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Friendship with First Lady Inspires Wildflower Center Gift

Giving News

By Angela Curtis

Marie Smith Schwartz’s life sounds like something from a storybook — probably because it was inspired by one. But the personal and professional triumphs? Those she wrote herself.

The book that set the stage was Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” a tale of four sisters growing up in the 1860s. Schwartz and her three sisters decided they’d model themselves after the fictional March family and make a family newspaper. “We would save the brown paper that the laundry used to come wrapped in and cut it up into newspaper size,” Schwartz says.

And thus a journalist was born. Schwartz — then Marie Smith — went on to write for her high school newspaper before starting her career, working in the daytime and attending the University of Georgia at night. She started out small and moved on to bigger and bigger newspapers, eventually landing at The Washington Post in 1954.

Marie Schwartz

Marie Schwartz

Editors noticed her talents, and she was chosen for one of the paper’s most prestigious beats. She wrote books on the side and earned the trust of Washington luminaries. They included Lady Bird Johnson, whose biography Schwartz was commissioned to write. The then-first lady trusted Schwartz so completely that she invited her to the White House to conduct her research. Mrs. Johnson opened up her diaries and personal papers to Schwartz without condition — even when the first family was out of town.

“The house would be empty except for a security guard,” Schwartz says. “I felt almost as if I would look up one day and see Abraham Lincoln walk in.”

Random House published “The President’s Lady: An Intimate Portrait of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson” in 1964. Schwartz has also written several other books, including “White House Brides” and “Entertaining in the White House.”

Schwartz’s friendship with Mrs. Johnson inspired her to give to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which Lady Bird founded in 1982 as the National Wildflower Research Center. It became part of the University in 2006. Although Schwartz has supported the center for years with outright gifts, in 2008 she established a charitable gift annuity. In exchange for her gift, Schwartz will receive a guaranteed fixed income for life, and after that the gift will support the Wildflower Center. Her gift will give her an income-tax deduction and reduce her overall estate at the same time she is helping the center and honoring her friend.

Thanks to Mrs. Johnson, Schwartz says, “I became more conscious of the wildflowers wherever I traveled. Every time I travel in this country and see wildflowers along the highway, I think of Lady Bird.”

Born in Atlanta in 1920, Schwartz may have been destined for newspapers, but the path wasn’t easy. She began her career at a time when women in journalism were still rare. “Today it’s easier for girls to get into newspapers, radio, and television, but at that time it was very difficult,” she says.

Then along came World War II.

“It was easier for girls to get a job because the men were going off to war,” Schwartz says. “Women did a lot back then, huh?”

Things changed when the war ended. “When the men came back, some of the girls had to step aside,” Schwartz says. “Fortunately, I was well established.”

At the Post, Schwartz was promoted to the women’s department after proving herself in hard news. She was covering juvenile courts when the paper decided to create a newsier women’s section.

“They wanted to bring some hard news to the women’s department,” she says. “They told the women’s editor to look into the newsroom and pick any woman they wanted, and they picked me.”

That assignment not only acquainted Schwartz with Washington’s power players, it earned her professional honors. The names of the awards often reflected the fact that women in journalism were still a novelty. The Sons and Daughters Foundation named her “best woman writer” in Washington in 1963. She won the Catherine L. O’Brien Award for excellence in women’s reporting in 1965, beating out 1,000 other reporters. She also served as president of the American Newspaper Women’s Club.

Mrs. Johnson may have sparked Schwartz’s love of wildflowers, but it was Schwartz’s late husband who introduced her to philanthropy. Marie Smith and Arnold Schwartz wed in 1970, the same year she retired from the Post. He died in 1979 after working in the oil business and in hospital administration, the latter a lifelong devotion.

Arnold Schwartz was the son of a blacksmith, and his father took him on his weekly bill collections. Customers often told young Arnold that they were holding back 10 percent of their bills to give to the local hospital. His father approved, and Arnold grew up thinking philanthropy was just part of life.

“He learned from his father and his father’s customers that that’s what you did,” Schwartz says. “He wanted me to carry on after he was gone, and I have.”

Schwartz never lived in the Lone Star State, although for a few years she had an apartment in San Antonio that she used during visits to friends in Texas. These days she lives in Connecticut and keeps herself busy serving on the boards of foundations and charitable organizations, including the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

She still thinks about Mrs. Johnson, who died in 2007. “I always called her my role model because she did so much,” Schwartz says. “She prepared herself for whatever role life handed her.”

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