Lady Bird and Lyndon
BIRD LEARNS TO FLY
A YEAR AFTER her husband died, Lady Bird Johnson sat down for an interview on the Today show. With millions of Americans watching, she expected anchorwoman Barbara Walters to ask her about the beautification project she had started as first lady and had continued in the five years since leaving Washington. It was a topic Lady Bird felt comfortable with. She had given countless interviews and speeches on the subject. But Walters quickly veered away from wildflowers and national parks to ask a question that had nothing to do with beautification. It zeroed in on Lady Bird’s marriage:
“How did you handle your flirt and ladies’ man husband?”
After only an instant’s hesitation, Lady Bird replied evenly, “Lyndon was a people lover and that certainly did not exclude half the people of the world, women.” The unflappable Lady Bird had faced down one of the most renowned interviewers in the world and answered a potentially embarrassing question with honesty and grace.
If Walters had researched Lady Bird’s early years, she could have anticipated the sort of response her query would elicit. It was all there, in the first years of Lady Bird’s life, how she virtually raised herself
in a household where humiliation and adultery were part of the picture. It was also a home where the exercise of raw power was taken for granted, and managing it became vital to survival. Rather than strike back against an attack such as Walters’s, Lady Bird relied on the protective carapace she had begun developing as a child—it equipped her to spar, disarm, and vanquish while maintaining what looked like gentle, ladylike composure.
Mrs. Johnson rarely talked about her early years. Perhaps she preferred to forget. More likely, she never knew the whole story—part Gothic novel, part comic opera—of how her aristocratic mother wound up giving birth on a December day in 1912 to her only daughter in a hardscrabble part of Texas that she loathed, among people she wished she had never met.
Lady Bird’s father, the big, dynamic Thomas Jefferson Taylor (known as T.J.) was one of those men who had to feel he was the most important man in the room. At six foot three, he towered over most people, craved attention, and expected his behavior to be tolerated, no matter how outlandish. The deference he commanded frequently involved money, and he had ingenious methods to keep people owing him. One oft-repeated story had him manipulating an impoverished neighbor back into debt after the man had struggled hard to pay off the last cent owed. The story goes that T. J. Taylor knew the man’s weakness for cats and he offered to give him one, but the man, being scrupulously fair, insisted on paying a little something. The two settled on a minuscule amount, but that was enough to put him back on T.J.’s debtor list. While he wheedled to get what he wanted, T.J. also contributed generously to both churches in town, an effective way to keep the entire community in his debt. The local saying was:
“T. J. Taylor owns everything.”
T.J. so firmly ruled that part of Harrison County, lending at exorbitant fees and collecting on his own timetable, that virtually everyone called him “Mr. Boss.” But not his wife, the pampered Minnie, whom
he had lured to Texas from more cultured surroundings in Alabama. Miss Minnie called no one “Boss.” When the adult Lady Bird offered one of her rare descriptions of her parents, she called theirs a
“stressful” union, and those words, though true, did not begin to capture the truth.
Minnie Pattillo and T. J. Taylor grew up in the same Alabama county, but on different planets. Her father, Luther Pattillo (whose Scots ancestors spelled it Patiloch), had begun acquiring land after the Civil War, and by his shrewd (some would say exploitative) management, he had become one of the largest landowners in the state. While most sharecroppers in the region split 50/50 with their landlord whatever the crops brought, Luther Pattillo demanded 60 percent for himself, and because he owned so much land and the general store where many sharecroppers traded, he could get away with it.
Luther and his wife, Sarah, liked to enjoy their wealth by moving around, from one of the homes they owned to another, depending on the social season and the school year. Wherever they lived, they maintained a large library and kept a piano in the drawing room so Minnie and her younger sister Effie could perform for guests. Effie got so proficient she set her sights on attending the Juilliard School in New York City, while Minnie remained the bookworm of the family, content to sit alone reading for hours at a time.
Behind that genteel facade, of piano music and shelves of old books, the Pattillo household reeked of jealousy and malice. Sarah had been a Confederate widow with three young children when Luther married her, and she never let him forget that she came from a background superior to his. While he used his cunning to accumulate wealth, she had been born to it. It would have been appropriate for Luther to treat his stepchildren as his own, but he neglected them in favor of the two boys and two girls—including Minnie—he fathered by Sarah. As a result of his ruthless business practices, he became known as
“the meanest man in Autauga County,” but his offspring, proud of their self-made father,
liked to lord it over their half-siblings and play up to him. Luther called himself a “general merchant,” and passed along the label (with the business) to his own son Claude, leaving his stepchildren to fend for themselves.
