March 7, 2016
RIP, Dear Nancy, May God Bless You
by Lou Cannon
The First Lady of the United States of America
Nancy Reagan, the influential and stylish wife of the 40th President of the United States who unabashedly put Ronald Reagan at the center of her life but became a political figure in her own right, died on Sunday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
The cause was congestive heart failure, according to a statement from Joanne Drake, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Reagan.
Mrs. Reagan was a fierce guardian of her husband’s image, sometimes at the expense of her own, and during Mr. Reagan’s improbable climb from a Hollywood acting career to the governorship of California and ultimately the White House, she was a trusted adviser.
President Obama said on Sunday that Mrs. Reagan “had redefined the role” of First Lady, adding, “Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s, and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives.”
Mrs. Reagan helped hire and fire the political consultants who ran her husband’s near-miss campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 and his successful campaign for the Presidency in 1980.
She also played a seminal role in the 1987 ouster of the White House Chief of Staff, Donald T. Regan, whom Mrs. Reagan blamed for ineptness after it was disclosed that Mr. Reagan had secretly approved arms sales to Iran.
Behind the scenes, Mrs. Reagan was the prime mover in Mr. Reagan’s efforts to recover from the scandal, which was known as Iran-contra because some of the proceeds from the sale had been diverted to the contras opposing the leftist government of Nicaragua. While trying to persuade her stubborn husband to apologize for the arms deal, Mrs. Reagan brought political figures into the White House, among them the Democratic power broker Robert S. Strauss, to argue her case to the President.
Mr. Reagan eventually conceded that she was right. On March 4, 1987, the President made a distanced apology for the arms sale in a nationally televised address that dramatically improved his slumping public approval ratings.
His wife, typically, neither sought nor received credit for the turnaround. Mrs. Reagan did not wish to detract from her husband’s luster by appearing to be a power behind the presidential throne.
In public, she gazed at him adoringly and portrayed herself as a contented wife who had willingly given up a Hollywood acting career of her own to devote herself to her husband’s career. “He was all I had ever wanted in a man, and more,” she wrote in “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan,” published in 1989.
He reciprocated in kind. “How do you describe coming into a warm room from out of the cold?” he once said. “Never waking up bored? The only thing wrong is, she’s made a coward out of me. Whenever she’s out of sight, I’m a worrier about her.”
In truth, she was the worrier. Mrs. Reagan wrote in her memoirs that she sometimes became angry with her husband because of his relentless optimism. He didn’t worry at all, she wrote, “and I seem to do the worrying for both of us.”
It was this conviction that led Mrs. Reagan to take a leading role in the Regan ouster and in other personnel matters in the White House. “It’s hard to envision Ronnie as being a bad guy,” she said in a 1989 interview. “And he’s not. But there are times when somebody has to step in and say something. And I’ve had to do that sometimes — often.”
She did not always get her way. Mr. Reagan ignored her criticism of several cabinet appointees, including Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
In 2001, seven years after her husband announced that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Mrs. Reagan broke with President George W. Bush and endorsed embryonic stem cell research. She stepped up her advocacy after her husband’s death on June 5, 2004. “She feels the greatest legacy her family could ever have is to spare other families from going through what they have,” a family friend, Doug Wick, quoted Mrs. Reagan as saying.
Years on Camera
Born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City, Nancy Davis was the daughter of Edith Luckett, an actress, and Kenneth Robbins, a car dealer who abandoned the family soon after her birth. Ms. Luckett resumed her stage career when her daughter was 2 and sent the child to live with relatives in Bethesda, Md. In 1929, Ms. Luckett married a Chicago neurosurgeon, Loyal Davis, who adopted Nancy and gave her the family name.
Almost overnight, Nancy Davis’s difficult childhood became stable and privileged. Throughout the rest of her life, she described Mr. Davis as her real father.
Nancy Davis graduated from the elite Girls’ Latin School in Chicago and then from Smith College in 1943. Slender, with photogenic beauty and large, luminous eyes, she considered an acting career. After doing summer stock in New England, she landed a part in the Broadway musical “Lute Song,” with Mary Martin and Yul Brynner. With the help of a friend, the actor Spencer Tracy, her mother then arranged a screen test given by the director George Cukor, of MGM.
Cukor, according to his biographer, told the studio that Miss Davis lacked talent. Nonetheless, she was given a part in the film she had tested for, “East Side, West Side,” which was released in 1949 starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason and Ava Gardner. Cast as the socialite wife of a New York press baron, Miss Davis appeared in only two scenes, but they were with Miss Stanwyck, the film’s top star.
After her husband went into politics, Mrs. Reagan encouraged the notion that her acting interest had been secondary, a view underscored by the biographical information she supplied to MGM in 1949, in which she said her “greatest ambition” was to have a “successful, happy marriage.”
But this was a convention in a day when women were not encouraged to have careers outside the home. In his book “Reagan’s America: Innocents At Home,” Garry Wills disputed the prevalent view that Miss Davis had just been marking time in Hollywood while waiting for a man. She was “the steady woman,” he wrote, who in most of her 11 films had held her own with accomplished actors.
The producer Dore Schary cast Miss Davis in her first lead role, in “The Next Voice You Hear” (1950), playing a pregnant mother opposite James Whitmore. She received good reviews for her work in “Night Into Morning” (1951), with Ray Milland, in which she played a war widow who talked Milland’s character out of committing suicide. Mrs. Reagan thought this was her best film.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan together forever
Mr. Wills wrote that she was underrated as an actress because she had become most widely associated with her “worst” and, as it happened, last film, “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), in which Ronald Reagan had the leading role.
How They Met
As she so often did in life, Nancy Davis took the initiative in meeting the man who would become her husband.
