Lady Bird Johnson Early Life
Born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912 in Karnack, Texas. As a child, someone remarked that she was as cute as a “lady bird” and the nickname stuck. Johnson grew up in a wealthy household, her father was a businessman and her mother remained at home to care for the children. Johnson’s mother died when she was young and she was placed under the care of her maternal aunt. As a child, Johnson was shy and reserved. Her family members recalled that she spent much of her time outdoors, a past time that inspired her throughout her life. Johnson excelled in grade school and finished high school at the age of 15. She attended the University of Alabama for a short time, but later decided to return to Texas. She graduated from St. Mary’s Episcopal College and the University of Texas with a degree in journalism.
Lady Bird Johnson was a calm and steadying influence on her often moody and volatile husband as she quietly attended to the demands imposed by his career. Liz Carpenter, her press secretary during her years in the White House, once wrote that “if President Johnson was the long arm, Lady Bird Johnson’s was the gentle hand.” She softened hurts, mediated quarrels and won over many political opponents. Johnson often said his political ascent would have been inconceivable without his wife’s devotion and forbearance. Others shared that belief. After Johnson became the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1960, James Reston, the Washington columnist of The New York Times, said, “Lyndon could never have made it this far without the help of that woman.” Mrs. Johnson was often compared to Eleanor Roosevelt, a first lady she greatly admired but did not resemble.
“Mrs. Roosevelt was an instigator, an innovator, willing to air a cause without her husband’s endorsement,” Ms. Carpenter said. “Mrs. Johnson was an implementer and translator of her husband and his purpose — a wife in capital letters.”
As baby Claudia grew, her nurse, an African American woman named Alice Tittle, proclaimed the two-year-old “purty as a lady bird.” The nickname, which she at first despised, has stuck with her ever since. Claudia’s father, the domineering Thomas Jefferson Taylor, controlled 15,000 acres of cotton and two general stores. “Mister Boss,” as local Blacks called him, had built his small empire in less than 15 years under an aptly worded sign that hung above his general store in Karnack: “T.J. Taylor — Dealer in Everything.”
“My father was a very strong character, to put it mildly,” Lady BirdJohnson told biographer Jan Jarboe Russell. “He lived by his own rules. It was a whole feudal way of life, really.”
Her mother, Minnie Taylor, was a bookish woman who never felt at home in the remoteness of Karnack. She often read classical Greek and Roman mythology to Lady Bird and yearned for her daughter and two older sons to experience life. But Minnie had little time to instill these beliefs in young Lady Bird. Several months pregnant, she fell down the stairs at The Brick House and died a few days later on Sept. 4, 1918. The five-year-old Lady Bird would later say her clearest memory of her mother was on her deathbed.
At 15, Lady Bird talked her father into allowing her to attend St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls, a junior college in Dallas. There she excelled, scoring A’s in every topic, with the exception of science of which she said, “This must be important. I just don’t know why.”
Who is Lady Bird Johnson?
Christened Claudia Alta Taylor when she was born in a country mansion near Karnack, Texas, she received her nickname “Lady Bird” as a small child; and as Lady Bird she was known and loved throughout America. Perhaps that name was prophetic, as there has seldom been a First Lady so attuned to nature and the importance of conserving the environment. Her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died when Lady Bird was five, so she was reared by her father, her aunt, and family servants.
From her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, who had prospered, she learned much about the business world. An excellent student, she also learned to love classical literature. At the University of Texas she earned a bachelor’s degree in arts and in journalism.
Lady Bird Met Lyndon Baines Johnson
In 1934 Lady Bird met Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a Congressional secretary visiting Austin on official business; he promptly asked her for a date, which she accepted. He courted her from Washington with letters, telegrams, and telephone calls. Seven weeks later he was back in Texas; he proposed to her and she accepted. In her own words: “Sometimes Lyndon simply takes your breath away.” They were married in November 1934.
The years that followed were devoted to Lyndon’s political career, with “Bird” as partner, confidante, and helpmate. She helped keep his Congressional office open during World War II when he volunteered for naval service; and in 1955, when he had a severe heart attack, she helped his staff keep things running smoothly until he could return to his post as Majority Leader of the Senate. He once remarked that voters “would happily have elected her over me.” After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth to Lynda Bird (now Mrs. Charles S. Robb) in 1944; Luci Baines (Mrs. Ian Turpin) was born three years later.
Stumping for Democratic Candidates
In the election of 1960, Lady Bird successfully stumped for Democratic candidates across 35,000 miles of campaign trail. As wife of the Vice President, she became an ambassador of goodwill by visiting 33 foreign countries. Moving to the White House after Kennedy’s murder, she did her best to ease a painful transition. She soon set her own stamp of Texas hospitality on social events, but these were not her chief concern. She created a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, then expanded her program to include the entire nation.
She took a highly active part in her husband’s war-on-poverty program, especially the Head Start project for preschool children. When the Presidential term ended, the Johnsons returned to Texas, where he died in 1973.
Mrs. Johnson’s White House Diary, published in 1970, and a 1981 documentary film, The First Lady, A Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson, give sensitive and detailed views of her contributions to the President’s Great Society administration. Lady Bird lead a life devoted to her husband’s memory, her children, and seven grandchildren. She supported causes dear to her–notably the National Wildflower Research Center, which she founded in 1982, and The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. She also served on the Board of the National Geographic Society as a trustee emeritus.
After her husband’s death, Johnson traveled the world and continued work to beautify the nation and Texas in particular. In 1983, she founded the National Wildlife Research Center in Austin, Texas, which works to re-establish native plants in natural and planned landscapes. It was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1998. Johnson served as the chairperson of the Center’s Board of Directors since its founding. She also served a number of other boards, including the Board of the National Geographic Society. Johnson always enjoyed spending time with her family and occasionally mingling with tourists at the LBJ Ranch in Texas.
Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was once described by her husband as “the brains and money of this family” and whose business skills cushioned his road to the White House, died on the afternoon of JULY 11, 2007, at her home in Austin, Tex. She was 94. Mrs. Johnson was hospitalized for a week last month with a low-grade fever. She died of natural causes, surrounded by family and friends, a family spokesman said.
Lady Bird Johnson funeral was attended by multiple heads of state.
She received scores of awards over her lifetime. Two of her most prestigious were bestowed by Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.
Lady Bird Johnson Biography and Profile