Her Love of Nature Developed in East Texas Woods
By Jan Jarboe Russell
The seeds of all that Lady Bird Johnson accomplished as First Lady and environmentalist were planted in the deep woods of her native East Texas. She was born on Dec. 22, 1912, in the Brick House, a two-story, 17-room antebellum house that sits on an isolated rise facing a double wall of pine trees near the tiny town of Karnack.
Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, owned a 65,000-acre cotton plantation, two country stores and was the richest man in Harrison County. Her mother, Minnie Lee Pattillo Taylor, a dreamy woman from a genteel Alabama family, named her only daughter Claudia Alta. However, Alice Tittle, the nursemaid, took one look at the six-and-one-half-pound, dark-haired baby and pronounced her “as purty as a lady bird.” The nickname stuck.
On Sept. 14, 1918, Minnie Taylor suffered a miscarriage after an accidental fall as she descended the staircase at the Brick House and died. Lady Bird was 5 years old and at home. Her two older brothers, Tommy and Tony, were both in boarding school in the Catskills of New York. Lady Bird was left in the care of her father and her Aunt Effie, her mother’s unmarried sister, who came from Alabama to live at the Brick House.
Her Mother’s Influence
Lady Bird had few memories of her mother. In one, she remembered her as a “tall graceful” lady who “wore white quite a lot . . . went around the house in a great rush, and loved to read.” In another, her mother walked barefoot through the woods, her white skirt damp with dew, carrying a hand-picked nosegay of wildflowers.
As a young girl, Lady Bird took to the same woods, exploring ancient trees, exotic plants and dark bayous. “Growing up rather alone,” Lady Bird said, “I took my delights in the gifts nature offered me daily.”
One of her favorite places was Caddo Lake. “On Caddo Lake, I loved to paddle in those dark bayous, where time itself seemed ringed around by silence and ancient cypress trees, rich in festoons of Spanish moss,” recalled Lady Bird. “Now and then an alligator would surface like a gnarled log. It was a place for dreams.”
As a young adolescent, she roamed the woods near the Brick House in the spring looking for the first daffodil and named that daffodil “queen.”
Her mother demonstrated concern for the environment in many ways. She built a birdbath in the front yard of the Brick House and fed the birds all year round. In 1910, she sponsored a Save the Quail Society, and to protect the quail from hunters, she posted “no hunting” signs on several thousand acres of her husband’s property. Neighbors considered Minnie “strange” for these behaviors, which became part of Lady Bird’s emotional inheritance.
An Isolated Childhood
Until she went to high school in nearby Marshall, Lady Bird lived an isolated life. Her primary playmates were two African-American girls, whose parents worked for her father and who also had nicknames: Doodle Bug and Stuff.
While growing up, Lady Bird poured over her mother’s books, many of them leather-bound travel books. She inherited her mother’s bookish nature and excelled in school. In 1928, the year she graduated from high school, the prediction of her classmates in the yearbook was not that she would marry and have children — normal ambitions for Southern girls of her age and class — but that Lady Bird would be an explorer, a “second Halliburton, poking her nose in unknown places in Asia.”
By the time she graduated from the University of Texas with two degrees — a bachelor of arts in 1933 and bachelor of journalism in 1934 — Lady Bird’s world became much larger. She had many friends and increased confidence. Her ambition was to become a reporter, preferably a drama critic for The Washington Post. If that didn’t work out, she intended to apply for teaching jobs “in some faraway romantic spot — Hawaii or Alaska.”
Lyndon and Politics
Instead, romance soon found Lady Bird. One of her college friends introduced her to Lyndon Johnson, the tall, lanky aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Kleberg, the King Ranch’s member of Congress. They had their first date in October and for the next seven weeks, they carried on a long-distance romance in letters and telephone calls. In October, Lady Bird was worried about his future career. “Lyndon, please tell me as soon as you can what the deal is . . . I am afraid it’s politics,” she wrote in a letter.
After eloping to San Antonio on May 17, 1934, for a small wedding, Lady Bird moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., and set about conquering her fear of politics. The practical virtues instilled in her by her father — thriftiness and a keen business sense — served both her and Johnson well.
In 1937, when Johnson ran his first race for Congress, she asked how much the campaign would cost. “About $10,000,” she was told. She telephoned her father in Karnack and received the entire amount from her mother’s inheritance. Five years later, she used more of her mother’s inheritance to buy KTBC, a failing low-power, daytime-only Austin radio station, and built it into a communications empire worth millions of dollars that she personally managed well into her eighties.
Her support of her husband’s political career defined her. In 1941, when Johnson volunteered for the U.S. Navy during World War II, Lady Bird ran his Congressional office. She campaigned for him in every race. When their two daughters, Lynda Byrd and Luci Baines, were still young, Lady Bird packed up her dishes and her household belongings at the start of every congressional session and commuted back and forth in a station wagon from Austin to Washington.
