‘Life Was Her Art’: Nadine Eckhardt Remembered as an Influential Cultural Conduit in Texas and Washington

A lifelong progressive activist, Eckhardt always managed to straddle both the establishment and counterculture.

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Nadine Brammer Eckhardt, first wife and muse of novelist Billy Lee Brammer (The Gay Place) and second wife of Texas Democratic Congressman Robert C. Eckhardt, died on Saturday at the age of 87.

An alluring and articulate light among Washington, D.C. and Texas political circles, she was a provocative beauty whose well-honed political savvy, frankness and straightforward verbal wit earned her lifelong friendships among writers, artists, progressive activists and politicos. Namesake for two notable restaurants (Nadine’s in New York City and Nadine’s in Austin) and for filmmaker Robert Benton’s 1987 film, Nadine, she was seen by many as an influential cultural conduit, by virtue of her ability to move confidently across many subcultures and historic moments.

“Nadine wanted to be Zelda [Fitzgerald]” said Benton when interviewed by biographer Tracy Daugherty for his recently released Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society. “Not a bad thing to want to be, and if anybody could have pulled it off, it was Nadine. … [She was] a great life-spirit. Being with her was like being in a car with someone who’s driving 20 miles an hour too fast.”

As a young married couple in the 1950s, Eckhardt and her first husband Billy Lee Brammer served on Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s staff. In his novel, The Gay Place, set in an idyllic 1950s Austin, Brammer based the character of Ouida, a beautiful and discontented young political wife, on Eckhardt. The character is a complex, charismatic creature of her time, who competes with Governor Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker for the attentions of a disillusioned younger politician. A character modeled on writer Willie Morris warns the young politician: “She’s got, as the phrase used to go, a reputation. Most eligible married woman in town.”

After Eckhardt divorced Brammer in 1961, she began working at the Texas Capitol, which provided her with valuable experience and introduced her to an up-and-coming state representative from Houston named Robert C. Eckhardt. He proposed to her in 1962, and with the aid of her energetic charm and political instincts, he was elected as a Democrat to U.S. Congress, from the 8th District in Houston, in 1966. Eckhardt understood the value of collegiality in politics. The night of her husband’s election, she and Congressman Eckhardt drove to the campaign headquarters of newly elected Republican Congressman George H.W. Bush to celebrate with Bush and his wife, Barbara, who had become friends with the liberal-minded Eckhardts while on the campaign trail. The Bushes never forgot that gesture. Eckhardt often attributed her political savoir-faire to having closely observed Lady Bird Johnson graciously guiding her own senator husband in his career.

As a congressman’s wife, Eckhardt was known for her generous hospitality and diverting conversation. LBJ advisor and MPAA head Jack Valenti once remarked to the Washington Post that Nadine Eckhardt was the person he’d most like to be seated next to at a Washington, D.C. dinner party.

During a heady time of cultural and political upheaval, Eckhardt worked diligently to keep her husband’s congressional office and home life a well-organized and effective political machine, while also keeping him up on the changing times. They visited Resurrection City during the Poor People’s March in 1968, and invited friends they made there to their home for hot showers and a good night’s sleep. She counseled the congressman to speak out against the Vietnam War, opposing her old boss, then the sitting president from Texas. Eckhardt opened up their Georgetown townhouse to student antiwar demonstrators running from tear gas fired at them by National Guardsmen during the 1970 May Day protests.

A lifelong progressive activist, Eckhardt always managed to straddle both the establishment and counterculture. She continued to count younger people as her close friends until her death. “Nadine was unique in that she was funny and smart as hell, with the ability to speak her mind about the injustices she saw,” recalls Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project.

Increasingly disenchanted with the superficiality of Washington life during the Watergate years, Eckhardt returned to East Texas in the late 1970s, where she went into therapy, divorced the congressman, sold real estate and worked on regional political campaigns. She returned to Austin in the 1980s, where she opened Nadine’s restaurant in East Austin with her son, Willy, where they served home cooking and exhibited the works of many local artists and photographers. Several younger politicians received the benefit of Eckhardt’s connections during those years, including a progressive-minded street vendor named Max Nofziger (who was elected, against all odds, to the Austin City Council).

Eckhardt joined her three daughters (Sidney and Shelby Brammer and Sarah Eckhardt) in New York City in the 1990s, devoting her political acumen and contacts to organizing Manhattan fundraisers for her friend, Ann Richards, during Richards’ successful bid for Texas governor. Eckhardt also worked as a dean’s assistant at NYU while serving as a figurehead for the new Nadine’s restaurant in the West Village, which featured several of her Texas recipes.

A decade later and back in Austin, Eckhardt was behind the political scenes again, helping to elect her youngest daughter, Sarah Eckhardt, to the Travis County Commissioner’s Court. Eckhardt also worked for the Texas Public Utilities Commission and as an assistant to Molly Ivins, using the skills she attributed to her early training on Senator Johnson’s staff: the day-in/day-out clipping of newspapers, maintaining of contacts and meaningful correspondence with constituents.

Duchess of Palms: A Memoir
By Nadine Echardt
University of Texas Press
$29.95; 176 pages

In her 70s, Eckhardt wrote a noteworthy memoir (Duchess of Palms, University of Texas Press) about her long life in politics and letters. Evident in her dedication “to the ’50s girls,” Eckhardt saw herself as an example of the many pre-feminist women of her generation who had to apply their brains and talent to pushing ambivalent mates toward high achievement, rather than pursuing their own dreams and careers. “She was smart, witty, entertaining, extraordinarily insightful, loving, literate, hip and cool, adventuresome and a genuine trail brazing model for women of the 1950s trying to find a meaningful life,” noted Patricia Mathis, a close family friend and telecom industry executive who served in the Carter administration.

Eckhardt was photographed as a young natural beauty by Robert Benton as part of his first professional portfolio. Though she always nurtured artists, she rarely employed her own gifts as a visual artist — but, as Benton once remarked, “Nadine’s life is her art.”

She is survived by her children, William Eckhardt and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, and Sidney and Shelby Brammer of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, as well as two grandchildren, Nadine and Hank Sauer Eckhardt, and her stepdaughters, Orissa Eckhardt Arend and Rosalind Eckhardt. A memorial service is being planned for January 2019 in Austin.

Director/playwright Shelby Brammer was a longtime drama department chair for Austin Community College and is now the artistic director of Theater Bartlesville. Sidney Brammer is a writer/editor, and online creative writing professor for Austin Community College and English professor at Rogers State University; she has been a past contributing writer to the Texas Observer. Both now reside in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

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