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Additional FeaturesLady Bird Early Years December 1912 - November 1934
Lady Bird and one of her older brothers Photo Credit: LBJ Library
A five-year-old Claudia "Lady Bird" Taylor and one of her brothers pose for Photo LBJ Library


The Early Years

Lyndon Johnsonís 10-week courtship of Lady Bird.


The Early Years

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The 1960s -- civil rights, assassinations, riots, and Vietnam -- at the epicenter, stood Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.

He was an overpowering man with a huge ego.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: In her own way, Mrs. Johnson had an equally large ego because she could sustain this enormous person and live her own life.

KATHERINE GRAHAM: I don't think that LBJ would have been president without her.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This is her story.

I'm Michael Beschloss. Before I wrote two books on Lyndon Johnson and spent some time here at the LBJ ranch, I didn't realize how important a person Lady Bird is. She was an anchor to a husband who had his ups and his downs. She was a traditional woman who went on to do some pretty untraditional things.

She was an activist who expanded the job of First Lady so deftly that most people don't realize it. Born rich, she campaigned for social justice for the poor. A daughter of the Old South, she literally risked her life to advance civil rights. She was an early champion of the environment, becoming one of the most important First Ladies we've ever had. It was an extraordinary journey.

In 1934, Claudia Alta Taylor, known as "Lady Bird," was at a crossroads of her life. She just graduated from college with two degrees, and here was this forceful young man, Lyndon Johnson, badgering her, as they drove through the Texas countryside. He told her what direction she should take with her life, she should marry him that very day.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: Mother desperately wanted to go with Lyndon Johnson. She just wasn't so sure she wanted to go marry Lyndon Johnson that day.

But there was a real sense of-- of butterflies about the fact that if I don't marry him today... He might leave. And she just wasn't willing to let go of that love.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird had just gotten a glimpse of her future life as the partner of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ would take her out of East Texas, and before long, he would give her a front-row seat on history.

LBJ would have a wife who was willing to make his life her own, someone who would endure his ego and his passions, sometimes his ridicule, who nonetheless, had the strength to stand up to him when it counted. Lady Bird knew that this tornado of a man loved her and needed her.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: She said, "Ours was a compelling love." And she said, "Lyndon pushed me, he drove me, at times he even humiliated me, but he made me become someone bigger and better than I would have been."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Claudia Taylor was born into a world of privilege on December 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas, just 15 miles from the Louisiana line. This was the Deep South. The Taylor family lived in a mansion called "The Brick House."

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: It helped shape my life... It's a rather good old house, built about 1854 by slave labor.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Little Claudia's nurse thought she was just as pretty as a lady bird. Growing up, the young girl hated the nickname, but it stuck. Lady Bird's two brothers, Thomas and Antonio, were much older than she was.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I was almost an only child in a way.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird's father was Thomas Jefferson Taylor, merchant and lord of a small cotton empire. The sign over Taylor's general store said, "T.J. Taylor, dealer in everything."

The blacks of the county raised his cotton, got their supplies from his store, and went to him for loans. They called him, "Mr. Boss."

Her mother, Minnie Taylor, was an eccentric southern lady. A reader, and a dreamer, she kept herself apart from the country folk around Karnack. When Lady Bird was five, her world was shattered, when her pregnant mother fell down a staircase and died.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Although she left a distinct mark on my life, she was not there to do the sort of things like plan my social life, who I met, what I did.

