George H.W. and Barbara Bush met and fell in love as teenagers, then married during World War II. Over the course of their life together, the two experienced separations and loss, while maintaining their devotion to one another. “One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh,” Barbara said in 1990.
Barbara died on April 17, 2018, at the age of 92. George passed away less than eight months later on November 30 at age 94. They celebrated their 73rd anniversary in January 2018, marking a commitment that once held the record for longest presidential marriage in U.S. history.
George and Barbara Met at a Christmas Dance
The lasting love story began at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Connecticut, in December 1941. Then 17 years old, George became smitten with the girl wearing a green and red dress. He finagled an introduction and met 16-year-old Barbara Pierce. George and Barbara danced, then talked while sitting out a waltz.
In her 1994 memoir, Barbara recalled that she told her mother after the dance: “On this night I told her I’d met the nicest, cutest boy, named Poppy Bush” (Poppy was George’s nickname). George had equally positive things to say to his own mother, describing Barbara as “the niftiest girl at the dance.”
Barbara told George that she planned to go to another dance in her hometown of Rye, New York, the next night, so he arranged to attend as well. Their first real date soon followed, but as Barbara attended Ashley Hall Private School in South Carolina and George was a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, they mainly kept in touch by letters. In the spring, Barbara traveled to Andover for George’s senior prom, and they shared a first (on-the-cheek) kiss that night.
Barbara Waited for George While He Was Fighting in World War II
Barbara and George had met weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. George felt called to join the fight. After his graduation from Andover and his 18th birthday in June 1942, he was sworn into the Navy. He and Barbara shared their first real kiss before he headed to basic training in the summer, but a long separation followed.
As he trained to become a naval aviator, George worried Barbara’s interest in him might wane. In the spring of 1943, he wrote to his mother: “I know that there is such a chance of her meeting some other guy. She is so very young and so darn attractive.” But he needn’t have worried—their love endured, bolstered by a series of letters (Barbara also sent George some socks she’d made). When he was on leave from the Navy in the summer of 1943, the couple got engaged.
After returning to duty, in between piloting torpedo bombers that he’d name after Barbara, George penned letters to his “Darling Bar.” “I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life,” he wrote in a December 1943 letter. In September 1944, he was shot down over the Pacific. He spent hours in the water before being rescued by a submarine. On Christmas Eve, George returned home on leave, and he and Barbara married on January 6, 1945, a little over three years after they’d first met.
The Bushes Suffered a Devastating Loss
George didn’t have to deploy again before World War II came to an end. Instead, he and Barbara joined many other young couples who were restarting their lives after the war. Having left Smith College to marry—a decision she would face some public criticism for in the future, but never regretted—Barbara accompanied her husband to New Haven so he could attend Yale University. They next moved to Texas where George decided to pursue a career in the oil industry.
George and Barbara began to expand their family. They had their son, future president George W. Bush in 1946, followed by daughter Pauline Robinson Bush, nicknamed Robin, in 1949. In 1953, the couple learned 3-year-old Robin had leukemia. Although they had the resources and connections to take her to a hospital in New York City, treatment options were limited. Their daughter passed away eight months after her diagnosis.
The loss naturally devastated George and Barbara. Barbara once explained: “George held me tight and wouldn’t let me go. You know, 70 percent of the people who lose children get divorced because one doesn’t talk to the other. He did not allow that.” Their second son, Jeb (John Ellis Bush), was born in 1953, and they would have three more children: Neil Mallon (born in 1955), Marvin Pierce (born in 1956), and Dorothy Walker (born in 1959).
Barbara Stood by George’s Side During His Presidential Campaign
After entering politics, George spent time in Congress, became ambassador to the United Nations, had a posting in China, and served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency before becoming Ronald Reagan’s vice president. During George’s successful run for the presidency in 1988, Barbara was at his side, offering humor on the campaign trail and speaking on his behalf at the 1988 Republican National Party Convention.
The support went both ways. When Barbara suffered from depression in the 1970s, she later recalled, “Night after night, George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings.”
George Told Barbara, “I Love You, Barbie,” Every Night
Growing older didn’t dim George and Barbara’s affection for one another. At a football game in Houston in 2014, they performed for the “kiss cam.” And in the spring 2018 edition of her alumnae magazine, Barbara wrote, “I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago.”
During Barbara’s final days, George, as he did throughout their marriage, told her, “I love you Barbie,” every night. When she passed away at home on April 17, 2018, her husband was by her side. The couple was married for 73 years and 101 days, which was the longest marriage for any first couple until Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter broke the Bushes’ record in 2019. In his eulogy for his mother, Jeb Bush remembered his parents’ remarkable marriage, saying, “Our family has had a front-row seat for the most amazing love story.”