Bess Abell, Social Secretary in Johnson White House, Dies at 87

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Bess Abell, the White House social secretary during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, was code-named “Iron Butterfly.” She had a light touch and exuded charm and warmth, but she was organized, efficient and tough as nails.

She always lived up to her code name, including one evening when an important dinner was underway and the wife of a recently defeated senator complained to Ms. Abell, who had drawn up the seating chart, that she had put her next to a man who had been a major donor to her husband’s opponent.

“I understood how she felt,” Ms. Abell recalled later. “But I just said: ‘Now look, they’re coming down the hall. What do you want to do? Do you want to get sick and drop out? I can move you someplace else, but somebody will want to know why. Why don’t you be a good sport about it?’ And she was.”

Averting last-minute crises is part of the unwritten job description of a social secretary, one of the most crucial but unsung roles in any White House. By all accounts, Ms. Abell, who grew up in a political household and learned the art of quick-thinking compromise at her father’s knee, was built for the job, carried it out in style and had a good time doing it.

Ms. Abell was 87 when she died on Oct. 9 at a family home in Potomac, Md.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said her husband, Tyler Abell, who served as Johnson’s chief of protocol.

Ms. Abell’s skills were called on early in the Johnson presidency. On Dec. 23, 1963, after the White House had ended its official monthlong period of mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Johnson decided to invite every member of Congress to a party — that night. Within hours, Ms. Abell had the black crepe removed, party decorations in place and food ready for 1,000 guests.

One of her many duties over the years was to mollify Senator Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican and segregationist, so that he wouldn’t sabotage Johnson’s civil rights agenda. That meant being patient with Mr. Thurmond’s habit of bringing uninvited dates to White House events.

“When he would show up with Miss Pecan Princess or the Queen of the Watermelon Festival, I’d always find a seat for her,” Ms. Abell told Vanity Fair in 2010. “I’d roll over and play dead for Strom Thurmond. He could cause the president a lot of problems, so I didn’t want to make him mad.”

ImageMs. Abell, left, with Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, on Air Force One en route to the Johnsons’ home in Texas in 1968. “She had the right blend of quiet competence and aggressive persistence,” Mrs. Johnson said of Ms. Abell, “and creative talents too.”
Credit…PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Ms. Abell’s influence extended far beyond seating charts. She was a chief organizer of Lady Bird Johnson’s biggest political coup, a four-day whistle-stop trip on a train called the Lady Bird Special that toured the South before the 1964 election.

Several Southern states were seething over the president’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which eliminated Jim Crow laws, and Democratic strategists were worried that the party would lose the old Confederacy for at least a generation. The train trip was meant to reassure Southerners that the president and Mrs. Johnson cared about their concerns, not to scold them.

“Bess transformed an old wreck of a train car, named ‘The Queen Mary,’ into the colorful Lady Bird Special,” Terry Birdwhistell and Donald A. Ritchie write in a forthcoming book, “The Iron Butterfly: An Oral History of Bess Clements Abell in the Johnson White House.”

“Beyond redecorating,” the authors add, “she choreographed the journey, organizing volunteers, recruiting entertainers, dispersing the many bouquets of flowers bestowed upon them, and planning different Southern dishes for each state.”

The trip generated positive press coverage and dominated television news for four days. In the end, Johnson lost five Southern states (plus Arizona) but won re-election in a landslide.

All administrations have their own set of circumstances to deal with. The Johnson White House faced constant protests against the Vietnam War, leading Ms. Abell to try to create a sense of tranquillity within. Because ballet dancers were less overtly political than other performers, she booked an increasing number of them for White House appearances.

Ms. Abell’s other tasks included organizing Lynda Bird Johnson’s 1967 White House wedding to Chuck Robb and Luci Baines Johnson’s 1966 White House reception after her church wedding to Patrick Nugent.

In Luci’s case, the bride had picked out a dress designed by Priscilla of Boston, a nonunion shop, which drew the wrath of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, staunch supporters of the president. Ms. Abell discussed the situation with Priscilla, who had a similar dress made by a nearby union shop. She sent both to Ms. Abell, who then cut the union label out of the second dress and sewed it into Priscilla’s, according to the forthcoming book. Ms. Abell justified the ruse by noting that brides are supposed to wear “something borrowed.”

That whole experience, Ms. Abell often said later, left her with “no regrets” that when it came to her own marriage, she had eloped — an unusual move for the daughter of a prominent politician.

Elizabeth Hughes Clements was born on June 2, 1933, in Evansville, Ind., and grew up in Morganfield, Ky. She absorbed much about politics from traipsing around with her father, Earle Chester Clements, who later became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the governor of Kentucky and a senator. From her mother, Sara (Blue) Clements, who was the postmaster in Morganfield, she learned about social etiquette by making place cards when her mother’s friends came over for bridge.

Bess went to boarding school in Nashville, then studied at the University of Kentucky, where she majored in political science and graduated in 1954.

She had met Tyler Abell, a young lawyer and the stepson of Drew Pearson, the nationally syndicated columnist, briefly at the Kentucky Derby in 1950. When they were reintroduced four years later, they instantly fell in love.

At a New Year’s Eve party as 1954 turned to 1955, they were playing drinking games and were egged on by their friends to get married, Mr. Abell said in an interview. They decided to elope that night and, with a friend at the wheel, drove to Maryland, then Virginia, and ended up in North Carolina before they found a place that would marry them on the spot.

Her father, initially furious, forgave her. At the time, he was the Senate majority whip and a close friend of Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader. One day in March, Johnson ended Senate business early so that other senators and staff could attend a lavish party that he and his wife gave for the young newlyweds.

Credit…Michael Temchine for The New York Times

When Johnson became Kennedy’s running mate in 1960, Ms. Abell joined the campaign. She started by helping Mrs. Johnson with her mail. After the election, Mrs. Johnson hired her as her personal assistant.

“She had the right blend of quiet competence and aggressive persistence, and creative talents too — the last in marked degree,” Mrs. Johnson later said of Ms. Abell in an oral history.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Ms. Abell was at the Johnson ranch in Texas preparing for the Kennedys, who were to visit when they left Dallas. Once the Johnsons moved into the White House, Ms. Abell was named social secretary, a job she held until Johnson left office in 1969.

“With the skill and charm of an ‘Iron Butterfly,’ she tackled small problems and large crises while helping to bring a president perceived as a cowboy out from under the shadow of the Kennedys’ Camelot,” Mr. Birdwhistell and Mr. Ritchie write.

Johnson appointed Mr. Abell, who had been the assistant postmaster general, the United States chief of protocol in 1968. He would oversee all State Department entertaining and coordinate all visits from foreign heads of state. The appointment made him and Ms. Abell the first husband-and-wife team to hold the two main social positions in official Washington.

“Between them,” The New York Times said at the time, “they will be the final arbiters on correct protocol and entertaining in a capital that is acutely sensitive to both.”

After the Johnson years, Ms. Abell became chief of staff to Joan Mondale, the wife of Vice President Walter F. Mondale. She also established Bess Abell Enterprises, a public relations firm in Washington, which specialized in book parties and fund-raising events.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Abell is survived by her sons, Dan Tyler Abell and Lyndon Abell, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Mr. Abell said that after the birth of their first son, Senator Johnson told them that if they had named him Lyndon, he would have given them a heifer. They decided they would name their next child Lyndon, whether it was a boy or girl. When Lyndon was born, they received that heifer, which stayed at the LBJ Ranch in Texas.

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