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Bess Abell, Social Secretary To LBJ, Dies at 87

October 19, 2020

Readers know my appreciation for a well-written and informative obituary. Such as this one for Bess Abell.

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.”

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.”

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.

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