Ahh, young love. In September 1934, future president Lyndon Baines Johnson was introduced to Claudia Alta Taylor (aka Lady Bird) in Austin, Texas. Their first date was the very next day over breakfast, and by the end of the day, he proposed to her.
Lady Bird politely declined, but didn't slam the door in LBJ's face. “The only thing I knew I didn’t want to do was to say good-bye to him and put him out of my life; that much I was sure of,” Lady Bird later recalled. She told him she would need at least six months to think about the proposal.
Johnson, then 26, was an aide to a member of Congress. Lady Bird, 22, had just finished school at the University of Texas. LBJ had to return to Washington, so the pair separated. “I had so hoped to feel when I left you that you would want to go with me,” LBJ wrote in understanding her decision. Over the next three months, the couple would send more than 90 letters to one another.
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library has recently made these letters available on their online archive. The early ones are full of gushy back-and-forths and some mundane revelations. For one, Lady Bird’s family cook was impressed with LBJ: “Guess what my cook said about you? Says she, 'Miss Claudie, you sho’ have got you a fine looking young man.'!! (I don’t know how she got the idea I’d 'got' you!—But I was tickled),” Lady Bird wrote to him. But then the letters begin to reflect signs of strain in the budding relationship.
Johnson liked to receive letters from Lady Bird every day. And he got really anxious and clingy when he didn’t hear from her.
Here’s what he wrote her just weeks after they first met. (All letters are transcribed exactly as written, errors and all).
September 15, 1934
I’m sure that there is nothing that could be more distracting, disturbing and estranging to me than a continued evidence of indifference upon your part. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and today Saturday and no sentiments of affection nor expressions of love. Very likely time will make the picture brighter for me but I feel terribly blue this afternoon.
Tomorrow I plan to call you. Tomorrow I plan to tell you again what you have already heard so many times and probably it will be tomorrow that I learn definitely just how and where you stand.
Write me that long letter. Tell me just how you feel—give me some reassurance if you can and if you can’t let’s understand each other now. I’m lonesome. I’m disappointed but what of it. Do you care?
Lady Bird wasn’t having it. She responded:
[September 18, 1934]
Dearest Lyndon -
Don’t you ever ever write me such a letter again! You hear? It was a bad, mean letter—and if it weren’t for the postscript at the top and the fact that I’ve talked to you since I’d feel terrible.
And when she didn’t receive letters from him, she was cool-headed about it:
September 24, 1934
You know, love, its been quite several days since I’ve had a letter from you! But I shan’t fuss 'cause I think its plain silly (besides presumptious) to fuss at someone you love—and besides I feel sure there’ll be one for me tomorrow morning when I go down!
LBJ wrote to her multiple times expressing the sentiment that he wasn’t getting enough affection from her:
October 2, 1934 pm
Watchfully waited all day but no letter. My last word was Thursday nite.
I know, you too,—haven’t received letters some days and I hope they didn’t make you feel as I do. Be a good little girl and think of
The same day, Lady Bird wrote to him in response to another disheartening letter she recieved. She seems ticked off by his temperament.
October 2, 1934 ?
Grrr—I feel like growling. Your letter made me very unhappy. I feel sort of bleak. You seemed so far away, somehow.
If we had a phone I’d call you this minute I think—just to hear your reassuring voice—(or am I optimistic?)—and remind you that I love you.
Two hours later, she wrote again. This time she is wondering what subtle hints about their relationship lie in his use of grammar.
I’ve just re-read your letter of last night hoping it would be sweeter this morning. It wasn’t…It was the vague sort of use of the past tense about us that hurt me so.
A week later, Johnson was sick with the flu. He wishes Lady Bird were there to nurse him. He's so needy. Apparently by now their fight had blown over.
[October 10, 1934]
Tonight I’m a sick little man. Am going to bed without looking at a law book. The flu hit me today and if I don’t feel better in the morning I won’t go to the office.
I wish you were here to nurse me—but you aren’t.
By November, they were married. But over the years, in the tradition of President Kennedy, Johnson would stray from his marriage.
Lady Bird was said to put up with a lot of grief from her husband. Johnson biographer Robert Caro said in an interview with Weekend America, "It's hard "to understand ... how someone as intelligent, as shrewd and as smart could put up with everything she had to put up with from Lyndon Johnson. But she did."
Find the full archive of the letters here.
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