Julie Andrews, Warren Beatty, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood. The 1966 Academy Awards were brimming with star power. But on that April evening, every eye in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was fixed on the year’s glamorous “it” couple: actor George Hamilton and Lynda Bird Johnson, the 22-year-old daughter of then-President Lyndon Johnson.
For eighteen months, Hamilton, a 26-year-old B-level actor, known more for his debonair personality and dark good looks than his acting chops, and LBJ’s eldest daughter Lynda were quite the item.
The two met when Hamilton was invited to a 1965 White House dinner after the Johnson family saw his portrayal of legendary country crooner Hank Williams in Your Cheatin’ Heart.
Hamilton hit it off with the Johnson’s eldest daughter, a student at George Washington University, who appeared to be the brainy type — and, quite possibly, a challenge. Later, he would recall, “I sensed that somewhere inside that bookworm was a babe trying to get out.”
Hamilton invited Johnson to join him in Acapulco, and she, surprisingly, accepted. A whirlwind courtship would follow, with high-profile dates at the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras, followed by Easter at the LBJ ranch. But it was the couple’s appearance at the 1966 Oscars that really got tongues wagging.
It turned out to be a stroke of genius for the publicity-hungry Hamilton, who found himself in the headlines and gossip pages.
He summoned beauty expert extraordinaire, George Masters, to his home to oversee Johnson’s hair and makeup for the big event, knowing the cameras would be zeroing in on the couple.
Smart move: Emcee Bob Hope used the twosome as fodder for much of his opening monologue. At one point, he joked that someone had given the President a watch, but Lynda didn’t get one, as she already had a Hamilton.
LBJ, for his part, wasn’t thrilled by his daughter’s relationship with the smooth man-about-town. (He reportedly referred to Hamilton as “Charlie” in private.)
A major sticking point: Hamilton was in trouble with the press over his Vietnam War deferment.
The actor would cite “extreme hardship to dependents” as a reason for not serving, since Hamilton was supposedly supporting his mother and, for a time, his two brothers.
However, as more than a few reporters were quick to point out, his mother’s fourth husband was an heir to the Spalding sporting goods fortune, and she lived in high style in Beverly Hills, with a butler, cook, and gardener at her beck and call.
In truth, LBJ’s disapproval didn’t bother Hamilton, who wasn’t exactly looking for a life partner. According to the late nationally syndicated gossip columnist Sheila Graham, “[Hamilton] was determined to see Lynda and still maintain his bachelor status,” which he had declared was “an actor’s lifeblood.”
The couple would break up after a year, and a few months later, Johnson became engaged to Marine Corps Captain Charles Robb, (who Hamilton called “her genetic destiny”), now her husband.
There were no hard feelings, though. Johnson graciously invited Hamilton to her White House wedding to Robb in December 1967.
Years later, the couple invited him to Robb’s inauguration as Governor of Virginia. “I couldn’t help thinking it might have been me,” Hamilton wistfully wrote in his 2008 memoir, Don’t Mind If I Do.
The two have remained friends over the years. The Robbs were in the audience when Hamilton came to Washington D.C. to star in the musical farce La Cage Aux Folles at the Kennedy Center in 2012. A week earlier they had him over to dinner at their Virginia home.
Ah, but what might have been. “The thing to remember about George is he’s the best-connected actor in the history of the film business,” said William Stadiem, co-author of Hamilton’s memoir, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “He knows everyone in high society, finance, fashion, and he could have been the first Hollywood son-in-law in the White House.”