During an episode of Comedy Central’s "Drunk History," comedian Nicole Byer described a conflict between the late Lady Bird Johnson and actress and singer Eartha Kitt when Johnson was first lady.
During a July 2 episode, Byer said:
"Lady Bird calls the CIA and she goes, 'Yo listen, this b----? I don't like this b----. You better find everything you can about her so I can send it to other people so she doesn't work. Lady Bird is just like, ‘Destroy her,’ " Byer said.
We had to know whether Byer’s description of Texas icon Lady Bird Johnson was accurate. Comedy Central did not return a request for more information, so we consulted archival news coverage and spoke with historians to check this claim.
Kitt was one of 50 women invited to the White House on Jan. 18, 1968, for a "Women Doer's Luncheon" to discuss crime among young people, according to a Jan. 19, 1968, New York Times story.
Johnson frequently recorded her thoughts and reflections throughout her husband Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, according to the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum. A transcript from a Jan. 18, 1968, recording details the day of the luncheon.
Other women in attendance included governors’ wives, senators’ wives, journalists, and members of the National Emergency Committee on the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, according to Johnson’s audio diary.
Both President Lyndon Johnson and the first lady were at the luncheon. When Kitt rose to speak, she offered a sharp condemnation of the Vietnam War, according to the New York Times story.
In her audio diary, Lady Bird Johnson said that Kitt took a step toward her, "looking with intense directness at me," when she offered her critique.
"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," Kitt said during the luncheon, according to the Times. "They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."
Johnson said Kitt’s speech stunned the room into silence.
Kitt wasn't the only entertainment icon to criticize the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War. Michael Gillette, a former historian at the LBJ Presidential Library, said journalist Walter Cronkite and actress Jane Fonda were among the public figures who spoke out against the war.
Kitt’s comments were well documented in the press, as they caused quite a commotion.
An anonymous letter to the first lady on Jan. 22, 1968, included racist language about Kitt and said she "defiled the White House and made us all ashamed."
A woman named Clarence Nowack left a message for Johnson on Jan. 20, 1968, to say she was proud of her son for volunteering to serve in the war, where he was killed.
Warren E. Burger, then a federal appellate judge who would be named a year later to the U.S. Supreme Court, said in a Jan. 19, 1968, letter to Johnson that he and his wife were proud of how she composed herself during the luncheon.
"The unhappy episode at your recent luncheon impells me to write you to say that Mrs. Burger and I took a deep pride in the courage and composure you exhibited in the face of a gross breach of your hospitality and of good elementary manners," Burger said.
A letter to the editor published on Jan. 27, 1968, in the Times said in part: "There are even a few of us who believe that it is not really decent, or fair, to attack a man by insulting and humiliating his wife in the presence of other guests and the press."
Kitt told the Times, according to a Jan. 23, 1968, article, that she had received telegrams, phone calls and mail from supporters who agreed with what she had said.
Kitt later said in a June 7, 2006, video interview that she had not realized that the debacle at the White House affected her career until investigative reporter Seymour Hersh called her about the CIA’s file on her.
"I didn’t realize I was being rejected in the United States and I couldn’t find work. I thought maybe my popularity is waning, my records sales are not up," Kitt said.
Byer said Johnson asked the CIA to find damaging information on Kitt after the luncheon. We couldn’t find evidence of this direct request.
But the Secret Service did request information about Kitt from the CIA the day after the women’s luncheon, according to Hersh's Jan. 3, 1975, story in the Times. Historians say it is unclear who directed the Secret Service to make the request.
Secret Service officials said they asked the CIA for information on Kitt to see if she was a threat to President Johnson or others under their protection, according to the Times.
The CIA gave a three-page report on Kitt to the Secret Service, a file the agency had maintained since at least 1956, because Kitt had done work overseas, the Times reported.
The report stated that Kitt had a "very nasty disposition" and described her as "being a spoiled child, very crude and having a vile tongue."
We submitted an open records request to the CIA seeking the information in the report. The CIA responded:
"we did not locate any responsive records that would reveal a publicly acknowledged CIA affiliation with the subject."
John Wilson, an archivist at the LBJ Presidential Library, said he doubts Lady Bird Johnson would have asked the CIA to investigate the star, and if she did, she would not have put it in writing.
"As far as actual power, first ladies don’t have very much, but people would tend to listen, I would think," Wilson said. "Whether or not she should or could ask is one thing, but if she did ask them informally, they would be a lot more likely to pay attention."
Gillette said that Johnson would not have wanted to fan the flames around the Kitt incident.
"I knew her a long time and I knew a lot of people who knew her better than I did, and that’s so out of character for her that it’s almost laughable," Gillette said.
"Drunk History" claimed former first lady Lady Bird Johnson demanded the CIA find damning information on singer Eartha Kitt.
While the Secret Service did request information from the CIA following the luncheon, there is no evidence to support the idea that Lady Bird Johnson asked for the information. The Secret Service said the request was made for security purposes, not to "destroy her."
We rate this claim Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.