by Susan Rome, Lady Bird, All the Way
This past November, Susan Rome, who plays Lady Bird in our production of All the Way, visited the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, Texas. As we come to the close of the run of this amazing production, Susan shared some of her observations from that visit.
November 5, 2015
...Flew into Austin yesterday and went directly to Johnson City and the LBJ Ranch, also known as "The Texas White House." The term was used as a pejorative, since LBJ spent almost 500 of his 2,000 days in office there, but there was much work done at the ranch. There were 72 phone lines going into the house, and his office was a hub of activity. The house is restored to its 1963-69 splendor, except for shag carpeting. Photos are not allowed in the house, but I snuck a few!
The Hill Country is beautiful, and the Pedernales River (pronounced "Perdenales" here), runs right by the front of the house. The live oak out front, an ancient tree, oddly not deciduous, completes the bucolic setting, which must have been in contrast to the amount of activity around the house in the '60's.
It is a working ranch, sprawling. There are hundreds of white-tailed deer and Hereford cattle. Air Force One is parked outside, along with a car barn filled with about a dozen of the Johnson's vehicles.
One thing that struck me at the ranch, which takes the footprint of the original five-room house and expands it to 23 rooms, is that the rooms are small, rather cramped. For LBJ — a 6'3" man with girth and an enormous personality — it must have often felt claustrophobic. Evidently, MUCH business was conducted at the ranch, much of it al fresco, under that oak tree, where there was more space to stretch one's legs!
AUSTIN: The Capitol Building is huge, taller than the U.S. Capitol, and its facade is pink granite, the same indigenous stone that the monument at the Johnson Memorial Grove in DC is made from. Lady Bird is much-loved here. There is a stretch of the Colorado River that has been officially re-named "Lady Bird Lake".
THE LIBRARY: Barbara Cline, an archivist here, was waiting for me. She is the person who has been responsible for archiving the thousands of hours of Lady Bird's dictated diary (of which I purchased a copy). The published diary is only a minuscule fraction of the actual diary. We spoke at length about the new Betty Boyd Caroli book, and the nature of LBJ’s and Lady Bird’s relationship; the dynamic that, to the outside world, seemed like a meek wife being controlled by a bully husband.
Barbara took me into the private suite, where the Johnsons entertained and worked for the post-Presidential years of 1971-1973. It is 100% as it was; chairs have not even been reupholstered. She showed me into Lady Bird's restroom, and asked me if I wanted to step into her shower! I wish I had taken a picture of the Kelly green carpeted floor!
The artifacts, artwork, and gifts from heads of state are quite amazing. Everything is meticulously catalogued. There are archaeological artifacts from Greece, Jordan, and other places in the Middle East that are thousands of years old. One of the photos shows a gift from the President of Upper Volta, a set of sterling silver knife rests. I didn't know such a thing existed!
The Johnson Oval Office is recreated here, with the original furnishings. In nearly every room, here and at the Ranch, there are three televisions, so he could watch each of the major networks at the same time. His appetite and energy for work was so immense, that he was often up at 3 o'clock in the morning dictating letters.
There are more phone conversations available in the permanent exhibit in the museum. Three of them demonstrate the "Johnson Treatment." This man was a force! A week after the assassination, he was eager to get the Warren Commission started, and was adamant that Richard Russell be on it. Russell states that he doesn't like Chief Justice Warren and won't do it. Johnson starts off using a softer-sell tactic at first, but by the end of the phone call, he is quite threatening. His calls to Kay Graham are interesting, too. He was clear that he wanted to use the Washington Post to shame Congressional members to get to work for the American people.
Then on to the A/V department. The photo room is enormous, with HUNDREDS of binders of contact sheets, and a thousand drawers filled with playing-card sized photos. Found photos from right after the assassination; a whole series of different angles from the plane trip back from Dallas when LBJ was sworn-in, as well as photos from the 1964 Democratic convention. Listened to previously un-released audio of Lady Bird speak-singing a few lyrics of "A Spoon Full of Sugar" from Mary Poppins. Her speaking voice is interesting: there is the East Texas twang, the Alabama lilt. Then the oratorical voice she cultivated after taking public speaking lessons in the late 1950s. Her natural, casual, family voice is altogether different. Most identifiable is her modulation of final consonants. She was always kind, and there is a kind of smiling joy in her speech. Such a patient woman.
HER CLOTHES! Bird was a tiny lady...she was short-waisted, small-breasted, and never accentuated her figure. Her clothes are simple and quite elegant. Her shoes (size 7, triple AAA width) are almost all under 2" heels. She wore bright colors because Lyndon liked them. Lyndon's favorite color on her was red. Her gowns are exquisite. She wore a lot of pastel colors, but was also unafraid of saturated color. She was often derided for not being as elegant as Jackie, but, in reality, she was. Her off-the-rack clothes came from Neiman-Marcus, because the Marcus family were friends.
She was completely aware of all of the criticism leveled at her, but never sunk to it. She was aware of LBJ's dalliances, but her philosophy was to draw the women closer to her. She never doubted that her husband needed her, and it is evident through the letters, photos, and witnessed kindnesses that he did. She was a pragmatic, loving woman.
These are some of the descriptors that keep coming up again and again:
- direct gaze
- innate goodness
- a "balance wheel" for Lyndon, his closest and wisest adviser
- "duty and beauty"
- she thought of life as "One great adventure"
In 1934, during their courtship, she wrote to Lyndon that she hoped he wasn't considering a career in politics. Of becoming First Lady, she said, "I feel as if I'm suddenly on stage for a role I never rehearsed."
I am so excited to have had the opportunity to inhabit this spectacularly singular woman. I have a deep admiration for all that she did in her personal and professional life, and as an advocate for a better world. My personal philosophy is to try to leave the world better than I found it, and Lady Bird certainly did.
(Photos: Susan Rome at the LBJ Ranch, courtesy Susan Rome. Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson and Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 1-May 8, 2016. Photo by Stan Barouh.)