A "fifties girl" tells the fascinating story of her marriages to novelist Billy Lee Brammer and Congressman Bob Eckhardt, and how these relationships propelled her into the multifaceted life she has led on her own terms.
Child of the Great Depression, teenage "Duchess of Palms" beauty queen, wife of an acclaimed novelist and later of a brilliant U.S. congressman, and ultimately a successful single working woman and mother, Nadine Eckhardt has lived a fascinating life. In this unique, funny, and honest memoir, she recounts her journey from being a "fifties girl" who lived through the men in her life to becoming a woman in her own right, working toward her own goals.
Eckhardt's first marriage to writer Billy Lee Brammer gave her entrée to liberal political and literary circles in Austin and Washington, where she and Brammer both worked for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. She describes the heady excitement of LBJ's world—a milieu that Brammer vividly captured in his novel The Gay Place. She next recalls her second marriage to Bob Eckhardt, whom she helped get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as her growing involvement with the counterculture of social protest, sexual revolution, and drug use. Eckhardt honestly recounts how the changing times changed her perception of herself, recalling that "I didn't know how to achieve for myself, only for others, and I felt ripped off and empty." This painful realization opened the door to a new life for Eckhardt. Her memoir concludes with a joyful description of her multifaceted later life as a restaurateur, assistant to Molly Ivins, writer, and center of a wide circle of friends.
- Chapter One
- In the Beginning
- Big Nadine, Little Nadine: 1930s and 1940s
- My Role Model
- A New Life, and New Problems
- Big Nadine
- Growing up, in Body and Mind
- Billy Lee Brammer, 1950
- Young Marrieds
- Testing the Waters, Pushing the Boundaries
- Chapter Two
- 1951-1961: A Wild Ride in Washington
- Meeting "The Senator"
- Wandering Eyes and Hands
- The LBJ Charisma
- The 1956 Election
- A Marriage on the Verge
- Deep in the Heart
- The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
- Sadness Permeated the Marriage
- A Novel Finds Success, but a Marriage Crumbles
- Bill's Swinging Sixties
- Chapter Three
- 1961-1966: A New Love and Politics
- The Power of Fantasy
- Tragedy and the Aftermath
- The Run for Congress
- Chapter Four
- 1967-1969: Life as a Congressional Wife
- Congress, Itself
- Junkets: The Perk That Almost Makes It Worth It
- The Congressional Social Whirl
- A Front-Row Seat to a Revolution
- A Culture in Turmoil
- A More Personal Revolution
- Chapter Five
- The Seventies: Changes, Both Public and Private
- More Changes and a Growing Distance
- Multiple Roles, Many Faces
- Reefer Madness
- Bill Makes an Appearance
- Back Home to Texas, Once Again
- The Death of a Marriage
- An Experimental Walk Down Memory Lane
- Endings Bring Beginnings
- The Nineties and the Circle Closes
In his introduction to the 1995 University of Texas reprint of Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place, Don Graham said,
There is a secret, as yet unwritten, history of the remarkable women of that era, bright and talented women, who came to maturity before the women's movement and who often gave up even the idea of a career for the sake of husbands who lived, as the saying goes, in a man's world.
Don Graham was right about calling the "as yet unwritten" history of The Gay Place-era women a "secret history." We "fifties girls" were inculcated with many conflicting messages. We thrived on movies of the forties and fifties, in which girls were sweet, virginal, sexy, demure, beautiful, perky, passive creatures that oozed perfection and would undoubtedly be perfect wives, mothers, and "helpmates." We wanted to be just like them. And we tried. Oh how we tried! And yes, we gave up even the idea of a career for the sake of husbands who lived in a man's world.
I am a fifties girl that fulfilled most of these stipulations. But if we fifties girls failed in one or two or three of these capacities, we covered up our failures through lies and manipulation, because divorce meant social and economic failure. Divorce could result in our becoming single mothers working and raising our children alone. I was also one of those wives who didn't seriously buy the prevailing social mores.
This is my story about two marriages to two semi-famous Texas men. My first husband was Bill Brammer, the novelist who wrote The Gay Place, a trilogy about a fictitious governor and the social political set around him, based on our experiences during the fifties working for Lyndon Baines Johnson, then the U.S. Senate majority leader. The second was Bob Eckhardt, a talented, intelligent, handsome son of a medical doctor in Austin whose forebears were from the Kleberg-Eckhardt clan and the Wurzbachs of San Antonio—well-known ranching, professional, and political families. He was a lawyer, a legislator in the Texas House of Representatives, and in 1966 he became the U.S. congressman from the 8th congressional district of Harris County and had an illustrious fifteen years in Congress.
In the Beginning
It was 1955. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the majority leader of the United States Senate, with his eye on the presidency. He was a conservative to some; a closet liberal to others. He knew he'd have to move to the left in order to capture the White House, which may be why he hired my twenty-seven-year-old husband, Billy Lee Brammer, then a reporter for the liberal weekly Texas Observer, as a pressman. I was hired as well; I had been a journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin and secretary to the editor of the Austin American-Statesman for a couple of years. LBJ liked to hire couples—he thought he got more out of us because, according to him, we weren't "out hoo-hawing around at night." We could work late and get to work on time. And Bill and I had liberal credentials, as we and many other young couples were pre-sixties kids ready to shed the conventions of the times.
Everyone called LBJ "The Senator." Whatever The Senator wanted, The Senator got. Horror stories circulated about the temper tantrums and tongue-lashings that occurred when something wasn't exactly to his liking. His attention to detail and power over his fellow senators gave us a lot to talk about among ourselves. Billy Lee and I were one of a number of young couples who started to work for Johnson in 1955.
