In newly released love letters, LBJ's sweet side comes to life

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Lyndon B. Johnson was so smitten when he met Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor in 1934 that he took her on a first date the very next day -- and asked for her hand in marriage.

Taylor adored her suitor but was worried about rushing into marriage, according to dozens of love letters between the two set to be released for the first time by the LBJ Presidential Library on Thursday, Valentine's Day.

In the pages of about 90 letters that the newly renovated library plans to post on its website, Johnson seems lonely and impatient, persistently urging Taylor to make up her mind. She says she wants to wait until they know each other better, though she also writes that she is afraid of losing him.

"All I can say, in absolute honesty, is -- I love you, I don't know how everlastingly I love you, -- so I can't answer you yet," Taylor wrote him shortly after they met that September.

Johnson, then 26 and working in Washington, D.C., as a secretary to Congressman Richard Kleberg, met Taylor, 21, through a friend while visiting Texas and asked her for a date the next morning. They had breakfast at the Driskill Hotel in Austin and spent the day sightseeing. That same day, he popped the question, asking her to become his wife.

After he returned to Washington, they spent two and a half months exchanging a flurry of letters and phone calls before going to San Antonio on November 17 to, as she later put it, "commit matrimony."

In the letters, Johnson implores her to write to him frequently.

"Give me lots of letters next week," he wrote to her. "I'm going to need them. Mix some 'I love you' in the lines and not between them."

Johnson's letters begin "My dear" or "Dear Bird." She addresses him as "My Dearest Lyndon" and signs "Devotedly, Bird." They sent each other photos. He sent her books.

"I wish you were here this minute because I feel silly and gay and I want to ruffle up your hair and kiss you and say silly things!" wrote Taylor, who had recently graduated from the University of Texas and was living with her father in Karnack, in East Texas.

A few of the letters had been released before, but this is the first time that all of the letters are being made public.

People probably won't be shocked to see a sweet side of Lady Bird Johnson, but reading tender sentiments from her husband, the hard-charging politician, is a different matter, said granddaughter Catherine Robb.

Johnson, who served in the U.S. House and Senate and as vice president, ascended to the presidency in 1963 as the nation grieved over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson closed out his administration in 1969 under the cloud of Vietnam. He died in 1973.

He was known for giving the "Johnson Treatment" -- he'd lean in close, push people's buttons and get under their skin.

"I don't think people think of him as being terribly vulnerable," Robb, an Austin lawyer, told Reuters. In the letters, "you see a much more personal side of him, much more unguarded."

For example, he writes to his future wife that he carries a little orange comb in his billfold.

"It is the only thing I have from my little girl at Karnack and when I get lonesome and blue or happy and ambitious I always get pleasure when I look at the little comb and think � just think," Johnson wrote.

Robb, who had weekly dinners with her grandmother for years before she died in 2007, recalled one meal at the Driskill Hotel - the site of her grandparents' first date.

"I asked her what she thought about this brash, impatient young man who proposed almost immediately and who she put off for a whopping two and a half months," Robb said. "She thought it was reasonable to wait an appropriate period of time, but she realized that she didn't want to be without him - he was something so special and this was an extraordinary adventure she was going to enjoy if she said yes."

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson honeymooned in Mexico and were married for 39 years. They had two daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb. (Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Leslie Adler)