Letter provides peek into personal world of former Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — A two-page note handwritten nearly 90 years ago by former House Speaker Sam Rayburn begins: “My Dearest Metze.” It concludes with: “My heart is sad with you — My love too.”

The letter is written to the only woman Rayburn ever married and offers an isolated peek into a nearly invisible aspect of one of the 20th century’s most prominent American politicians.

It recently came into the public eye after a film producer stumbled upon its existence while working on a documentary and has drawn interest from a University of Texas center that collects Rayburn artifacts.

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The undated document written on Rayburn’s congressional stationary is primarily a condolence message to Metze Jones, whose father died in June 1926. Their marriage the following year was brief — they separated less than three months later — and little correspondence exists from their time together.

Jones remarried a few years after the divorce and raised a family in the Texas Panhandle, where she kept a low profile on her previous relationship. Her grandson only learned of his family’s indirect link to Rayburn after her death more than 30 years ago and kept the letter close until he was recently interviewed for the yet-unreleased Rayburn documentary.

“She never talked about it when she was alive,” said 56-year-old Jeff Neely III, who received the letter from his parents after asking them for a picture of his grandmother.

Rayburn, described by biographers as personally private, married Jones at age 45, already in the eighth term of an eventual 48-plus-year congressional career that would see him reign as House speaker for a record 20 years, ending with his death in 1961.

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In the letter, Rayburn alludes to his mother being “frail” and in “weakness.”

Jones and Rayburn married in October 1927, eight months after his mother’s death. Their divorce quietly became official a year later, then was nearly eradicated from Rayburn’s very visible public life.

Rayburn never remarried. But Jones, 26 at the time of the nuptials, later married Jeff Neely and raised their family in Amarillo. She died in 1982 at age 81.

Don Bacon, who co-wrote a 1987 Rayburn biography, said Metze Neely refused multiple interview requests and acknowledges the letter adds to the “very little documentation of their relationship.”

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“Neither one spoke of it after the divorce,” Bacon said. “And in his district, up around Bonham, most folks never knew of it. They didn’t even know he had been married. … He never had a serious romance after that.”

In the letter — which includes an attached one-page postscript — Rayburn’s broad script tells of his fondness for her father and almost poetically laments how it’s difficult for him to find words to express his condolences.

“I must write you a word but what shall I say — Oh! How shallow words, how paltry to convey a deep feeling — but let me say that in your sorrow unseen hands are extended toward you and would, if possible, brush away the clouds that are about you.”

Bacon and co-author D.B. Hardeman included a chapter about the marriage in their book, suggesting the new Mrs. Rayburn immediately disliked the Washington apartment he had selected for them. She also objected to her husband and his colleagues guzzling free-flowing liquor during Prohibition, and engaged in at least a couple public spats with him. Two months and 25 days after their wedding, she left for Texas.

Reed Penney, who’s producing a Rayburn documentary and learned of the letter after interviewing Jeff Neely III, has suggested the document be donated to the University of Texas Briscoe Center for American History, which includes a Rayburn museum in Bonham and a collection of Rayburn documents in Austin.

Briscoe spokesman Benjamin Wright said the center would be delighted to have the letter, since its holdings primarily are political rather than personal.

Jeff Neely III has yet to decide its fate. He has been keeping the letter in a cabinet with a copy of Rayburn’s biography and is considering framing it.

But like so many others who have researched Rayburn’s life, he acknowledges the rare note still does little to explain his grandmother’s short chapter in Rayburn’s long public life.

“It was a total mystery to me,” Neely III said. “Nobody knows what happened.

“They took the secret to their graves.”