Of course, as Texans, we had been aware of LBJ prior to his recent rise in power to Senate majority leader. His megapower in the U.S. Senate surprised us, because we hadn't seen him in action on the Senate floor and the control he exerted on fellow senators. LBJ was hot, and the press covered him assiduously. They even covered his staff. A feature story appeared in the August 1956 issue of the American Weekly, accompanied by a photo of all the couples Johnson had hired posed on the steps of the Capitol with Lady Bird and Lyndon.
When I look at the picture now, I see an exhilarated but confused young woman. How had a girl from a small town in Texas's Rio Grande Valley ended up in Washington, D.C., privy to the inner workings of the government's powerful political circles? How had circumstances propelled me, at only twenty-four, to be photographed for the American Weekly, standing on the steps of the Capitol, surrounded by Lyndon Johnson, the powerful U.S. Senate majority leader, and his wife? How had I ended up married to a man who would soon become one of the most well-known novelists in Texas? I could not have known then what a wild ride my life would turn out to be: that not only would I spend many years working in politics, but that later I would return to our nation's capital as the wife of a U.S. congressman. Looking back, it seems fantastic and strange—almost the stuff of fiction.
But first things first.
Big Nadine, Little Nadine: 1930s and 1940s
The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a large semitropical area at the southernmost tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. A string of towns, some with Mexican counterparts across the border, line the river's north side for about sixty miles. The Valley lies 250 miles south of San Antonio, and it isn't hard to imagine the area having been underwater at some time—it still looks like a waterless underwater seascape. Trees, cacti, and mesquite grow low to the land in a long, gradual descent to the alluvial area, which contains some of the best farmland in the country. If watered, the rich soil blooms with too many kinds of exotic plants to count. It's hard to imagine such lushness at the other end of the long, arid drive from San Antonio.
Sometime in the late 1920s, my parents heard about the "Magic Valley" from friends. My mother, Nadine, managed a theater in Oklahoma City where my father was a theater organist. She had completed a couple of years of college; he was an organist and pianist. They did well until the talkies put my father out of work. They had a son and needed to find work, and the Great Depression was descending upon the country. A friend had a farm in the Valley, and that exotic land right next to Mexico must have sounded romantic to a couple looking for a new life. For a man used to wearing a white tux during the day and a black tux at night, the farming life would prove to be a rude shock.
I was born in a farmhouse in McAllen on January 20, 1931, and my parents divorced a year later. I have no memory of my birth father. Initially, my mother had been attracted to his musical talent and his glamorous life as a theater organist, but she soon found out about his temper, and she ended up divorcing him because of the physical abuse. I had no emotional attachment to my father, but my mother kept a large photo of him in a black tux with his hand on the organ keys, looking very suave and handsome, and I reserved a place in my heart for that image. When my mother talked about their early days together, her tone turned wistful as she remembered a time that was joyful, before the beating started. Before she had to escape.
After my mother finally left my father, she found herself stranded in the little town on the Mexican border with two children to support. The only job she could find was as a waitress at a local bar. Despite the fact that she was broke and that she later remembered this time as a low point in her life, she told stories about how wild it had been partying on both sides of the border. A series of very young Mexican maids looked after my brother Leslie and me until our mother got home. I always looked forward to her homecomings and never wanted her to leave. I needed more of her. I was two years old.
Big Nadine was in her late twenties and having a hard time in McAllen. She needed her own mother, Rose Foster. Rose was having difficulties of her own in another part of the state, where she lived on a farm in the Texas Panhandle near Pampa with her five children, Big Nadine's half brothers and sisters. The Depression definitely affected the Rio Grande Valley, but economic conditions weren't as devastating there as in other parts of the country. Big Nadine and her mother Rose decided to combine their families and hunker down in McAllen, where survival was guaranteed by fruit and vegetable crops that grew year-round and where there was potential for jobs for my two uncles and three aunts. All of us moved into a big old frame house on the edge of town. I stayed home with Grandma during the day while the grown-ups worked and pooled their money to support the family. My two uncles were bakers and worked at night. My mother and her oldest sister worked in restaurants. My mother slept late into the daytime so she could work into the evening, and I was deprived of her company. She hated the work. I liked my uncles and loved being the pet of my young aunts, Colleen and Delphine, who were only six and eight years older than I.
My brother always seemed distanced from the rest of the family. From my first memories of him, he was angry and uncooperative. He was six years older than I and was expected to do chores such as bringing the cow home after school from her grazing spot on a canal bank. He couldn't seem to follow through; he would show up at home after dark, cowless, and one of my uncles or aunts would have to finish the job. His unpleasant attitude concerned both my mother and grandmother. Mother never did figure out how to deal with him.
My Role Model
Grandma was the fulcrum of the extended family. She cooked for all nine family members, many of whom worked at night and ate at odd times. She was probably in her early forties when I first met her as a two-year-old, and I remember telling her that her skin was too loose—she was sun-wrinkled at an early age from a life of farming. There was no Grandpa attached to Grandma; he had been a restaurant owner who had died several years earlier and was never discussed. As far as I was concerned, I sprang from Grandma and Big Nadine.
I lived with Grandma Foster from age two to age six, and during that time I absorbed some very important lessons about life. Later in my life, I realized the four years I lived with her instilled in me fundamental habits and attitudes toward life that helped me survive my mother's less-healthy influence. If anyone taught me to be happy, it was Grandma. She walked two miles every morning and fixed a good lunch afterward. She lived in the present, and I never saw her depressed. She told me about how her family had made two trips by wagon between Missouri and Texas. The children had walked and played beside the wagon as it slowly moved across the country. In her later years after all her children had married and had families of their own, Grandma had also traveled all over the United States by bus. Sometimes she took a grandchild with her on her bus rides across the country. She was healthy and lived alone for a long time; she believed that living alone solved a lot of problems, because one was forced to take care of oneself. She read constantly—anything and everything. She developed cataracts late in life and had to wait a spell before having them removed; I remember how thrilled she was when she was able to read again.