If Autauga County, Alabama, had been more urbanized, the Pattillos would have looked at T. J. Taylor as coming from the wrong side of the tracks. In rural Alabama, the common phrase for people like the Taylors, who never managed to own much land of their own but had to eke out a living as tenant farmers, was “dirt poor.” Polished pianos and store-bought books were foreign to them, and they worried not about the winter social calendar but about winter shoes. Yet Autauga County was small enough that Minnie Pattillo and T. J. Taylor, born within months of each other in 1874, were bound to cross paths. Whether it was the romantic setting of his rescuing her after she had been thrown from a horse, as family lore had it, or some other, less dramatic meeting, the mutual attraction was strong. Standing alongside the much taller T.J., Minnie, with her many freckles and ruddy complexion, made his jet black hair and olive skin appear all the darker.
Who knows what really drew Minnie to the untutored T. J. Taylor? One answer seems obvious. T.J. acted much like Luther Pattillo in his ambition and business practices, and if most women marry their fathers, Minnie was simply following that instinct. Minnie had a rebellious streak, and she may have found T.J.’s rough edges exciting, so at odds with the social snobbery she witnessed at home. Naturally, her parents were dead set against her having anything to do with T.J., and it was all too clear that she could register her defiance to them by sticking with him.
For his part, T.J. set out on the fast track to prove himself worthy. Leaving Autauga with an older brother in late 1898, he managed to pay cash for 116 acres as soon as he crossed the Texas border. Where he got that $500 (about a year’s wages for a working man) remains
a mystery. He later told his daughter he had sold a saddle, but only a very elaborate saddle would have brought $500. And how would he have acquired such a saddle in the first place? His neighbors decided he must have robbed a train along the way. T.J. soon bought more land, swapping poorer acres for better, and when he opened a shop in Karnack, the sign he put out front, “Dealer in Everything,” sounded like a bloated version of his future father-in-law’s “general merchant.”
In November 1900, when T.J. returned to Alabama for Minnie, the Pattillos still labeled him
“white trash.” Acquiring a rustic little store in a speck of a Texas town did not catapult him into their class. Even if they made allowances for his lack of education, they weren’t likely to forget that his mother had married four times and produced thirteen children, making her something of a joke to their society-minded friends. When Minnie persisted with plans to wed, her family refused to attend, and so the ceremony was a Taylors-only event at the home of T.J.’s older brother.
If Minnie had known where T.J. was taking her, she might have reconsidered. With fewer than one hundred residents, Karnack, Texas, had only recently gotten its own post office. Marshall, the county seat fifteen miles away, had already become one of the wealthiest towns in that part of the state, and it would have suited Minnie better. Its strategic location, on the railroad connecting Dallas and Shreveport, made it a hub for commerce, and prosperous local residents had built imposing large homes along Washington Avenue and opened centers of higher learning, including a Female Institute. But a man on the make, like T.J., needed a less settled spot, with weaker competition. Karnack was his kind of place. He set down his stakes and refused to budge.
The marriage showed cracks from the start. Minnie made clear she detested her new home, and she wanted nothing to do with neighbors she saw as clearly inferior to herself. Most had never seen an opera or traveled outside the county. Her husband offered little consolation.
His long workdays, as he continued to accumulate acres, meant she saw little of him. What she might have heard, she would not have liked. His reputation as a “ladies’ man” was well deserved, and what’s more, he didn’t care a whit what people said about him.
Yet Minnie stayed, at least for a while. The son she bore within a year of marriage was named for his father, but by the time the second was born, in August 1904, Minnie wanted a name that had nothing to do with her husband, and she settled on the exotic-sounding “Antonio.” Before little Tony could walk, she left Karnack, taking both boys back to Alabama where she farmed them out to relatives, both T.J.’s and hers. To her family, she explained that she had left her husband because he was seeing other women. What had started out as a summer break for Minnie and the boys was going to last a lot longer.
According to court documents T.J. filed in February 1909, Minnie had been gone four years and he wanted a divorce. Whenever he had written her to ask for an explanation, she had pled illness and requested more time to convalesce. But T.J. suspected she was not even with her family but had decamped to more appealing surroundings in the upper Midwest, possibly opera-rich Chicago or Battle Creek, Michigan, where she and all her family liked to go to take cures at the Kellogg Sanitarium.
