Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
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Betty Boyd Caroli is the author of Lady Bird and Lyndon, First Ladies: Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, Inside the White House, and The Roosevelt Women. She has been a guest on Today, The O’Reilly Factor, Lehrer NewsHour, Al Jazeera, Booknotes with Brian Lamb, and many other shows. A graduate of Oberlin College, Caroli holds a master’s degree in mass communications from the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in American civilization from New York University. She currently resides in New York City and Venice, Italy.
Betty Boyd Caroli
Simon & Schuster
Ebook, 978-1-4391-9124-8 (also available in hardcover and as an audio book), 480 pgs., $14.99
October 27, 2015
Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor and Lyndon Baines Johnson met in the Texas Railroad Commission Office in September of 1934. He proposed the next day and they eloped two months later. Lady Bird, the independent, determined, business-minded offspring of a jaw-droppingly dysfunctional marriage, needed a vehicle, as a woman in Texas during the Great Depression, to “let her deploy her ambition” and decided Lyndon was that man.
In Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President Betty Boyd Caroli makes a convincing case that Lady Bird was certainly not the timid wallflower as she is so often portrayed in biographies of President Lyndon Johnson, but rather a “girl [who] gradually became a figure of steel cloaked in velvet,” who transformed herself into the “model political wife” and an example for future first ladies.
In simple prose, and with access to private letters, “most of them not available to researchers until Valentine’s Day in 2013 and not used by a Johnson biographer until now,” Caroli creates an informal, sometimes gossipy tone, with a pop psychology bent. Caroli’s thesis is that Lyndon could not have been as successful as he was without Lady Bird (“fixer, enabler, smoother-of-feelings”) and that those letters prove her case, revealing “the implicit deal the pair struck with each other: that Lyndon would fulfill her ambition of being matched with a man as charismatic and as comfortable with power as her father while taking her away from him, and that Bird would provide Lyndon with a ferocious devotion equal to his mother’s and the emotional ballast he needed to achieve his ambition.”
While Lady Bird and Lyndon is the story of a marriage, not of individuals, it is evident that Caroli admires Lady Bird and the book concentrates on her. Caroli explains away Lady Bird’s shortcomings but spares Lyndon nothing in detailing manic-depressive behavior, paranoia, verbal abuse (“the treatment”) of everyone in his orbit, including his wife, and his seemingly countless affairs. While important to a marriage biography, the regular reports, not to mention an entire chapter, on Lyndon the “sexual conquistador” are repetitive enough to be tiresome.
Lady Bird and Lyndon is full of fascinating details about the behind-the-scenes functioning of a partnership that affected the lives of many millions of people. I have a much fuller picture of the actual person of Lady Bird. In the end, though, this book tells the story of a pathological relationship that, nevertheless and no matter the personal costs to the individuals and the collateral damage inflicted, appears to have attained its public goals. Is that success?
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