Grandma was a Republican, but when I became politically aware, I considered myself a liberal Democrat. We had many political discussions, and although we disagreed, we loved the sparring. She believed in independence and didn't file for Social Security until she was very old. To earn extra money, she babysat at a local motel.
Grandma's walking days ended when she was ninety-four. She had phlebitis and was unconscious when the decision had to be made to amputate her leg to save her life. Later she told me that she would have preferred not to live this way, but she trusted her children's decision. She never complained about her situation, even though she hated the nursing home where she lived. One day, as we sat outside, she told me that she wanted to "just keep rolling in my wheelchair, and keep going." At age ninety-nine, her organs began to shut down. Her heart kept going for four days before she finally died.
I knew that Grandma had been married to an older man, the father of my half aunts and uncles. My second husband, Bob Eckhardt, was nineteen years older than me, and one day after I had been married to him for almost fifteen years, I asked Grandma how it had been for her to be married to an older man. She replied, "It was all right for awhile. But then he started sitting around the house acting like an old man."
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I put him on the train and sent him to his sister," she answered.
Though her response sounded a bit callous, she and their children had taken the old man back when he was ill and nursed him until he died. There were no men in Grandma's life after that. When I asked her why, she said, "I just never had any use for them." No anger, no resentment . . . she just didn't need a man.
A New Life, and New Problems
Along with the rest of the nation, my family began to recover during President Roosevelt's administration. As the economy started to improve, everybody drifted toward lives of their own. Auntie Ruth, who had left her new husband up in the Panhandle, went back to him. And Mother got married.
Noah was a forty-year-old bachelor, a policeman who lived with his family in a big yellow frame house on Main Street—living together to survive, much like our family. I called him Daddy Noah. He was a gentle man who took us on Sunday rides in his car, quite a treat. Mother and Noah had waited for times to get a little better before marrying, and the whole family was pleased about the union. I stayed with Grandma while they went on a brief honeymoon, and upon their return we moved into a green frame house on Broadway across the street from an ice cream factory. I was thrilled, not only about having a father but also about finally having a mother who stayed at home. I entered the first grade with a regular family; my mother made cookies for after-school snacks. I had a social life for the first time, and I made friends with other little girls. I was happy.
Daddy Noah's mother, a large woman who was a constant fixture on the front porch of the yellow frame house on Main Street, seemed very old to me at the time. My mother considered her in-laws "country" and was never close to them. She had her own mother and half brothers and sisters, and we all visited frequently. My parents ate out at Sam's Place, their favorite restaurant in Reynosa, the Mexican counterpart to McAllen. They took me along and I would sing "Pennies From Heaven" for the proprietor or their friends. Big Nadine made sure I took violin and tap-dancing lessons, though I don't know who enjoyed them more, she or I.
My brother Leslie was a problem for Big Nadine and Daddy Noah. His grades were low and he didn't attract friends. We fought a lot, more than most siblings. When he started attempting to molest me sexually, I began to truly hate him. I escaped his advances only because he was physically small and not very smart, and I wasn't an easy mark. I have often wondered what would've happened if I had actually felt affection for him or had any respect for him as an older brother. My mother told me he was also a victim of our father's temper and abuse. He was obviously damaged early on, somehow, and never successfully coped with his life.
The mystery to me is why I didn't tell my mother and stepfather about Leslie's advances. It wasn't until I was in my forties that I told my mother, and when she asked why I hadn't done so earlier, I found myself at a loss to explain. The shame and guilt and anger that I had felt at the time had been so frightening. Although I hadn't "done anything," I still kept everything deep inside. From what I've read about incest, this is a common reaction in kids who have been victims or near-victims. Nevertheless, the situation was a blight on my childhood that created a deep distrust, scorn, and anger toward my brother that persisted for many years.
I now believe that Leslie's attempts at molestation were borne of a desire to harm me. He was jealous of my friends, my grades, and my mother's obvious delight in the fact that I was a happy little kid. I shudder to think what could've happened if I hadn't already developed some self-confidence through an active social life, a nurturing mother and father, and a happy school life. But the situation still harmed me—the mere intent harms. These days incest is less taboo to discuss; now that women have become allies instead of adversaries, we share our life experiences. It is startling to find out how many women have been sexual targets within their own families. I know how it affected me; I can't imagine what damage would've resulted from a truly incestuous relationship.
My mother was beautiful and smart, with a certain classy style—she was always well dressed and groomed—but even with assets like these she was still unhappy at times. She adhered to the female ideal of the 1920s and 30s: she wanted to marry a good provider and never have to worry about working for a living again. When she married Daddy Noah, she seemed content to be the complete housewife. She prepared wonderful meals in her red, black, and white 1940s kitchen with its gleaming Chambers range. Homemade Parker House rolls, pork roasts, and candied yams came out of the kitchen on Sundays. On Monday, wash day, she washed the clothes in her washing machine in the garage, rolling them through the wringer and then hanging them on the clothesline. The linens went through the funny-looking ironing machine that pressed them between two heated rollers, resulting in perfectly smooth sheets and pillowcases. The lace tablecloth came off the dining table three times a day, replaced by one made in Mexico with matching napkins made of rough, durable material embroidered with Mexican Aztec designs. During the hot summers, sometimes we would have only ice cream for dinner, hand-cranked in the ice cream machine and covered with homemade chocolate sauce and pecans.
Big Nadine was the only child born during Grandma's first marriage to Bert Thompson, a professional gambler, whose mother was a full-blooded Cherokee. She was better educated, and her expectations were different. Sometimes she yearned for a more exciting life, but in spite of this longing she was grateful for Noah, the good man she had married, who had a consistent personality and no temper.
