90 letters in 90 days: The courtship of Lady Bird and LBJ
“I do believe before the day was over he did ask me to marry him and I thought he was just out of his mind.” Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor
Two teenagers in love might exchange hundreds of texts on their phones. But during their two-and-a-half month courtship, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor were each writing a letter—and sometimes even two—every day in a constant overlapping correspondence between Washington, DC, and Karnack, Texas.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library is releasing love letters between the future President and the First Lady. Most of the letters have not been seen before by the public, and they offer a glimpse into the feelings and thoughts of the couple during this intense courtship.
It was a whirlwind romance. LBJ was 26, and Lady Bird was just 22 years old. They met in the office of a mutual friend in Austin, Texas, in September of 1934. Although LBJ had a date that night, he asked Lady Bird to meet him for breakfast. The breakfast date turned into a day-long affair as the pair drove around Austin.
LBJ even proposed! In an oral history interview, Lady Bird recalled, “I do believe before the day was over he did ask me to marry him and I thought he was just out of his mind. It was very—I’m a slow, considered sort generally, and certainly not given to quick conclusions or much rash behavior.”
Undeterred by her refusal, he introduced her to his family the next day. And when he had to drive home to Washington, DC, where he worked as a congressional aide, he dropped Lady Bird off in her hometown of Karnack, Texas, and met her father.
While Lady Bird remained hesitant at the speed of the courtship, her father seemed to approve of her suitor. According to Lady Bird, her father remarked: “You’ve brought a lot of boys home, and this time you’ve brought a man.”
Although she was more cautious—she wrote to LBJ that she wanted to wait six months before getting married—Lady Bird was certainly interested. Many years later in an oral history interview, she recalled that “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.”
LBJ returned to Washington, and the flurry of letters began. In less than three months, they had sent more than 90 letters, including pictures and books (even a congressional cookbook from LBJ). Despite this pace, the letters were not as immediate as texts. A letter sent from DC to Karnack took about two days, but a letter sent from Karnack to DC could take four. According to archivist Claudia Anderson, LBJ sometimes sent his letters by air mail or special delivery.
Anderson calls the letters during this courtship “ardent” rather than romantic. For her, the letters are fascinating for the glimpse they give into the future First Couple. “The letters show LBJ being really passionate about his job, and about helping people,” she says, noting that Lady Bird’s letter also reveal a love of flowers that that would become her well-known devotion to nature and beautification projects as First Lady.
But where Lady Bird was cautious, LBJ was determined to move ahead—or on without her. “Tell me just how you feel—give me some reassurance if you can and if you can’t let’s understand each other now,” he writes on September 15, just days after their first meeting. “I’m lonesome. I’m disappointed but what of it. Do you care?”
But Lady Bird could not be immediately persuaded. In her letter of November 8, she tries to explain her reluctance: “Darling, darling the reason I talk and act the way I do is because everybody is so constantly urging me to ‘wait two or three months,’ ‘wait-wait,’ ‘two months isn’t long enough to have known the man you’re to marry,’ ‘if he loves you he’ ll wait for you’—and so on until my head aches.”
But on November 17, 1934, Johnson and Lady Bird drove to San Antonio to “commit matrimony” as she would later describe it. Although LBJ had given her an engagement ring, they had no wedding bands picked out. Dan Quill, friend and Postmaster of San Antonio, bought a wedding band at the nearby Sears Roebuck for $2.50. And although she still had not made up her mind on the drive to San Antonio, Lady Bird decided to do it. They were married in front of a small group of LBJ’s friends at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.
The marriage lasted far longer than the engagement. LBJ and Lady Bird were married for 39 years until LBJ passed away in 1973. You can now read the letters on the LBJ Presidential Library web site.