What You Didn’t Know About Lady Bird Johnson: LBJ's First Lady
Lady Bird Johnson standing in the Blue Room of the White House, on a Savonnerie carpet, wearing a red evening gown. Source: (Photo by Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images)
The wife of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson was an introspective First Lady who loved reading and nature. Born Claudio Alta Taylor, the public saw her as a shyer, duller version of the chic and glamorous Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird’s predecessor to the title of First Lady — the title that was stripped from her when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Almost immediately, Lady Bird Johnson knew that she would be compared to Jackie Kennedy, but she was undeterred. Here are some facts and trivia that you didn’t (or may not) know about Lady Bird Johnson's life, times, and run as the First Lady of the United States.
Her Given Name Wasn’t Lady Bird
When she was born in Karnack, Texas, on December 22, 1912, the only daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Minnie Patillo Taylor, the name on her birth certificate was Claudia Alta Taylor. According to family stories, it was her nursemaid, Alice Tittle, who gave her the nickname Lady Bird. Tittle often exclaimed that the baby was a cute “as a ladybird,” most likely a reference to a ladybug. After a while, the entire family began calling her "Lady Bird" and the name stuck.
A Lonely Childhood
Lady Bird was just five years old when her mother died. Minnie Taylor, who was pregnant at the time, fell down a flight of stairs. She died from blood loss after miscarrying. Minnie’s sister, Effie Patillo, moved in to care for Lady Bird and her two older brothers. As a child, Lady Bird often retreated into books or her writing to escape her loneliness. Other times, she escaped into nature. Summers spent visiting family in Alabama meant more exposure to the peaceful beauty of nature. Lady Bird later wrote that, while she appreciated that her aunt opened her eyes to the wonders of the natural world, she “neglected to give me any insight into the practical matters a girl should know about, such as how to dress or choose one’s friends or learning to dance.”
Lady Bird was a Bright Student
A bookworm, Lady Bird was a quiet and diligent student. She was also exceptionally bright. She graduated from high school at the age of 15 and enrolled in college at the University of Texas at Austin in 1930 to major in writing and journalism. As a college student, she was known as the rich girl on campus because her family could afford to give her the luxuries that other college students didn’t have in the 1930s, such as her own car and her own charge account. Lady Bird wasn’t flashy with her money, though. She was cautious with her spending habits.
Lyndon Johnson Proposed to Lady Bird on Their First Date
A mutual friend introduced Lady Bird to Lyndon Johnson, then a 26-year old Congressional aide. The young couple went on their first date—to dinner at the Driskill Hotel—where Lyndon asked Lady Bird to marry him. Although she later admitted that she was instantly drawn to him, she felt that getting engaged on the first date was rushing things just a bit. She waited just over two months before she accepted his proposal. They got married at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio on November 17, 1934.
Lady Bird Almost Gave Up on Having Children
Early in her marriage, Lady Bird Johnson suffered three heartbreaking miscarriages. At this time, women didn’t talk about miscarriage, so she and Lyndon Johnson mourned in private. Lady Bird was beginning to think that she was not meant for motherhood. Then the couple had their first child, Lynda Bird, in 1944, and another, Luci Baines, in 1947. Both Lynda and Luci were teenagers when their father became president, so they lived in the White House under the glare of the media spotlight. Both Johnson girls had lavish White House weddings.
Lady Bird Financed Her Husband’s Political Campaigns
When Lyndon Johnson decided to run for the U.S. Congress in 1937, Lady Bird tapped into her inheritance and put $10,000 into his campaign. He won his congressional seat. When he volunteered for active duty in World War II, Lady Bird ran his Washington office for him. Later, in 1943, Lady Bird again gave her husband a big chunk of change from her inheritance to buy a radio station in Austin.
She Took a Class in Public Speaking
For much of the early part of her husband’s political career, Lady Bird Johnson avoided giving speeches. Instead, she wrote wonderfully detailed and persuasive letters on behalf of her husband. But as he climbed the ranks of Washington politics, it became clear that Lady Bird would need to get over her fear of public speaking. In 1959, she took a course in public speaking that helped her to cope with her shyness and nervousness.
She Was Two Cars Behind Kennedy When He Was Shot
Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were acting as hosts, welcoming President John F. Kennedy and his wife to their home state of Texas. During that fateful day in November of 1963, the Johnsons were traveling in a vehicle two cars behind the President’s car when shots rang out. Lady Bird was witness to one of the darkest days in U.S. history.
She Hired an Expert to Give Her Favorable Press
After the Kennedy assassination and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson received some negative comparisons to the glamorous former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. Lady Bird hired a veteran reporter, Liz Carpenter, to help her present herself to the media in the most favorable way possible.
Lady Bird’s Beautification Agenda
Lady Bird Johnson considered herself to be a lifelong environmentalist. As First Lady, she initiated environmental, or beautification, programs. Because of her, thousands of flowers were planted in the nation’s capital. She worked with Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Bill, which aimed to reduce the number of billboards and unnecessary signage along the nation’s highways and to encourage highway clean-up initiatives.
An Audio Diary
During her time as First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson kept an audio diary. Every day, she recorded events, thoughts, impressions, and more on a series of tapes that encompass thousands of hours. Her recordings are the most complete accounts of White House life ever produced by a First Lady.
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