While working on the story I wrote on Kurt Wagner and Wayne White's exhibit at Zeitgeist, I did some research on the photograph that Wagner based his fantastic “LBJ” painting on. The painting was my favorite in the exhibition, and I wanted to see what Wagner saw when he made it. I found the original photograph — of President Johnson with the Doris and William David Marlow family in rural North Carolina — and was so intrigued by the story it seemed to tell that I dug deeper.
The photograph was taken on May 7, 1964, during LBJ's War on Poverty, and apparently it's caused a lot of distress for the Marlow family ever since.
From a 1993 article in News & Observer, the regional daily newspaper of the Research Triangle area of North Carolina:
President Lyndon Johnson flew to the farm by helicopter, chatted with the Marlows and posed for pictures to promote his War on Poverty. Then he was gone, disappearing by motorcade down Old Mill Road.
But in the weeks that followed, the Marlows and their seven children became the subjects of widespread attention and even ridicule. Instead of improving their lives, the highly publicized event only made matters worse. Several months later, unnerved by the exposure and desperate for a fresh start, they left that presidential farm behind and moved on.
The story started when LBJ's administration began looking into a photo op to illustrate the president's desire to connect with his poor constituencies, and the Marlow family fit the bill. They were sharecroppers — mainly tobacco and cotton — and the family income of about $1,500 supported seven kids. William David was a World War II vet, and as a result of an injury sustained a few years prior, his family was briefly on welfare and received food stamps. Several of the Marlow children had to drop out of school to help support the family. This was the perfect example of the impoverished Americans LBJ's administration was looking for.
So when LBJ stopped by for an afternoon of public relations, it was almost as if the Marlows had to plan for the arrival of a superhero who was coming to save the day. The president's staff had the dirt road that led to the farmhouse widened, and four telephone lines — one direct to the White House — were installed in the yard. Prior to the president's visit, the Marlow's hadn't had a phone line at all.
The 15 minutes or so that LBJ spent with the family was recorded in a series of photographs, but in days long before social media and nightly news, those photographs stuck in the minds of the rest of America — acting like a kind of scarlet letter for the Marlow family. Some people blamed the family for LBJ's policies on racial integration, while others broke off pieces of the steps he sat on, and dug up dirt from the ground where he stood.
William David had a nervous breakdown as a result of the attention, and the family had to uproot and leave the farmhouse behind.
For the rest of her life, Doris Marlow would occasionally write letters to Johnson asking for help. Again, from the News & Observer:
"We have just found that we are the joke of a whole nation, " she told LBJ, asking for a donation, clothes — anything. "All we want is a decent chance for our children. Due to no fault of their on they are branded for the rest of their life as poverty stricken."
When I relayed all this information to Wagner, I asked him if the story behind the photograph informed his painting at all, whether he was thinking about the opposition between LBJ and the rural family — between Washington and the South — as he was painting it. But Kurt said he had no idea about the story behind the photograph, and that he'd just taken the image at face value. It was something like a birthday card that came with a present from his wife — a hat like the one LBJ was wearing.
He said, “I had some suspicion about the nature of the image and over the months that I spent with it, and I came to some conclusions about the possible aspects of this photo shoot. It was all conjecture on my part, and I think that now it just adds to the depth of the idea and reinforces the gut feeling that drew me to it from the beginning.”