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OBSERVATIONS The President’s Lady BY RONNIE DUGGER /LADY BIRD: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson. By Jan Jarboe Russell. Scribner. 350 pages. $26.00. Reading Jan Jarboe Russell’s book on Lady Bird Johnson has brought me back closer in my mind to Lyndon Johnson than I have been since his funeral. Putting aside all else that must be said, he was such an original, daring, and entertaining man! More to the book’s. pur pose, Russell’s Lady Bird contains more credible and revelatory information about Lady Bird and more self-knowledge from her than any other book about her. Bird gave Russell long interviews, and cooperated with her for three years, until Russell began questioning some of Lyndon’s lovers and Bird read Russell’s piece in a web magazine calling Lyndon the last of the really big hicks, a fearful and uncertain man who whispered terrible, dark things about himself under his breath, and a whiner. Evidently, until then the President’s widow and the reporter had a natural rapport, both being Southern white women from East Texas, although at a generation’s remove. By following closely what Bird told Russell and taking in the results of the author’s tenacious investigative reporting in Bird’s home territory, Harrison County, I have acquired a better understanding of Lady Bird than I had after reading many thousands of pages about her and interviewing her myself. The author is an old friend of mine. This then is not a review, but rather a sharing of some of what, despite knowing as much as I do about the Johnsons and being one of Lyndon’s biographers, I learned reading Jan’s book. She fixes Bird in our minds as very much the daughter of her father, T.J. Taylor, whom Russell portrays harshly as a greedy and philandering furnishing merchant. We learn, from “three family sources” whom Russell does not identify, that Taylor and his brother may have fled Alabama to East Texas to escape suspicion in a train robbery. Harrison County was the Old South, and Taylor doublecharged African Americans at his country stores and sometimes accepted deeds to their homes in payment of their debts to him, while also supervising his 15,000 acres of cotton and his two cotton gins. Bird grew up in a ten-room red-brick house that had been built by slaves. Standing enclosed in a 600-acre pasture, the house had giant encased windows that ran from floor to ceiling and were opened or closed by pulleys. Bird’s mother, Minnie Patillo Taylor, was well-read, cultured, and artistic, sometimes journeying to Chicago to attend the opera, and reading to little Bird from Greek and Roman myths. But Minnie was “melancholy,” and when Taylor took up with another woman Minnie returned to Alabama to live with her parents, leaving Bird with her father. Minnie returned, though, and when Bird was almost six, her mother fell down a circular staircase in the living room and died from the fall. Her father went on to other wives. A Claudia Alta Taylor with her nurse, Alice Tittle, LBJ Library collection who gave her the nickname “Lady Bird.” “He always used to lecture me about thevalueofadollar” he’d rattle it off as if it were one word Bird said. He was the boss in his territory, everybody obeyed him including of course his daughter, and when Bird in effect eloped from home with Lyndon she was both escaping from her father and marrying someone like him. “I feel sure,” Bird has said, “my ideas of what a man was were formed by my father. I adored him.” She has also said that “subconsciously I suppose I was looking for my father.” If we are not to make the mistake of trying to understand a woman of Lady Bird’s time and place by the values and customs of our own time and place, we must keep firmly in mind the fact that she was formed in the crucible of her father’s domination and her submission to him. “She comes from a long line of female martyrs and male tyrants,” Russell writes. “The women in her family all learned to suffer well and in silence, while the men fought against poverty and pursued power.” If this is too formulaic, Bird was 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 1, 1999