. During a dry spell in 1984, she was driving around the Texas hill country with a friend, hunting for fields of wildflowers in bloom. Turning off the road, she followed a dirt lane that led to an old brown field on one side and a dense, inexplicable expanse of pink evening primrose on the other. Suddenly, she recalls, “a Goliath of a tractor” roared over the hill “like an engine of war.” One of the stubbornest advocates of natural beauty in America leaped out of her car, waving her hat, yelling “Stop, stop!” Could she rent the field of primroses for a few months? she asked. After much pestering, for she always followed up her poetic fancies with hard work, she wrote a check—and for one season, in a dry, brown year, she was mistress of 26 acres of pink evening primrose.
Years later, at 82, arthritic, able to see “alas, only clouds and trees now,” but still vigorous, she takes the hand of the ever-present Secret Service agent and climbs out of the back of her dark sedan. She uses a cane to pick her way over the rubble of the construction site 10 miles from the center of Austin, Tex., where this spring all will be gloriously transformed into the new home of the National Wildflower Research Center. Back on her 70th birthday, she gave 60 acres of Texas hill country and $125,000 to create the Wildflower Center, but it has taken 12 years—and a great deal of arm-twisting—to bring her vision to this messy point. Now, while workmen lay stones for a wildflower pond, she reminds David Northington, the head botanist, not to forget to cut a half-mile trail through the 40 or so acres of wildflower meadow; she wants visitors to have the dizzying experience of being in the middle of all that marvelous color, without trampling any wild garlic or Indian paintbrush. Then, adjusting her hard hat over her pretty gray-and-black upswept hairdo, she remarks that at the moment the center is like “a great beauty that you’re seeing at seven in the morning in an old bathrobe that’s missing a few buttons.” She laughs, a real, hearty, Texas laugh. She’ll consider the whole endeavor a success if people will only call it a wildflower center instead of a wildlife center, as they can’t help but do.
At a time when the role of First Lady is more mysterious than ever, it is good to consider Lady Bird Johnson, whom historians rank as one of the very best First Ladies, mentioning her in the company of Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams. She herself loathes comparisons and has only lovely things to say about all the hard work the other First Ladies have done. That’s her: perpetually gracious and self-effacing. She would never presume to explain what she has that Hillary Clinton finds so hard to get. Nonetheless, she sets the standard. Other First Ladies have campaigned against illiteracy, breast cancer, drug abuse and mental illness, but she has always focused on the positive, envisioning a country of natural beauty that is in our power to reclaim and cherish. For this she’s compared to Rachel Carson. But ask her about her legacy and she shoos away the question with a wave of her hand. She’s just paying rent on the space she has taken up in the world.
“I have lived in torturous times, and you cannot take part in the fray without getting some stabs and cuts and abrasions.”
Almost no one who knows her calls her Lady Bird. It’s a name she has always disliked, given to her when she was a baby by a nursemaid who claimed she was as pretty as a ladybird. Old, old friends call her Bird, her grandchildren call her Nini, and everybody else calls her Mrs. Johnson—Miz Johnson, they pronounce it. But daughter Luci found her mother such a “bastion of strength” during her fourth pregnancy, which coincided with the breakup of her marriage to Patrick Nugent, that she christened the baby Claudia Taylor, a name that is rarely heard anymore, though it happens to be the original, and favorite, name of Lady Bird Johnson.
Her mother died when she was five, and for a brief while she clung to the belief that she would one day see her “riding past on a cloud.” She was raised by her ethereal Aunt Effie and her father, the rich man of Karnack, Tex.; she went to the University of Texas during the Depression and had her own car. She studied history diligently, then stayed an extra year to take a degree in journalism. She had lots of boyfriends but chose to marry Lyndon Johnson, a character out of Greek drama—or a frontier western. While he built his political career with voracious dedication, she turned a rundown radio station into a communications empire worth millions of dollars. In her thirties she gave birth to her daughters, Lynda and Luci, but along the way she suffered a number of miscarriages, one of which nearly killed her. But nothing ever hurt her like the death of her older brother Tommy from cancer, when she was 46: “That was my first bitterly painful meeting with death, and I think I cried all my tears at that time.” Betty Tilson, who has worked for her since 1963, has seen tears on Mrs. Johnson’s face perhaps twice, when she was reading letters from old friends after her husband’s death.
She moved into the White House after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She campaigned for civil rights and was spit at by people she considered her people: “It’s a great credit that we got through that period without monumental bloodshed.” In an era of urban riots, she planted a million daffodils, supervised the cleaning of inner-city lots, halted the trashing of the countryside and persuaded filling-station owners to invest in landscaping. At her own expense, she and her press secretary, Liz Carpenter, covered 200,000 miles to publicize the national parks, education, Head Start and, especially, beautification. (“The concept is great—it still is great. The word is silly.”) She presided over the White House after the riveting First Ladyship of Jackie Kennedy, during the Vietnam war, when many from the arts world would not perform for the President. Both of her daughters’ husbands were shipped off to a war for which her husband was vilified. But the only time she permitted herself an angry outburst was after the 1967 march on the Pentagon, when she heard how much her beloved National Park Service had to pay for the cleanup.
