For more than half her life, Lindy Boggs remained largely in the background. After her husband, Louisiana U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, died in a plane crash, Boggs won his empty House seat in a special election and began “forging a second career out of the crucible of personal tragedy”…
For more than half her life, Lindy Boggs remained largely in the background, quietly making a difference as she supported her husband, Louisiana U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, at home and work. In addition to raising their three children, she managed the Democrat’s Washington, D.C., office, tracked pending legislation, served successfully as his campaign manager and chief fundraiser, and juggled multiple nonprofit projects while serving on countless committees. While never still – she was an outspoken advocate of civil rights in the 1960s as well as a longtime supporter of programs aimed at helping poor people, such as Head Start – she only stepped fully into the spotlight after her husband died in a 1972 plane crash in Alaska. A few months later, Boggs won her husband’s empty House seat in a special election and then began “forging a second career out of the crucible of personal tragedy,” as her hometown newspaper, The Times-Picayune (Nola.com), noted after her death July 27, 2013, at 97.
During her 17-year career in the House, Boggs sought equal rights for women, minorities and disadvantaged people. An effective lawmaker, Boggs wrote in her 1994 memoir – Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman – that the only way to play the Washington game was “with confidence and authority and graciousness.” Legacy.com remembers Boggs with a list of fascinating facts about the Louisiana legend:
1. Boggs was born in March 1916 on a plantation in southeastern Louisiana. She was given the name Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne. The nickname “Lindy” came from “Rolindy,” the name a nurse thought would suit the child while honoring her father, Roland Claiborne. In 1976, Boggs’ mother told People magazine that her daughter was born “with a silver spoon in her mouth – but it never went to her head.”
2. Among Boggs’ storied ancestors are the Brewsters, pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620 on the Mayflower. Robert W. Weir’s 1843 painting, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Boggs told People in 1976 that her relative was “the sick little boy in the middle of the picture.”
3. The Boggs family moved from Louisiana to Washington, D.C., after Hale Boggs was elected in 1940. The title of Lindy Boggs’ memoir comes from an incident that occurred soon after settling in the capital. Boggs, then 24, went to the House of Representatives to hear her husband speak. A guard at the hearing room door would not allow her to enter. Boggs left and decided to follow the advice of a friend who told her that the “most sophisticated and becoming thing a woman could wear was a purple veil.”
“So she went home, put on her best suit and kid gloves and stopped by the Palais Royal department store to have her hat draped in purple. The same guard was on duty when she returned to the Capitol,” The Washington Post recounted in Boggs’ obituary. She approached the guard, removing a single glove, and then used her “sweetest Southern accent” but backed it with strength.
“I’m Mrs. Boggs. I’d like to be seated, please,” she told the guard, who politely allowed her to “come right in.”
The incident, The New York Times later said, allowed Boggs “to launch her career as a belle who knew how to manipulate her image to hide quite unfrivolous intentions.”
4. The family was “socially ostracized” in the 1960s because of their support for civil rights, Boggs told People in 1976. At one point, someone set fire to a cross on the front lawn of the Boggs family home in New Orleans. As Boggs remembered, “We were in Paris and I was worried about my aunt and grandmother, who lived next door. We called up and my grandmother said, ‘My dear, you missed all the excitement last night. I saw neighbors we haven’t seen in months.'”
5. Two months after the plane carrying Hale Boggs and others disappeared in Alaska in October 1972, Lindy Boggs decided to run for his congressional seat. One reason? As she told People, “I thought Hale would return, and it would make an easier transition if I had the seat.” Her lifelong friend, Lady Bird Johnson, told her it would be hard to do the job without a wife, a comment she appropriated and repeated in interviews: “The only thing that almost stopped me was that I didn’t know how I could do it without a wife,” The Wall Street Journal later recounted Boggs as saying.
6. As The Times-Picayune reflected later, Boggs began work in Congress “knowing the institution” as few freshmen ever had.
“She not only knew the traditions, procedures and the leadership, she knew their spouses, their children and their birthdays. Her politics were moderate to liberal, but it was her personal style that people noticed,” the paper said. “Allies marveled at how she glided among mutual enemies, wringing concessions for the party and her district. Friends said she elevated manners to an art form, and made personal charm a powerful political tool.”
7. In her first term, Boggs was a member of the House committee working on an amendment to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, designed to ban lending discrimination based on race, age or veteran status. Boggs famously added the words “sex or marital status” to that list, made photocopies of the amended document and then gave one to each committee member. As she related the story in her memoir, she then said, “Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ‘sex’ or ‘marital status’ included. I’ve taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee’s approval.” The amended document was approved.
8. Before the 1984 election, Boggs saw her Louisiana district redrawn. It became the first district in the state with an African-American voting majority. She was challenged by a former state court judge, Israel Augustine, “a beloved figure in the black community,” Louisiana political writer Clancy DuBos remembered in a 2013 article. During the campaign, Boggs and her team visited a local housing development with a majority black population, unsure of how she would be received. As an aide told DuBos, “Almost as soon as we arrived, dozens of women came pouring out of their apartments, some of them clutching letters they had received years earlier from Lindy, or even Hale. Several of them said, ‘Don’t worry, Miss Boggs. We remember that you were always there for us.'” They pledged to “‘be here for you now,'” DuBos wrote.
9. Boggs retired from Congress in January 1991. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed the devout Roman Catholic as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. “The post was known for its sober decorum, but Mrs. Boggs would have none of that,” The New York Times wrote in her obituary. “The morning after she arrived to take up the job, she was informed that she was to be seated that night at a table filled with nothing but cardinals. She mulled that over and said, ‘I think I’ll wear red.’ At another point, she exchanged three phone calls in one day with an Italian archbishop on a minor piece of Vatican diplomacy. Picking up the receiver for the last time, she said, ‘Dahlin’, does this mean we’re going steady?'”
10. Journalist Cokie Roberts, the youngest Boggs child, wrote an appreciation of her mother for politico.com that noted how the phrase “first woman to” appeared frequently in any article about her. She was the first woman to win election to Congress from Louisiana, the first to chair a political party convention, the first to serve as envoy to the Vatican. “And she was an extraordinary person,” Roberts wrote.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”