Just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, at a school dance in Greenwich, Connecticut, 16-year-old Barbara Pierce spied a young man across the room. “I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on,” Barbara would say years later, according to the Washington Post. “I couldn’t even breathe when he was in the room.”
The young lady in the festive red and green dress had not escaped the attention of the 17-year-old George Herbert Walker Bush, either. George asked a friend if he knew the girl, and the friend introduced them. George asked Barbara if she would like to dance. She accepted. But then the band struck up a waltz, and neither of them knew how to waltz. They decided to sit that one out, and instead were forced to nervously sit together and talk and get to know each other better.
“It was a storybook meeting,” George Bush would later write in his autobiography. George asked Barbara out the next night, but she had plans to attend a different dance in her hometown of Rye, New York. When he went home that night, he told his mother that he had met “the niftiest girl at the dance.” Unbeknownst to him, Barbara went home and told her own mother that she had met the “nicest, cutest boy” that night, according to ENews.
It was the first night of what would eventually become the longest presidential marriage in United States history.
Unwilling to let the girl escape his grasp, George and his sister Nancy engineered a group outing to attend the dance in Rye. Barbara, attending the dance with her brother Jim, was surprised to see the handsome young man from the night before. They danced, and Jim could see that something was forming between the two. Jim suggested to the young beau that George should come play in a pickup basketball game the next day against Jim’s high school team. George accepted.
The Rye high school players dominated George and his group of pickup players, but George got the prize as he got to take Barbara out on their first date afterwards. “For years he has teased me that there was no silence that night and I haven’t stopped talking since,” Barbara said later.
The only love letter Barbara Bush kept from George HW during World War II (the others were lost). It is dated December 12, 1943. “How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours someday. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you—“ pic.twitter.com/9n9GDx7lAM
— Carlos Lozada (@CarlosLozadaWP) April 18, 2018
The lovestruck teens had a problem, though. George was a senior at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, while Barbara attended a boarding school in South Carolina, and their respective Christmas breaks were coming to an end. After a promising start, they would have to settle for a long-distance relationship.
The two wrote long, heartfelt letters to each other before reuniting over Spring Break. They went on a double date with another couple to see Citizen Kane, and George asked Barbara to accompany him to his Senior Prom. After the Prom, George walked Barbara home, and gently kissed her on the cheek.
“I floated into my room and kept the poor girl I was rooming with awake all night while I made her listen to how Poppy Bush was the greatest living human on the face of the earth,” Barbara recalled.
World War II would keep George and Barbara apart even after their high school graduation. After George graduated from Phillips and turned 18 in June of 1942, he enlisted in the Navy. Before he left for basic training, George and Barbara became each other’s first kiss.
As reported by USA Today, George would later write to his mother: “I kissed Barbara and am glad of it. I don’t believe she will ever regret it or resent it, and I certainly am not ashamed of it… If Barbara sort of forgets me, which is not unlikely, as I have no chance to see her at all, I don’t believe she will ever dislike me more for having kissed her. She knows how I felt towards her and she must have shared some of the same feeling or she would not have allowed me to kiss her. I have never kissed another girl.”
George left for basic training, and less than a year later was deployed to the war as one of the youngest naval pilots of his time. Before he left, he asked Barbara to marry him, and she accepted. George fretted that she would call it off while he was away at war, but Barbara’s mind was never far from her first love. “I married the first man I ever kissed,” then-first lady Barbara Bush told TIME magazine in 1989, during the first year of George H. W. Bush’s presidency. “When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.”
While fighting in the Pacific, George named his three planes Barbara, Barbara II, and Barbara III. George and Barbara continued to exchange letters, just as they had in high school. “I love you precious with all my heart,” George wrote to her, “and to know that you love me, means my life.”
On September 2, 1944, George was shot down over Chichi Jima in the Pacific. George survived the crash, but lost all of his letters from Barbara, which he carried with him on all of his missions during the war. Barbara endured some panicked days between learning that George had been shot down and hearing from George that he was well.
When George returned home on Christmas Eve of 1944, he and Barbara elected to get married. They were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, on January 6, 1945. Barbara wore an ivory satin gown embroidered with pearls, and the lace veil that George’s mother Dorothy wore when she married former U.S. Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush in 1921. The ceremony was followed by a large reception, mostly populated by women as most of the men were still off to war. George, scheduled for redeployment in September of 1945, never had to go back.
“Married life exceeds all expectations,” George told his sister while he and Barbara were on their honeymoon in Cloisters at Sea Island, Georgia. “Barbara is a fine wife!”
The rest, as they say, is history. George and Barbara Bush’s love affair ended much the same way that it began — via a long-distance relationship prior to being reunited once again — when they died eight months apart in 2018.
Yesterday, former President Barack Obama said, “After seventy-three years of marriage, George and Barbara Bush are together again now.”