It’s not clear where T.J. was getting his information, but his suspicion was confirmed when he received word from Michigan that Minnie, having left her sons in Alabama, was indeed a patient at the sanitarium. But, as the Kellogg doctors informed him, she had recently undergone surgery and was unable to travel the
“two thousand miles” (the actual distance was half of that) to answer T.J.’s charges. She was not too sick, however, to know what she wanted, and through her attorneys, she asked for alimony, payment of her attorneys’ fees, and a share of the Texas property considered hers under the state’s community property laws. Her counterclaim left out all mention of her two little boys, Tommy and Tony, whose custody T.J. was seeking.
That response raised T.J.’s ire and, through his lawyers, he went after Minnie’s father and officials at the Kellogg Sanitarium, demanding to know who was supporting his wife and what ailed her anyway. Luther Pattillo’s response has not survived, but Dr. Bertha Moshier, an internist younger than Minnie, signed a statement on October 6, 1909, declaring that Minnie had been under her care in Battle Creek for
“5 weeks” (only a tiny bit of the four years she had been gone) and that since she suffered from “nervous prostration” she needed a private nurse day and night. Travel was out of the question for “four or five months at least.” Given Minnie’s delicate condition, any trip sooner than that carried the risk of “permanent derangement.”
Now T.J. sounded baffled: if his wife was indeed suffering from
“nervous trouble,” would she not be better off in his “quiet country home [than in] a hospital where . . . numerous other people are being treated?”
Minnie continued to dither, even accusing T.J. of taking unfair advantage of her by filing for divorce after he had encouraged her to seek treatment. She had never intended to abandon him permanently, she insisted, but in the meantime she refused to set a date for her return. As for the
“valuable . . . real and personal property,” accumulated during the marriage, her lawyers noted, she “avers that she has an interest.”
During the years Minnie was separated from T.J., she moved back and forth between the sanitarium and the home of one Alabama relative or another. When the census taker came around her parents’ house on April 18, 1910, she was there and described herself as a “widow” named “Minnie Pattillo.” A different census taker, enumerating Karnack, Texas, a few days later, listed T. J. Taylor as “married” and “head of household.” Neither parent claimed the company of Tommy and Tony, now aged nine and six, but a census taker found the boys living with T.J.’s older sister and her family in Alabama.
When T.J. was granted his divorce nearly a year later (on February 6, 1911) Minnie was still in Alabama, but she immediately went into
action. It was grossly unfair, she telegraphed her attorneys, that T.J. had won a
“judgment by default,” without her presence or participation, and she instructed her legal team to obtain a new hearing.
Within weeks, T.J. and Minnie were back together. He dropped his case and she brought the boys to live with him in Karnack. He showed no signs of giving up his womanizing but he did offer Minnie one considerable consolation—a big, showy house, one of the most impressive for miles around. The couple had begun their married life in humble quarters behind the store, but during her absence he had purchased a two-story mansion (with seventeen rooms and six fireplaces) three miles south of Karnack. Built originally by slave labor and always called the Brick House, it had fallen into disrepair, but T.J., who resisted spending money on any personal pleasure, spared no expense in turning the house into one of the most elegant in the county. He put huge white columns out front—giving Minnie something to flaunt if her picky Pattillo kin ever came to visit.
Even without the house, Minnie had her reasons for returning to T.J. She still felt drawn to this big, commanding man, for whom she had once bought barbells and a mat for workouts. More importantly, he provided an escape from the infighting of Luther Pattillo’s household in Alabama, where one of his stepdaughters, a widow with four children, had recently returned to live. The always festering resentment between Luther’s own offspring and those of his wife Sarah could only grow, now that both parents were failing in health and questions about inheritance became more pressing.
In fact, both parents died within months of Minnie’s going back to T.J., and Luther, who managed to survive his wife by only a few weeks, made sure to funnel the bulk of his estate to his own blood, leaving only a pittance to each stepchild. That gave Minnie, now heiress to almost a quarter of her father’s holdings, ample reason to put some distance between herself and her disinherited half siblings. Her new wealth wasn’t hers to spend immediately—it came in land and
revenues to be turned over later, when acres were sold and loans paid back. Even if Minnie had inherited a ready fortune, Southern ladies did not go off to live on their own. Certainly not a woman in her forties with two young sons.