What I adopted and integrated into my personality from my Grandma couldn't be erased. She was practical in every way. She cared not for "décor." She was outspoken and unconcerned about what others thought, whereas my mother was too concerned about appearance and what other people thought. But my independence began to be overlaid with Big Nadine's expectations and aspirations for life as we moved into our respective new positions as the wife and adopted children of Noah Cannon. My mother was generally happy, and she was prettier than other mothers and better dressed. She wore cute linen dresses and colorful Mexican sandals in the summer and kept herself well groomed. There was something about her that harkened back to an earlier, more glamorous time. She talked about the Orpheum Circuit, a booking agency of that era, and how she had met Pola Negri, the silent movie star, at the theater in Oklahoma City. Although she didn't have money, she applied her talents to make her life in McAllen as comfortable and pleasant as possible.
My mother's years as a waitress weighed on her; she seemed to feel stigmatized by having done (as she viewed it) such "lowly" work. She married Daddy Noah with the expectation of never having to work again, but when World War II arrived and took many men from McAllen, my mother replaced the male manager of the Queen Theater. Although she professed that she didn't want to work, she obviously enjoyed being out in the public and spending time with the young people who worked at the theater. Managing the Queen during the war years brought positive feelings connected to independence and self-worth back to Big Nadine, but she felt uncomfortable about having strayed from the genteel picture she had in her mind of the ideal woman of her era. She also seemed to feel conflicted about not being at home to cater to Daddy Noah, my brother, and me. I knew her spirits were higher during the times she worked outside our home, but I grew up with the impression that such work was a sign of feminine failure. Success, I concluded, meant finding the right provider. There were three fundamental messages regarding work that I got from my mother: 1) working for a living was not okay, which meant that independence was not okay either; 2) working could be fun and spiritually and emotionally uplifting; and 3) letting your work take you away from your family is bad and should make you feel neglectful. I couldn't pack any more contradictions into those three short lessons if I tried.
As much self-confidence as work brought her, my mother did not translate that feeling into self-esteem. I don't think she ever considered working again. Like many other women after World War II, she vanished back into her home, where she felt more comfortable, less threatened, and, on the surface, genteel. Most important, she no longer felt guilt.
My world enlarged dramatically after I started the first grade. Everything seemed perfect. I loved my Daddy Noah, who came and went on schedule—he came home for lunch, took a little siesta, and went back to work, dropping me off at school on his way. He had been in the Valley since he left his family farm in Kenedy, Texas, in the 1920s. He was a steady, good-looking, kind man who had learned Spanish from his Mexican fellow policemen, and he never got upset over little things. I knew he loved me, and I loved him, but I always reserved a little compartment of love for my "real" father. This must have kept me at some distance from Daddy Noah, but he never appeared to notice it, and he treated me as his daughter in every way.
Daddy Noah soon became the chief of police of McAllen, and he stayed Chief Cannon throughout most of my high-school years. This fit right in with my mother's concepts of social acceptability. She was proud of him and proud to be his wife. His position meant a great deal to her, and she wanted my brother and me to live up to standards befitting the children of the chief of police. They built a new house in the late 1930s—white with green shutters and hardwood floors. Newly furnished throughout, the house was their pride and joy. Mother bragged about how her bedroom suite was custom-designed and how the dining room suite was "red-rock maple." Not just any old furniture would do—it had to be special. But in spite of the material comfort a new house and furniture may have provided, I eventually came to the realization that, for my mother, McAllen just didn't cut it. She still yearned for something more.
Growing Up, in Body and Mind
In September of 1939, my fifth-grade teacher announced that it was a sad day—Poland had fallen to the Nazis. War bonds were sold in the schools, and we were told that our country was being threatened. When the United States entered the war and mobilization got underway, my brother enlisted in the Navy. This solved the Leslie problem for the immediate future. He actually did do some growing up in the Navy, but after the war his problems persisted.
At that point, happiness to me was playing with my cats and my friends and making good grades. We rode bicycles, had sleepovers, and played softball. Kids ran in a neighborhood pack. We played hide-and-go-seek in the summer until the grown-ups called us in to go to bed. We ran up and down the alleys and called each other out to play. Everybody knew everybody—whom to pick and not to pick for your team, who was a crybaby, who tattled.
One day I overheard my aunts talking about me.
"I wonder what she'll be when she grows up," one said.
"I don't know, but she'll be something," said the other.
This made me feel incredibly special and accepted. The aunts were in their teens at the time, dating young airmen from Moore Field Air Force Base and working at the other movie theater in McAllen, the Palace. Movies played a major role in our lives. Since my mother worked at the Queen, I often watched movies while waiting for her—I had my first sexual feelings watching Gene Autry sing by the campfire. Because my mother also loved movies, we usually attended at least one a week. My girlfriends and I discussed weekly which movie star we had a crush on, emulating movie stars' looks and actions. Many years later, I noticed that one of my old classmates had a walk much like Robert Mitchum's, and I teased him that he had seen too many Robert Mitchum movies. He admitted that he had adopted that walk as a teenager and had been walking around like that ever since! (Movies and music are even more powerful in our lives today. The moment I saw Bill Clinton curl his lip, I knew he had seen a lot of Elvis films. It won him both the female vote and the ire of the Republicans.)
During those war years, Leslie brought Navy sailors home with him, and my parents would host barbecues in the backyard. Everyone was excited about the war—McAllen would have been awfully dull without it. Big Nadine enjoyed preparing for these weekends, and Daddy Noah made sure that we had birds and venison to barbecue. Everyone did what they thought was their patriotic duty to support the war effort.
