by Ann Kessler
Around this time 80 years ago, Forest Hills got new neighbors: a congressman from Texas and his wife. That congressman would go on to serve in the Senate, then as vice president, and then as president of the United States.
Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird Johnson moved into their home on 30th Place NW on November 1, 1942. Lady Bird had spent many Sundays looking at the real estate ads in the newspapers, searching for the couple’s first DC home. In September 1942, she toured the red brick colonial house with her husband and their friend, John Connally.
30th Place NW looking south from Garrison Street.
Lady Bird wanted to buy the four-bedroom, two-bath house immediately. When Lyndon Johnson did not agree, she burst into tears and told him she was tired of moving – 14 times in eight years of marriage. Lyndon was taken aback by her response. Connally apparently said that Lyndon had better buy it – and he did. The Johnsons paid $19,000.
Later, when asked why they chose to buy in Forest Hills, Lady Bird said it was for no particular reason. But they did like the short commute through Rock Creek Park to Capitol Hill. She also liked that the street dead-ended at the Peruvian Embassy on Garrison Street, so there was little traffic. Behind their house was empty land, full of wildlife. They contemplated buying the land and putting up a tennis court, but never did. After World War Two, when building materials became more plentiful, houses were built on the lot instead.
And in 1942, when the Johnsons moved into Forest Hills, the city was indeed at war. During a series of oral history interviews, she was asked how war changed her life in DC. Lady Bird said she took the bus more often. If she was driving downtown instead, she would stop and pick up strangers and give them rides, as that was what people did in wartime. During the war there was also rationing. Lady Bird recalled that at one dinner party, the wife of a Supreme Court justice arrived with a stick of butter as a gift.
Lady Bird quickly settled into the neighborhood, volunteering to collect donations for the Red Cross for during and after World War Two. She went door to door and met many neighbors. The neighbor she speaks most fondly of was Ollie E. Reed, who lived next door. Reed, an amateur gardener, worked at the Department of Agriculture and was an expert on dairy cattle. Mrs. Johnson, with Reed’s advice, carefully selected what she planted in the backyard. Crocuses, hydrangeas, and zinnias were added to the peonies already thriving in the back flower garden, thanks to the previous owner.
Lady Bird planted her first victory garden in 1944, and she continued to plant a small plot of vegetables each year, making sure to always include black-eyed peas. The family, including Lyndon, enjoyed viewing the backyard as they relaxed on the porch chairs, swing and double chaise lounge.
Lyndon Johnson gave his wife a movie camera in the 1930s. According to the LBJ Presidential Library, one year “[a] Navy film production crew enhanced nearly nine hours of home movie footage with narration by Lady Bird and a musical score.” This 1947-48 collection includes Lynda Johnson’s 3rd and 4th birthdays, a newborn “happy and plump” Luci Johnson, two Easters at 30th place, a Halloween in Austin, and Lynda playing on the 30th Place porch.
Another neighbor of note was J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. He lived across the street. There has been much speculation about the relationship between Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, since they were neighbors and work associates. Lady Bird Johnson, in her oral history, suggests they were never more than that.
“Another neighbor, whom we knew only at a distance, because I think that was his way with the whole world, to remain at a distance,” she said. “But he and Lyndon always had great respect for each other.”
The Johnson’s first child was born in 1944.
Lynda Byrd Johnson and 30th Place are two of the stars of this home movie, filmed in 1945 and 1946 and narrated by Lady Bird.
By the time Lynda Byrd Johnson was six years old, in 1950, Lady Bird had decided to send her to the local public school, Murch Elementary. When asked why she chose Murch for her children, she said that its location was the most important prerequisite. She also never thought of putting her children anywhere but a public school.
Lady Bird joined a carpool of Forest Hills mothers driving their children across Connecticut Avenue to the school. She also served some role in the Home and School Association each year. Luci Baines Johnson, born in 1947, joined her sister at Murch when she was old enough. She graduated from Murch in 1959. Lynda and Luci later both attended the National Cathedral School for Girls.
While the Johnsons lived on 30th Place there were always people coming and going, especially during the war. They never knew who would be staying in their third floor guest room: a Texan, someone from the active military, or really anyone who needed a place to stay for the night in crowded wartime DC.
