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How Barbara fell in love with George H.W. Bush, ‘the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on’

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 12/2/2018 Rachel Siegel

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They met at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Conn., just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

George H.W. Bush was 17. Barbara Pierce was 16. She was wearing a red-and-green dress, and Bush asked a friend to introduce them.

“I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on,” Barbara would say years later. “I couldn’t even breathe when he was in the room.”

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Barbara died earlier this year. Her husband of 73 years died Friday.

But the story of the romance remains just as compelling now as it was when it began in 1941.

Barbara was attending a boarding school in South Carolina, and George was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., so the two had to settle for a long-distance courtship.

At age 19, Barbara dropped out of elite Smith College to be with George — a decision she’d find herself defending decades later as first lady.

“One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh,” she explained at a 1990 commencement speech to graduates of Wellesley College, some of whom had protested her appearance. “Find the joy in life, because as Ferris Bueller said on his day off, ‘Life moves pretty fast; and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you’re going to miss it.’ ”

Not yet married, Barbara and George were separated by World War II, relying on handwritten letters as the only bridge between them.

In a 2011 interview for NBC’s “Today” show with his granddaughter, Jenna Bush Hager, George Bush said those missives “were everything” to them. Stationed aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean as a young naval aviator, he said he would eagerly wait for mail call and to hear someone yell “Bush!,” signaling another one of Barbara’s cherished letters had arrived.

In one reply to his “Darling Bar,” dated Dec. 12, 1943, the future president wrote, “I love you precious with all my heart, and to know that you love me, means my life.”

A young George H.W. Bush, center, with Navy comrades Joe Reichert, left, and Leo Nadeau during World War II. (Robert B. Stinnett National Archives) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post A young George H.W. Bush, center, with Navy comrades Joe Reichert, left, and Leo Nadeau during World War II. (Robert B. Stinnett National Archives)

On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush was shot down over Chichi Jima in the Pacific. Not long after, Barbara received a letter from George assuring her that “all was well.” But, Barbara told Hager, the letter was dated before George’s plane had been hit.

George survived the plane crash, but the letters from Barbara he carried with him did not. George soon came home, and the two were married on Jan. 6, 1945, while George was home on leave. They had six children together, including future President George W. Bush, and endured the heartbreaking death of one of them: daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3.

While eulogizing his mother at her funeral, Jeb Bush listed the many moves Barbara and George made during their marriage because of George’s endeavors in the oil business to his decades-long political career. From New Haven to Beijing to the White House, their addresses changed, but “their love was a constant in our lives,” he said.

“Our family has had a front-row seat for the most amazing love story,” Jeb said.

He recalled a letter George wrote Barbara on their anniversary in 1994.

“Will you marry me?” George wrote. “Oops, I forgot, we did that 49 years ago. I was very happy on that day in 1945, but I’m even happier today. You have given me joy that few men know. … I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”

He continued: “Mom used to tell me, ‘Now George, don’t walk ahead.’ Little did she know I was only trying to keep up, keep up with Barbara Pierce, from Rye, New York. I love you.”

President George H.W. Bush and wife, Barbara, dance at an inaugural ball on Jan. 20, 1989. (Scott Applewhite/AP) © Scott Applewhite/AP President George H.W. Bush and wife, Barbara, dance at an inaugural ball on Jan. 20, 1989. (Scott Applewhite/AP)

The last time Barbara went into the hospital, Jeb thinks George got sick on purpose so he could be in the hospital alongside her. Jeb described his father looking “like hell,” dependent on a breathing mask, his hair disheveled, but steadfastly holding Barbara’s hand.

Jeb said that when Barbara finally opened her eyes, she looked at George and said, “My God, George, you are devastatingly handsome!” The doctors and nurses had to leave the room to keep from crying.

In his last conversation with his mother, Jeb asked her how she felt about dying.

“I don’t want to leave your dad,” Barbara told him. “But I know I will be in a beautiful place.”

Presidential historian Jon Meacham also spoke at the funeral. He recalled sitting with George and Barbara at their family home in Maine in July 2017. That sunny day, talk turned to World War II, Meacham said, and to the moment when George was shot down over the Pacific and two of his crew mates were killed.

“You must have been saved for a reason. I know there had to be a reason,” Meacham remembered Barbara saying.

For a brief moment, George sat silent before raising his left hand and pointing his finger across the table at Barbara.

“You,” George said hoarsely. “You were the reason.”

Navy Lt. George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce marry at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, N.Y., on Jan. 6, 1945. (Corbis via Getty Images) © Historical/Corbis via Getty Images Navy Lt. George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce marry at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, N.Y., on Jan. 6, 1945. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Read more Retropolis:

‘One last time’: Barbara Bush had already faced a death more painful than her own

George H.W. Bush left a note to Bill Clinton. It’s an artifact of political humility.

‘Wouldn’t be prudent’: George H.W. Bush’s unlikely friendship with Dana Carvey

For George H.W. Bush, Pearl Harbor changed everything, and World War II made him a hero

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