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B.A. Bentsen : She's the Elegant, Traditional Senate Wife: Active in Causes but Decidedly in Her Husband's Shadow

October 05, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN and BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Beryl Ann Bentsen does not remember the year precisely--it was in the early '60s--but she does remember the night, a Wednesday, when the small plane she and her husband were traveling in crashed in a field near Kerrville, Tex.

Bentsen, "B.A." to her legion of friends, was the only one injured. Stumbling out of the wreckage in the dark, she cut her knee badly on a portion of the wing that had ripped from the fuselage. She came within inches of walking into a high-power line severed in the crash.

Less than 48 hours later, B.A. Bentsen took her first flying lesson.

"I just decided I needed maybe to be able to set one down," she said in an accent so comforting she sounds like a high-fashion Dale Evans.

The incident is characteristic of what those close to the wife of Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen describe as "inner strength," an ability to withstand difficulty and emerge without bitterness. The death of her 2-year-old granddaughter, Courtney, from leukemia 12 years ago, for example, devastated her, Bentsen said. "You never get over it," she added softly. But those around her marveled at her deportment in the face of tragedy.

"You don't know until you go through a tragedy like this if you really have inner resources," said Alta Leath, a loyal Bentsen friend who is married to fellow Texas Democrat Rep. Marvin Leath. "She has it."

Superficially, Bentsen might be the prototype for a book, "The Perfect Senate Wife." Every Tuesday, she attends meetings of a Senate wives' Red Cross charity group. Immediately afterward, she meets with a Senate wives' Bible study group. Early on, she helped establish the Parents Music Resource Center, a project headed by Tipper Gore, the wife of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), to help stop what Bentsen calls the "bad influence" the lyrics in many rock songs have on young people.

"There probably aren't more than 15 Senate wives who spend a lot of time on the Hill, and she's one of them," said Gayle Wilson, the wife of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.).

L.B.J. Held His Tongue

Her dignity and refinement are so apparent that "even Lyndon Johnson didn't cuss in front of her," her husband said.

At 66, Bentsen is tall and slender, with a ready smile that seems warm and genuine. Stopping off for a brief layover at National Airport between appearances in Texas and Richmond, Va., she radiated elegance and self-confidence. Her manicure was perfect; her gold jewelry simple and understated, but very definitely not imitation. She swears she doesn't own "a roller or a bobby pin," and that she only visits her hairdresser once a week, no matter what. If so, one of her major detractions as a campaign presence may be that her hair simply looks too wonderful.

"She's one of the most beautifully groomed people I've ever known," said Scooter Miller, a friend of 40 years and the wife of Texas lobbyist Dale Miller. "B.A. is so beautifully dressed that you never particularly notice what she has on." Meaning, her clothes are "never underdone or overdone," said Peatsy Hollings, the wife of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.).

Almost 50 years ago, the young woman voted the "Most Beautiful Senior" of Lufkin (Tex.) High School decided to market her good looks. Popular and a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, she cut short her studies at the University of Texas and headed to New York, where she modeled for the Conover Agency.

The former Beryl Ann Longino posed for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour and other magazines. But to this day, she has not disclosed the name she worked under--nor does she plan to.

"I have not told anybody that name," Bentsen said firmly, "and I have no intention of telling anyone what my modeling name was."

It was all a long time ago, she added. "Would you like everybody to see your baby pictures?"

Comfortable With Camera

Even now, however, Bentsen is so comfortable with the camera that she vamped briefly for a newspaper photographer, playfully draping herself into a sinuous, fashion-model pose before a campaign aide urged her to stop, saying, "someone might think you're being serious."

Both her modeling career and her college education came to a halt 45 years ago when she married Lloyd Bentsen, back then a young military officer. Much has been made of the Bentsens' six-date courtship, but as B.A. Bentsen pointed out, "Well, it did stretch out for quite a while."

They met in 1941 at a Sigma Nu party at the University of Texas. Lloyd Bentsen, tall, good looking and rich, was the fraternity's president. They dated briefly, and after she took off for New York, they stayed in touch by letter. Bentsen, in fact, proposed in a letter.

She agreed to marry him without a moment's hesitation, she says. "I've had to depend on myself quite a bit," she added. "You learn to make decisions."

A Sad Period

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