Was LBJ's Final Secret a Son?
08/03/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT
Out behind her time-worn home in the once fashionable Oak Cliff section of Dallas, Madeleine Brown sits in a wrought-iron chair amid a garden decked with blue and white periwinkles that "just keep blooming their little hearts out," she says. Madeleine is 62, and while that is no great age, she's content these days to smell the flowers and let her mind drift back to a wild time when she was a beautiful girl caught up in a world of passion, politics and closely guarded secrets. "I look back and I know we really had something," she says. "Not marriage. But we had some special feelings. We had to."
The man in Madeleine Brown's memories is President Lyndon Baines Johnson. For 21 years, she claims, she was his mistress. In the days before Gary Hart, the days when journalists winked at the philandering of public men, Johnson's prodigious extramarital romantic life was safe from scrutiny, and Madeleine Brown's picaresque tale shows just how very safe it apparently was. She readily admits that she has no neatly bundled love letters from LBJ, and the handful of people who she says knew of the relationship are dead, yet her account comports with Johnson's reputation among his friends and aides as an incurable womanizer—a reputation known even to his wife, Lady Bird. "My husband loved people," she once said. "He loved all people. Now, half the people in the world are women. You don't think I could have kept my husband away from half the people in the world, do you?" In an arrangement carefully hidden from Lady Bird and his two daughters, Lynda and Luci, Madeleine says she was set up with a two-bedroom home, a new car every two years, a live-in maid and all the charge cards she needed. She also claims to have borne an illegitimate son whom she asserts is Lyndon Johnson's only male heir. She has gone public about the identity of her son's real father, she says, because Steven, now 36 years old, has decided to claim his presidential patrimony in court. In June he filed a $10.5 million suit against Lady Bird Johnson, alleging he has been deprived of his birthright. "In a public forum, sooner or later the truth comes out," says Steven. "That's what's important to me. I want my last name changed to Johnson, the way it ought to be."
It was not until five months ago that Steven learned who his true father was, he says. Before that, he was wracked by uncertainty. His birth certificate had listed his mother's first husband, but Steven had come to suspect a lawyer friend of the family was actually his father. But last February Madeleine was hospitalized after a heart attack and called her son to her bedside. "I wanted to get everything ready so I could go to the other side peacefully," she says. "[I told him], 'Steven, I know there are things you have worried about and I feel I have done you a great injustice. I want to ask your forgiveness for allowing something like this to happen.' "
Steven flew into a rage when he learned his mother had deceived him. "I suppose after all those years the shock of what my mother told me boggled my mind," he says. "I think I inherited LBJ's temper, and I try to control it, but I think I must have gone a little wild for a while." But he doesn't blame LBJ for failing to acknowledge him. "I realize he had to think about his position and the girls and his legal wife," he says. "I think there was no other course open to him under the conditions that he was in. Sure, if he had acknowledged me during the period when I wondered why I didn't have a normal family life, it probably would have kept me from the fears and anxieties I had as a child."
A strapping 6'4", Steven has dark hair with the familiar LBJ hairline. For the last four years he has battled lymphatic cancer, and his dark beard hides the scars from surgery in 1983. Doctors have told him his future is uncertain. Steven now makes a modest living working as a manager and general repairman on the rental properties that Madeleine acquired during the years her living expenses were paid by LBJ. Though ill health and poor management have drained her finances, Madeleine has taken on the care of her 73-year-old sister, Neta, as well as her grandsons, Christopher, 14, and Jeffrey, 11, the children of her divorced older son, Jimmy, soon to be 39. Steven says his main reason for wanting money from Lady Bird is to provide for his nephews. He has recently broken off an engagement but hadn't planned to have children of his own in any case.
So far, Mrs. Johnson has not been served with the papers in the lawsuit, which may not come to trial for many years. An Austin spokesperson for Lady Bird has said there will be no comment on Steven's petition, and a press secretary for the Johnson family has said that no close friends of the family have ever heard of Madeleine Brown or her son. But Madeleine believes that Lady Bird suspected the affair in the early 1960s.
The only supporting evidence Steven has to show so far is a letter from Jerome T. Ragsdale, a lawyer who acted, Madeleine says, as the financial conduit for her payments from LBJ. She swears the letter was sent to her after Lyndon's death, to reassure her that the money would keep coming. (Nonetheless, the payments stopped two years after Johnson's death in 1973.) It is the only written communication she ever received from Ragsdale, and Steven believes he understands why. A canny operator like LBJ, he supposes, was not a man to leave tracks. "I know Lyndon Johnson took all sorts of precautions in making these arrangements, but somebody knows," Steven insists. "Somewhere there's a trace."