LUCI BAINES JOHNSON: My mother didn't have a mother figure. Mr. Boss was a mother and father in many ways. He was the person she depended upon. He was her rock. He was her heritage. And, uh, Lyndon Johnson became all of the above to mother.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: T.J. Taylor asked Effie, her mother's shy, ailing sister to help raise the little girl.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: From the beginning, little Claudia is the one who took care of Aunt Effie. When you meet Mrs. Johnson, you're struck by how contained she is. And I think it's because she has always had this ability to take care of other people and to take care of herself by herself.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Life in Karnack was lonely. Her few playmates were black children. Even then, she noticed the difference between them. On Christmas, she got dolls, teddy bears, books, and a wicker rocking chair. She noticed that her black playmate got things like socks and school supplies.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: And I thought, "Well, that's kind of odd. I wonder why she hadn't got the same things I have." We were to some degrees prejudiced. And when you got to be about 12 or so, that close camaraderie between you and all your little black friends sort of diminished.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: As she grew, she spent much of her time outdoors. She loved to sit and dream along the glistening dark bayous of Caddo Lake.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: The bald cypress with roots and draped with fantastic Spanish moss and sort of an eerie, primeval beauty.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: She was mothered by nature in a real instinctual way, And if you look at the crisis points in Mrs. Johnson's life, Her first line of defense is to always return to mother nature as a source of healing.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: At 17, Lady Bird left her sheltered life, for the University of Texas in Austin.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: It was a magic place to me. I felt like all the doors of the world would open there.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Although it was the height of the Great Depression, she drove a gleaming new Buick, and had a charge account at Neiman Marcus.

CECILLE HARRISON MARSHALL: She had the means. She did not flaunt the means. A lot of Bird's attitude toward money came from her father who taught her the value of a dollar -- and she never forgot it.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird graduated in June 1934 with a bachelor's degree and a journalism degree.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I finally graduated, thinking, "Will this be the last I ever see of this beloved town?" Not very much time elapsed before I married Lyndon.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She met the brash, young congressional aide at a party in Austin, two months after graduation. LBJ immediately asked her to breakfast the next morning at the Driskill Hotel. She was both intrigued and repelled by Johnson's aggressiveness. Still, she went.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: And I said, "Well, Mrs. Johnson, how did you feel?" And she said, "I felt like a moth drawn to the flame." It was like a vortex of energy.

Across the table from her was one of the brightest young congressional secretaries on the Hill who had made an acquaintance with Franklin Roosevelt. He told her how he wanted to do big things. I think she was in love at first sight. And I think that love sustained her through all the years of their marriage and sustains her still.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The young man and woman spent the day together and talked for hours. By sundown, LBJ said he wanted to marry her. She said, "You must be joking!" But he wasn't.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: Mrs. Johnson is the emotional and physical opposite of Lyndon Johnson. They came from two completely different parts of the world.

The Texas that Mrs. Johnson came from is the South, and the Texas that Lyndon Johnson came from is the West. And I think these two landscapes really inform their love story, because in Mrs. Johnson, you have someone that's shy, that's insular, that's introverted. Lyndon Johnson comes from a place where it creates extroverted people because the West really welcomes outsiders.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lady Bird took her beau to Karnack to meet her father. T.J. Taylor thought he and LBJ were two of a kind.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: When Lyndon left, he said, "Young lady, you've brought home a lot of boys, and I think this time you brought home a man."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Returning to Washington, LBJ lobbied her by letter and telephone. He wrote, "I'm ambitious, proud, energetic, and very madly in love with you." Lady Bird agonized. She thought it was too soon for her to get married. She certainly didn't want to be the wife of a politician.

She wrote him, "Lyndon, please tell me what the deal is. I'm afraid it's politics. I would hate for you to go into politics."

On November 16, 1934, LBJ appeared on the doorstep of "The Brick House." He gave her an ultimatum: "We either do it now, or we never will." With a heart full of trepidation, this usually deliberate woman said, "yes." They would marry in San Antonio that very night.

CECILLE HARRISON MARSHALL: She called and asked me if I could stand up with her that they were getting married. Well, of course, it was quite, quite a surprise.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Wearing a simple lavender dress, Lady Bird exchanged vows with Lyndon Johnson. Then the tiny wedding party went to the rooftop restaurant of the St. Anthony Hotel.

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL: Somebody had made arrangements. Of course they were radiant. I think she probably got more than she expected in a husband.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Just 10 weeks after they met, Lady Bird was Lyndon Johnson's wife. She called Captain Taylor and said, "Last night, Lyndon and I committed matrimony."


Production of Lady Bird had been funded in part by the generous support of The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston; The Belo Foundation; The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, Inc.; Mr. Ralph S. O'Connor; The Marjorie Kovler Fund; and The Ms. Foundation For Women.

Lady Bird is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU - Austin.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved