Claudia Alta Taylor was born in Karnack, Texas, a town in Harrison County, near the state’s border with Louisiana. Her birthplace was “The Brick House,” an antebellum plantation mansion on the outskirts of town, which her father had purchased shortly before her birth. Nearly all of her maternal and paternal forebears had arrived in the Virginia Colony during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Her father was a native of Alabama and primarily of English ancestry with some Welsh and Danish; her mother was also a native of Alabama and of English and Scottish descent.
She was named for her mother’s brother Claud. During her infancy, her nurse, Alice Tittle, commented that she was as “purty as a ladybird”. Opinions differ about whether the reference was to an actual bird or a ladybird beetle. The nickname virtually replaced her actual first name for the rest of her life. Her father and siblings called her Lady, though her husband called her Bird, which is the name she used on her marriage license. During her teenage years, her schoolmates had called her Bird, though mockingly, since she reportedly was not fond of the name. Her father was Thomas Jefferson Taylor (August 29, 1874 – October 22, 1960), a sharecropper’s son who became a wealthy businessman and the owner of 15,000 acres (6,070 ha) of cotton and two general stores. “My father was a very strong character, to put it mildly,” his daughter once said. “He lived by his own rules. It was a whole feudal way of life, really.”
Her mother was the former Minnie Lee Pattillo (1874–1918), an opera lover who felt out of place in Karnack and who was often in “poor emotional and physical health.” When Lady Bird was five years old, Minnie fell down a flight of stairs while pregnant and died of complications of miscarriage. In a profile of Lady Bird Johnson, Time magazine described Lady Bird’s mother as “a tall, eccentric woman from an old and aristocratic Alabama family, [who] liked to wear long white dresses and heavy veils [… and who] scandalized people for miles around by entertaining Negroes in her home, and once even started to write a book about Negro religious practices, called Bio Baptism.” Her unreconstructed husband, however, tended to see blacks as “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” according to his younger son. Lady Bird had two elder brothers, Thomas Jefferson Jr. (1901–1959) and Antonio, also known as Tony (1904–1986). She also had two stepmothers; the second, Ruth Scroggins, married Thomas Taylor in 1937.
She was largely raised by her aunt Effie Pattillo, who moved to Karnack after her sister’s death, although Lady Bird visited her Pattillo relatives in Autauga County, Alabama, every summer until she was a young woman. As she explained, “Until I was about 20, summertime always meant Alabama to me. With Aunt Effie we would board the train in Marshall and ride to the part of the world that meant watermelon cuttings, picnics at the creek, and a lot of company every Sunday.” According to Lady Bird, her aunt Effie “opened my spirit to beauty, but she neglected to give me any insight into the practical matters a girl should know about, such as how to dress or choose one’s friends or learning to dance.”
When it came time to enter high school, Lady Bird moved away from home to live with another family during weekdays in the town of Jefferson, Texas, since there was no high school in the Karnack area (her brothers had attended boarding schools in New York). Eventually she graduated third in her class at the age of 15 from Marshall Senior High School in nearby Marshall, Texas. Despite her young age, she drove herself to school in her own car, a distance of 15 miles (24 km) each way, because, she said, “it was an awful chore for my daddy to delegate some person from his business to take me in and out.” During her senior year, when she realized that she had the highest grades in her class, she “purposely allowed her grades to slip” so that she would not have to give the valedictorian or salutatorian speech.
After graduating from high school in May 1928, Lady Bird entered the University of Alabama for the summer session, where she took her first journalism course, but being homesick for Texas, she did not return for the fall term at Alabama. Instead she and a high school friend enrolled at St. Mary’s Episcopal College for Women, a strict Episcopal boarding junior college for women in Dallas, where she “converted to the Episcopal faith,” although she waited five years to be confirmed.