As Madeleine reminisces about "the love of my life," her story begins in 1948, the year she met the then Congressman Johnson, a tall, swaggering Texan. The daughter of a utility company supervisor and a housewife, she was raised in Dallas and recalls her middle-class Catholic upbringing as dreary and sexually repressed. At 19 she married the neighborhood soda jerk, James Brown, mostly to get away from home. When he was institutionalized for "chronic paranoid schizophrenia," she was pregnant with their first child, Jimmy. After moving back in with her parents, she eventually landed a job with a Dallas advertising agency and was soon promoted to media buyer, with responsibility for purchasing radio advertising time. The job carried the pretty and impressionable Madeleine into a whirl of receptions and social functions.
She was just 23 when she first laid eyes on the mesmerizing Johnson at a reception held by Austin radio station KTBC, which was then owned by the Johnson family. Jesse Kellam, a Johnson family confidant who managed the station, introduced them. Seventeen years her senior, Lyndon turned his charms on the vivacious Madeleine and she was dazzled. Kellam immediately asked her if she would come to another KTBC reception in Austin three weeks later. Eager for the business, Madeleine's agency sent her along.
When she joined the party at the Driskill Hotel, Lyndon was there. "He looked at me like I was an ice cream cone on a hot day," Madeleine recalls with a smile. "And he said after a while, 'Well, I'll see you up in my apartment.' " Flushed and excited, but naively telling herself that the meeting was business, she went. "At that time, sex, because of my Victorian raising...well, there was a lot of suppression," she says. "Still, I was wild and full of fire. He had a certain amount of roughness about him, and maybe that's what I liked, you know. He commanded. I've been told that every woman needs to act like a whore in bed, and I guess that's what I did."
Johnson made it clear that their affair was to be kept utterly secret. "He told me from the beginning, 'You see nothing, you hear nothing, you say nothing,' " Madeleine remembers. Kellam became the go-between, calling Madeleine whenever Johnson returned from Washington and wanted to see her. Speaking obliquely, Kellam would offer some work-related excuse for her to come to Austin. Catching a plane within the hour, she would be met at the airport by a red KTBC mobile news unit and driven to the Driskill, where she would make her way to Lyndon's suite. Usually they would be together only for a half hour or so. Their longest liaison was three hours; their shortest one day when Lyndon greeted her with a hug and a smile and said, "Honey, I can give you 15 minutes of my valuable time."
Johnson, says Madeleine, was exuberant in bed. "He was a little kinky," she says, "and I loved every second of it. So did he." They used to play games with a little satin sleeping mask that was embroidered on one side with the words "Wake me for sex or golf." (At that time, she notes, LBJ had little interest in golf.) "Once," says Madeleine, "after he was through, he went to the window and opened it and bellowed like a bull, yelling, 'My God, I love Texas in the morning!' "
Her relationship with Johnson was purely physical, according to Madeleine, and they never discussed politics or world affairs. "We spent our time doing, not talking," she says. The affair caused her some spiritual turmoil, and she revealed her qualms in the confessional, though without mentioning Johnson's name. When she heard gossip and eventually discovered she was only one among Lyndon's paramours, she swallowed her unhappiness. Yet she couldn't help cherishing vague hopes for the future. "Sometimes, when I'd hint around, he'd just say, Today's today, tomorrow's tomorrow,' " she says. "That was his favorite answer. I guess it could have meant anything. I liked to think it meant someday I'd be in the White House. I would have been like Nancy Reagan. I wouldn't have stood it if he had other women."
Fortunately perhaps, Madeleine was not given the opportunity to risk almost certain disappointment. In his book Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir, former White House press secretary George Reedy recounts how Johnson was constantly recruiting new conquests to what his staffers privately called "the harem." "He may have been 'just a country boy from the central hills of Texas,' " Reedy wrote, "but he had many of the instincts of a Turkish sultan in Istanbul."
Madeleine came to understand that Lyndon regarded her as little more than a plaything in April 1950, when she told him she was pregnant. His legendary temper exploded and he went into a fit, shouting, "How could you be such a dumb Dora?"
After his anger had passed, Lyndon assured her that she would be taken care of. A few days later, Kellam told her that an attorney, Jerome Ragsdale, would be in touch. Madeleine confessed to her father that she was involved with a married man and that she was pregnant. A doctor told her he would put the name of James Brown, to whom she was still technically married, on the birth certificate as the father. After Steven was born in December 1950, says Madeleine, Ragsdale bought her a six-room house for $15,000, complete with a live-in maid. Though she continued to work, Madeleine was supplied with a raft of charge cards and presented all bills to Ragsdale for payment.
