Beginning in the 1950s, Lillian Brown made dozens, if not hundreds, of visits to the White House. In some ways, she was closer to more presidents than any other adviser.
For each visit, Brown brought a small bag, which she called her kit, packed with creams, powders, brushes, pads and tissues — and a spare necktie and pair of black socks. With a deft hand and an encouraging voice, she became one of Washington’s first TV makeup artists and image consultants, helping journalists, congressional leaders, first ladies and no fewer than nine presidents put their best face forward.
Brown, a onetime country schoolteacher who began producing television programs in the 1950s and taught speech and elocution until she was 95, died Sept. 13 at her home in McLean, Va. She was 106.
The cause was a stroke, said one of her daughters, the Rev. Carla Gorrell.
Brown got her start in television in 1953, when she volunteered to produce education programs for the public school system in Arlington, Va. Knowing nothing about the medium, she produced a series on the churches of the presidents and another on Virginia mansions.
She was also the host of a weekly educational series for children, “Do You Wonder?” which was produced at the same studio as CBS News’s “Face the Nation” in the mid-1950s. The producers of “Face the Nation” noticed Brown’s guests, including men, always wore makeup when appearing on camera. They asked if she would touch up guests on “Face the Nation,” at $19 a show. The first person she worked with was House Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Texas.
“I said, ‘Mr. Sam, if you let me powder your nose, I will not relieve you of your manhood,’ “ Brown recalled in a speech years later. “Once he recovered, he said, ‘Well, you just go ahead, honey.’ “
Brown was not a cosmetologist. She learned the importance of television makeup by looking through cameras and viewing monitors: One of the first things she observed was that someone like Rayburn needed a dusting of powder to keep his bald head from gleaming under the studio lights.
In 1956, Brown joined George Washington University’s public relations office as director of radio and television. Among other duties, she developed one of the first college courses presented for credit on television — a class in Russian, for which 3,000 people were registered.
At the same time, she continued to work for “Face the Nation” and other CBS news programs and did the makeup of her first president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. She also worked with a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who may have been the first U.S. political figure to grasp the nuances of television.
“He wanted to understand what cameras and lights and lenses did to him,” Brown told the New York Times in 1994. “He would walk behind the cameras and ask the technical people: ‘How do you mix the audio? Why do you have this light there?’ He was very interested in every little detail.”
The rest of the country became aware of the political power of television in 1960, when Kennedy, the Democratic presidential nominee, debated Republican Richard M. Nixon in Chicago. Brown did not apply Kennedy’s makeup for the debate, but his relaxed, confident appearance made a strong impression on the 70 million people who watched on television.
Nixon, who rejected the offer of makeup, had a five-o’clock shadow from his beard and frequently blinked his eyes. As the debate wore on, perspiration formed on his face and upper lip. The debate was considered a turning point in political history, showing how public perceptions could be shaped by television.
“You just can’t go on TV without a slight amount of makeup,” Brown said in 1967. “A man hates it, but he doesn’t have to see himself twice on camera without it before he gives in.”
During the Kennedy presidency, Brown was often at the White House. In 1962, she applied first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s makeup for her acclaimed White House tour, broadcast on CBS.
Brown’s tools included a small sponge, powder puffs and Kleenex tissues, as she applied a thin layer of liquid foundation, followed by powder. To soften wrinkles or diminish the circles under someone’s eyes, she used a concealer.
“Unlike high-fashion makeup artists who want to make a person look as glamorous as possible,” she told the Times, “my goal is to make people look exactly like themselves.”
Ebullient, firm-willed and persuasive, Brown thought nothing of asking a president to change his tie because its pattern or color — red ties were the worst — shimmered on TV. She kept a dark, understated tie in her bag for such occasions or sometimes borrowed one from a Secret Service agent. She also carried a pair of knee-length black socks, in case a president or other dignitary crossed his legs and exposed a few unsightly inches of bare skin above his ankle.