After graduating from St. Mary’s in May 1930, Lady Bird toyed with the idea of going back to Alabama, but another friend from Marshall, Texas, was going to the University of Texas, so she chartered a plane to Austin, Texas. As the plane landed, she was awed by the sight of a field covered with bluebonnets and instantly fell in love with the city. Lady Bird received a Bachelor’s of Arts degree with honors in 1933 and a second bachelor’s degree in journalism Cum Laude in 1934 — a time when women were hard pressed to have a career of their own, let alone a college education. She was active on campus in different organizations such as Orange Jackets and believed in student leadership. Her goal was to become a reporter, but she also earned a teaching certificate. The summer after her second graduation, she and a girlfriend traveled to New York City and Washington, D.C., where they peered through the fence at the White House.
Lady Bird was a shy and quiet girl who spent much of her youth alone outdoors. “People always look back at it now and assume it was lonely,” she once said about her childhood. “To me it definitely was not. […] I spent a lot of time just walking and fishing and swimming.” She developed her lifelong love of the environment as a child growing up in the tall pines and bayous of East Texas and watching the wildflowers bloom each spring.
Her goal of a career in media was deferred when a friend in Austin introduced her to Lyndon Baines Johnson, a young up-and-coming political hopeful working as an aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg. Lady Bird recalled having felt “like a moth drawn to a flame”. On their first date, which was breakfast the next morning at the Driskill Hotel and a long drive in the country, Johnson proposed. Lady Bird did not want to rush into marriage, but Lyndon Johnson was persistent and did not want to wait. Lady Bird accepted his proposal 10 weeks later. The couple married on November 17, 1934, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas.After three miscarriages, the couple had two daughters: Lynda (born in 1944), whose husband Charles S. Robb is a former governor of Virginia and former U.S. Senator, and Luci (born in 1947), first married to Pat Nugent, then Ian Turpin. The couple and their two daughters all shared the initials LBJ. At the time of her death, Johnson had seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.
When Lyndon decided to run for Congress from Austin’s 10th district, Lady Bird provided the money to launch his campaign. She took $10,000 of her inheritance from her mother’s estate to help start his political career. The couple settled in Washington, D.C., after Lyndon was elected to Congress. After he enlisted in the Navy at the outset of the Second World War, Lady Bird ran the congressional office. Johnson sometimes served as a mediating force between her willful husband and those he had encountered. On one occasion after Lyndon had clashed with a young Houston, Texas reporter, Dan Rather, Lady Bird followed Rather in her car and invited him to return and have some punch, explaining, “That’s just the way Lyndon sometimes is.”
In January–February 1943, Lady Bird Johnson spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase KTBC, an Austin radio station. She bought the radio station from a three-man partnership which included a future U.S. Secretary of the Navy and a future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Robert B. Anderson, and Texas oilman and rancher Wesley West.
She served as President of the company, LBJ Holding Co., and her husband negotiated an agreement with the CBS radio network. Lady Bird decided to expand by buying a television station in 1952 despite Lyndon’s objections, reminding him that she could do as she wished with her inheritance. The station, KTBC-TV/7 (then affiliated with CBS as well), would make the Johnsons millionaires as Austin’s monopoly VHF franchise. Over the years, journalists have written about how Lyndon used his influence in the Senate to influence the Federal Communications Commission into granting the monopoly license, which was in Lady Bird’s name.
Although LBJ Holding’s two small banks failed and were closed in 1991 by the FDIC, the core Johnson radio properties survived and prospered. Emmis Communications bought KLBJ-AM, KLBJ-FM, KGSR, and three other stations from LBJ Holding for $105 million in 2003. Eventually, Johnson’s initial $41,000 investment turned into more than $150 million for the LBJ Holding Company. Johnson remained involved with the company until she was in her 80s. She was the first president’s wife to become a millionaire in her own right.
John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate for the 1960 election. At Kennedy’s request, Lady Bird took an expanded role during the campaign, due to Jacqueline Kennedy’s pregnancy. Over 71 days, she traveled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) through 11 states and appeared at 150 events. Kennedy and Johnson won the election that November, with Lady Bird helping the Democratic ticket carry seven Southern states. As the Vice-President’s wife, Lady Bird often served as a substitute for Jacqueline Kennedy at official events and functions. The Johnsons were accompanying Kennedy in Dallas when he was assassinated, and Lyndon was sworn in as President two hours later.
