James Morgan, co- author of Leading With My Heart, an autobiography of Virginia
Interviewed May 13, 1996
FL: Start with a story of Virginia putting on her makeup.
It was wonderful. Before I met Virginia, I had known her the way everyone else
in the state had known her. Sort of as this character. This painted
character. And when I finally got to meet her and get to know her through
going back through the process of her life, I realized that the makeup played a
much bigger role than just simply covering up her face. It was central to her.
The ritual of putting on the makeup was important to her and the makeup itself,
I finally used in the beginning of the book, as a metaphor for stripping away
the cover-up that she often kept there.
In fact one of the most surreal moments of my life was two nights after Virginia
died, I was at her house in Hot Springs and the President was there, lots of
people were there. Barbra Streisand was there. And I was introduced to Barbra
Streisand, who, when she found out that I was writing the book, she wanted to
see where Virginia had put on her makeup. Which was so bizarre. I suddenly
found myself taking Barbra Streisand through the bedroom into this bathroom of
Virginia's where one whole wall was mirrored, and it was like a set where
Virginia met every day. And as one of Virginia's friends had said, she could
lay her hands on every little bit of that makeup with her eyes closed because
Virginia kept everything in the exact same place. She had her little radio
over to the right and she had on the left, the far left was the eyeliner, and
then in the center were the perfumes and the lipsticks. And every day she
would sit down and greet the day that way. She slept in makeup. And she said,
when you have to put on this much paint you don't want to have to do it but one
time in a day. And also she was always afraid she'd be called to the hospital.
She didn't want to have to slap on makeup or scare the patients to death.
But Virginia would sit down there and look herself in the eye for 45 minutes.
She said it used to take her an hour and a half when she smoked, but she had
finally gotten it down to 45 minutes, and she would put on this makeup and I
finally began to see that it was not simply covering her face, it was sort of
the physical equivalent, in a way, of that process that she talked about in her
head. She talked about how she got through every day and dealing with all the
problems that she'd had in her life. All the husbands that had died and the
son that had gone to prison, all of this. She said, in her head she kept this
airtight box and on the outside were the things that were bad. The criticism
of her and hers, the can't do-ism. On the inside were the positive, the happy,
the warm. And she pretty much kept it like that. Outside was black. Inside
was white and the only gray she trusted was the streak in her hair. And I saw
that in some way the makeup process was important to her in that way too. It
was kind of a putting on the armor for every day. And putting on her game
face, so to speak. And so the makeup was something that I used as a metaphor,
and I think it worked very well.
FL: You remember the first time she took you into her boudoir and you watched
the whole thing happen?
Well, I didn't watch the whole thing happen necessarily since she never let me
see her without the makeup. She didn't want me to watch her do it. But it was
sort of one of those reenactments which was bizarre in itself. But we were
talking about, in getting to know Virginia I asked her everything. I spent the
whole first week getting her to tell me her story just of her personal life and
it took a whole week too. I would interrupt her and ask, "What color was
that?" and "Who said that?" and then the next week we would go through her
But we talked about everything. I said, "What's in your closet? What are
your favorite clothes?" I tried to get every little sense of this woman. And
at one point we found ourselves talking about makeup and how she did it, and
why, and all that. And so I said, "Take me on in and show me." And she sat
down at the makeup table and showed me her radio. It was a forties era radio,
I don't know whether it was new or old, but it looked like forties and it had
apparently been that way. And she just took me through the process. She always
put her hair net on first. She said she spent too much money at the beauty
parlor every week to get makeup in her hair. The next important thing was the
contact lenses. You know Virginia was born without eyebrows which, she said,
"No telling what she could have gotten done in this world if she hadn't had to
spend so much time putting on her eyebrows in the morning." And there were a
couple of great stories about the eyebrows. One was, one day she got one a
little off kilter so she went around with this quizzical look on her face all
day, and finally Chelsea told her, "You know Grandmother, you've got one of
your eyebrows off kilter."
And one other day she decided, you know, to heck with this. "I am so tired of
doing this, I'm just not going to paint them on. I was born this way, I'll
just go out without them." And she did. And she said it was the weirdest day
of her life. She felt that her face wasn't complete. She said, "That's why God
made eyebrows, was to keep your face together." And I kind of felt that again,
the eyebrows, the makeup, it was all part of keeping Virginia together.
FL: Talk a little more about this box in her head.