All through the turmoil of the divorce proceedings, the statements of Minnie’s attorneys highlight the importance of money. She knew that T.J. had become a wealthy man in her absence, owner of thousands of acres of cotton-growing land. By renting to farmers who paid him back with a share of the crop, and by supplying those same folks with most of the store-bought items they needed, “Mr. Boss” held them in what even his loyal relatives described as a kind of peonage. His continuing good fortune was virtually assured by the fact that his neighbors could not avoid dealing with him—he owned the gins they needed to process their cotton. If Minnie had accepted the terms of the divorce, she would have lost a lot.
On December 22, 1912, little more than a year after Minnie returned to T.J., she gave birth to a baby girl with large brown eyes. Dr. Baldwin, living just over a mile away, arrived in horse and buggy to deliver the newest Taylor, named Claudia, after Minnie’s bachelor brother Claude. But very soon, chubby little Claudia Alta Taylor got a nickname that stuck: Lady Bird. The popular version of its origin credits a hired nursemaid, who pronounced her “pretty as a ladybird,” but the subject herself admitted that it came from her black playmates—Stuff and Doodlebug—who preferred something more vivid than Claudia. Later, it was
“deemed more respectable to assign credit to the nurse” and avoid any mention of interracial socializing.
Nobody suggested that Minnie liked being back in Karnack. She still found it a dreary, lonely place, populated by people who knew nothing about Italian opera or her favorite authors. She had no close friends, and kept clear of her neighbors, who considered her
“wacky.” She sometimes accompanied T.J. to the store, then walked the three miles back to the Brick House alone. But more often she rode alone
in her chauffeured sedan, a veil covering her face. When she went out for a walk, she loped solo through T.J.’s acres, her long skirts swishing through the grass and her reddish blond hair blowing in the wind. Local residents saw her as a dreamer at heart, a woman who yearned for life on a bigger stage than Karnack could offer. It was that deep, overpowering yearning that she passed on to her only daughter.
For her sons, Minnie wanted exposure to a world beyond Texas, and soon after Lady Bird’s birth, she dispatched both boys to boarding schools so distant they would find it difficult to come home, even at Christmas holidays. At first enrolled at Riordan, an upstate New York school known for its progressive ways, they were then split up, with Tony transferring to a school in New Mexico. That meant the two brothers, just entering their teens, were deprived of the comfort of each other’s companionship, and their little sister saw neither of them. Minnie showed scant interest in making amends for taking the boys away from their father earlier or for leaving them with relatives while she traveled for cures and culture. She reserved her minimal maternal instincts for little Claudia, who remembered her as a gentle figure, who liked to play records of Italian operas on her Victrola and read Norse tales aloud.
Neighbors saw a less benevolent figure, who showed little interest in anyone but herself. On the rare occasion she took a stand on a community matter, T.J. was sure to be found on the opposite side. Her sole foray into politics is a case in point. After Texas granted women the right to vote in primaries in 1918, Minnie began crusading against a popular local candidate, whose relatives were T.J.’s friends. The candidate had been a
“slacker” in the war, she argued, and did not deserve public office.
T.J. and Minnie disagreed on just about everything. She still liked to travel, to attend musical events in Shreveport, fifteen miles away in Louisiana, and confer with doctors at the Kellogg Sanitarium. He stayed close to home, going to bed early so he could be up and at work
before sunrise. The half of Harrison County that was African American interested him only as subjects for exploitation, but she assembled a few of them in her living room to talk about their religious practices. (She claimed she wanted to write a book on the subject but aggravating T.J. seems a more likely motivation.) He continued to strike back in ways that humiliated her. When a dog sniffed him out at his store one day, T.J. turned to a customer and said,
“I’ve been with a black woman and that dog can smell her on me.” What clearer evidence does one need to show that Lady Bird grew up in a home where marital fidelity carried little weight? The black youth named Sugar who came past the store for handouts was widely believed to be T.J.’s son, half brother to his three children borne by Minnie.
What Lady Bird called a “stressful” marriage was actually one from hell, as the adults she called Mother and Daddy fashioned a reunion on the shards of a bitter, multiyear separation. Her brother Tony captured some of the rancor in that household when, as an adult, he talked about T.J. beating both sons. He told his sister that she never knew how bad the boys had it, and perhaps she didn’t. But it’s far more likely that she began then to learn what later became her strongest defense against what she did not wish to hear or see—she simply shut it out.
