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“Simple Admiration”: Justice Clark Hosts Engagement Party for President Johnson’s Daughter

When Luci Baines Johnson wed Air National Guardsman Patrick Nugent in front of 700 guests at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, their August 6, 1966 wedding broadcast drew 55 million viewers. A much more intimate reception had quietly taken place seven weeks earlier at an unusual location: the Supreme Court. Justice Tom C. Clark and his wife, Mary, longtime friends of Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, hosted an engagement party for the happy couple. It was the first and only time a pre-nuptial event for a presidential offspring was held at the Court. “No party could bring me more pleasure” said Lady Bird about the Clarks’ gesture of friendship, “because in all the 31 years of our marriage, we have no older and dearer friends than Tom and Mary Clark…ties built of times we’ve shared together and a simple admiration for their real goodness.” Although the Washington elite showed up in force, the lively reception was also a gathering of friends and family. “Someone remarked it was old home week,” said Lady Bird about the “goodly number of Texans” among the guests. The First Lady was also grateful that Mary Clark allowed her to invite some of her “Alabama kinfolk.” (When justices host private events at the Court they pay for them out of pocket.)

While the justice and the president had known each other in Texas (Clark grew up in Dallas and LBJ started his career in Austin), they became friends in Washington. In 1938, Clark was at the Department of Justice when LBJ, nine years his junior, joined the House of Representatives. Rep. Johnson supported Clark’s rise through the ranks at DOJ and endorsed his appointment as attorney general in 1945. The friendship extended to their families: Lady Bird and Mary were close and the Clark children spent Sunday afternoons at the Johnson’s house making ice cream in a hand crank machine while the senator and the attorney general took walks around the neighborhood. Clark expressed his gratitude for LBJ’s support, promising “whether it be political or otherwise, night or day, all you have to do is whistle and I am the boy that will be there, and I mean as fast as the planes will come.” In 1949 LBJ, then a senator (D-TX), cast his vote for President Harry Truman’s nomination of Clark to the Supreme Court. They continued to enjoy each other’s company as Clark moved from the executive branch to the judicial, and LBJ from the legislative branch to the executive in 1961.

Monday June 13 was a beautiful warm evening. At 7 pm, guests arrived by the front stairs of the Supreme Court and were greeted, according to the audio diary Lady Bird recorded later that night, by a “receiving line in the great stilled dignity of the Supreme Court Hall and the party mainly in two conference rooms with the guests spilling out into the courtyard around the splashing fountain.” A small Marine band played under the stars. All the justices attended, with the exception of William O. Douglas who had a speaking engagement. That morning the justices had handed down the landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision against self-incrimination; Clark, considered moderate to conservative in his judicial views, was in the 5-4 minority and had read his dissent from the bench.

The guest list featured powerful friends of LBJ and members of the Washington establishment. The diplomatic corps was represented by Ambassador to Australia Edward A. Clark, LJB’s old friend from Texas. Foreign policy elder statesman Averell Harriman, and his wife, Marie, “seemed to be having as much fun as anybody,” said Lady Bird. (To curry favor with LBJ, they would host a party for the couple at their Georgetown home six weeks later to introduce them to the diplomatic corps.) Democrat social hostess Perle Mesta, who had served as ambassador to Luxemburg under Truman, made a notable appearance. Cabinet members in attendance were Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman, and Secretary of Commerce W. Willard Wirtz.

LBJ’s former Senate colleagues made a strong showing: Clinton Anderson (D-NM); Mike Monroney (D-OK); John Sparkman (D-AL); Russell B. Long (D-LA); Harry F. Byrd (D-VA); and Warren Magnusen (D-WA) were accompanied by their wives. From the House side were Speaker John W. McCormack (D-MA) and his wife Harriet, and Hale Boggs (D-LA), the House Majority Whip, and his wife Lindy. A close friend of the president, Rep. Boggs would read the Epistle at the wedding mass. The Boggs children–Tommy (future lawyer/lobbyist, age 26) and Cokie (future journalist, age 23)–were good friends with Luci, age 19, and her sister Lynda, age 21. According to Lady Bird, Tommy had taken “Luci on her first real exciting trip — skiing up in Vermont, and he is entitled to feel that he helped her to begin sprouting her wings.”

