Born in a small Central Texas town to a family of modest means, Elizabeth “Liz” Carpenter used her wry wit, keen intelligence and pioneering spirit to make her mark on many fronts. She was a trend-setting journalist, author, feminist, humorist, speaker, political adviser and party-giver par excellence. As executive assistant to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, she scored a first for women. But the career she loved most was as staff director and press secretary to her friend, Lady Bird Johnson, when Mrs. Johnson was first lady, 1963-69.
Carpenter was the first newspaperwoman to be named press secretary to a first lady and the first person to serve simultaneously as the first lady’s staff director and press spokesperson. She also contributed to President Johnson’s speeches, usually adding humor with the aid of others in the White House Humor Group which she established in another first.
Carpenter was born September 1, 1920, in Salado, Texas, in the plantation house of her great grandparents. Her maiden name was Mary Elizabeth Sutherland. A proud, sixth generation Texan, she would often boast that an ancestor died at the Alamo at age 17.
Carpenter loved her home town but often joked that it was “about a quarter mile from resume speed.” Often in her speeches she would quip: “We were all Methodists and Baptists and Democrats. I was seventeen before I saw my first Roman Catholic and twenty-one before I saw my first Republican. Both were terrifying experiences.”
In 1936, Texas declared the 24-room Salado home where Carpenter spent her early childhood a state historical monument. In 1967, a marker was placed outside noting that Carpenter once lived there.
Carpenter was 7 when her family moved into a big frame house in Austin, near the University of Texas campus. Carpenter’s mother, a bookworm and, in Carpenter’s words, “the family scholar-in-residence,” wanted her five children to have a college education. The middle child, Carpenter had two brothers, Tommy and George; an older sister, Alice; and a younger brother, Bill. Carpenter’s father, a highway paving contractor, was out of town often, making a living as best he could in the Depression years.
Carpenter launched her journalism career at Austin High School as editor of the school paper, The Austin Maroon. Another aspiring journalist, Les Carpenter of Austin, was business manager of The Maroon. Les and Liz became best friends. They majored in journalism together at UT and worked together on the university’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. He was an ardent supporter when Liz—then still known as Mary Elizabeth Sutherland—ran for and was elected vice president of the student body. She was the first woman to hold that position.
At age 22, her journalism degree in hand, Liz Sutherland moved to Washington, D.C. to seek a career in newspapers. In was 1942 and her first newspaper job in the nation’s capital—with the Tufty News Bureau—paid $25 a week. But the benefits were great. The job came with press passes to the White House and to the House and Senate press galleries. Carpenter covered many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s news conferences as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s teas, which were really news conferences for women.
Les and Liz Carpenter were married in 1944, after his discharge from the Navy following World War II. They soon opened The Carpenter News Bureau in the National Press Building. For the next 16 years Carpenter covered Congress and the White House for Texas and other newspapers, missing work only briefly when the Carpenters’ two children, Scott and Christy, were born.
Carpenter was a working reporter during the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, where John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were named the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates. She left the 1960 convention as a key campaign aide to Johnson. “Both Lady Bird and Lyndon asked me to share the adventure of their lives by helping Kennedy and Johnson to get elected,” Carpenter said later. During the 1960 campaign, Carpenter masterminded Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign trips and accompanied Mrs. Johnson as she whistle-stopped the south, helping to win that part of the country for the Democratic ticket.
Once JFK and LBJ were elected, Carpenter became the vice president’s administrative assistant, the first woman to hold that title. She traveled 100,000 miles with LBJ on his trips to developing countries around the world, acting as speech writer and media adviser. With her journalism background, she had a good relationship with the working press. “She saw that we got what we needed most,” said UPI reporter Al Spivak, ”the facts, food and the beverages of our choice.” Carpenter was traveling with the Vice President and First Lady on that sad day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated. She wrote the 58 words that LBJ delivered to a grieving nation when he returned to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., on Air Force One. The plane also carried Jackie Kennedy and the late president’s casket.
“I cannot really say I wrote those words,” Carpenter said later. “God was my ghostwriter.” Carpenter became staff director and press secretary to the First Lady following Johnson’s succession to the presidency. For the next six years, she planned, promoted and generated wide-spread publicity for Lady Bird Johnson’s principal causes—beautification, education, environment, Head Start, anti-poverty programs and, above all, civil rights. Engineered by Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson’s trips through the south helped win over the hearts and minds of those opposed to President Johnson’s two sweeping civil rights bills, which he pushed through Congress in 1964 and 1965.
