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Washington's Iron Butterfly

Bess Clements Abell, An Oral History

Had Elizabeth "Bess" Clements Abell (1933-2020) been a boy, she would likely have become a politician like her father, Earle Clements. Effectively barred from that career because of her gender, she forged her own path by helping family friends Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. As President Johnson's Social Secretary, Abell earned the nickname "Iron Butterfly" for her graceful but firm leadership of social life in the White House. Afterward, she maintained her importance in Washington D.C., serving as chief of staff to Joan Mondale and co-founding a public relations company.
Donald A. Ritchie and Terry L. Birdwhistell draw on Abell's own words and those of others close to her to tell her remarkable story. Focusing on her years working for the Johnson campaign and her time in the White House, this engaging oral history provides a window into Abell's life as well as an insider's view of social life in the nation's capital during the tumultuous 1960s.

About the Authors

Donald A. Ritchie is Historian Emeritus of the United States Senate. He conducted oral history interviews with former senators and retired members of Senate staff as part of the Senate oral history project and was responsible for editing the closed hearing transcripts of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's investigations. Ritchie has authored a number of books including Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932 and Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents, which won the Richard W. Leopold Prize of the Organization of American Historians.

Terry L. Birdwhistell is senior oral historian and founding director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries. He has edited and contributed to numerous collections, and is the author of Our Rightful Place.

Reviews

"The story of Beth Abell would have been very different had she been born a generation later. In Iron Butterfly, her story comes alive through her own words and the words of those who knew her. Ably edited by Don Ritchie and Terry Birdwhistell, two of the best oral historians around, this work allows the reader to feel the emotions, the joys, and the sorrows of a remarkable woman. It is a book that both entertains and instructs—a good read, indeed.The result is a fun, entertaining, and readable book about a very special woman."—James Klotter

"A new and fresh look at the inner workings of the Johnson White House from the perspective of the 'Iron Butterfly.' While officially Social Secretary to the First Lady, Bess Abell's political and social skills shaped the success of East Wing's contributions to that administration."—David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

"Bess Abell was the PT Barnum of the White House and Washington in her time. She had the inventive mind to create limitless events big and small and the knowledge and organizational skills to pull them off. This book brings the reader into a family storytelling session of her remarkable life through her voice and the voices of those around her."—Larry Temple, special counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson (1967-1969) and chairman of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation

"The Katharine Hepburn of Washington in the 1960s, Bess Abell was a force of nature. From a deeply divisive war to luncheons gone horribly wrong, she was able to deftly steer the Johnson family through the tumult of their Washington years. In Washington's Iron Butterfly we hear the story from Abell herself and from the members of the Johnson administration who knew her best."—Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and New York Times bestselling author of The Residence, First Women, and Team of Five

"Few had intimate access to the Johnson White House like Bess Clements Abell—a young Kentucky woman who took her political savvy as a former governor's daughter from Morganfield to the Potomac. Talented and likable, described as "feisty and funny" by the editors, she was known to be gracious, but "tough as nails" when things had to get done. An important read for Kentuckians and anyone wanting to know more from inside the Oval Office."—Bill Goodman, executive director of Kentucky Humanities and author of Beans, Biscuits, Family and Friends

"Bess Clements Abell learned from her parents grace and grit and she used both during her Washington career. She handled difficult situations with calm resolve and demonstrated to others how to serve and lead. She made her home state of Kentucky proud."—Eli Capiluoto, president of the University of Kentucky

9780813182261 : washingtons-iron-butterfly-ritchie-ritchie-birdwhistell
Hardback
January 11, 2022
$35.00 USD
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Electronic book text
January 11, 2022
$35.00 USD
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Electronic book text
January 11, 2022
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Other Titles by Terry Birdwhistell

This is Home Now

Arwen Donahue, photographs by Rebecca Gayle Howell, foreword by Joan Ringelheim, preface by Douglas A. Boyd, James C. Klotter, Terry Birdwhistell
Jan 2022 - University Press of Kentucky
$40.00 USD - Hardback
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text

Our Rightful Place

Terry L. Birdwhistell, Deirdre A. Scaggs
Jul 2020 - University Press of Kentucky
$50.00 USD - Hardback

Engineering Corporate Success

James Hardymon, edited by Terry L. Birdwhistell
Aug 2019 - South Limestone, an imprint of University Press of Kentucky
$24.95 USD - Hardback

Other Titles from Kentucky Remembered

Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky

Nora Rose Moosnick
Nov 2021 - University Press of Kentucky
$40.00 USD - Hardback
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text

Conversations with Kentucky Writers II

edited by Linda Elisabeth LaPinta
Oct 2021 - University Press of Kentucky
$35.00 USD - Electronic book text

Tobacco Culture

John van Willigen, Susan C. Eastwood
Oct 2021 - University Press of Kentucky
$35.00 USD - Paperback / softback
$35.00 USD - Electronic book text

Other Titles in BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Women

Bonds of Womanhood

Susanna Delfino
Dec 2021 - University Press of Kentucky
$40.00 USD - Hardback
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text

A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky

Frances Dallam Peter, edited by John David Smith, William Cooper, Jr.
Dec 2021 - University Press of Kentucky
$35.00 USD - Hardback
$19.95 USD - Paperback / softback
$19.95 USD - Electronic book text

Natalie Wood

Gavin Lambert
Nov 2021 - University Press of Kentucky
$19.95 USD - Paperback / softback