Other A-listers also brought their adult children. Veteran Democratic operative Tommy Corcoran was escorted by his son, David, age 22. Mary Lasker, the health philanthropist who helped pay for the planting of a million daffodil bulbs along the city’s parkways as part of Lady Bird’s beautification program came down from New York with her young nephew James W. Fordyce. Justice Clark’s son Ramsay Clark, then serving as deputy attorney general, attended with his wife Georgia. But his sister, Mimi, then living in Dallas with her husband, did not make the trip—which she later regretted.

Luci invited her many friends, including the ten women who served as her bridesmaids. Her former classmates from the Georgetown School of Nursing (she could not stay enrolled as a married woman) “hovered in the crowd like little quails.” Lady Bird said she also invited adults who “had a part in making” Luci, such as her piano teacher and “a good deal of the White House [staff] contingent, all of whom had loved her and had been sweet to her.” Luci had converted to Roman Catholicism to marry Patrick and the priests involved in her wedding attended: her spiritual advisor Father William J. Kaifer of Georgetown University School of Nursing, Monsignor Thomas J. Grady, director of the National Shrine, and Father John A. Kuzinskas, a longtime friend of the groom, who would oversee their vows. Conspicuously absent was Patrick’s older brother, Gerard Jr., who was serving in Vietnam.

Lady Bird had not known “for sure whether Lyndon would come or when,” and was relieved when he showed up at 8 pm. This was one of many engagement parties for Luci and the president was at the White House watching AP ticker boards for updates about the Vietnam War. His arrival caused a stir and he joyfully worked the room. LBJ beamed proudly as Justice Clark raised his glass to toast the bride and groom. After the reception the Clarks, Johnsons and Nugents (Patrick’s parents Gerard and Tillie) ate dinner together at a table set up al fresco. The Johnsons lingered until 10:30. “The memory of the evening will always bring a bit of a smile with a tear just behind it,” recorded the First Lady after returning to the White House. Exhausted by non-stop pre-nuptial events, she continued: “I shall be a lotus eater on the LBJ Ranch for at least a week.”

Three months later, the friendship between the Johnsons and the Clarks would be tested as LBJ plotted to remove his friend from the Court. LBJ schemed to force open a vacancy on the high bench and fill it with his Solicitor General, Thurgood Marshall. Not only would Marshall become the first Black Supreme Court Justice, but LBJ expected him to shore up the liberal votes on the Court and advance his civil rights programs. On February 28, 1967 LBJ promoted Clark’s son Ramsay to become the attorney general, a move he hoped would force Justice Clark to step down to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest. Clark indeed retired on June 12. (For a look at LBJ’s political machinations to implement this scheme and then to try to bring Tom Clark back on the Court and fire Ramsay, see Craig Allen Smith “Make Way for Tomorrow: How Justice Tom C. Clark Departed from and (almost) Returned to the Supreme Court” Journal of Supreme Court History, vol. 46,n. 1)

Did the friendship survive? “My father held no personal grudge or resentment” toward LBJ says Justice Clark’s daughter, Mimi Gronlund. Instead, the Justice felt tremendous pride at seeing his son appointed attorney general and stepped down willingly. Only 67 when he left the Court, Clark enjoyed a long and fulfilling career sitting by designation on lower courts all over the country. Further evidence that there were no hard feelings was the engagement party the Clarks gave on November 9, 1967. This time it was for Luci’s older sister, Lynda, who married Captain Charles Robb, U.S. Marine Corp. The event took place at the Sulgrave, Mary Clark’s elegant women’s club at Dupont Circle.

Luci and Patrick’s marriage did not last a lifetime (13 years and 4 children) but the friendship between the Clarks and Johnsons endured. Former Justice Clark told an interviewer in 1969: “I have a warm affection for the Johnson family. Our famil[ies have] been thrown together…. There’s a thread of affection and admiration that has been all through our lives.” While there have been many friendships between presidents and justices, the Johnson-Clark relationship is particularly compelling. And it is the only one that produced an engagement party at the Supreme Court for a First Daughter.

Photographs from the Event:

The photos are from a contact sheet at the LBJ Library. The negatives are missing so we are not able to publish them in high resolution.