By the time I was thirteen, I was boy-crazy, running around with my girlfriends, flirting with the cutest, nicest boys, and feeling insecure about whether or not they liked me. There were social clubs and a recreation hall called the Fox Hole, where the kids could gather and dance to a jukebox. We danced to "One O'Clock Jump," and Dickey Harris gave me my first kiss, planting it on my forehead as we danced at the Fox Hole.
The happiest time in my life was just before I hit puberty, when I had no conscious gender identification and was simply a happy animal with little self-consciousness. Life was uncomplicated and serene. When boys started giving me valentines, Christmas gifts, etc., I wondered why they were paying so much attention. I felt unaffected by it until, after noticing the envy of my girlfriends, I realized that my effect on boys was a form of power. Even so, I took on the prevailing cultural practice of showering attention on males. I learned to juggle the endless stream of men and somehow, in my confused way, I felt I had to be absolutely wonderful for each and all. Many females of that era did the same thing. We fifties girls matured during the rise of Frank Sinatra's popularity, and we believed what we heard in songs—never mind what our parents told us about good character and conduct. We heard Frank Sinatra beckon us to his libertine lifestyle, yet we were supposed to be "perfect" for our men. We listened to Sinatra sing, "The girl that I marry will have to be as soft and pink as a nursery, the girl I call my own will wear satin and laces and smell of cologne," and we complied with his request. I wore a pink angora sweater, smelled of cologne, and dreamed of my very own Sinatra to romp and play with. Between Sinatra and Scarlett O'Hara, the war and economic challenges, young women of the fifties were a very confused generation—we had so many conflicting messages aimed at us, yet we managed to survive.
Sex—penetration, anyway—was simply not acceptable. It was avoided or postponed by going out in groups of four or six. Going out meant dressing up and being picked up by your date at home, and introducing him to your folks before driving the seven miles to the international bridge to Reynosa. In Reynosa, we had a choice of nightclubs with bands, floor shows and anything we wanted to drink no matter what age we were. The Monte Carlo was a restaurant with a giant patio dance floor with a huge band shell at one end and a long bar at the other. It touted itself as having the largest patio in the world and it probably did. Good dancers from the little towns up and down the Valley gravitated to the same places we did to dance the jitterbug, rumba, and samba in our high heels, dancing backward doing the tango, returning to our table to sip Zombies, Hurricanes, or some other lethal concoction.
I was a late bloomer in the physical sense; while the other girls' breasts blossomed forth, my chest remained flat. We all had names to describe our breasts—or lack thereof—and I was known as "tortilla flat." (I remedied this in 1960 when I bought breast implants—before silicone, thank God. Now they are antique and more or less invisible.) I managed to avoid real sex no matter how much tequila I drank, until curiosity and competitiveness with my girlfriends got the best of me. I had my first sexual intercourse with a boy to whom I was sexually attracted, but it was messy and painful, not what I had expected. I didn't want to go out with him again. I was too young to date Air Force flyboys during the war, and for this my mother was grateful.
By the time I was through with high school in 1948, I had been nominated Freshman Queen, dated untold numbers of boys, had sex, and been chosen Duchess of Palms by audience applause at the Palace Theater—the ultimate honor for a seventeen-year-old McAllen girl. This meant I was to represent McAllen in the annual Citrus Fiesta, a Valley-wide celebration of the citrus industry. My picture was in the newspapers, and the Chamber of Commerce gave me one hundred dollars for a gown of my choice, which was palm green, of course. A strapless metallic blue bathing suit totally unsuited for water was my favorite prize. My mother enjoyed every minute of all this, and I loved being Miss Hot Shit, but later on I omitted that part of my past in conversation because I feared being ridiculed by my college friends.
Around this time I realized that there wasn't much more to do in the Magic Valley other than get married. I was ready to get away. My friends were going to school in places like Virginia and Missouri, and it was a rude shock to find out that my parents didn't have the means for me to go to college. Daddy Noah enrolled me in business college, but I only lasted three days. I was depressed about this, so I tried another tack, enrolling in a junior college ten miles away and hitching rides with friends. I took art, algebra, shorthand, and business law. During the summer of 1949 I got a job in a drugstore and saved my money, which enabled me to enroll at North Texas State College in Denton, Texas, now known as the University of North Texas.
At North Texas I was an art major. I loved the campus and my classes, but what I really loved was the freedom of being away from my mother. I cut my hair off à la Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls; I wore earrings and Mexican shoes. I was rushed by several sororities and spent every free moment with guys, at coffee date after coffee date. I don't recall ever cleaning my room. I was a pig, in rebellion against my compulsive mother, who had kept everything so neat and clean.
My friend Bruce Henderson, who was like a brother to me, was editor of the Campus Chat, the school paper. For the Christmas edition, he sent a photographer over to shoot me under the dorm Christmas tree in my blue metallic bathing suit, smiling up at a cute fraternity boy who feigned surprise at finding such a "present." Bruce also introduced me to someone he very much admired because, as Bruce said, "Bill is an intellectual and an athlete." As it turned out, Bruce was right. I had never met anyone like Billy Lee Brammer.
Billy Lee Brammer, 1950
Bill was christened "Billy Lee" by Kate and H.L. (Herbert Leslie) Brammer, as if they knew he would be their pet, their sweet little troublemaker, their last child. Kate was almost past menopause when Billy Lee was born, and as a little boy he felt guilty when his mother would break into tears over his small infractions. He was much loved and indulged by Kate and H.L., even though he came along on April 21, 1929, at about the same time that the Depression arrived full swing in Oak Cliff, then a suburb of Dallas.
