Washington's Iron Butterfly: Bess Clements Abell, an Oral History

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$35.00  $32.20
University Press of Kentucky
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About the Author

Donald A. Ritchie is historian emeritus of the United States Senate. He conducted oral history interviews with former senators and retired members of the Senate staff as part of the Senate oral history project and edited the transcripts of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's investigations. Ritchie has authored a number of books including Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932, and Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents, which won the Richard W. Leopold Prize of the Organization of American Historians.Terry L. Birdwhistell is founding director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and served as Dean of University of Kentucky Libraries. He is a former president of the Oral History Association and is coauthor of Our Rightful Place: Women at the University of Kentucky, 1880-1945.


"Bess Clements Abell learned from her parents grace and grit and she used both during her Washington career. She handled difficult situations with calm resolve and demonstrated to others how to serve and lead. She made her home state of Kentucky proud." -- Eli Capiluoto, president of the University of Kentucky

"The position of White House Social Secretary is challenging in even the most tranquil of times. For Bess Abell, who served in the role for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson during the 1960s -- time of enormous social change including some brought about by LBJ's transformative policy itself -- the challenges were formidable. Donald Ritchie and Terry Birdwhistell's Washington's Iron Butterly: Bess Clements Abell, An Oral History offers a vivid and entertaining portrait of the inimitable Social Secretary, who the Secret Service code named 'Iron Butterfly' due to her perfect combination of Kentucky grace and unflinching strength." -- Mark K. Updegrove, President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and Presidential Historian for ABC News

"The Katharine Hepburn of Washington in the 1960s, Bess Abell was a force of nature. From a deeply divisive war to luncheons gone horribly wrong, she was able to deftly steer the Johnson family through the tumult of their Washington years. In Washington's Iron Butterfly we hear the story from Abell herself and from the members of the Johnson administration who knew her best." -- Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and New York Times bestselling author of The Residence, First Women, and Team of Five

"Few had intimate access to the Johnson White House like Bess Clements Abell -- a young Kentucky woman who took her political savvy as a former governor's daughter from Morganfield to the Potomac. Talented and likable, described as "feisty and funny" by the editors, she was known to be gracious, but "tough as nails" when things had to get done. An important read for Kentuckians and anyone wanting to know more from inside the Oval Office." -- Bill Goodman, executive director of Kentucky Humanities and author of Beans, Biscuits, Family and Friends

"The story of Beth Abell would have been very different had she been born a generation later. In Iron Butterfly, her story comes alive through her own words and the words of those who knew her. Ably edited by Don Ritchie and Terry Birdwhistell, two of the best oral historians around, this work allows the reader to feel the emotions, the joys, and the sorrows of a remarkable woman. It is a book that both entertains and instructs -- a good read, indeed.The result is a fun, entertaining, and readable book about a very special woman." -- James Klotter

"A new and fresh look at the inner workings of the Johnson White House from the perspective of the 'Iron Butterfly.' While officially Social Secretary to the First Lady, Bess Abell's political and social skills shaped the success of East Wing's contributions to that administration. " -- David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

"Bess Abell was the PT Barnum of the White House and Washington in her time. She had the inventive mind to create limitless events big and small and the knowledge and organizational skills to pull them off. This book brings the reader into a family storytelling session of her remarkable life through her voice and the voices of those around her." -- Larry Temple, special counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson (1967-1969) and chairman of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation