There's no predicting when or how a news item on CNN or in the headlines will strike a personal note. For me, it was the death of two remarkable ladies this past summer. Actually, as the calendar flipped to autumn, the summer of 2007 marked the passing of a number of colorful women who defined a swath of late 20th, century American culture. These included Leona Helmsley, the imperious real estate and hotel maven; Tammy Faye Bakker, the former television evangelist; and Brooke Astor, the centenarian dowager and philanthropist who for half a century embodied Gotham's better angels. They were scorned, parodied or beloved respectively, but none could be ignored. But I'll especially miss two other ladies who contributed mightily to making the United States a more civilized, and yes, more beautiful place in the second half of the last century: Beverly Sills and Lady Bird Johnson. While I didn't know personally either of these charismatic forces of nature, I was privileged to share their air space on occasion. They left an indelible mark.
One cold afternoon in early 1969, the resident assistant of my college dorm came around with some comp tickets to see Beverly Sills in an Opera Company of Boston production of "The Daughter of the Regiment." Aside from the annual Christmas production of Amahl and the Night Visitors" at the Mosque, I'd never seen an opera and probably had never heard of Sills. The RA could find few takers. Remember that was the Age of Aquarius, and many of my college dorm mates were in a seemingly perpetual hallucinogenic daze. And opera, of course, was considered elitist to us counter-culturalists.
However, I went with my RA to the opera and found the experience anything but elitist. The Boston opera was homeless at the time, and we found our way to the venue which was in the cavernous and old-school field house at Tufts University in suburban Medford. It had a weathered, wooden basketball court and pull-out bleachers. The walls were dull shiny tiles the color of mustard. The orchestra seats were folding chairs set up on the floor. Our cheap seats were up in the stands.
The jerry-rigged, impossibly shallow stage couldn't have been 12 feet deep. To compensate, the set (a colorful, storybook castle complete with turrets and crenellation) had been engineered to crawl up the gym wall.
A vigorous overture, then an open antique carriage (I think actually pulled by two horses) rolled down the center aisle. Among its passengers was a grinning and waving Beverly Sills. What an entrance! But it got better with each aria and innovative touch from the late Sarah Caldwell, the opera company's artistic director (and herself a genius).
After intermission my RA and I returned to our seats and found white cards about the size of typing paper. Printed on these were instructions to hold them at chest length at the end of the final scene when Sills hit a specified spot on stage. The coloratura found her position and hit an improbably high, glorious note. This would have been enough, but at the instant, two enormous French flags were created on both sides of the field house when those in the bleachers held up their red, white and blue cards. Those in the orchestra seats went wild. Sills, taking it as a visual "Thank you," beamed. Seldom had a prima donna opera and production been so well matched as in this ebullient production. I got goose bumps and became - and remain an opera aficionado.
Lady Bird Johnson was also theatrical, I suppose. Gracefully becoming first lady in Dallas within hours of riding behind President Kennedy's open limousine as his head exploded and later, watching her husband's legacy implode as the Vietnam war escalated took tremendous presence. But Lady Bird Johnson hit even higher perfect pitch with her campaign to beautify America -- to clean up the sightlines from highways to landscape and protect open lands. Her genteel conservationism was a powerful harbinger and catalyst of our nation's evolving environmental movement.
I witnessed Lady Bird Johnson's zeal - and steeliness (which I suppose all five of these recently deceased women possessed) - one November evening in Richmond in 1985. It was election eve. Her son-in-law, Democrat Chuck Robb, was Virginia's governor and they both wanted mightily for Attorney General Gerald Baliles to win the gubernatorial election. As a combination get-out-the-vote rally and thank-you party for big campaign givers a reception was held at Virginia House, the great Tudor-style manse in Windsor Farms. Lady Bird was trotted out to rally the troops.
As the party faithful clutched their cocktails below, Lady Bird ascended the elaborately carved hall staircase and positioned herself on a landing. In a voice like soft butter, she told her audience how she had campaigned for her husband's first congressional campaign in the 1930s. The Texas congressional district was so sprawling, however, they went in separate directions to reach would-be voters. Suddenly, as the sun was setting that election eve the van in which she was riding hit tumbleweeds and the van rolled over and down a steep hill. Unhurt, later that night she and her husband reached each other by phone. "Bird what were you thinking as your vehicle was rolling over and over and over?" he asked her. She replied: "Lyndon, I wish I had voted absentee."