In the early '60s, says Madeleine, she had a "paper marriage" for five years at Kellam's urging. She never lived with her "husband", a Dallas businessman from whom she was later divorced. Some years later she was told by a friend that he had committed suicide. While Steven was a boy, Madeleine continued to see Lyndon whenever he was in Texas. They met a few times in San Antonio and Houston, but most often at the Driskill. Occasionally she would get flowers from Kellam, but she knew they were from Lyndon. One year, she says, she got a mink coat. When people in her office asked her where it came from, she coyly replied, "I got my minks the same way minks get minks."
Johnson's heart attack in 1955, which hospitalized him for six weeks, kept the lovers apart for a time. Yet once back on his feet, LBJ couldn't resist coming back to his red-haired mistress, and the affair resumed. In 1963 Madeleine was driving to meet Johnson in Austin when news of President Kennedy's assassination flashed over the radio. She turned around and drove home, but a few weeks later word came from Kellam to meet the new President of the United States in their usual place.
Meanwhile, Steven was growing up, with a gnawing unease about his paternity. Madeleine's in-laws, the Browns, always treated him differently from his brother, Jimmy, say Madeleine and Steven, and if there was a father-son event at school, Ragsdale, the attorney, would sometimes stand in. Steven wondered if he might be his real father. "But it was, well, businesslike with him," recalls Steven, "and I sensed it." He felt much closer to his mother, thinking of her as his "best pal. It was Mother who taught me how to throw a baseball and bought me a subscription to Playboy magazine and took me to a burlesque show when I was 21 years old," he says.
Once in a while, Steven and his mother would attend a political function together, and there would be LBJ. The boy always sensed there was something hidden between his mother and the President. Once, when Steven was 10, he and the maid saw Lyndon sweep Madeleine into his arms on a stairway in San Antonio's Menger Hotel and walk off with her. On another occasion, Lyndon came up to him, placed his hand on his head and said, "Son, someday you are going to be in the White House." Only recently has Steven concluded that this might have been a sort of acknowledgment.
Madeleine's years of sexual abandon with Lyndon came to an abrupt end in 1967. Steven was driving her home from the market when they collided with another car at an intersection. Madeleine awoke in the hospital, covered with bandages. The doctors told her she was lucky to be alive. Steven was only mildly injured, but Madeleine's neck, arm and leg had been broken. Worst of all, in her view, her face had been smashed and badly cut by broken glass. When the bandages came off, she was horrified.
With her face badly scarred, Madeleine feared she would never see Lyndon again. As she began a long course of recovery and plastic surgery, she plunged into a depression, worsened by constant pain. She had already begun to feel frightened of Lyndon Johnson, who had become increasingly concerned about being found out. She had received calls from Kellam praising her for being a "good girl," which she knew were reminders to keep her mouth shut. She had seen people who had crossed LBJ quail when he would ominously tell them, "I'm so glad you see it my way."
Madeleine also believes the President was secretly tormented by their relationship and the son he had never acknowledged. "I wondered how he must have felt, how he made peace with himself in his heart," she says. "I don't think he ever did."
After a dejected Johnson retired to his ranch in 1969, word had it that he knew his heart was failing and that he wanted to mend some of his fences. Later that year, Madeleine says, she got a call from Jesse Kellam. Lyndon was going to Houston for a parade to honor the Apollo 11 astronauts and wanted to see her. By then, surgery had largely repaired her features and she felt she could face him. Sensing this was to be their last goodbye, Madeleine flew to Houston and caught a taxi to the Shamrock Hotel, where she checked into a room and waited. A few hours later, there was a knock at the door. "I felt all the old rush of excitement and breathlessness," she recalls.
She opened the door to find a rumpled, overweight, haggard-looking LBJ. His bout with heart trouble showed clearly in the deep lines about his face. While his Secret Service escort waited discreetly in the hallway, the President came in. After a brief embrace, they sat together on the sofa. For the first time in their years together, they had a real conversation. "There comes a point in the lives of two people when they have to face reality," says Madeleine tearfully. "I think that's what we did. We talked for almost two hours. I cried. We kissed. But we didn't even try to make love. He had always seemed to me like an iron man. But he knew more than I did, I realize now: I think he knew he was going to die before long."
Madeleine told Lyndon she felt he owed it to Steven to acknowledge him. "But he said, 'Oh, I can't do that. I've got the girls to consider, and Lady Bird,' " she says. "And I thought what a fool I had been to take seconds. But that's what I did."
In 1973 Jesse Kellam called to tell her that Lyndon had died. The President, he said, had been alone at the end; Lady Bird had been in Austin at the time. "I wish I had been there," says Madeleine. "I would have stayed with him. When he was President, I used to laugh and say to him, 'Here you are, the most powerful man in America, and you are all mine—for a few minutes.'
"He'd laugh and say, 'Today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow.' "