The town of Karnack, Texas lies 15 miles from the Louisiana border, nestled among the lakes, bayous and cotton fields of East Texas. The town of 400 people is lorded over by a giant mansion a mile outside of downtown, known locally as the “The Brick House.” It is there in 1912 that Claudia Alta Taylor entered the world.
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 Bird 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.
Lady Bird, now motherless, focused on school and lived a somewhat lonely existence in Karnack. She excelled in classes, reportedly finishing third only because she did not want to have to give a speech at graduation like the valedictorian and saluditorian.
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.”
With her work at St. Mary’s complete, Lady Bird had her choice of colleges. After considering the University of Alabama, she headed 200 miles south of Dallas to the University of Texas in Austin.
With a big Buick and a Neiman Marcus account, Lady Bird did not want for anything when she left for Austin even in 1930, some of the darkest days of the depression. She earned a bachelors degree in arts in 1933 but stayed an extra year to earn a journalism degree. She told friends she planned on being a newspaper reporter. But then she met a 26-year-old Congressional aide and those plans took a change in direction.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was Lady Bird’s opposite in many ways. While she was short and demure, he towered over almost everybody. While she was calm and emotionally stable, he was prone to angry outbursts. Gregarious, ambitious and confident, Johnson bumped into Lady Bird on his way to a date with another girl. The charismatic future president leaned into Lady Bird and said, “Meet me in the dining room of the Driskill Hotel.” Lady Bird’s initial reaction was to say no; instead, she blurted out “Okay.”
Within 10 weeks of their first date, Lyndon appeared at Lady Bird’s house in Karnack on November 16, 1934 and issued Lady Bird a marriage ultimatum. “We either do it now, or we never will,” he told her.
Later saying she felt like a moth drawn to a flame, Lady Bird agreed and left that night with Lyndon Johnson. Within 24 hours, they were married and headed to Mexico for their honeymoon. Neither one could really suspect how far they truly were headed. But Claudia Alta Taylor was now Lady Bird Johnson.