The Taylors’ marriage ended abruptly in September 1918, when Minnie died, in mysterious circumstances that continue to raise questions nearly a century later. Was it suicide, as some Marshall residents believed? A botched abortion, as others suggested? Or did one historian get it right when he relayed rumors that T.J. had
“pushed her down” a flight of stairs?
Claudia, only five years old at the time, remembered little of her mother’s death, and since her father permitted no discussion of the subject, she was unlikely to learn more. The sketchy version she relayed as an adult has become the accepted one—that Minnie, forty-four years old and pregnant, was tripped by a dog, causing her to fall down the stairs of her home, and then die from a subsequent infection.
The graphic details haunted one of Minnie’s granddaughters, who admitted that during her own pregnancies she stayed on high alert whenever a dog came near.
Other information about Minnie’s death raises strong doubts about whether a dog had anything to do with it, and the disappearance of documents that would help resolve those doubts maximizes the suspicion. Minnie’s death certificate, on file at the Harrison County Courthouse, gives the cause as “septicemia,” commonly called “blood poisoning,” but not commonly associated with falls. Although the official date is September 4, multiple family communications place it ten, or even fourteen, days later. Tommy and Tony, aged seventeen and thirteen at the time, could offer little in the way of verification. Still hundreds of miles away, they did not learn of their mother’s death for a full year because their father did not tell them.
While it would require an autopsy to pinpoint the exact cause of Minnie Taylor’s death, a betting person would put money on a botched abortion. Septicemia frequently resulted—and was often fatal—when women tried to abort using metal objects. Since it was common knowledge around Karnack that she was pregnant, she must have been in an advanced stage. Yet neither her tombstone nor death certificate mentions a fetus or stillborn child. Since she had already sent her sons away and was investigating boarding schools in Washington, D.C., for little Claudia, it is reasonable to suspect she would not welcome a fourth child. She was buried, without a funeral service, within twenty-four hours of her death, highly unusual in that county at the time, and it was another physician, not the trusted neighbor, Dr. Baldwin—who had attended Claudia’s delivery—who signed Minnie’s death certificate. Issues of the county newspaper, which might fill in details of what happened, are missing for those weeks from the archives at the newspaper office and from an otherwise complete collection at the local college. Most suspicious of all is the completeness with which Minnie was erased from her children’s
lives. Not a single photograph of her survives, indicating that whoever possessed pictures taken of her during the forty-four years that she lived was very angry with her. And T.J. was certainly angry. The only time Lady Bird saw her father fly into a rage was when the local minister tried to console him by saying he should view his wife’s passing as
“the will of God.”
Whatever its cause, Minnie Taylor’s death left her daughter, five months short of celebrating her sixth birthday, even more isolated. Without those tenuous ties that had once connected her to a remote, often absent mother, the lonely child became even lonelier. Claudia would later hear talk about her mother, how she treasured fine leather bindings on her books and liked to wander alone through the fields. But the picture emerged only in shadowy outline, like that of a distant aunt she barely knew.
In the weeks following his wife’s death, T.J. took time from management of his business to comfort his daughter. When she admitted she missed her mother’s nighttime stories, he offered to read aloud to her. It was the first time, she later admitted, that she knew he could read. But this was busy cotton season, and he soon decided to cart her off to visit her Alabama cousins five hundred miles away. Rather than engage an adult to accompany her, he hung a sign around her neck and put her on a train. The sign, which read “Please deliver this child to Claude Pattillo, Autauga, Alabama,” functioned perfectly, and she arrived without mishap. Behind the sign, a smart little five-year-old was learning the value of self-sufficiency.
After his daughter returned to him, T.J. decided she needed a woman’s guidance, and he invited Minnie’s younger sister Effie to come and live with them. It was a little like asking an injured hunt dog to take care of the pack. Effie Pattillo, who had shown considerable talent as a pianist in her youth, was now in her early forties, a fragile, wispy woman for whom the phrase “having the vapors” could have been invented. Smaller and physically weaker than Minnie, Effie had
grown to adulthood pampered like an invalid, and much as she valued appearing the “real lady,” she acted more like a spoiled child who took little responsibility for financial decisions or other life choices. Shielded by Papa Pattillo’s wealth and standing in the community, she had the luxury of not having to worry about what others thought of how she dressed or acted, and so she became more and more the eccentric bystander.
