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Nadine Ellen Eckhardt

Obituary for Nadine Ellen Eckhardt

January 20, 1931 - December 8, 2018
Austin, Texas | Age 87


Nadine Brammer Eckhardt, first wife and muse of novelist Billy Lee Brammer (The Gay Place) and second wife of Texas Democratic Congressman Robert C. Eckhardt, has died at the age of 87, Dec. 8, 2018 in Austin, Texas.

Namesake for two notable restaurants (Nadine's in New York City's West Village and in Austin, Texas) and for filmmaker Robert Benton's 1987 film, Nadine, Nadine Eckhardt is remembered as an alluring and articulate light among Texas and Washington DC political circles—a provocative beauty whose well-honed political savvy, frankness, and straightforward verbal wit earned her lifelong friendships among writers, artists, progressive activists, and politicos. She was seen by many as an influential cultural conduit by virtue of her ability to move confidently across many subcultures and historic moments.

As young marrieds in the 1950's, Eckhardt and first husband Billy Lee Brammer served on Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson's staff. (Biographer Robert Caro later interviewed Eckhardt for the third installment of his massive LBJ biography.) In his novel, The Gay Place, (set in an idyllic 1950's Austin) Brammer based the character of Ouida, a beautiful and discontented young political wife, on Eckhardt. The character is a complex, charismatic creature of her time, who competes with Governor Arthur "Goddam" Fenstemaker for the attentions of a disillusioned younger politician. The character Willy (modeled on writer Willie Morris) admonishes the younger politician with whom Ouida is involved: "She's got, as the phrase used to go, a reputation. Most eligible married woman in town." For his recently released biography, Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society, author Tracy Daugherty interviewed Eckhardt's longtime friend, Robert Benton, who said: "Nadine wanted to be Zelda [Fitzgerald]--not a bad thing to want to be, and if anybody could have pulled it off, it was Nadine . . . [She was] a great life-spirit. Being with her was like being in a car with someone who's driving twenty miles an hour too fast."

In 1961, after she divorced Brammer, she began working at the Texas Statehouse, which provided her with valuable experience and introduced her to an up-and-coming state representative from Houston named Robert Eckhardt. He proposed to her in 1962, and with the aid of her energetic charm and political instincts, he was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Congress, from 8th District Houston in 1966. She understood the value of collegiality in politics. The night of her husband's election, she and Congressman Eckhardt drove to the campaign headquarters of newly elected Republican Congressman George Bush to celebrate with Bush and his wife, Barbara, who had become friends with the liberal-minded Eckhardts while on the campaign trail. The Bushes never forgot that gesture. Nadine Eckhardt often attributed her political savoir-faire to having closely observed Lady Bird Johnson graciously guiding her own Senator husband in his career. As a Congressman's wife, Eckhardt was known for her generous hospitality and diverting conversation. LBJ advisor and MPAA head Jack Valenti once remarked to The Washington Post that Nadine Eckhardt was the person he'd most like to be seated next to at a Washington D.C. dinner party.

During a heady time of cultural and political upheaval, Eckhardt worked diligently to keep her husband's Congressional office and home life a well-organized and effective political machine, while also keeping him well up on the changing times. They visited Resurrection City during the Poor Peoples' March in 1968, and invited friends they made there to their home for hot showers and a good night's sleep. She counseled the Congressman to speak out against the Vietnam War, opposing her old boss, then the sitting president from Texas. Eckhardt opened up their Georgetown townhouse to student antiwar demonstrators running from tear gas fired at them by National Guardsmen during 1970 May Day protests. A lifetime progressive activist, Eckhardt always managed to straddle both the establishment and counter culture through turbulent times; she continued to count younger people as her close friends until her death. "Nadine was unique in that she was funny and smart as hell with the ability to speak her mind about the injustices she saw," recalls Diana Claitor, Executive Director of the Texas Jail Project. Susan Streit Walker (music industry manager for husband, Jerry Jeff Walker, and founder of Goodnight Music) met Eckhardt in 1972, while working for Congressman Charlie Wilson: "It was love at first sight. What a blessing Nadine was to me from then on. Her unique mixture of intelligence and whimsy was just magical. She was my maid of honor when I married and never changed from that magical human being."

Increasingly disenchanted with the superficiality of Washington life during the Watergate years, Eckhardt returned to East Texas in the late 1970s, where she went into therapy, divorced the Congressman, sold real estate, and worked on regional political campaigns. She returned to Austin in the 1980s, where she opened Nadine's Restaurant with her son, Willy, in East Austin; they served home cooking and the works of many local artists and photographers covered the walls. Several younger politicians received the benefit of Eckhardt's connections during those years, including a progressive-minded street vendor named Max Nofziger (who was elected, against all odds, to the Austin City Council).

Eckhardt joined her three daughters (Sidney and Shelby Brammer and Sarah Eckhardt) in New York City in the 1990s, devoting her political acumen and contacts to organizing Manhattan fundraisers for her friend, Ann Richards, during Richards' successful bid for Texas Governor. Eckhardt also worked as a New York University Dean's assistant while serving as a figurehead for the new Nadine's Restaurant on Bank Street, West Village, which featured several of her Texas recipes.

A decade later and back in Austin, Eckhardt was behind the political scenes again, helping to elect her youngest daughter, Sarah, to the Travis County Commissioner's Court. Eckhardt also worked for the Texas Public Utilities Commission and as an assistant to political writer Molly Ivins, using the skills she attributed to her early training on Senator Johnson's staff: the day-in/day-out clipping of newspapers, maintaining of contacts, and meaningful correspondence with constituents.

In her seventies, Eckhardt wrote a noteworthy memoir (Duchess of Palms, University of Texas Press) about her long life in politics and letters. Evident in her dedication "to the fifties girls," Eckhardt saw herself as an example of the many pre-feminist women of her generation who had to apply their brains and talent to pushing ambivalent mates toward high achievement, rather than pursuing their own dreams and careers. "She was smart, witty, entertaining, extraordinarily insightful, loving, literate, hip and cool, adventuresome, and a genuine trail brazing model for women of the 1950s trying to find a meaningful life…," noted Patricia Mathis, a close family friend and telecom industry executive who served in the Carter administration and headed the White House transition team for President Bill Clinton.

The planes of her distinctive face (indicative of her Cherokee ancestry) were captured by the sculptor, Phillip John Evett, and Texas painter, Mary McIntyre, in several portraits. Eckhardt was also photographed as a young natural beauty by Robert Benton as part of his first professional portfolio (that landed him an art director job at Esquire). Although she always nurtured artists, she rarely employed her own gifts as a visual artist (though she pursued an art degree before the birth of her first child)—but, as Benton once remarked, "Nadine's life is her art."

She is survived by her children, William Eckhardt and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, TX, and Sidney and Shelby Brammer of Bartlesville, OK, as well as two grandchildren, Nadine and Hank Sauer Eckhardt, and her stepdaughters, Orissa Eckhardt Arend and Rosalind Eckhardt. A memorial service is being planned for January 2019 in Austin.

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