In 1969 she shepherded Lyndon Johnson, once one of the most robust and lusty of men, but broken by Vietnam, out of history and back to their ranch in Stonewall, Tex. It still touches her that George Bush came to the airport to see them off. Four years later, “to my eternal regret,” she was in Austin on University of Texas Board of Regents work when she got the call that her husband of nearly 40 years had died of a heart attack, sitting on his bed, after asking for a glass of milk.
“I haven’t had an undue amount of pain inflicted by fate,” she says, in front of a fire in the living room at the ranch. “I have lived in torturous times, and you cannot take part in the fray without getting some stabs and cuts and abrasions.” She delivers these lines as she does all her lines, like a great old actress, drawling and inflecting her phrases, some of which she has perfected over the years. She is sitting on a torn leather chair, sipping a watered-down glass of wine and nibbling cheese sticks made by Delma Muñoz, the cook, who was once a Head Start health coordinator. She stretches out her legs and, as if to prove that life is full of lovely things, says, “Ooohh, I just loooove to see a fiiiire.”
In 1972 the Johnsons gave the house, with its six guest rooms all covered in flowered wallpaper, front porch cozy with rocking chairs, indoor and outdoor pools, live oaks—one of which must be 300 years old—as well as about 200 acres of ranchland, to the National Park Service, reserving the right to live there until their deaths. “A few months after my departure from this world, this house will be open to tourists,” she says, although they’re already in the yard. Tour buses regularly come through the great white gates and rumble past Lyndon’s childhood home, the one-room schoolhouse and the family cemetery where he is buried (and where someone once tried to dig him up), through the herd of cows that graze the front yard that slopes to the banks of the Pedernales River. Then the buses turn around, with much flashing of cameras, in the Johnson driveway. If she is at home, and not too busy, she comes out to the porch and waves. “They seem to like it,” she says.
She is amazed that some of her grandchildren are distressed that their ancestral home has been deeded to the public. “Lyndon really wanted to do it,” she says. “This is the way it is, and this is the way it should be, I think.” She will console her heirs with 2,000 nearby acres, the broadcasting and real estate empire that Luci and her second husband now run, and memories. She has taken each of her grandchildren on a special trip, across the continent by train, on an Alaskan cruise and, for one who likes things “aglitter and fancy,” to New York City. Two are now married, and the possibility that either might produce a great-grandchild is, along with the opening of the Wildflower Center, the remaining suspense in her life.
She is close, it seems, to hundreds of people. To Liz Carpenter, who lives down the road and is laid up with an infected ankle, she just had some bran muffins sent over. She travels the world with friends like former congresswoman Liny Boggs. She stays in touch with cousins, nieces, nephews; she throws a family reunion every two or three years. She recently helped an Alabama cousin through the long, painful death of her husband.
And then she has “what I call my two o’clock in the morning friends—the ones you would dare to call if you woke up in serious pain.” Asked what they have in common, she says, “Zest for life. I can’t imagine a one of them ever using the phrase, ‘Well, it’s not much fun, but it passes the time.’ They all have a keen appreciation for time.”
She thrived as a campaigner. There was something heroic in her efforts to push herself out of her natural shyness.
And then she gets up to stretch her legs and stroll down the hall, looking at portraits of some of the old friends. “The sad thing is, all these dear, beloved people are nearly all gone from this world. This is Mary and Tom Clark; he was on the Supreme Court. And she alone is alive among these.” She shakes her head at the mystery of it. “This is Senator Stuart Symington, one of our best friends—so handsome! The most delightful man! And Marny and Clark Clifford—they are both alive, but not very well, and staggering under lots of blows. In my opinion, you ought not to enter into field of battle in your mid-eighties.” Referring to Clifford’s involvement in the BCCI banking scandal, she adds, “I cannot ever believe that Clark did anything wrong. I can believe that he was fooled.”
She moves down the hall toward her bedroom. “Here’s a whole bunch of Presidents!” she says. “And this is Abe and Carolyn Fortas, two of my favorite folks. She is still alive, but not much.” She has to tilt her head up to see the photos. “And this says I was on the Board of Regents of the University of Texas, and that is the biggest thing that ever happened to me all on my own …. And this is Sam Rayburn, and I’m just as proud as I can be that he made that inscription to me and not to Lyndon. And this is Arthur and Mathilde Krim. Arthur died in ’94. We lost a lot of friends in ’94.”
She arrives at her bedroom, across from her husband’s bedroom, which has stood undisturbed for 22 years. “Felix,” she calls, after a while, to Delma’s husband. “Will you be sure, just before you go, to turn off all the lights?” Which is what her husband always used to say.
