She recently turned 90 years old. But even in her prime, in the 1980s, she was known for her prematurely white hair.
She was born in Queens, NY, on June 8, 1925, but raised in the tony suburb of Rye, NY. Her father was president of McCall Corp., the publisher of a string of magazines including McCall's and Redbook. She was a true blue blood, distantly related to Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States.
She attended upscale Rye Country Day School, then went to a boarding school in Charleston, SC, before heading to Smith College in Massachusetts. She dropped out of Smith after her freshman year, and on Jan. 6, 1945, married her boyfriend, home on leave from the Navy. He was the son of a prominent Wall Street banker, who had joined the Navy at age 18 and seen aerial combat in the Pacific.
The couple moved around with the Navy until the war ended. Then she followed her husband to Connecticut, where he went to Yale University, graduating in two and a half years in an accelerated program. They then headed to Texas, where her husband went into the oil business. He first got a job with a company connected to his father's business, and for a few years they shuttled from one Texas town to another, with a few layovers in Bakersfield and Compton, California.
They finally landed in Midland, Texas, where her husband co-founded Zapata, an oil drilling company. By the mid-1960s he had made his millions and was getting interested in Texas politics.
Meantime, she had six children, the oldest born in 1946 and the youngest in 1959. Her second child, a daughter born in 1949, died of leukemia in 1953. It was this tragedy, she allowed, that prematurely turned her hair from light brown to chalk white.
She had spent the first 20 years of their marriage raising children. But in 1966 her husband was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, and she became a political wife. She joined him on a number of campaign stops, sometimes reluctantly, but continued to stand by his side for the rest of his political career, which included two losing bids for a seat in the U. S. Senate.
And by now you've got to be thinking ... blue blood, white hair, Texas politician. It has to be Barbara Pierce Bush.
After losing his second bid for the Senate in 1970, George Bush was appointed U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Two years later, as Watergate heated up, President Nixon asked Bush to head the Republican National Committee. Barbara advised against taking the position, but he accepted anyway.
In 1974, President Ford appointed Bush head of the liaison office in China, and the couple spent the next three years in Beijing. Bush returned to the U. S. as head of the CIA; and then ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1980. During the campaign Barbara spoke out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and said she was pro-choice on abortion. This caused some consternation among the conservative elements of her party, which ultimately chose Ronald Reagan as the nominee.
But as we all know, Reagan in turn chose Bush as his running mate and won the presidency. So Barbara Bush spent eight years as Second Lady, and then four more as First Lady.
During this time she presented herself as a traditional political wife. She took up some of the usual causes, such as homelessness, AIDS, the elderly, volunteerism. But her main push was for literacy, since one of her sons, Neil, had had trouble reading because of dyslexia.
She served on several literacy committees and chaired a number of reading organizations. She also wrote a bestselling children's book from the point of view of the family dog, and donated the proceeds to literacy charities.
Later, she made disparaging remarks about TV coverage of her son as president; she worried about too many "underprivileged" people moving to Houston after Hurricane Katrina. And she had a run-in with Republican vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin. TV interviewer Larry King asked her what she thought about Palin, and Bush responded, "I sat next to her once, thought she was beautiful, and I think she's very happy in Alaska -- and I hope she'll stay there."
And more recently, when asked about her son Jeb's prospects for president, she claimed that while he was well qualified, she doesn't like the idea of family political dynasties. Her conclusion: "We've had enough Bushes."
All of which demonstrates that on the surface, Barbara Bush is the picture of dutiful suburban housewife and family matriarch. (By the time she moved into the White House, she had moved 29 times in 44 years of marriage.) But underneath that veneer, for better or worse, is a sharp, cut-to-the bone kind of wit.