Aunt Effie deserves some credit. She widened her niece’s view of the world by taking her along on trips to the Kellogg Sanitarium, and she tried to foster what Minnie had started, introducing Claudia to nature’s pleasures, teaching her to appreciate a colorful field of wildflowers or the special light of a setting sun. T. J. Taylor’s huge landholdings provided the space for exploring those joys, but neither he nor Aunt Effie could provide the reliable companionship of the “piney pine” woods and “true blue” wildflowers that had sustained Minnie in a place she hated. Nature was her preferred solace, and it would take center stage in her daughter’s life. As Lady Bird explained later, nature was
“my daily companion. My kingdom, my place, my love.” Outdoors, walking across her father’s acres, she could shut out ugliness and forget the envious glances of the neighborhood children who had far less than she. To transport her to a world of her own, she supplied her own soundtrack, by humming to herself or whistling.
The country house that T.J. had bought for Minnie was just the place for their daughter to develop a rock-hard self-sufficiency. With both brothers away at boarding school and only the children of hired help for playmates, Claudia Taylor had plenty of time to herself, to invent games she could play alone, to observe her father’s strutting peacocks, to gaze off into the distance at the verdant hills and lush forests. After T.J. built her a detached two-room playhouse, she isolated herself within its walls, even sleeping there at night. Sometimes, as if pulled by a magic cord still connecting mother and daughter, the young Claudia descended the mansion’s front steps and set off to ramble for
hours across T.J.’s fields, just as her troubled mother had done before her. Did she imagine herself following paths her mother had crossed, sitting on rocky outcroppings where her mother had once stopped to rest and observe the exquisite scenery?
As an adult, Lady Bird would always trace her love of the outdoors, its beauty and serenity, back to those solitary years in Karnack’s meadows. Driven by her own curiosity and guided by Aunt Effie, she developed an encyclopedic knowledge of wildflowers, so that she became to botany what Theodore Roosevelt was to insect study—she rarely met a species she could not identify. It was an interest she did not pass on to her daughters, and one of them, questioned about her own interest in wildflowers, admitted,
“It did not come with the genes.”
By the time Claudia was no more than ten or eleven, she had figured out that Aunt Effie was someone to love, but a woman that
“passive . . . weak and full of illnesses” did not provide a model to follow. Young Claudia set her “sights on being more like my father, who was one of the most physically strong people I have ever known.”
Lady Bird was very much T.J.’s daughter. Not only her dark hair, olive coloring, and oversized nose came from T.J. Taylor, but far more important, the ambition, business savvy, and almost incredible attention to ferreting out every cent in any exchange. She clung to his example in ways her brothers, separated from him at a young age, never did, and she became the risk taker in much bigger ways than they ever did. T.J. clearly loved and nurtured his only daughter, and he raised her, to a large extent, as if she were a son. At least he made no exceptions for the fact that she was a girl. He taught her the rules of success as if he fully expected she would one day run a business herself. Just as importantly, he made her comfortable with the idea of raw power, even if questionably achieved.
Although T.J. was busy as local employer, lending banker, and “dealer in everything,” he also served as his daughter’s tutor—by example. He never read a book for pleasure, but he was a demon with
numbers. Even the tiniest entry on the ledger drew his attention, and his daughter, who would later be described as able to read a balance sheet the way a truck driver reads a map, learned from him. She had her own checking account by the time she reached puberty, and she viewed it as distinctly hers. Informed as an adult that some of her female employees had joint checking accounts with their husbands, she retorted that she
“wouldn’t share an account with the Angel Gabriel.” T.J.’s talk of his own impoverished youth, of his mother being unable to provide “tea cakes” even at her children’s birthdays, convinced Claudia that he wanted far more for her. She understood why for him “value-of-a-dollar” was one word.
Unlike most people who knew T.J., his daughter saw only benevolence and kindness in him. She often talked about the time she inquired about a row of large wooden boxes in his store and he had assured her they were packing units. Only later did she learn they were coffins. Most of Karnack’s population emphasized his miserly, manipulative ways, but she singled out his rare acts of charitableness, like extending credit to the family of her good friend, Emma Boehringer, whose father had died, leaving his widow with little to support herself and her children. For Lady Bird, T.J. was a gentle, compassionate figure while others were more likely to use the term his father-in-law relished—“the meanest man” around.