Well, Virginia has been accused of being in denial on many things and I think
that there's not doubt that she was. We all deny certain things. And she
certainly denied, especially with Roger, some of the things that he was into,
she just didn't want to know about so she just didn't kind of put it out of
mind. But this box in her head, she actually referred to it as brainwashing.
And it was not simply a matter of denial. This was deeper and bigger than that.
This was a way of getting through life and not simply denying individual items,
so to speak. This was a way of getting through every day with all the troubles
she had had. And she called it brainwashing.
And in fact I remember President Clinton, when I was working on the book, had
some problem with that term. But she described it more, in more detail. She
said, "It's broader." And it was. It was simply a way of saying, "I have got
to be positive. I have got to gird myself." For all the people who loved
Virginia, there were a lot of people who didn't love Virginia. And there are a
lot of people who don't love Bill, and didn't love Roger. And she didn't want
to hear that. She didn't want to think about that. She didn't want to dwell
on it anyway. And she didn't want to hear that you can't do things. She
didn't want to hear that things weren't possible.
And you know a lot of people, there's really something to that. A lot of
people, you've got to be really careful about who you hang around with because
there's always somebody going to tell you that you can't do something. And
this was something that I think she came up with on her own. She called it
brainwashing but it was this box in her head. That's the way she saw it. She
gave it sort of a visible presence to try and explain it to me. And she said
she just kept all the bad stuff on the outside and dwelled on the good. And
most of the time, she said, most of the time that box was airtight. It was,
she didn't succumb, she didn't let the negative get through. And she would sit
there looking herself in the mirror every morning, putting on that makeup, and
she would say, "I can do it. I can get through another day." And she said, "I
FL: You know some of the facts of his early childhood and her life. Talk a
little bit about some of the incidents she wanted to put away.
Well, you ask about the painful parts. Of course, we all know about Bill
Blythe who died before Bill Clinton was born. And, but even before, she had a
mother who was tough to deal with. And then having to go away to school and
leave her young son with the grandparents. That was very hard on her. And
then once she [was] remarried to Roger Clinton, she soon found that he was not the
handsome knight that she may have thought he was. He was a wonderful guy by
many accounts. But he did have this one problem which was alcoholism. And he
was abusive and that was a big part of her daily life, and of Bill's.
And of course there's the story that is pretty well known by now. The gunshot
in the house in Hope and all of the other problems that Bill as he got to be an
older boy had to stand up and protect his mother and his younger brother from
his stepfather. And then she divorced Roger. Or Roger died of cancer. She
did divorce Roger, but then she remarried him. She felt sorry for him because
he kept sleeping on her front porch at night. And then he died of cancer and
she married Jeff Dwyer and Jeff Dwyer died. Plus there was all this business
of the personal life, and then Roger later got into drugs and later had to go
to prison, but along the way, sort of a parallel line, was her career. She was
a nurse/anesthetist and she didn't want to play by the old rules, that people
had wanted to keep her in her place and she wanted to have her own company and
she, anyway, she challenged the status quo in Hot Springs and she had ongoing
battles and finally she was forced out. So always there was a lot going on in
her life and it was pretty turbulent. And these are the things that she was
trying to keep outside that box.
FL: What was it about her that was larger than life?
One of the things that I remember about Virginia, seeing her, I would go out to
lunch with her and her friends and I would just listen because that was part of
getting to see her too, with her friends. And you could hardly go anyplace
with Virginia in a restaurant and not have someone come over. And if people
didn't come over to the table, Virginia would go over to their table, and of
course I thought that was telling. But she wouldn't just go over to the table,
she would swagger to the table. And there was a little bit of a swagger that I
found kind of endearing but also manly. In fact I talked to her about that one
time. That gave a sense of someone who felt very much in charge, who wanted to
be watched, who knew that everyone's eye in the restaurant was on her. She had
that presence that you couldn't miss. And if you did miss it, she would do
something so you that couldn't miss it.
FL: Why did everybody notice her?
Well, I described her at one time, and someone who was close to her took
exception, when I described her as a character, which I think is about the most
tepid way you can describe Virginia. She was larger than life. In some ways
she in the way that Hot Springs is different from any other place in Arkansas,
and, in fact, most places between Atlantic City and Los Vegas, Virginia was
different. She sort of embodied Hot Springs. She once said that-- I mean when
she moved from Hope--she found that she was home. She really found that she
was home. She said that if Hot Springs hadn't been there she would have had to
invent it. But it was. It was a fast life of race tracks and night life and
all of the movie stars. Especially in the old days, before Virginia got there.