In 1948 she and another woman were driving to San Antonio to drum up votes for Lyndon, who was battling Coke Stevenson in a notoriously bitter runoff Senate election. The car ran into a ditch: “You know, the kind of accident when you’re going from the bottom, to one side, to the other side, bang, bang, before seat belts were invented.” She tried to flag down help. “I remember looking people in the eyes as they were driving by, and being so indignant, so startled they didn’t stop. I guess they were scared—here was this muddy, bedraggled-looking woman coming up out of the ditch. And an old man in a beaten-up, ancient pickup stopped.” The pickup took her into town, and she sent an ambulance back for her friend, who, although not badly hurt, was trapped in the car. Then she borrowed fresh clothes and stockings, and made her speech. “You get your adrenaline up and you get mad and you say, ‘It’s not gonna defeat me!” I wasn’t really hurt, but I did have some bruises that stayed hard, and I mean hard as this table.” She didn’t think to tell her husband about it until he asked, later that night, where she had got those bruises. “There wasn’t time to tell him!” she claims. Her companion recovered but was still in the hospital two days later and missed her chance to vote. Lady Bird learned her lesson. Since then, just in case, she always votes absentee.
She thrived as a campaigner. There was something heroic in her efforts to push herself out of her natural shyness. Bobby Kennedy gave her credit for winning Texas for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960. More recently, she campaigned for her son-in-law Chuck Robb in his Senate race against Oliver North and was “completely prepared for defeat.” It’s a measure of her power that one fund-raising dinner for Robb attracted no fewer than eight members of her husband’s Cabinet. (This is a woman who could call on Gerald Ford, Lloyd Bentsen, Laurance Rockefeller and Dan Rather to celebrate wildflowers.) She enjoys this influence, so it’s no surprise that she wishes her daughter Lynda would “do something on her own, not just be the daughter of and wife of.” She wishes Lynda, with all her talent and intelligence, could shore up her self-esteem. It’s hard, when your husband admits to getting a massage in a hotel room from a former beauty queen. But that’s something else she has triumphed over: Lyndon Johnson’s reputation as a lover of women.
“Lyndon loved everybody, and a little bit more than half the world is women,” she says, as she has often said, but then she continues, trying to find the right words to shield her dignity and his. “Lyndon set store by, valued and loved many women, and I’m quite sure I loved anybody he loved. I do know he wanted me most. I do know he liked me most.” Does that explain it, if anything can? “I can sum it up by saying that he and I were better together than either of us was apart.”
She has found male companionship in the years since, but “not to amount to anything. Companionship, yes. Love, no. I mean, I’m sort of like that lady in The King and I.” And improbably enough, at her dinner table at the ranch, eating homegrown black-eyed peas that Delma shelled when they were nice and tender, and country steak, and collard greens from the ranch’s winter garden, she sings the line “I’ve had a love of my own.”
She built the indoor pool at the ranch for her 70th or 75th birthday, she can’t remember which. She can walk out her bedroom door, past the outdoor pool, built after her husband’s first heart attack, and there it is: a low building with changing rooms off a breezeway, and big, moist, solar-heated room, one wall all glass, decorated with blue Mexican tiles and potted plants. She spends most weekdays in Austin—where she led the campaign to beautify the riverfront, which now is rich with parks, flowering trees and a bicycle trail—either at home or at her office in the LBJ Library. But on weekends, at the ranch, she swims.
There have been thunderstorms this afternoon, and in the distance lightning still flashes in the high clouds. The stone walkway is puddled. The sun is shining. Everything on the ranch seems slow and lazy at this hour. The cows graze; the turtles climb back onto their rocks on the riverbed. Her secretary dozes upstairs. Her Secret Service agent sits guard at a card table in the breezeway, reading a magazine. But in the pool, where she swims a stately sidestroke back and forth, 36 lengths, there is continual motion. And as she swims, in a flowered bathing suit, a white-petaled cap concealing her hair, she talks exuberantly about the last book she has read. Well, not read, exactly. Her eyes are too weak for sustained reading, alas, alas. But her granddaughter Lucinda has recorded Brooke Astor’s Patchwork Child on tape for her, and isn’t that a pleasure, listening to these tales told in the voice of such a dear, sweet grandchild. And what a wonderful book––the “wonderful” drawn out so long, somebody could wrap herself in it––all those enchanting stories of growing up in Peking. And Brooke Astor, who once built playgrounds in Washington, D.C., as part of the First Lady’s campaign to clean up the ugliness and replace it with things that give people pleasure, has delighted her again.
Stroke, stroke, stroke. In the light, golden after the storm, with her hair tucked into her cap and enthusiasm lighting up her features, she looks rejuvenated, a young woman of boundless faith and endless energy, whose days are golden coin.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, 1987]