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Bess Abell, White House social secretary during Johnson administration, dies at 87

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said her husband, Tyler Abell, who served in the final months of Johnson’s presidency as chief of protocol. His appointment carried ambassadorial rank and, along with his wife’s position, placed the Abells among the elite Washington power couples of that era.

Mrs. Abell’s acquaintance with the Johnsons dated at least to the 1950s, when Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.) was serving as Senate majority leader and Mrs. Abell’s father, Sen. Earle C. Clements (D-Ky.), was majority whip. The Johnsons feted Bess and Tyler Abell when they married in 1955, and five years later, the Abells named their second son Lyndon, after the future president.

Mrs. Abell volunteered with the 1960 campaign that thrust Lyndon Johnson to the vice presidency, under President John F. Kennedy, and became personal secretary to Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, after their victory. Upon Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Lyndon was sworn in as president, Lady Bird became first lady, and soon after, Mrs. Abell was named social secretary.

Perhaps the best-known woman to have previously held the role — at the time no man had served as White House social secretary — was Letitia Baldrige, a friend of Jacqueline Kennedy’s who was credited with helping the Kennedys project the aura of elegance that made their White House years known as Camelot.

By at least one account, Mrs. Abell held even greater sway than Baldrige, who had been tasked with “lifting presidential occasions to a continental style and standard,” government scholar MaryAnne Borrelli wrote in the 2011 book “The Politics of the President’s Wife.”

“Lady Bird Johnson placed tremendous confidence in Bess Abell, giving her even more responsibility than had been granted the Kennedy social secretaries,” Borrelli continued. “Comparing the administrations, Chief Usher J.B. West concluded that Bess Abell ‘did for Mrs. Johnson what Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy had done for themselves. . . . It wasn’t just that Bess assumed more authority than previous social secretaries, she’d been granted that authority by Mrs. Johnson.”

Mrs. Abell set her clock five minutes fast to ensure the timely execution of her job. Her duties required military-level precision and coordination with the head usher, chef, florist and service staff of the White House — not to mention the entourages of visiting dignitaries from around the world. According to a Washington Post report at the time, she “planned, organized and staged the entertaining and feeding of nearly 80,000 presidential guests” — and that was only in her first three years on the job.

For the first couple, perhaps the most personally meaningful events organized by Mrs. Abell were the wedding reception for their younger daughter, Luci Johnson, and her husband, Patrick Nugent, in 1966 and the East Room wedding ceremony the next year uniting Luci’s older sister, Lynda Johnson, and future Virginia governor Charles S. Robb.

The fraught nature of wedding planning — coupled with political exigencies such as a requirement that Luci’s gown be pieced together so that most of the dress came from union shops — left Mrs. Abell with “no regrets,” she told Time magazine, that she and Tyler Abell had eloped.

In her more official state functions, Mrs. Abell was responsible for finding gifts for visiting dignitaries. Instructing her on that duty, President Johnson told her to “spend more imagination and less taxpayer money,” she later recalled.

There were occasional slip-ups, such as the time she presented a cigar humidor to a head of state who favored cigarettes. Another time, for a visit by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, she arranged a performance at the White House by the operatic baritone Robert Merrill.

“You can’t be serious,” national security adviser Walt W. Rostow exclaimed when he saw Merrill’s proposed program. “This must be a joke. To the prime minister who pulled the British out of Suez, you’re singing ‘On the Road to Mandalay.’ And you serenade the man who devalued the British pound with ‘I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing’?”

Mrs. Abell and Merrill prepared a new program. But in the meantime, she told The Post, “the story leaked and the British Embassy told us that Wilson couldn’t survive a change of program. Fortunately, we hadn’t trashed all the first printed programs. So Merrill sang it all, and added one — ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So.’ ”

Elizabeth Hughes Clements was born in Evansville, Ind., on June 2, 1933. She spent her early childhood in Morganfield, Ky., before moving to Washington, where her father served as a congressman, and then to Frankfurt, Ky., during his tenure as governor. She later graduated from a boarding school in Nashville.

Her experience as a politician’s daughter made her sensitive, in her role as White House social secretary, to the needs of presidential guests. She attended with her father at least one White House function that was “more crowded than the Union County Fair on the 4th of July,” she later recalled. “Dying of thirst,” she recounted, she found that “the only logical way to reach the punch bowl was sprout wings and fly.”

She received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kentucky in 1954 and the next year married Tyler Abell, who later trained as a lawyer and worked on the Kennedy-Johnson campaign. He, too, came from a well-connected family: His father, George Abell, was a former journalist and assistant chief of protocol from 1963 to 1970; his mother, Luvie Moore Pearson, was a noted Washington hostess; and his stepfather was prominent Washington columnist Drew Pearson.

Mrs. Abell served as White House social secretary until Johnson left office in 1969. During the Carter administration, she was executive assistant to Joan Mondale, the wife of Vice President Walter Mondale. Later, Mrs. Abell operated Bess Abell Enterprises, a Washington public relations firm, and with her husband oversaw the development of Merry-Go-Round Farm, a community of homes in Potomac, Md., built on land previously owned by Pearson.

In addition to her husband, of Washington and Merry-Go-Round Farm, survivors include two sons, Dan Abell of Boulder, Colo., and Lyndon Abell of Washington; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In 1968, when her husband became chief of protocol, Mrs. Abell joked to the New York Times that by the time Johnson left office, she would have “worked with four chiefs of protocol. Three of them I liked very much, and one I am in love with.”

The novelty of a husband-wife duo in their positions prompted curiosity as well as amusement. “What would be the consequences to the United States,” wondered Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, a former U.S. attorney general then serving as undersecretary of state, “if you and your wife had a fight and were not speaking to each other?”

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