H.L. was a mid-level executive with the Dallas Power and Light Company, and the family lived at 922 South Windomere Street, one of a row of identical houses. Billy Lee lived up to his name. He was a bright, sweet, lovable little boy, perceived as unique and talented by all. He had plenty of playmates on South Windomere Street. Kate stayed home with him during his early years, and he was in many ways an only child, as his brother and sister were older and had already left home. Later on, however, during World War II, Kate went to work, as many housewives did, which left Billy Lee with much unsupervised time on his hands. He was a natural athlete with a strong physique, on the short side (about five feet seven inches tall), with big brown eyes and wavy brown hair. He wasn't conventionally handsome, but his whole effect was very sensual and attractive to women. While I was growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, dating, dancing, and drinking in Mexico, Billy Lee was teaching himself how to type by copying short stories by Ernest Hemingway.
When Bill and I first started dating, he was just getting over losing a girlfriend who had dumped him for Skippy Browning, an Olympic diver from Dallas. The rejection motivated him to become an accomplished swimmer and diver in order to get the girl back. It didn't work. This story resonated with me years later when I was already separated and emotionally removed from him, and he performed a marathon writing binge that produced The Gay Place.
We both rebelled against the status quo, but in different ways. Billy stayed out of high school for a whole semester without his parents knowing. While Kate was gone in the afternoons, boys and girls congregated over at Billy's house to do what boys and girls do. We were both very conscious of the racism that surrounded us in our respective hometowns. The Valley essentially had—and still has—a class system based on cheap Mexican labor. In Dallas, blacks comprised a large part of the population. Billy told me how ashamed he felt after throwing rotten tomatoes at them on the street as he rode around with his less-sensitive buddies in Oak Cliff.
Billy enrolled at the University of Texas in 1947 as a journalism major, and later transferred to North Texas State College. He felt small and insignificant next to the more mature veterans who had returned to continue their interrupted educations; he complained that it was hard to date girls because they preferred the older guys. He was a voracious reader for his entire life. As a journalism major and an athlete, sports writing came to him naturally, and he began to write professionally about sports for the Denton Record-Chronicle.
When I first met Billy Lee in early 1950 in the NTSC Campus Chat offices (Bruce Henderson had arranged for a meeting), I was not impressed. Until he spoke. He was incredibly well-read and extremely witty. His sense of humor displayed a profound intellectual depth unusual in men of that age—especially the men I had known in the Valley. He was insatiably curious about the world and had an adventurous spirit. Bill, as he was then called (at that time I was unaware of his birth name), looked to me like a Dallas hood, or a pachuco from the Valley. He had a ducktail haircut, blue suede shoes, and a slouchy walk. He wore his collar turned up.
Bruce, Bill, and I hung out often, talking about politics and making fun of sororities and fraternities, even though Bill and I had both pledged. (We were uncooperative pledges, but we did, in the end, become members. We weren't in total rebellion against the status quo.) Bill lived off campus, with two apartment-mates. Each week too many of us would cram into the bedroom to watch Milton Berle on a little black-and-white set.
The U.S. government's response to Communist government in Russia after World War II was fear. In 1950, college students had to sign a loyalty oath when enrolling for classes swearing loyalty only to the United States. It was unnecessary because Communism was just an idea to which our government was overreacting, we thought. World War II had ended only five years before the Korean War started under President Truman's administration. Bill missed the draft by getting married on April 20, 1950, the day before his twenty-first birthday.
To young people having fun and learning about new ideas in economics and sociology, the Korean War to be seemed a vague and far off issue. But the world had shrunk and avant-garde art and social experiment from Europe were emanating to U.S. campuses, attracting young people like us who were bored with our provincialism and wanted to broaden our horizons. We yearned to go to Europe, sit in sidewalk cafés, paint, write, and discuss issues with other expatriates. Instead, we drank Pernod (since we couldn't go to Paris), listened to "Bólero," smoked cigarettes, and ate Mexican food.
Bill and I discussed living together and/or bumming around Europe, but our middle-class backgrounds prevailed. We were just bizarre enough for each other. I could never have married a Valley boy, and Bill was attracted to the restlessness that simmered just under my seemingly sweet persona: the picante. He even encouraged it. One night he told me that I needed to speak all the words I was avoiding. He said, "I want you to yell 'shit' as loud as you can yell it, so you can understand what I'm telling you." We drove around the square in Denton, with me hollering "shit!" as loud as I could.
The North Texas campus may have been beautiful, but my grades didn't look too good. Rather than spending time in the art lab, I was dancing with Bill to the music of the renowned North Texas Lab Band, who played Thursday afternoons at the student union. Bill had rhythm, and we both loved to dance. I was spending too much time with Bill and Bruce, drinking Cointreau and Tom Collins mix—God forbid! We didn't have access to mind-altering drugs at the time, but if we had, we'd have been taking them.
I had strong feelings for Bill; he stimulated my mind. But I had a whole other life in the Valley, where I could marry some eligible young man and have a comfortable life. During Easter vacation of 1950, at home in McAllen, I took a measured look at the men there. (I felt detached.)
After the holidays, I was returning to school with some friends in an open Oldsmobile convertible, cruising the 250-mile stretch of highway between the Valley and San Antonio. We were driving too fast, passing cars on the wrong side of the road, beer cans flying out of the car, when someone said, "Hey, was that Bill Brammer in that Chevy that just went by?"
I made my friends turn around. I was shocked that Bill would drive six hundred miles just to see me. He stopped and backed up to talk.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I asked.
"Driving you back to school," he replied.
In retrospect, it was a meaningful moment. I said good-bye to the Rio Grande Valley when I got in Bill's car, waved to my friends, and sped away to the strains of "Rag Mop."
