Bess Abell, Social Secretary in Johnson White House, Dies at 87
In Luci’s case, the bride had picked out a dress designed by Priscilla of Boston, a nonunion shop, which drew the wrath of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, staunch supporters of the president. Ms. Abell discussed the situation with Priscilla, who had a similar dress made by a nearby union shop. She sent both to Ms. Abell, who then cut the union label out of the second dress and sewed it into Priscilla’s, according to the forthcoming book. Ms. Abell justified the ruse by noting that brides are supposed to wear “something borrowed.”
That whole experience, Ms. Abell often said later, left her with “no regrets” that when it came to her own marriage, she had eloped — an unusual move for the daughter of a prominent politician.
Elizabeth Hughes Clements was born on June 2, 1933, in Evansville, Ind., and grew up in Morganfield, Ky. She absorbed much about politics from traipsing around with her father, Earle Chester Clements, who later became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the governor of Kentucky and a senator. From her mother, Sara (Blue) Clements, who was the postmaster in Morganfield, she learned about social etiquette by making place cards when her mother’s friends came over for bridge.
Bess went to boarding school in Nashville, then studied at the University of Kentucky, where she majored in political science and graduated in 1954.
She had met Tyler Abell, a young lawyer and the stepson of Drew Pearson, the nationally syndicated columnist, briefly at the Kentucky Derby in 1950. When they were reintroduced four years later, they instantly fell in love.
At a New Year’s Eve party as 1954 turned to 1955, they were playing drinking games and were egged on by their friends to get married, Mr. Abell said in an interview. They decided to elope that night and, with a friend at the wheel, drove to Maryland, then Virginia, and ended up in North Carolina before they found a place that would marry them on the spot.
Her father, initially furious, forgave her. At the time, he was the Senate majority whip and a close friend of Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader. One day in March, Johnson ended Senate business early so that other senators and staff could attend a lavish party that he and his wife gave for the young newlyweds.