Hot Springs had this history of glamour, before it became tawdry later on. And
it was a glamour of racing season, and of course, illegal gambling. It was so
taken for granted that everyone, some people even forgot that it was illegal.
Virginia just sort of embodied that. She loved the night life. She was
painted up. She had the streak in her hair that her third husband, Jeff Dwyer,
convinced her was the real Virginia and she kept it going forever. It was a
bit of a pose, but it was also Virginia.
She loved parties. She loved to tell a story. She loved to have a couple of
drinks. The day I met her, the day I finally laid eyes on her for the first
time, she was talking to Colonel Tom Parker on the telephone which to me just
sort of captures it all. She was flamboyant in that way. But the thing that
most people made the mistake about Virginia, those people who didn't know her,
they thought that was all there was. But it was not. Virginia was a devoted
mother, a really loving wife. She was very close friend. She was devoted to
her friends. She was very good at her work and she was devoted to her work.
So there was this other whole, she made, she went out and did the night life,
but she also got to work. She made sure she didn't miss days. She was very
diligent in that way. There was a real solid core to Virginia too.
FLN: The bus trips...
I remember one time during the campaign in '92. I was traveling with him
through Arkansas one night, and he started talking about when he was a little
boy and he had moved from Hope to Hot Springs. And I guess he was homesick,
and Virginia would put him on a bus on Friday afternoon and send him back to
Hope to this small town, so that he would be a part of this extended family of
grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins in this sort of idyllic
existence, this warmth, this love. And then at the end of the weekend he would
get back on that bus and he would come back to cold, pragmatic, Hot Springs and
I thought that that was interesting that he chose the "buscapade" sort of as
his campaign tool of choice, because I had gotten a sense that that bus between
two towns had connected two essential parts of him. He talks about believing
in a place called Hope, and I don't doubt that that's true but you don't get to
where he is by Hope alone. And he's a consummate politician and Washington's a
very tough town. And I still think that times when he's got a bill to pass,
and an uprising to quash, or some fractious Senator needs to be taught a
lesson, Bill Clinton also believes in a place called Hot Springs.
FL: And can you talk just a bit more about the uniqueness of Hot Springs.
Well, you know I have known lots of people from Hot Springs. I have written
about Hot Springs a lot. And I have always found that people of a certain
vintage, who grew up in Hot Springs during its glory days, were profoundly
moved by the experience.
I mean, it was a different place. It is unlike any place that exists,
certainly in Arkansas, and mostly in the center of this country. There were
movie stars in Hot Springs, there was the whole business of illegal gambling
and racing season and the entertainers who were coming through and that also
brought, as one friend of mine says, she actually knew a boy named Rene
in the third grade, which is pretty unusual in Arkansas. There was this whole
sense of the place that was larger than life.
Plus there was a sense that, as one friend said, Hot Springs had sold it's
soul for this illegal gambling. And when you grow up in a place that's sold it
soul, it tells on you. And you can see it, I think, in Bill Clinton. The
sense that he may have been more idealistic coming from Hot Springs,
ironically, than he might have been if he had come from some other place.
Because he had seen something to position himself against. I think you always
do that. He saw wrongs that needed to be righted There are others who grew up
in Hot Springs and went the other direction. And in fact, maybe Roger is one
of those. He succumbed or embraced a different side of Hot Springs. Most of
the people I guess, probably like the rest of us, they sort of tread the line
between deals and ideals, but even then that Hot Springs native seems to stand
out in a way because they've seen the way the world works in it's rawest state.
Kind of unfiltered by the gentling strictures of civilization.
FL: The lessons of the pragmatism of Hot Springs.
Hot Springs, unlike Hope, was this pragmatic place. Whatever worked, in order
to keep this life that they had chosen which was this illegal gambling. And you
can't emphasize that enough. A lot of people don't know that about Hot
Springs, but for 40 years, from the late '20's to the '60's, it was a town that
was the essence of it. It was illegal gambling. And, as a friend said, sold
it's soul for that reason. But it was also a very political place as you would
imagine. And I've always wondered if Bill Clinton, as gifted a politician as
he is, could have grown up in that place and not absorbed those lessons of
FL: The story of Virginia and Hillary.... Talk about that relationship and why
you think they both didn't like each other and ended up liking each
Virginia and Hillary are a great story and I remember loving writing that
chapter about the two of them. It was the irresistible force meeting the
immovable object. They met, the first time I think, at Yale. But the time it
really counted was the time that Bill brought Hillary to Hot Springs for the
first time. This was the early '70's. And as Virginia said, you had to
remember that the way the '70's were. And it was these two sides squaring off.
