She wears her trademark three strands of $115 fake pearls, she says, to hide the wrinkles in her neck. And she has refused to dye her white curls ever since a hairdresser’s application of Fabulous Fawn tint started perspiring off her scalp in brown rivulets during an overheated plane ride. Besides, she says, people who worry too much about their hair are boring. She calls herself “everybody’s grandmother,” but her conversation can be pithy and blunt, spiced with such expressions as “Hell, no.” And she likes to put a crowd at ease by chronicling her public mishaps. One occurred at a rally in San Antonio, Tex., during last year’s presidential campaign when she heard a photographer shouting, “Will that lady in the red dress please get out of the picture?” Barbara Bush suddenly realized, “My Lord, it’s me.”
Refreshing: But as she becomes America’s First Lady this week, Bush may have trouble adding new wallflower anecdotes to her selfdeprecating repertoire. Stepping out from her husband’s—and Nancy Reagan’s—shadow at last, the 63-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 10 is about to become one of the most-watched women in the world. Already, social scribes are hailing her no-nonsense style as the harbinger of a refreshing new era that could liberate American women from the tyranny of dieting, face-lifts and high fashion.
Gone is Nancy Reagan’s California glitz, her borrowed designer dresses and hair-sprayed blond bob, characterized by Vogue magazine as a “martial law hairdo—if one strand moves, it gets shot.” With Barbara Bush, taste-makers predict the return of blue-blood Yankee naturalness—and what New York City marketing consultant Faith Popcorn calls the “Elegant Older” look. “Women have always been struggling with how to look younger as they get older, and she’s saying, ‘Don’t bother,’ ” said Popcorn. “What’s wrong with looking 60 instead of looking like an anorexic 12-year-old?” Bush has been understudying the part of First Lady for the past eight years. Social columnists are predicting that her White House will be short on pomp and protocol, long on gracious informality, its lawns and corridors littered with the toys and tricycles of the 22member Bush family. In fact, Bush is already turning one room of the East Wing family quarters into a playroom for her grandchildren, although she has decreed that none of them will
be allowed at state dinners.
For Bush, the White House will be her 29th address in 44 years of a peripatetic marriage to “the first man I ever kissed.” They met at a Connecticut Christmas party when Barbara was 16, the daughter of the publisher of McCall ’s magazine, Marvin Pierce, and a product of the affluent New York City suburb of
Rye. She was on vacation from the exclusive Ashley Hall boarding school in Charleston, S.C. George Bush, a skinny 17-year-old senior from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., asked a friend to introduce him to the laughing brunette in a red and green dress. He could not waltz, but she thought he was so wonderful that, she recalls, “I could hardly breathe.” They were engaged before he went off to war in 1943, flying a torpedo bomber emblazoned with her name.
Tough: When he came home a hero, after being shot down, she dropped out of Smith College to marry him at 19. Her only job had been at a hardware store one summer. But as her husband made his fortune in the Texas oil
business, then his reputation in politics, “Bar,” as he called her, found her career in their four sons—George Jr., Jeb, Neil and Marvin—and daughter, Dorothy. Bush says that she has attended “more little-league games than any living human.” And it was she who served as family disciplinarian—The Enforcer, as son Neil nicknamed her. That tough side only surfaces in public when she senses that a family member is under attack. In 1984, she called her husband’s vice-presidential opponent Geraldine Ferraro “that $4-million—I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”
Outraged: Her social conscience emerged in the summer of 1956 when she drove three of her children from Texas to Maine, accompanied by two black babysitters. When hotels in the South refused to rent rooms to the black women, Bush was so outraged that she either talked them into changing their minds or walked out. Said Otha Taylor, one of the two women: “She didn’t go anyplace we couldn’t go.” In that spirit of racial equality, Bush is expected to name Anna Perez, a black former
congressional aide, as her press secretary.
Her pet cause, literacy, is likely to become trendy now, but her own interest dates back 25 years to the time when doctors diagnosed her son Neil as having dyslexia, a learning disability. And the president-elect’s aides credit her with convincing her husband to take an interest in education and the homeless. Her methods of getting his attention were, like Barbara Bush herself, straightforward and original: on the campaign trail, she made the next president of the United States share a single bar of hotel soap with her so that she could scavenge the spare bars for a homeless shelter.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.