Young Lady Bird was too smart not to know how T.J. was making his money. Although some of it was legitimately and fairly earned, much of it came from underhanded tactics and squeezing out his weaker neighbors. At the “company store” he operated, he took advantage of local residents who didn’t have the means to go elsewhere, and he gouged them on prices. When local lumber mill workers went to his store with the chits in which they had been paid, he gave them less than face value toward their purchases, but he demanded full credit when he cashed in the chits at the mill. He kept hiring men to fish with nets in the neighboring Caddo Lake even after the state legislature
prohibited net fishing. Not until a game warden burned his nets did he stop.
This was the same Caddo Lake where his daughter liked to hang out in summer. As soon as she was old enough, she went with friends to picnic on its banks, under ferny cypress trees, and swim in its murky, green water. In spite of alligator sightings, she was quick to jump in. She took her boyfriends there and had herself photographed vamping in a bathing suit, like a Hollywood pinup as she hugged a tree trunk. She could not have failed to notice that her father was making a very different use of Caddo Lake—for his own profit. Yet he remained her hero.
As Karnack’s privileged little rich girl, Lady Bird learned early how to focus on the reality that worked to her benefit and block out the rest. Later in life, she talked about being able to stick her head in the sand, but her associates offered other descriptions of how she managed to ignore unpleasantness. One White House colleague noted she
“had resources most people don’t have”; she would start whistling and will herself into a place “of birds and sunshine.” One acquaintance described her
“veil” as a “Southern thing,” that came down when she needed to block something out. Her longtime friend Harry Middleton observed,
“She put on her mask and let the world go by.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called it
“psychic leave,” and said she witnessed it many times. Lady Bird would be sitting there, in body only, until Lyndon called out, “Bird, are you with me?” Then she would snap back.
• • •
The tiny one-room Fern School that Claudia Taylor started attending the year after her mother died offered limited companionship. Enrollment rarely reached ten, and when the number dropped to only two or three, the teacher moved classes to T.J.’s Brick House. After six years at Fern, with its potbellied stove, Claudia enrolled in a considerably larger school in the more upscale Jefferson, ten miles away. Sharing a room with Aunt Effie, she learned to imitate the deep Southern accents
of the two retired schoolteachers who ran the boardinghouse, and to roll her eyes, like them, when she wanted to feign ladylike ignorance. With those retired schoolteachers, she had two good examples of how a show of feminine weakness could mask real power.
Cut off from so much in life, young Bird learned to disappear into books. Like her mother, she could spend hours at a time with only printed pages for company. She later singled out “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen as an early favorite. One family acquaintance remembered driving up to the Brick House and seeing the eight-year-old girl on the front porch, a copy of the tome Ben-Hur in her little hands.
Although T.J. had little schooling, he wanted the best for his daughter, but he was reluctant to send her away. When it came time for high school, he assigned one of his employees to drive her the fifteen miles to Marshall, the county seat. T.J. put little stock in keeping his vehicles clean, and Minnie’s daughter was embarrassed when classmates saw her being delivered each day by a dusty truck that smelled of cowhides. Besides, ferrying her back and forth took a driver’s valuable time. So T.J. bought her a car of her own when she was only thirteen, and since Texas did not require a driver’s license at the time, she drove herself back and forth. Her privileged status did not go unnoticed.
“She had her own car,” one jealous classmate remembered, “when my family didn’t even have a car.”
T.J. had his reasons for granting his daughter her independence. In 1920, two years after Minnie’s death, he married his attractive young bookkeeper, Beulah Wisdom, twenty-four years his junior. Local residents knew her as a “looker” who wore the latest flapper fashions, the kind of woman only a rich man could hope to have. Eight-year-old Claudia did not see her new stepmother as a role model, and, when later asked, as an adult, if she found Beulah attractive, she said,
“Yes, in a coarse and crude sort of way.” The class chasm between the Wisdoms and the Taylors was clear even to a child, and Beulah’s young niece remembered
that when she was invited to sew doll clothes with Claudia, she carefully saved the scraps to make pants for her own little brother.
When school let out each spring, Claudia and Aunt Effie hustled off to Alabama, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and T.J.’s young wife. Since Aunt Effie had no home of her own, she parked herself with relatives and then pled illness and took to her bed, leaving her niece at the mercy of whoever was willing to take her in. Some of the Pattillo clan clearly welcomed the child and introduced her to watermelon evenings and Sunday picnics; they took her along on sightseeing trips to neighboring states, even as far as Colorado. Always aware that she was the visiting outsider, on probation, she was careful to mind her manners and look grateful as they bounced her from one household to another. One cousin recalled seeing this perfectly groomed little girl, arriving as the lone passenger in the backseat of a large car, her full skirt carefully spread out around her as if she did not mean to be touched.
