Duchess of Palms
by Nadine Eckhardt

University of Texas Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-292-71912-5.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 04/09/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

Suppose it is 1948. Nadine is a young beauty queen living in the Rio Grande Valley. Maybe the honor of being the Duchess of Palms and representing her home town in the Citrus Festival would be enough for some girls. Not Nadine. She wants more.

Her family can send her to business school. She wants college. Her mother aspires for her to "marry a good provider and never have to worry about working for a living again." Nadine wants some excitement. And so she goes to work, earns some money and takes herself to Denton, Texas where she enrolls in North Texas State College.

So begins Duchess of Palms, the clear-voiced and riveting memoir of Nadine Brammer Eckhardt. Carefully and sometimes painfully, she traces her life—marriage to two strong but needy men, life on the fast track in Austin, Texas and Washington D.C., and the heavy and welcome responsibilities of fourfold motherhood.

This book is more than a memoir—it draws a vivid picture of the period. In her preface Eckhardt stresses the role of women of her time—"the fifties girls," to whom the book is dedicated. Girls were to be "sweet, virginal, sexy, demure, beautiful, passive creatures" who would doubtless spend their womanhood as "perfect wives, mothers and 'helpmates.'" [Reviewer's note: That's what I was taught.] She recounts her efforts in all of these endeavors. For someone who was intended to play a fairly passive role in life, she managed to have some good—and fast—times. Not very long in Denton, Nadine fell in love with Bill Brammer. She was nineteen when she married him on the day before his twenty-first birthday. (Just in time to duck the draft, she notes.) And the race was on. He graduated. She didn't. They moved to Austin where they ran with a trendy, artsy set. "We were in love with romance, decadence, politics and literature." Bill worked at a series of journalism jobs while dreaming of writing a novel. Nadine worked some and turned out two little girls.

When Senator Lyndon B. Johnson hired Bill as a "pressman," he also hired Nadine as a secretary. He liked hiring couples—they worked harder. Speed on the fast track picked up. Twenty-four-year-old Nadine grew accustomed to flying on private planes and parties with the rich and powerful after making sure the girls enjoyed a good dinner. Bill worked hard and kept his ears and eyes wide open. Nadine had a baby boy.

Two months after John F. Kennedy and Johnson moved into their Executive Offices, Bill's observations paid off. The Gay Place, his now-classic political novel set in Austin and clearly based on the Johnsons (Lady Bird, too), hit the bookstore and some sore spots. Nadine can't forget, nor can she forget that she divorced Bill in the summer of that year.

Talk about landing on your feet. Nadine went to work in the Texas Legislature and in less than a year she married Houston-area legislator Bob Eckhardt. Hard to believe, but, again, the pace picked up. She became her husband's right hand, working as hard as or harder than he to pursue their joint ambition that he serve in the United States Congress, and she produced a baby girl.

When Bob achieved their ambition and entered Congress in 1967, Nadine was right there with him, hanging out with the Congressional crowd, a few lobbyists and the Johnsons, working hard, tending the kids, having a few affairs, and staying in Bob's shadow. Like many highly successful men, Bob was basically helpless. Journalist Molly Ivins once observed, "If Bob had not been taken care of by good women all his life, he'd have been totally nonfunctional."

The marriage ended in 1977. A fifties girl no longer, Nadine picked up the pieces, stayed on good, if testy, terms with both former husbands and raised four fine kids. Not a one of those three daughters is a fifties girl. Now she's living up to her childhood dream of being a writer, and has turned out one heckuva book.

Survivors of the period, history buffs (especially of Texas), and anyone, anywhere who enjoys a good, breathtakingly honest, and amusing life story will be riveted by this hard-livin' story by a good-timin' girl.

Nadine Eckhardt has enjoyed many careers including politics, journalism, real estate, restaurants, and motherhood. Currently she lives and writes in Austin, Texas where she is active as mother and grandmother to her four children and their families. For more about the book, see the publisher's website.

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