The Johnsons considered Texas their real home, and rented out their 30th Place house, fully furnished, at least nine times in their 18 years there. Still, Lady Bird repeatedly referred to the Forest Hills home as her “little” or “dear little house”. She obviously enjoyed returning to it, at one point saying, “It was such happiness to be back home in Washington.” When they were away, she said she had no trouble finding tenants as there were always military families and diplomats coming and going in Washington.
This home movie includes Christmas at 30th Place in 1950, with Lyndon Johnson playing “Santa” and handing out the presents.
Dinner parties were frequent, both the informal ones where Lyndon brought people home for dinner at the last moment, and formal gatherings. Lady Bird said in her oral history that her husband preferred “stag parties,” meaning he enjoyed having men only attend his dinners. Lady Bird recognized that all the men wanted to talk about was politics. And that certainly served its purpose on Capitol Hill.
Guests at the Johnsons’ dinner parties might include such well-known politicians as Senators Richard Russell, Warren Magnuson, Stu Symington and Earle Clements; Vice President Alben Barkley; Speaker of the House and fellow Texan Sam Rayburn; Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Fred Vinson; Paul Porter and Abe Fortas of Arnold and Porter law firm; friends in Congress, and newspaper people like Albert Jackson of the Dallas Times Herald. Another Forest Hills resident, Harry Truman, dined there in January 1945. (Read more about the only sitting president to live in Forest Hills, if only for one night.)
The most glamorous guest Lady Bird hosted was probably Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1953, Lady Bird had the wives of the newly elected senators over for lunch, along with the wives of the head of the Senate leadership and committees. Jackie Kennedy proved to be not only “young and pretty” but also gracious and quite nice.
Before lunch was served, the Senate wives gathered for conversation in the basement recreation room, a converted double garage. Lady Bird was a little embarrassed about this, but she understood that the important thing was to make the best of this opportunity for the Senate wives to get to know each other. She was surprised to receive a thank you note from Senator John Kennedy for inviting his wife, a thoughtful gesture.
On a daily basis, it sounds like Lady Bird was a regular stay-at-home mom. She did the grocery shopping at Safeway herself and drove in the carpool to Murch. However, she did a lot more entertaining of guests and attended more luncheons and dinner parties outside her home than most well-to-do mothers of her time. She also was active in various organizations that took up her time, like the Senate Ladies Club, which met every Tuesday.
She was fortunate to have staff to help: a maid/babysitter and a cook. The cook, Zephyr Wright, had been hired in Texas. Wright moved to Washington with the Johnsons and lived with them and worked for them for 25 years.
Wright was Black, and faced discrimination here. Walking along Linnean Avenue one snowy day, Wright fell and broke her leg. A neighbor brought blankets for her and called an ambulance. Upon learning Wright was Black, the ambulance company refused to come. Wright told the neighbor who she worked for and Lady Bird was called. Lady Bird did get an ambulance to come, but she was furious at the obvious racism.
The Johnsons lived on 30th Place through Lyndon’s service in the House (until 1949), his subsequent election to the Senate, and his time as Senate majority leader (1951 to 1953, and 1955 to 1961). It was only when Lyndon was elected vice president that they felt a need for a larger home. Their new, more elegant three-story house was in the Spring Valley neighborhood. Called The Elms (or Les Ormes), it was Perle Mesta’s former home located at 4040 52nd Street Northwest. They lived there until they moved into the White House. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
In her oral history, Lady Bird Johnson shows herself to be a down-to-earth spouse of an increasingly more important politician. She managed the day-to-day life of an active Senate star, needing both patience and flexibility. At the same time she was the primary parent of two young girls. There’s a lot to admire about Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson: her energy, her knowledge of politics and politicians, her selflessness, and her unending graciousness. She certainly was a dynamic force even before she went to live in the White House.
This is adapted from a December 2017 Forest Hills Connection article.
Lady Bird Johnson sat for her first oral history interview in 1977 and her last in 1996. Her recollections are collected in Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History and online, in PDF format, at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library website.
Other related reading: The current owners of the home on 30th Place and the Johnsons’ oldest daughter spoke to in 2015.