As First Lady, Johnson started a capital beautification project (Society for a More Beautiful National Capital) to improve physical conditions in Washington, D.C., for both residents and tourists by planting millions of flowers. Her beliefs regarding the importance of national beautification can best be summarized in her statement that “where flowers bloom, so does hope.” She worked extensively with American Association of Nurserymen (AAN) executive Vice President Robert F. Lederer to protect wildflowers and the planting of them along highways. Her efforts inspired similar programs throughout the country. She became the first president’s wife to advocate actively for legislation when she was instrumental in promoting the Highway Beautification Act, which was nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill” and sought to beautify the nation’s highway system by limiting billboards and by planting roadside areas. She was an advocate of the Head Start program.
Johnson created the modern structure of the First Lady’s office; she was the first to have a press secretary and chief of staff of her own and an outside liaison with Congress. Her press secretary from 1963 to 1969 was Liz Carpenter, a fellow University of Texas alumna. Carpenter was the first professional newswoman to be press secretary to a First Lady, and she also served as Lady Bird’s staff director. Johnson’s tenure as First Lady marked the beginning of the hiring of employees in the East Wing to work specifically for the First Lady’s projects.
During the 1964 election, Johnson traveled through eight Southern states in her own train to promote the Civil Rights Act, at one point giving 45 speeches over five days. It was the first solo whistlestop tour of a First Lady. Johnson continued her Whistlestop Tour in October 1964. However, this time it would be aboard a Braniff International Airways Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop aircraft that would take her on a multi state aerial tour including the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky. Braniff dubbed the Lockheed Electra “The Lady Bird Special” after the ground Whistlestop Tour Train. Besides the “The Lady Bird Special” script being painted on the sides of the aircraft a special route map of the tour was also painted on to the lower front part of the aircraft’s fuselage near the main entry airstairs.
In 1970, Johnson published A White House Diary, her intimate, behind-the-scenes account of her husband’s presidency spanning November 22, 1963, to January 20, 1969. Beginning with Kennedy’s assassination, Mrs. Johnson recorded the momentous events of her times, including the Great Society’s War on Poverty, the national civil rights and social protest movements, her own activism on behalf of the environment, and the Vietnam War. Johnson was acquainted with a long span of fellow First Ladies, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush, and was protected by the United States Secret Service for 44 years, longer than anyone else in history.
Lady Bird Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford on January 10, 1977. The citation for her medal read:
“One of America’s great First Ladies, she claimed her own place in the hearts and history of the American people. In councils of power or in homes of the poor, she made government human with her unique compassion and her grace, warmth and wisdom. Her leadership transformed the American landscape and preserved its natural beauty as a national treasure.”
Johnson then received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988, becoming the first wife of a President to receive the honor. In a 1982 poll taken of historians ranking the most influential and important First Ladies, Johnson placed third behind Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt for her work as a conservation activist.
In addition to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, she was honored by the naming of the Lady Bird Johnson Park on Columbia Island in Washington, D.C., which was founded as a result of her efforts as First Lady to beautify the capital. She declined many overtures to name Austin’s Town Lake in her honor after she had led a campaign to clean up the lake and add trails to its shoreline; following her death, Austin Mayor Will Wynn’s office said it was a “foregone conclusion that Town Lake is going to be renamed” in honor of Johnson. The lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake on July 26, 2007.
(In 1963, during the Pageant Of Peace Christmas tree lighting ceremony, the President and First Lady were to be introduced by a Girl Scout. President Kennedy had recently been assassinated and the girl introduced President and Mrs. Johnson as President and Mrs. Kennedy. She gasped in horror as soon as she did it and began crying. Mrs. Johnson leaped to her feet and put her arm around the girl’s shoulder and comforted her, assuring her that it was all right and to please start over with the introduction. She did it right the second time and Mrs. Johnson sat down and the lighting ceremony continued. It was a revealing moment into the First Lady’s character that endeared her to all who witnessed it.)