By the time we got to Denton, we had discussed the advantages and disadvantages of living together and had realized that it just wouldn't work in 1950s Texas. We decided we could get married and continue school if we were both working. Even though I consented to marry Bill, I was conflicted. Part of me wanted to be with him, but part of me wanted to be free. I was enjoying my life, but I was at a point where I needed some direction, whether I knew it or not. Call it impulse, intuition, insanity—whatever it was, our decision to marry was not rational. Did we think about each other's personalities or personal goals? Did we reach any kind of mutual agreement about what we wanted? No. What we wanted was to continue being dependents, but at the same time to have our freedom. My parents were unable to finance my college education, so I knew I would have to work. I figured Bill and I could manage if we both worked part-time and went to school part-time. Besides having this basic survival plan figured out, I had only a vague idea of what I was doing. Bill seemed to be more certain than I was that this union was meant to be.
We got married on April 20, 1950—the day before Bill's twenty-first birthday. I was nineteen. We eloped to Lewisville, Texas, where we interrupted the one-legged judge's game of dominoes. We were pronounced husband and wife while a little boy yelled his testimonial in a tent revival meeting across the street. The scene was bizarre and a bit depressing. We spent the night in a motel and were back at school on Monday.
My mother lost five pounds the week I told her I had gotten married, but the Brammers took it fairly well. We rented a tiny apartment near campus and continued attending school. All we did was study and have sex; we both made the dean's list for the first time. We lived on tacos and Coke, since that's all I knew how to fix. (Bill's diet also included candy bars and Benzedrine.) We visited Kate and H.L.'s house in Dallas frequently; they were nurturing and supportive. Bill was still their baby. Mr. Brammer could never say no to Bill, and insisted on giving him money when we were there. Once, he gave Bill a mint-condition Chevrolet, which Bill traded for a used Pontiac a few months later.
We had gotten our way—we were still dependents, to a degree, but we were also able to be together. I got a job as secretary to the director of the journalism department at North Texas and switched my major to journalism. I helped Bill pass Spanish, and he helped me get through journalism. In 1951, we moved to Corpus Christi so Bill could intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Bill took a correspondence course on the Bible (a snap course if there ever was one) in order to gain the credits he needed to graduate; he received his diploma by mail from North Texas State College. Bill worked in the Caller-Times sports department, and I worked as a secretary for an independent oilman. We didn't know anyone in Corpus, so we hung out together, went to Padre Island, and read books.
It wasn't long before we tired of the real world and decided to get back on the school track. In the summer of 1951, we both enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. Bill got a job in the sports department at the Austin American-Statesman, and I worked for the director of the School of Architecture at UT. I was happy going to school and working.
Three months into the semester, I began to feel sick and lethargic. Opening the cat food brought on nausea. At first I thought we had a gas leak, but the doctor said, "There's nothing wrong with a healthy girl like you. You're pregnant." My mother suggested I come home so she could take care of me until I got over my pregnancy nausea. I hated taking the time away from school and my job, but I stayed with my parents for several weeks until my nausea was over. I returned to Austin to a cute little rental Bill had set up, with enough room for a baby.
Bill was constantly restless. He was also constantly broke. But since he was the man, and it was the 1950s, I assumed that he would take on the family's financial responsibility and that I didn't worry about that aspect of our lives. Later in our marriage, I realized that Bill was entirely unable to manage money. He spent foolishly—compulsively. He bought things on credit; life became a constant search for money to pay off what he had already bought. He bought nine cars in six years, everything from a Morris Minor to a Jaguar to a Plymouth station wagon. Not until I had children, and gradually realized that I had to take responsibility, did I confront him about his spending habits. I wanted to stay home with our children and not work, and I could see that this would be impossible as long as Bill was racking up bills.
But he continued to shop. He knew every new product that came on the market; we had a Waring blender before anyone else on the block. I knew we were doing something wrong—we could barely pay for necessities like food and gasoline—but it didn't occur to me to assert myself and tell Bill to control his spending. Fifties women played passive roles. We looked to men for guidance and expected them to take care of us, and we often felt helpless.
My pregnancy meant that I wouldn't be able to go back to school, and this was very upsetting to me. My mother suggested that I get an abortion so I could resume my education. In fact, at one point I tried to take some medicine that would make me abort; Bill called me when I was about to take it. When I told him what I was doing, he talked me out of it by promising that I could continue my education after the baby's birth. He always wanted children; I didn't. My mother empathized with me—she knew I wasn't ready for motherhood. She also knew that Bill was irresponsible and that I needed to prepare myself for the future by completing a college education. But she didn't interfere with our decision. I had faith—Bill would become a famous novelist, while I would be the enigmatic wife. Any idea of going back to college eventually became dormant, at least for the next decade. My vague hopes for Bill's success as an author displaced my own ambition to get a degree, and I resigned myself to simply being a good "helpmate," as we were called in the fifties, to my husband.
On August 11, 1952, our beautiful baby girl was born. We named her Sidney Gail. By the time Sidney was nine months old, I had to go back to work. We needed the money. This was my initiation as a working mother, and I hated it. I enjoyed the job working for the editor of the Austin American-Statesman, but I felt sad and negligent because I was away from Sidney all day.
Testing the Waters, Pushing the Boundaries
During this time I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and read every book by or about him. I identified with his wife Zelda, an engaging southern girl with artistic aspirations of her own. Zelda, along with Hemingway's Lady Brett Ashley and Michael Arlen's Iris March of The Green Hat, were elusive, quixotic, and irresistible to men. They were romanticized in such beautifully written books . . . I wanted to be like them, even though they were confused, depressed, and ambivalent about their relationships. The authors, who were close to the real-life counterparts of these characters, wrote about them in an attempt to support and understand them. I too was married to an aspiring writer who wanted to understand me, but like the enigmatic women of those stories, I didn't understand myself.