By the time she was in high school, Claudia Taylor sounded like T.J. on subjects such as finances and international relations. These were written assignments, rather than topics she picked herself, but already, at age fourteen, she appeared opinionated, arguing that the United States should grant independence to the Philippines, not because it was right but because it would give the U.S. a monopoly on all rubber produced there. In another high school essay, on the subject of whether the United States should cancel debts it stood to collect from European nations, she wrote that she favored cancellation, not
“because of sympathy” or because it would make other countries “like us better,” but because it would help get those nations back on their feet and in a position to buy American products. Sounding like a cagey, mature bookkeeper, she admitted that $26 billion was “a large sum to erase from the ‘right side’ . . . of the ledger,” but she reminded her reader that the U.S. “could make more money” from a strong Europe than from one strapped with debt.
It’s no wonder her classmates predicted a bright business future for Claudia Taylor when she graduated from Marshall High at age fifteen. The yearbook compared her to Erie Halliburton, the famed entrepreneur locally revered as the man who started out with only a borrowed wagon and a mule but quickly extended his oil and gas empire around the globe. That judgment was very much on the mark. Late in life she admitted that had she not married Lyndon, she would probably have become a businesswoman.
At high school graduation, she was not yet set on that course but she was determined to strike out on her own. Staying in Karnack meant constant contact with her flashy, unsympathetic stepmother, and accompanying pathetic Aunt Effie to Alabama was equally unappealing. From the daughter of the local Episcopal rector, she learned about St. Mary’s College, an Episcopal boarding school for girls in Dallas, and when she told T.J. she wanted to go there, he agreed. (She later said she hoped she granted her own daughters the same independence he gave her.) In Dallas, she would have a big city (population 158,000) and a chance to smooth out the rough edges of the schooling she had received in Marshall (population 14,000). St. Mary’s wasn’t exactly what her mother had in mind when she investigated boarding schools in Washington, D.C., but it appeared likely to offer similar rewards.
The two years Lady Bird spent at St. Mary’s gave her a chance to remake herself. After a religion teacher introduced her to a different version of Christianity than she had heard in the fundamentalist Baptist sermons in Alabama or the Methodist teachings in Karnack she decided to convert to Episcopalianism. An English teacher awakened her to the richness of her native language and encouraged her to write with vivid phrases:
“Don’t just say ‘a man is cruel. Walk him on the stage and have him do a cruel thing. . . . Instead of saying, ‘It was stormy,’ write, ‘Thunder echoed through the valleys and lightning lit up the landscape.’?” St. Mary’s gave little importance to domestic skills, like cooking and sewing—students at St. Mary’s expected to have others
do those tasks for them. But it was there that Claudia learned the excitement of live theater. In the world of drama, she could lose herself, and theater became a mainstay pleasure of her adult life.
“I loved the theater,” she would say: “I fed upon it.”
The young Lady Bird was game for adventure. On a trip to Shreveport, she insisted on going up in a tiny airplane, even though the wings looked precariously attached with wire. Her friend hung back, but Lady Bird loved it and called it
“the most exciting ride of my young life.” Fearless at the wheel of a car, she relished driving herself around. Both her mother and Aunt Effie had owned cars but relied on others to operate them, illustrating a kind of dependence that was not for Miss Claudia Taylor. When Aunt Effie needed her car driven the five hundred miles back to Autauga, Alabama, her sixteen-year-old niece volunteered to do it, accompanied by a friend the same age. Detained by road construction and the need to wire T.J. for more money, the two teens finally arrived more than a day late, in the middle of the night, at the home of a very anxious relative in Alabama.
Before she turned eighteen, Claudia Taylor had formed the traits that would define her adult life. From her father she had learned the value of every cent and the importance of taking risks. From her mother came the equally strong pull to lose herself in nature and drama, in words and dreams of faraway places. The Southern belle demeanor she had absorbed from Aunt Effie and the two ex-schoolteachers in Jefferson, Texas, fooled many people, and when she rolled her eyes and drawled her vowels, she appeared soft and pliable. But her childhood had toughened her, and she had mastered the priceless technique of insulating herself against intrusion and hurt, encasing herself in a protective cocoon that no one could breach. She could rationalize—or ignore—the shortcomings of others, even those adversely affecting her, without sacrificing a whit of her dignity. She had prepared herself to do what her mother never did—leave Karnack for a more exciting life.