A majestic grove of coastal redwoods, named in her honor by President Nixon in 1969, is located just north of Orick, California. “Lady Bird Johnson Grove” is part of Redwood National Park. In April 2008, the “Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Cherry Blossom Grove” was dedicated in Marshfield, Missouri. The dedication took place during the city’s annual cherry blossom festival. Johnson had been supportive of the rural community and their initiative to plant blossoming cherry trees. In 1995, she received an Honor Award from the National Building Museum for her lifetime leadership in beautification and conservation campaigns.
In 2013, Lady Bird was posthumously awarded the prestigious Rachel Carson Award. The award, presented by Audubon’s Women In Conservation, was accepted by Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. Johnson was also named the honorary chairwoman of the Head Start program. She held honorary degrees from many universities: Boston University, the University of Alabama; George Washington University; Johns Hopkins University; State University of New York; Southern Methodist University; Texas Woman’s University; Middlebury College; Williams College, Southwestern University; Texas State University–San Marcos; Washington College; and St. Edward’s University. After former President Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973, Lady Bird remained in the public eye, honoring her husband and other Presidents.
In the 1970s, she focused her attention on the Austin, Texas riverfront area through her involvement in the Town Lake Beautification Project. After her death in 2007, Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake to honor her efforts. From 1971 to 1978, Johnson served on the board of regents for the University of Texas System. She also served on the National Park Service Advisory Board and was the first woman to serve on National Geographic’s Board of Trustees. President Nixon mentioned Johnson as a possible ambassador in a circulated memo, but nothing came of that proposal.
On December 22, 1982 (her 70th birthday), she and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center west of Austin, Texas, as a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and reintroducing native plants in planned landscapes. In 1994, the center opened a new facility southwest of Austin on La Crosse Avenue which was officially renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1998 in honor of Johnson who raised $10 million for the facility. On June 20, 2006, the University of Texas at Austin announced plans to incorporate the 279-acre (1.1 km2) Wildflower Center into the University.
For 20 years, Johnson spent her summers on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, renting the home of Charles Guggenheim for many of those years. She said she had greatly appreciated the island’s natural beauty and flowers. On October 13, 2006, Johnson made a rare public appearance at the renovation announcement of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Sitting in a wheelchair and showing signs of recent health problems, Lady Bird seemed engaged and alert, and applauded along with those present at the ceremony.
In 1993, Johnson’s health began to fail. In August 1993, she suffered a stroke and became legally blind due to macular degeneration. In 1999 she was hospitalized for a fainting spell and, in 2002, she suffered a second, more severe, stroke, which left her unable to speak normally or walk without assistance. In 2005, she spent a few days in an Austin hospital for treatment of bronchitis. In February 2006, Lady Bird’s daughter Lynda Johnson Robb told a gathering at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, that her mother was now totally blind and was “not in very good health.”
In June 2007, Johnson spent six days in Seton Hospital in Austin after suffering from a low-grade fever. At 4:18 PM (CDT) on July 11, 2007, she died at home of natural causes, surrounded by members of her family and Catholic priest Father Robert Scott. At Johnson’s funeral service, her daughter Luci Baines Johnson remarked that one week before her death she made a public appearance and visited the Blanton Museum of Art. “It was a scene: Mother was on IV, oxygen tube, and a feeding tube. It looked like a mobile hospital. But she had a wonderful time,” Luci said.
Three weeks before Lady Bird’s death, the rector of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, which had been her second home for over 50 years, had announced to his parishioners that she had given $300,000 to pay off the church’s mortgage.
- December, 22, 1912
- Karnack, Texas
- July, 11, 2007
- West Lake Hills, Texas
- Johnson Family Cemetery
- Stonewall, Texas