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