A revealing biography of Lady Bird Johnson exposes startling insights into her marriage to Lyndon Baines Johnson—and her unexpectedly strong impact on his presidency.
Long obscured by her husband’s shadow, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson emerges in this first comprehensive biography as a figure of surprising influence and the centering force for LBJ, a man who suffered from extreme mood swings and desperately needed someone to help control his darker impulses.
Expertly researched and written, Lady Bird draws from rare conversations with the former First Lady and from interviews with key members of Johnson’s inner circle of friends, family, and advisers. With chapters such as “Motherless Child,” “A Ten-Week Affair,” and “LBJ’s Midlife Crisis,” Lady Bird sheds light on Mrs. Johnson’s childhood, on her amazing acumen as a businesswoman, and on the central role she played in her husband’s life and political career. A vital link to the Kennedys during LBJ’s uneasy tenure as vice president and a voice of conscience on civil rights, Jan Jarboe Russell reveals Lady Bird as a political force. In this intimate portrait, Russell shows us the private Lady Bird—not only a passionate conservationist but a remarkable woman who greatly influenced her husband, his administration, and the country.After three years of cooperation with author Jan Jarboe Russell, Lady Bird Johnson ended her participation in this biography when she got a look at an essay Russell published about LBJ’s infidelities in 1997. Russell paints a fascinating portrait of Johnson–a far tougher and shrewder woman than the dutiful image she presented as first lady in the 1960s–but she also unsparingly depicts LBJ as a mighty poor husband, something his intensely loyal spouse could never countenance. When she met Lyndon Johnson in 1934, friends couldn’t imagine what smart, rich, 21-year-old Lady Bird (a nickname acquired in childhood) saw in a crude, impoverished young politician whose ego far outstripped his achievements. But she was used to overbearing men–her father was one–and the pragmatic young woman walked into marriage with her eyes wide open. She supported LBJ unquestioningly, not just emotionally but with the income from her business dealings, and quietly relished the exciting life into which he swept her. While making clear her distaste for aspects of the Johnsons’ marital bargain, Russell nonetheless offers a nuanced account of a complex relationship in which Lady Bird played a more forceful, equal role than many realized. This revisionist biography has purpose and bite. –Wendy Smith