During the 1948 race for the U.S. Senate, she joined her husband on a helicopter blitz through Texas towns, taking photographs of rallies on a handheld 16-millimeter camera. During the 1960 presidential campaign when Johnson ran as John F. Kennedy’s running mate, Lady Bird went to Dallas four days before the election to campaign for Kennedy and confronted an angry crowd of women who were opposed to Kennedy, who spit at her and carried signs that said, “Let’s Ground Lady Bird.” The Kennedy-Johnson ticket carried Texas and therefore the election. “Lady Bird carried Texas for us,” said Robert Kennedy, brother to the new president.
On Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Lady Bird was in the motorcade and at the hospital when Kennedy was declared dead. On her drive back to the airport to board Air Force One, Lady Bird saw a flag flying at half-mast and realized her life was never going to be the same. She stood by her husband on the airplane when he was sworn in as the 36th president. “I have moved onstage to a part I never rehearsed,” Lady Bird told Liz Carpenter, her closest aide.
On the day she moved into the White House, she found a bouquet of flowers from Mrs. Kennedy with a note that said: “I wish you a happy arrival in your new house, Lady Bird — Remember —you will be happy here. Love, Jackie.”
Finding Consolation in Nature
Amid the turmoil of the 1960s when the nation was bitterly divided over race and the Vietnam War, Lady Bird reached back to the source of her childhood consolation — nature — to find a cause that brought her moments of happiness in the White House. She put a sign on her desk in the East Wing that said “can do” and went to work on her signature issue — the environment. It started with the planting of pansies on the mall in Washington, D.C., followed by azaleas, dogwood, cherry trees and daffodils that are still in evidence in Washington’s parks and green spaces.
In 1965, Congress passed “Lady Bird’s Bill” that limited junkyards and billboards on the nation’s highways and encouraged the planting of wildflowers. She used her influence to prevent construction of dams in the Grand Canyon, to create Redwoods National Park, to purchase more parkland and to protect rivers. “The environment is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest,” she said. “It is what we all share.”
One of the most significant events as First Lady came during the 1964 presidential race, three months after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which made him a traitor to many white Southerners. Lady Bird took a 1,628-mile train trip though eight Southern states. “Don’t give me the easy towns,” she told Carpenter. “Anyone can get into Atlanta. Let me take the tough ones.”
The issue of civil rights was one that Lady Bird took personally. She’d grown up in the segregated South and witnessed racial prejudice first-hand. As a child, she’d heard about how a group of white vigilantes had cornered a black man near Karnack and accused him of some crime. The man was terrified and ran. The vigilantes shot him in the back. Even as a child, she knew such behavior was wrong and thought to herself, “Someone should do something about this.” With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, her husband did.
During the train trip, called the Lady Bird Special, Lady Bird made 47 speeches in four days, and her message was that unless the South accepted the Civil Rights Act and put an end to segregation, its economy would be ruined and its fate consigned to the past. She faced angry hecklers, many carrying signs that said, “Black Bird. Go home.” There were threats on her life; at one point, the Secret Service made sure the railroad tracks were swept for bombs. When hecklers drowned her out, she stood on the back of the train and said: “You’ve had your say. But I’ve come all this way. If you’re finished, now I’d like to talk.” Ultimately, her message was heard.
In speeches, Lady Bird reminded audiences that First Ladies aren’t elected by anyone but served by accident of marriage and answered to a constituency of one — their husbands. Throughout their 39-year marriage, Lady Bird took care of LBJ’s personal needs — bringing him coffee in bed, laying out his clothes — but she did more than that. She helped draft speeches, finance campaigns and served as one of his closest advisors. Just before his announcement in 1968 that he would not seek another term in office, Lady Bird walked over to Johnson’s desk in the Oval Office a few seconds before he started speaking and told him, “Remember — pacing and drama.”
On the last night that Lady Bird spent in the White House, a line of poetry from India’s Love Lyrics drifted through her mind before she went to sleep:
I seek to celebrate my glad release, the Tents
of Silence and the Camp of Peace.
The following day, she and Johnson moved back home to the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, which was for Lady Bird a camp of peace. Four years and two days later, on Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack at the ranch. Lady Bird soon seeded pasture after pasture with wildflowers.
During her widowhood, Lady Bird served as the chief steward of her husband’s memory, presiding over events at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin. She became the driving force behind building the 10-mile hike and bike trail around the Town Lake portion of the Colorado River. On her 70th birthday, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin.
After she died at age 94 on July 11, 2007, 10,000 mourners filed past her casket at the LBJ Library. On July 15, a cortege procession left the Texas State Capitol and thousands of people lined the route through downtown Austin and along the shores of Town Lake, which had been renamed Lady Bird Lake, to pay their respects. Many held wildflowers in their hands.
Jan Jarboe Russell, Texas journalist, is the author of Lady Bird, A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, published by Scribner’s in 1999.
Dallek, Robert. Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970; and Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
Middleton, Harry. Lady Bird Johnson, A Life Well Lived. Austin: The Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, 1992.
Russell, Jan Jarboe. Lady Bird, A Biography of Mrs. Johnson. New York: Scribner’s, 1999.