The First Lady of Lyndon Johnson

Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor Johnson was born in Karnack, Texas, on December 22, 1912, to Jefferson Taylor II and Minnie Taylor. She was the third of three children. She has two brothers: Thomas Jefferson Taylor, Jr. and Antonio “Tony” J. Taylor.

A family nurse once described her as “pretty as a ladybird” when she was a girl. The nickname stuck. Lady Bird was adopted by an aunt who moved in with the family after her mother died in 1918. Lady Bird’s childhood was very lonely, and she later stated that she developed her love of reading and appreciation for nature’s tranquility during this period. She was unusually bright, attending local schools and graduating from high school at the age of 15; she then went to St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas, Texas, where she explored her passion for literature. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Texas at Austin and pursued journalism to be a newspaper writer. 

She met Lyndon Baines Johnson in the summer of 1934, who proposed to her immediately. On November 17, 1934, they married at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas. Lady Bird gave birth to two children, Lynda Bird in 1944 and Luci Baines in 1947, after multiple miscarriages.

Lady Bird spent $10,000 of her inheritance on Lyndon B. Johnson’s first congressional race in 1937. President JFK was shot and killed in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. When the bullets were fired, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was just two cars behind Kennedy. Her husband, Lyndon Johnson sworn in as the 36th president on board Air Force One on the way back to Washington, D.C., just a few hours later. Claudia went on to become the first lady of the United States. She was the first lady from 1963 to 1969 and in 1964.

She advocated the “war on poverty,” the Headstart Program, and the “beautification” of Washington, DC as the first lady. She wrote the 800-page White House Diary, which described her husband’s life and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. She was also involved with community beautification programs. She planted bulbs and trees along the roadside in the 1960s to draw attention to the increasing crisis of habitat destruction and species extinction. She established the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was the first significant legislative effort initiated by a first lady.

Lady Bird flew to Portland, Oregon, in June 1968, with then-Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, to give a talk on a new method of restoration at an American Institute of Architects conference. She spoke of a recycling effort that involves the whole population to address the challenges of increasing urbanization.

Lady Bird Johnson was also a strong advocate for women’s rights, labeling the Equal Rights Amendment “the right thing to do.” In 1977, she received the country’s highest civilian decoration, the Medal of Freedom, and in 1988, she received the Congressional Gold Medal. 

The Johnsons moved to Texas after their retirement, settling in their ranch house in Stonewall, not far from Austin. The former First Lady got interested in her neighborhood right away. She was the driving force behind the Town Lake Beautification Project, a community initiative to build long trails for people who wished to stroll, climb, or bike along the Colorado River, as well as grow flowering trees along the way. Lady Bird founded the Texas Highway Beautification Awards to promote comparable action throughout the state. She not only organized the annual award ceremony but also presented the winners with checks from her account.

She also started the process of editing what would become her memoirs, A White House Diary published in 1971, which were based on hundreds of hours of her frequent taped recollections as First Lady. The Johnsons donated their ranch house and land to the National Park Service in December 1972. They had the freedom to retire there for the rest of their lives, as had other presidential couples. Lyndon Johnson, ironically, died of a heart attack about a month later. Mrs. Johnson would then become the honorary chairperson of the LBJ Memorial Grove. The park, which borders the one named after her, is located along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

She kept in touch with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, visiting her in the summer of 1993 when they were both on holiday on Martha’s Vineyard and then attending her funeral nine months later. She corresponded with Pat Nixon and spent time with her at the Reagan Library dedication in 1991, joined by the Carters, Reagans, Fords, and Bushes. Mrs. Johnson declined Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s offer to spend the night in her former home during the White House ceremony where the Panama Canal was formally handed over to the country of Panama. 

She had formed relationships with both Barbara and Laura Bush as fellow Texans and amid their varying political allegiances. Lady Bird was an early and ardent backer of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, and she often commiserated with Hillary Clinton as she faced backlash for her advocacy.

In 2002, the widow of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. At the age of 94, Lady Bird passed away on July 11, 2007.