Bill and Hillary looked like the hippies. They had the sweatshirts and the
jeans and the sandals and then here [was] Virginia and her 15 or 16-year-old son
Roger, who looked like something out of Las Vegas. Virginia at the time was
heavily, was very tan, and she was wearing that light pink lipstick, and the
fingernails, and the cigarette, and the caftan, and the hair, as she called it,
the skunk stripe in her hair. And here was Roger, the budding lounge singer
who was dating a succession who came through the house and all looked the same
as she said. They were all in that way that she was used to seeing, what she
called the Hot Springs beauty contest winner. They all had the coiffed hair,
and the makeup, and the lipstick, and the fingernail polish, the whole
business. Everything but a tiara.
And so when Virginia went to the door and there was Bill bringing in Hillary,
it was like a sitcom. I mean Hillary had no makeup, she had the coke bottle
glasses, she had, I think Virginia called it, mousy brown hair with no apparent
style, and then on the other side you have Roger and Virginia. And obviously
Roger and Virginia didn't hide their feelings. They sort of stood there
gaping, I think. And when Hillary took her suitcase and went off to her
bedroom to unpack, Bill grabbed the two of them by the scruff of their necks
and said, come here you two, and took them into the kitchen and said, I want to
talk to you. And it was like he was the father and they were the children.
And he said, "Do you understand, I have had it up to here with beauty queens?
I've got to have somebody I can talk with." And they said, "Yes, we
understand." But I think it took a while before they were finally able to come
to some terms with the presence of Hillary, with the being of Hillary.
FL: What are the ways in which they are alike, as well as different, the two of
Well, one of the funny things was that Virginia could not see for the longest
time that she and Hillary were very much alike. And Jeff Dwyer, her husband
who was the hairdresser, was able to see right away that here was this
strong-willed woman on one side, and here was this strong-willed woman on the
other side and that they were very much alike. And of course they were, in
fact Bill Clinton told me, that there was almost a cultural clash between
mother and Hillary. Virginia came from the war years and Hillary came from the
anti-war years. And North versus South. The makeup versus no makeup. The
natural look versus the unnatural look and there were lots of ways that they
were different, but at the core, they were steely, they were tough, they knew
what they wanted. And these are all fine qualities and they were very much
alike. And it took Jeff Dwyer to point that out to Virginia and he thought it
was hilarious. It took her a while to see the humor, I think.
FL: Did he ever seem to be bothered by his mother's larger than life
I heard that during the campaign in '92, some of the people in the campaign
were saying, "God what are we going to do about Virginia? What are we going to
do about Virginia?" And it was James Carville who said, "You know when you got
a racehorse like that you just let her run." So once again showed that Carvill
was once again right on, really understood the country.
But Bill Clinton never seemed at all to be embarrassed by his mother. And I
remember when she died, the relationship I had with Virginia was that I was
writing the book and then I would show her the pages and if she would approve
them. And when she died I had to start working with the President. And I
thought, "Here he is. There's some mighty juicy stuff in here. Things he didn't
know about. What's he going to say?" So the day after her funeral he flew off
to Brussels for an eleven day summit meeting carrying the next six chapters of
my book. And the news media, I think Newsweek, reported that Bill
Clinton was now writing the book, was now editing the book. And I thought,
"What is he going to do? Am I going to get all these pages back all scribbled
up? Is he going to try in some way to clean up her life?" Which he said to me
at the White House was this big sprawling messy life. And he said it with a
smile on his face. But I still had fears.
And two or three weeks later I get a packet from the White House and there are
just five little items in the margin little notes. And they were things like,
"Oh my father was in this or that club as well." Not ever did he try to do
that. I remember he called me some after he and I started working. And I was
amazed at how much time he was giving, at how much it meant to him. He would
talk for an hour and a half. And at one point he talked about how tough
Washington was and there were going to be people looking through this book,
sifting it and trying to find every little thing they can to use against him.
And in spite of that he didn't ask me to change things. He wanted his mother's
story to stand the way that she had written it, the way she wanted it written.
She and I had gone over this ahead of time. and I thought that was really a
loving son who, my understanding is that he keeps that book on his personal
desk and that, up in his quarters when he's working at night, there's his
mother's book, there's the Bible, there's whatever books he has there. He's
very proud of that book and he's very proud of her.
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation