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Champion of Conservation, Loyal Force Behind LBJ
"He describes a South I'm somewhat acquainted with," she said. "It has a dark side. It's shadowy, but yet it speaks to a world I know."
Her wealthy, domineering father, T.J. Taylor, son of poor Alabama dirt farmers, was himself Faulknerian. A patriarch known for his philandering, he was a tenant farmer and country merchant who dealt in dry goods, cotton and acreage, the latter acquired through frequent debt foreclosures.
When Lady Bird was 5, her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died from a fall. Throughout her life, Mrs. Johnson clung to an image of her mother walking through East Texas woods gathering wildflowers.
Her father summoned a frail maiden aunt from Alabama to take care of his little girl. The beloved aunt permitted her "a free-ranging sort of childhood," in which she roamed the pastures and forests near her home and paddled in the dark bayous of Caddo Lake but was taught little about things that traditionally interest girls her age.
Enduring a nickname that embarrassed her, as well as the Taylor family's trademark hook nose -- "which, at one time, I seriously tried to have bobbed," she confessed -- she found refuge in scholastic excellence. She was so shy that she deliberately dropped to an academic ranking of third in her class to avoid delivering one of two commencement speeches. Graduating from high school at 15, she studied at an Episcopal girls school in Dallas for two years. She also converted to the Episcopal faith.
Later, at the University of Texas at Austin, she equipped herself with "a bunch of little tools to go out in life and face the world and make a living." Although the Great Depression made life hard for many of her classmates, she never lacked for anything. She had a car, a bank account and a charge account at Neiman Marcus.
In June 1934, she received two undergraduate degrees, in history and in journalism. Her aunt encouraged her to become a reporter for The Post, maybe a drama critic for the New York Times, maybe even a ballerina. Ever practical, she also earned a teaching certificate.
That summer, she and a girlfriend took a postgraduation trip to New York and Washington, where they saw the sights and peered through the railings at the green lawn of the large house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Later that summer, in Austin, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, a brash young man who was working as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Kleberg (D-Tex.). "He was very, very good-looking," she recalled years later. "Lots of hair, quite black and wavy, and the most outspoken, straightforward, determined young man I'd ever met."
The encounter with the tall, lanky 26-year-old triggered "a sort of queer moth-in-the-flame feeling," she said. He asked her to marry him on their first date. After 10 weeks of unrelenting pressure -- precursor to what would become a Johnson political trademark -- she gave in to a now-or-never ultimatum and said yes. She was a month short of 21.
In Washington, where her husband was plotting an ambitious future, the bride was first an eager observer and, years later, a behind-the-scenes participant. Within three years, Lyndon Johnson was running in a special election for the congressional seat from his Texas Hill Country district, left vacant when the incumbent died. Mrs. Johnson provided the initial $10,000 in campaign money, advanced by her father from her mother's estate.
For her money, she got an early lesson in bare-knuckled politics, Texas style, in a race in which her husband was the only New Dealer in a field of 10 candidates and the object of the most mudslinging. With her future inextricably tied to his relentless political ambitions and colossal ego, she had to make up her mind whether she wanted him to be a gentleman or a congressman.