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Deep down in the lanes with Lady Bird
Barbara La Fontaine
March 18, 1968
They are so well hidden in the labyrinthian cellars of the White House that it takes a First Lady to find them. The President's wife, it develops, is not only a fine bowler, she shines even with flashbulbs popping in her face
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March 18, 1968

Deep Down In The Lanes With Lady Bird

They are so well hidden in the labyrinthian cellars of the White House that it takes a First Lady to find them. The President's wife, it develops, is not only a fine bowler, she shines even with flashbulbs popping in her face

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On a day when she is in luck, having an hour or so to herself, Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson is likely to make a quick call to the Executive Office Building and, if the mail-room team is not busy bowling White House Secret Service, the President's wife takes off for the White House lanes. The way from the presidential living quarters to the lanes lies through the formal corridors of the White House proper, out the door of the West Wing into the Executive Office Building and finally through the distinctly informal corridors of the EOB basement. It takes a while to get the hang of the route, and, on the evening the photographs at the left were taken, a group consisting of photographers, reporters and her own press corps found themselves, baffled, in the cellar, waiting for instructions from the wife of the President of the United States. "This way," the lady said, and the troops moved forward, spared the interesting fate of having descended into the nether regions of the Executive Office Building, never to be seen again.

In 1955 the two bowling lanes were moved from the White House itself to the EOB, where they now open off a homey little basement room filled with photographs and plaques on which are recorded the fortunes of the White House Bowling League. Cases of empty Coke and Fresca bottles are stacked outside the door. Inside, an elderly blue-and-white Frigidaire bears a notice, "Cold drinks 10�, candy 5�," and Mrs. Johnson's locker is here among the lockers of the various league members: hers is No. 17.

She may not have been entirely comfortable at the prospect of being photographed while she bowled. Any woman would feel qualms at the ghastly possibilities inherent in the undertaking. Mrs. Johnson, however, perhaps drawing strength from the knowledge that she is one of the few women around who can plant trees photogenically, simply laced up her bowling shoes, slipped off her gold bracelet and, with no shilly-shallying, settled down to bowl, allowing herself only the murmur, "Now I suppose this will just be one of the times when I bowl 80."

Mrs. Johnson's usual scores, she reports, "are nothing to be proud of. I'm quite low sometimes and quite high others, but if I get over 120 I'm satisfied. I have occasionally got in the 180s." She confided this late in the afternoon, before she took to the lanes. She had entered a White House second-floor sitting room, whistling and looking trim and energetic, though a bit of the energy was clearly tension. She had worked hard all morning at her desk; met with speakers for a luncheon to be held for the discussion of consumers' problems; had a group of ambassadors' wives to tea and then had tea again, with a girl who had just won a scholarship to Yeshiva University. The scholarship existed because Mrs. Johnson was to have received an award from Yeshiva but requested establishment of the scholarship instead. Offered more tea as she sat and talked of her bowling, Mrs. Johnson allowed she could get by without it.

Mrs. Johnson is not widely known to be a bowler. Indeed, it is not widely known that the White House has bowling lanes. It has had them, though, since 1947, when they were installed as a birthday present for Harry Truman. Mr. Truman used them very seldom, and succeeding First Families used them hardly at all. Years earlier, President Roosevelt had swum in his swimming pool, and in the post-Truman years President Eisenhower putted on his putting green, thus assuring those facilities their fair share of fame, but the Eisenhowers and the Kennedys came and went without calling the nation's attention to the bowling lanes. Joseph Taylor, of the White House mail division, secretary of the White House 10-team bowling league, recalls, "I had thought when the Kennedys came in, being physically fit and playing touch football and all, that they would use the lanes, but none of them did." Not even on rainy days, apparently, and it remained for Lady Bird Johnson to give the White House bowling alley First Family attention.

Mrs. Johnson may be the hardest-working First Lady to have lived in the White House. For her, the ultimate in vacations is a few days in the Virgin Islands, never as much as a week. As for a real holiday of perhaps a month away with her husband, she has not had such a trip, says her assistant press secretary, Marcia Maddox, for 30 years. Obviously, she thrives on her regimen—her staff has trouble recalling when she had her last cold—but Mrs. Johnson gets tired. Up-tight tired, in the parlance of the day; tired in a way that taking your shoes off and putting your feet up cannot resolve. Mrs. Johnson has to work out her weariness before she can relax enough to rest.

"I really feel I must have exercise in order to live vigorously and happily," she says. "The more appointments, the more I've had to shift the gears of my mind from a group of ambassadors' wives to a 4-H Club to writing letters to family matters, the more I long for release."

She is a great walker but, as the President's wife, even her chances to walk are limited. "Lynda and I did get out in the springtime, whenever the weather was nice," she says, and recalls what sounds like rather a triumph in the circumstances—a walk to the Washington Monument during which they went unrecognized, so much so that "people tried to sign us up for tours, there where the people are all lined up around the Monument." Nevertheless, a real walk is often out for Mrs. Johnson. She swims in the White House pool just before her hair is to be done, but obviously she cannot hop in for a dip 20 minutes before a state dinner. So she became a bowler because the lanes were there, and in a country filled with women who bowl because they have too much spare time she may be the only one who took up the sport because she was too busy.

"I wasn't a bowler as a girl," she says. "As an adult, I did bowl a time or two, but only regularly since I've been here. Lyndon is quite good at it, and he always beats me. It annoys me, because occasionally I do make higher scores. Only never with him."

Later, on the lanes, her ball at first had a tendency to drift to the right, and she set up some nasty splits which she attacked with energy, purpose, small suppressed exclamations and, finally, effect, appealing from time to time to the mail room's Taylor, who was keeping her score, for advice.

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