Bess Abell, a social secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s White House who drew a wide range of portraits for his portraits collection and led the first lady’s charge for health care reform, died on Wednesday at the age of 87.
A small, elegant woman who seemed to glide gracefully between men, she was a key figure in Washington’s social scene for decades, even when her White House contact list included guests who were no longer active in the capital’s affairs, including the magician Harry Houdini, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the prolific American novelist James Michener.
At an exposé of Johnson’s sexual reputation — “President Lyndon Johnson’s Closet,” a cover story in Esquire in 1976 — Abell was portrayed as a backbone of sorts to the president, who turned to her to soften him up for “his historically unprecedented affair with Lady Bird.”
She was named chief of staff to Mrs. Johnson in 1967 — at the time, the White House had never seen a woman as chief of staff — and, with her team, helped her husband lead a charge toward federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid. But her greatest legacy may be the hundreds of works of art, many of them portraits, that hung in the White House for over 50 years, including those of Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other presidents, actors and political leaders, as well as children’s babies.
In a personal statement on the dedication of her famous White House portraits on display in the East Room in July, Mrs. Abell said the Johnson family collection “served as a reminder that art is a universal reality.”
“No matter their station in life,” she said, “Everyone had the opportunity to enjoy the serenity of the White House and to dream of life beyond the boundaries of the Country Club.”
According to reporters covering the last decades of Johnson’s presidency, Mrs. Abell seemed a cool, confident executive. “Cliche, but true,” was the way Time magazine described her during the Vietnam era. “She is both hard-headed and witty. Her hairdos are the first to take note of the photographers. It is no longer surprising if she orders up a fabulous diamond-encrusted headpiece. … She would be, it is safe to say, the perfect image of the modern female executive.”
Even her enemies considered her able, skilled and respectful. As Jacqueline Kennedy once said: “Lofty fairy tales have never served women well.”
Mrs. Abell was born to Calvin Abell, a banker, and Golda Ann Spender, a socialite from Oakland, California. When she was still a young woman, Golda Ann married Howard Spender, a children’s author and noted character actor who had played the patriarch of a wealthy New England town in the film “Grand Hotel.” The marriage did not survive, and she remarried, to Henry Abell, a World War II sailor and painter. He died in 1984. She had no children.
Mrs. Abell arrived in Washington in 1954, having had a career as a model in the British capital. The strain of life in London showed, and she struggled to relate to U.S. visitors. During one trip to Washington she visited the men’s room, as directed. Her clothes were removed, and, hoping for relief, she carefully walked into the restroom stall closest to the toilet. A moving button finally sent her running back into the ladies’ room.
She did not travel as widely as other White House social secretaries, but her resources and organizational skills proved to be invaluable. She served as a driving force in seeking out large groups of government and business leaders to host parties. Among her notable hosts were the Fords, Louis and Jane, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
She graduated from Smith College in 1953 with a major in English. She was a member of Smith’s College Democrats, where she was active in the Shakespeare club and went on a “weeklong journey, dressed as a woman” to pose for the Sondheim sketch, “Actresses in Shining Boots.”
She later served as honorary president of Smith’s Bush Lot club.
After leaving the White House, she remained active, wearing a wide range of hats. She was one of the producers of a documentary that examined the topic of HIV in Texas, “AIDS in Texas,” and she wrote and directed “Anueus Dunhuang, India: The Way to Man’s Heart.”