Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon B. Johnson, died Wednesday at her home in Austin, Tex. She was 94.
A die-hard Texan who had to live in Washington for more than 30 years, she was the consummate politician's wife who devoted her entire life to promoting her husband's image. In fact, she spent most of her married life in the public eye and had what some would say was the misfortune of taking over the role of first lady from the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy.
While she lacked Kennedy's signature style, Johnson exited Washington as a surer, statelier woman. Aside from trimming down to a size 10, Johnson learned to use makeup that complemented her brunette updo, adopted colors like bright red, pinks and sharp greens that made her stand out in a crowd, and took her hem up to a much more becoming above-the-knee length. She was sure to have her Carmen curlers everywhere she traveled but never managed to keep her stockings from sagging at the ankles.
Over the years, WWD interviewed Johnson several times. Steadfast about her lifelong duties as a political wife, she was just as at ease kneeling on the floor of a New Orleans schoolroom to help a boy with a puzzle as she was hosting a tea for foreign dignitaries at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During her five-year reign, Johnson kept a talking diary but said she preferred to "live my time out — and fully — before I begin to write about it."
During a 1968 in-flight interview with WWD, she admitted after another long day of glad handing, "Yes, I can look fresh in the morning. But it's now that I can turn into a vegetable" before calmly turning off the light, adjusting a small pillow and stretching across two seats for a catnap.
On hot-button issues of the day, Johnson was never truly controversial, but when asked, spoke her mind. "I really don't know," she said, when asked about pervasive drug use among the nation's youth during the Sixties. "I have no solution, of course, only puzzlement that it would be necessary to escape from this world, which is so interesting and exciting for me."On the rising political and social dissent during the Vietnam era of her husband's presidency, she told WWD, "I think demonstrations are nonproductive, very negative. On the other hand, the very first mistake we could make is to lump youth in one great crowd. It's just as wrong to lump youth as old folks. Society can't tolerate it....I remember how annoyed it used to make me when people lumped all politicians as one group."
During the controversies of Richard Nixon's presidency, Johnson said, "I have great sympathy and understanding for whoever is in the office of president. I wish them well. Once you've been there, you have only understanding and sympathy and hopes for them. I won't second guess anybody."
One notable flareup occurred between WWD and the first lady around the time of her daughter Luci Baines Johnson's marriage. As the Johnsons prepared for the big event, the first lady's press secretary embargoed coverage of sketches of the bridal dress until the actual day of the wedding. WWD, however, dug up the story on its own and boycotted the briefing, running a sketch of the dress days before the wedding. The paper ended up getting banned from coverage of the nuptials.
When she managed to escape the Beltway, Johnson liked to "renew her spirit" by power walking down a wide, white Florida beach.
In a 1966, the designer Adele Simpson, a favorite with the first lady, explained her no-nonsense style, "She doesn't travel with a maid so she likes a wardrobe that is easy to care for…she turned down a lot of cocktail dresses saying, 'I love that dress but I don't go anywhere…just state dinners and the ranch.'"
Fashion was not her forte — she preferred to focus on conservation, beautification, education, health and welfare and the arts. Tourists benefited from the benches, taped guided tours and drinking fountains she pushed for in the capital city. Her beautification efforts took her rafting down the Snake River, rambling along the rocky California coast, traipsing through the dusty hills of Appalachia and other offbeat locales.
Adept as she was at the standard dedications, thank you and glad-to-be-here type speeches, Johnson was at her best when she drifted from the prepared text, lowered her black-rimmed reading glasses and spoke to audiences in her soft Texas twang. But when the Lone Star State beckoned after the Johnson administration had run its course, she was ready, "One of the nicest prospects after we leave the White House is not having to make plans. It will be a time to drift…to think…to enjoy." she told WWD."I just want to enjoy myself, just enjoy the feast," she said.
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