When the Johnson administration ended in 1969, Carpenter hurriedly wrote Ruffles and Flourishes, the first of her five books. A best-seller, Ruffles and Flourishes, published by Doubleday in 1970, side stepped the darker days of the Johnson administration to concentrate on the good times. Carpenter’s subtitle is, The Warm and Tender Story of a Simple Girl Who Found Adventures in the White House.
In 1970, Carpenter helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus with Betty Freidan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem. She campaigned tirelessly for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment as national co-chair of ERA America.
In 1974, Les Carpenter died suddenly of a heart attack at age 52. Two years after the death of her beloved husband, Liz Carpenter moved back to Austin. “Family roots, the love for Texas and the University of Texasand theLBJ Library brought me back home,” she said. Carpenter bought a home in the West Lake Hills overlooking the Austin skyline and the Colorado River, and called it “Grass Roots.” A beehive of activity, this became her home, office and social center as she continued to write, make speeches, throw parties and take an active part in local, state and national politics. Three presidents gave Carpenter jobs of trust. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter brought her back to Washington to serve for a year as assistant secretary for public affairs in the newly created Department of Education. Later President Gerald Ford appointed her to The International Women’s Year Commission and President Bill Clinton made her a member of his White House Conference on Aging.
With her boundless energy, Carpenter found time to write four other books. Getting Better All the Time, published in 1986 by Simon and Schuster, is her humorous take on aging and widowhood. Unplanned Parenthood, published in 1994 by Random House, tells how she raised the three teen-age children of her brother, Tommy. Start with a Laugh, published in 2000 by Eakin Press, is Carpenter’s guide to giving roasts, toasts and eulogies. Presidential Humor, published in 2006 by Bright Sky Press, is a collection of quips and quotes from—as Carpenter put it—“George the first to George the worst.”
Carpenter won a long list of awards, citations and honoraria over the years. She was elected president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1954. In 1975, she was named a distinguished alumna of The University of Texas and, in 1990, she was named distinguished alumna of the UT School of Communications. Carpenter was also a member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and an officer of the Texas State Historical Association. Despite a hectic and full life, she found time to mentor a number of the next generation of women leaders, many of whom went on to prominent careers.
In 1984, a talented group of Carpenter’s friends—including Erma Bombeck and Washington comedian Mark Russell--established the Liz Carpenter Lecture Series by giving a fund-raising performance at Austin’s Paramount Theater. The Carpenter series brought an impressive list of VIP speakers to UT’s College of Liberal Arts, including former presidents Ford and Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Maya Angelou, Betty Friedan, Shana Alexander and Carol Channing. Carpenter, who loved to entertain and to be entertained, was a founding member of the Bay at the Moon Society, aka the Getting Better All the Time Singers, or G-BATTS. Members, including many able singers, would gather once a month--often around the outdoor Jacuzzi at Carpenter’s home—to sing and sip champagne under the live oaks and a full Texas moon.
“I’ve always lived as outrageously as my family, friends, and the law would allow,” Carpenter often joked. Carpenter suffered a range of health problems. She underwent a mastectomy in 1987. Later, degenerative arthritis forced her to get around “Grass Roots” in an electric scooter. She also developed a hearing problem and high blood pressure. Eventually, she needed round-the-clock nursing care. In 2010, Carpenter moved from Grass Roots to Austin’s Querencia nursing home where she was surrounded by pictures of her family and famous friends as well as a steady flow of visitors.
Carpenter, who called herself “a foot-washing, Psalm-singing, total immersion Democrat,” had a sign posted outside her room that said: “Parking for Democrats only. All others will be towed.”
It was a fitting spoof for a woman who was known for her sense of humor, generosity and love of life. Carpenter’s immediate survivors are a daughter, Christy Carpenter, of New York City, executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Paley Center for Media, a son, Scott Carpenter, a retired Vashon Island, Washington, community leader, and two grandchildren, the Rev. Les Carpenter of Indianapolis, Indiana and Bonnie Bizzell of Seattle, Washington. The time and location for the celebration of the life of Elizabeth Carpenter will be announced by the family shortly.
- by Gwen Gibson
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