Besides working with every president from Eisenhower to Bill Clinton and most of the first ladies, Brown applied makeup to countless other political and social figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and newscasters Connie Chung, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Eric Sevareid and Lesley Stahl.
“There’s so much more to this than makeup,” she said in an interview with journalist Carol Bennett in preparation for an unpublished memoir. “It’s understanding the media . . . it’s underlining their teleprompter copy, it’s reaching down and straightening up their jacket, it’s moving a vase of flowers so they don’t look wrong on the television set. I think I was just concerned for basically the human dimension.”
In 1974, after the revelations of the Watergate scandal, Brown was summoned to White House to help prepare Nixon for his resignation speech. She found the president disconsolate.
“He was weeping,” she said in a 2010 oral history with the National Press Club. “He was sobbing. And I thought, I’ve got 30 minutes to get this man ready to resign the presidency.”
The president’s tears caused Brown’s makeup to streak, and nothing she said would lighten his mood: “And then I remembered the day that he and I got locked in the bathroom with a dog.”
Once, when the White House Christmas tree was being decorated, the president’s dog, King Timahoe, kept bumping into the tree, knocking off the ornaments. Brown took the dog by its collar and walked it toward a bathroom. Somehow she, Nixon and King Timahoe ended up in the bathroom together, as a Secret Service agent closed and locked the door from the outside.
When she reminded Nixon of the story, he began to laugh, and Brown was able to apply the makeup, minutes before he sat down to announce his resignation to the country.
Mary Lillian Josephine Brooks was born Aug. 8, 1914, on a farm near Huntsville, Ohio. Her father was a farmer, and her mother became a teacher.
She received a two-year teaching diploma in 1933 from what is now Bowling Green State University in Ohio and taught for several years at a rural school near her childhood home. She did graduate study at Ohio State University and moved to Cleveland, where she worked at a department store and played violin in a women’s orchestra.
After marrying a Navy pilot in 1941, she lived at several military installations before settling in the Washington area in 1952. She and her husband, George Brown, later divorced.
After 10 years at George Washington University, Brown moved to the public relations office at American University in 1966 and also helped launch an early effort to preserve film, tapes and artifacts for a television archive.
She joined Georgetown University’s public relations office as radio and television coordinator in 1976. She hosted the Georgetown University Forum, interviewing faculty members about their research, and advised university personnel, from the president to members of the basketball team, on how to present themselves on camera.
In 1983, Brown began to teach a course on public speaking at Georgetown, geared primarily toward students whose first language was not English. For several years, she also taught a summer course at Yale University for female political candidates.
She published the first of several books, “Your Public Best” (1989), when she was 75. Another book, “Speaking to Be Understood” (2003), grew out of her class at Georgetown, where she taught until 2009.
Many political figures were Brown’s private clients, including former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. Brown picked out the turquoise dress Richards wore for her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where she said of George H.W. Bush: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
“I hope people don’t remember the dress,” Brown told the Times. “She was the message. She was the bottom line.”
Brown’s two older daughters worked with her as TV makeup artists. Her youngest daughter, Kimi Brown, died of leukemia in 1975.
Survivors include daughters Carla Gorell, who became a Presbyterian minister after working as a makeup artist, of Arlington, Va., and Kristi Brown, a longtime CBS makeup artist, of Chantilly, Va.; three grandsons; and two great-granddaughters.
Brown won several local Emmy Awards and other honors for her TV productions and was a past board member of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. She continued to work as a freelance makeup artist into her mid-90s.
One of her clients was former Democratic House Speaker Carl Albert, who wanted to reduce his Oklahoma twang. She recommended he slow down the cadence of his speech and take care in pronouncing each word — but Albert did not want to go too far.
“Just take out half the Bugtussle,” he told Brown.
“What’s Bugtussle?” she asked.
“That’s my hometown. I have to go back there and get elected!”