Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson served as First Lady of the United States (1963–1969) as the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson. A shrewd investor and manager, she broke ground for the role by interacting with Congress directly and advocating strongly for beautifying the nation’s cities and highways.
Christened Claudia Alta Taylor when she was born in a country mansion near Karnack, Texas, she received her nickname “Lady Bird” as a small child; and as Lady Bird she was known and loved throughout America. Perhaps that name was prophetic, as there has seldom been a First Lady so attuned to nature and the importance of conserving the environment.
Her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died when Lady Bird was five, so she was reared by her father, her aunt, and family servants. From her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, who had prospered, she learned much about the business world. An excellent student, she also learned to love classical literature. At the University of Texas she earned a bachelor’s degree in arts and in journalism.
In 1934 Lady Bird met Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a Congressional secretary visiting Austin on official business; he promptly asked her for a date, which she accepted. He courted her from Washington with letters, telegrams, and telephone calls. Seven weeks later he was back in Texas; he proposed to her and she accepted. In her own words: “Sometimes Lyndon simply takes your breath away.” They were married in November 1934.
The years that followed were devoted to Lyndon’s political career, with “Bird” as partner, confidante, and helpmate. She helped keep his Congressional office open during World War II when he volunteered for naval service; and in 1955, when he had a severe heart attack, she helped his staff keep things running smoothly until he could return to his post as Majority Leader of the Senate. He once remarked that voters “would happily have elected her over me.”
After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth to Lynda Bird (now Mrs. Charles S. Robb) in 1944; Luci Baines (Mrs. Ian Turpin) was born three years later.
In the election of 1960, Lady Bird successfully stumped for Democratic candidates across 35,000 miles of campaign trail. As wife of the Vice President, she became an ambassador of goodwill by visiting 33 foreign countries. Moving to the White House after Kennedy’s murder, she did her best to ease a painful transition. She soon set her own stamp of Texas hospitality on social events, but these were not her chief concern. She created a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, then expanded her program to include the entire nation. She took a highly active part in her husband’s war-on-poverty program, especially the Head Start project for preschool children.
When the Presidential term ended, the Johnsons returned to Texas, where he died in 1973. Mrs. Johnson’s White House Diary, published in 1970, and a 1981 documentary film, The First Lady, A Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson, give sensitive and detailed views of her contributions to the President’s Great Society administration.
Lady Bird lead a life devoted to her husband’s memory, her children, and seven grandchildren. She supported causes dear to her–notably the National Wildflower Research Center, which she founded in 1982, and The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. She also served on the Board of the National Geographic Society as a trustee emeritus.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson’s spouse, Lyndon B. Johnson.