While our personal and financial problems simmered underneath the surface, Bill's professional life prospered. He moved from writing sports to the editorial side of the paper and won statewide awards for writing features. Everyone loved Bill; he was charming, witty, gentle, and nonthreatening, indulged by parents, friends, and coworkers. Men liked him because he could talk sports and was athletic, intelligent, and naughty. Women liked him because he asked questions about their lives and actually listened when they answered—and because he was naughty. (Later on, I found his intense questioning intrusive and sometimes felt that it verged on voyeurism. Sometimes Bill would set me up in conversations so he could watch me interact with various attractive male friends. If I met someone at a party and engaged them in conversation, he would quiz me on it when we got home. In current psychological terms, he didn't respect my boundaries. I would never have allowed this if I had been aware at the time of my right to protect my boundaries. Years later, Bill's second wife, Dorothy, told me that he had done the same thing with her.)
Things were going well for Bill, but even though he was advancing professionally, his salary was still fairly low. Newspaper people never make much money. But my salary helped us gain a feeling of being middle-class, and we had a house and child, so our parents began to accept us as adults. On August 31, 1954, two years after I had Sidney, I gave birth to another baby girl, Shelby. Responsibilities at home increased. Our income was reduced by one salary, since the economics of my returning to work did not play out: if I paid someone to take care of the girls, all the income from my salary would go toward employing that person, with no money left over. The only alternative was that Bill had to find a job that paid more so I could stay home with the girls. Then Bill found a house for $8,500 on a little street near Deep Eddy Pool off Lake Austin Boulevard, where I took Sidney and Shelby swimming most summer days. Around this time I had a Nash Rambler convertible that I loved; it was the first automobile that I ever considered mine. One day Bill came home with a new Plymouth station wagon. When I asked how he got it, he said, "Oh, I traded in the convertible for it." I was furious. He rationalized the purchase by saying we needed it to haul Sidney's playpen. I was learning the hard way about it being a "man's world."
But this was an interesting period in our lives. We were having a great time socially in Austin, but a horrible time financially. We were part of a set of young, sexually progressive married couples who were the Texas version of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation. We were in love with romance, decadence, politics, and literature. We read competitively with various members of one set to be witty and sparkling in the most esoteric way. The set included law students, artists, legislators, and youngish professors at UT. Austin was small enough for us to know about each other. Everyone had small children and responsibilities, but we managed to cluster at watering holes like Scholz Garten in Austin, at each other's homes, and at house parties on ranches. We wives took the children to swim every day in spring-fed swimming holes and sat on quilts, gossiping and nurturing our tans. We were humanists—we had faith in human beings, not God or "the spirit." We believed in education and knowledge and reveled in health and beauty.
The men in the group didn't want to be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—they wanted to fulfill some kind of vague myth, whether it be the myth of the hard-drinking, hard-drugging, womanizing writer, like Kerouac, or the myth of the hard-drinking, hard-drugging, womanizing cowboy-landed-gentry, like a John Wayne character (but with a degree in philosophy). They wanted to become whatever fantasies they possessed. Some of these men peaked early, like Willie Morris, who became the youngest editor of Harper's Magazine at thirty-two; Bill, whose book The Gay Place was published when he was twenty-nine; and Ronnie Dugger, who was editor of the Texas Observer at twenty-four. (All three had worked for the Observer at some point.) The women in the group simply aspired to perfection—or at least the appearance of perfection.
Our sexual relationships were changing along with the times, and we began to experiment in other, more potentially destructive ways—not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. We lied to ourselves and to each other, swapped partners, and acted on our own selfish motivations, doing whatever we wanted to when we wanted to, and rationalizing it later with intellectual verbiage. We discussed everything, and whether it was politics or sleeping with someone else's wife or husband, we couched it in clever repartee and witty put-downs, served with plenty of alcohol. If we slept with someone else's husband, we were discreet; we maintained the facade. We were hypocritical and manipulative. At our weekend parties on ranches, we drank martinis and gin-and-tonics before dinner and brandy afterward, argued about politics and art, felt up each other's wives and husbands, and then headed back to town for the week.
Bill and I enjoyed this lifestyle of fun and games for a while, but eventually he became uncomfortable with it. He saw me enjoying myself, taking care of the girls, swimming every day, and partying on the weekends, and he felt the pressure to bring in more money to stay on par with some of our friends, who were either from wealthy families or were making more money in their jobs.
In 1954, a liberal Texas weekly called the Texas Observer was founded by Frankie Randolph, a wealthy woman from Houston. The Observer's editor, Ronnie Dugger, offered Bill a job; Bill was intrigued and immediately quit the Austin American-Statesman. Thus began our long friendship with Ronnie and Jean Dugger, who later became Mrs. Robert Sherrill. After working for a corporate newspaper monopoly, Bill enjoyed the freedom of writing for a liberal weekly, and he and Ronnie did some excellent work together. They covered politics and the Texas legislature with a different mission: to report on the cronyism and sleazy politics that profited the politicians and their patrons. Consequently, the Observer gained the respect of politicians and lobbyists, which remains true to this day.
Later, when I was working in Washington, LBJ requested to see the Observer when it arrived. After he had his heart attack, I joked that I had reservations about handing it over—the Observer didn't cut Lyndon any slack. The Observer still labors along in its uphill battle, tackling important news that the dailies ignore.
Our financial dilemmas didn't improve with the Observer job, however, and Bill began to actively search for another one. After hearing that LBJ was looking to hire a Texas pressman, Bill talked to someone in his office, and was hired. Soon thereafter, I had an interview with Walter Jenkins, Johnson's right-hand man, and was hired as well. Some of our friends gave us a hard time about these new jobs; in our Austin circles LBJ was considered very conservative, which says a lot about the attitude of young Austin liberals in the fifties. But we were excited about our new prospects, and in January of 1955 we packed up, rented our little house to a couple, and the girls and I winged away on a cushy, luxe Brown & Root plane to join Bill, who had preceded us, in Washington, D.C.
“The ‘answer record’ to The Gay Place – by Brammer’s ex-wife.”