In the late 1940s, Hollywood was in the grip of a “Red Scare,” prompted by government investigations into accusations of Communist influence in the film industry. In October 1949, the name “Nancy Davis” appeared in a Hollywood newspaper on a list of signers of a supporting brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the convictions of two screenwriters who had been blacklisted after being found guilty of contempt for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Such newspaper mentions could mean the end of a career, and Nancy Davis sought help from her friend Mervyn LeRoy, who had directed her in “East Side, West Side.” LeRoy found it was a case of mistaken identity: another Nancy Davis had worked in what he called “leftist theater.” He offered to call Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, to make sure there would be no problems in the future. Instead, Miss Davis insisted that LeRoy set up a meeting with Mr. Reagan.
The meeting took place over dinner at LaRue’s, a fashionable Hollywood restaurant on Sunset Strip. Mr. Reagan, recovering from multiple leg fractures suffered in a charity baseball game, was on crutches. Miss Davis was immediately smitten.
Mr. Reagan, though, was more cautious. According to Bob Colacello, who has written extensively about the Reagans, Mr. Reagan still hoped for a reconciliation with his first wife, the actress Jane Wyman, who had divorced him in 1948.
After dating several times in the fall of 1949, Mr. Reagan and Miss Davis drifted apart and dated others. But they began seeing each other again in 1950. Miss Davis had been accepted on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, and she and Mr. Reagan began having dinner every Monday night after the meetings, often with the actor William Holden, the guild Vice President, according to Mr. Colacello.
Mr. Reagan and Nancy Davis were married on March 4, 1952, at a private ceremony at The Little Brown Church in the Valley, in Studio City. Mr. Holden and his wife, Ardis, were the only witnesses.
After their marriage, the Reagans bought a house in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles, where their daughter, Patricia Ann, was born — “a bit precipitously,” Mrs. Reagan wrote in her memoirs — on October 21, 1952. She is known as Patti Davis professionally. The Reagans also had a son, Ronald Prescott, on May 28, 1958.
Besides her son and daughter, survivors include Mrs. Reagan’s stepson, Michael Reagan, and her brother, Dr. Richard Davis. A stepdaughter, Maureen Reagan, died in 2001.
At the time of their marriage, Mr. Reagan’s film career was, as his new wife put it, at a “standstill.” Although Nancy Reagan had vowed not to be a working wife, she made a low-budget science-fiction movie, “Donovan’s Brain” (1953), with Lew Ayres. Her working was “a blow to Ronnie,” Mrs. Reagan observed in her memoirs, “but quite simply, we needed the money.”
The money worries ended early in 1954, when Music Corporation of America, the entertainment conglomerate, offered Mr. Reagan a television contract for $125,000 a year to be the host of “General Electric Theater.” It had a long run, broadcast on Sunday nights until 1962, and Mrs. Reagan herself acted in a few of its episodes.
Indeed, when her film career was over, she continued to work sporadically in television, in episodes of “Zane Grey Theater,” “The Dick Powell Show” and, as late as 1962, “Wagon Train.”
A Loyal Supporter
By then, Mr. Reagan had changed his partisan affiliation from Democratic to Republican and was giving political speeches. In Hollywood, Mr. Reagan’s shift toward the right was often attributed to Mrs. Reagan and her father, Loyal Davis, a staunch conservative. Both the Reagans denied this; she was barely interested in politics at the time, they said. Ironically, when President Reagan began to negotiate with Soviet leaders, conservatives accused Mrs. Reagan of pushing him in a liberal direction. Evidence is lacking to support either suspicion. As Mrs. Reagan put it: “If Ronnie hadn’t wanted to do it, he wouldn’t have done it.”
Though Mrs. Reagan was not at first keen on her husband’s entry into politics, she loyally supported him. His career took off when he made a rousing nationally televised speech for the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964. The following year a group of wealthy people from Southern California approached Mr. Reagan about running for Governor of California. He was interested.
From the first, Mrs. Reagan was part of the campaign planning. “They were a team,” said Stuart Spencer, who with Bill Roberts managed the Reagan campaign. New to politics, she said little at first. But Mr. Spencer found her “a quick learner, always absorbing.” Before long she was peppering Mr. Roberts and Mr. Spencer about their strategy and tactics.
Mr. Reagan won a contested Republican primary and then a landslide victory in November against the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Edmund G. Brown. For the Reagans, that meant a 350-mile move to the state capital, Sacramento.
Mrs. Reagan was not happy there. She missed friends and the brisker social pace and milder climate of Southern California. And she hated the governor’s mansion, a dilapidated Victorian house on a busy one-way street. So she persuaded her husband to lease, at their own expense, a 12-room Tudor house in a fashionable section of eastern Sacramento. Mr. Reagan’s wealthy Southern California supporters later bought the house and leased it back to the Reagans.
The mansion episode, and Mrs. Reagan’s unalloyed preference for Southern California, aroused parochial resentment in Sacramento. She in turn disliked the city’s locker-room political culture, which required her to socialize with the wives of legislators who had insulted her husband. She bristled at press scrutiny, which became more intense after Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote an unflattering article, “Pretty Nancy,” in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968. The article described Mrs. Reagan’s famous smile as a study in frozen insecurity.
Mrs. Reagan, who thought she had made a good impression on Ms. Didion, was crushed by the article. Katharine Graham, the longtime publisher of The Washington Post and later a friend of Mrs. Reagan’s, said the article set the tone for other unfavorable ones.
A Sophisticated First Lady
But not all the press coverage was unflattering. A few months later, The Los Angeles Times published an article whose tone was telegraphed by its headline: “Nancy Reagan: A Model First Lady.” She also received positive publicity for welcoming home former prisoners of war from Vietnam and taking an active role in a Foster Grandparents Program for mentally disabled children.
Governor Reagan left office in 1975. With President Richard M. Nixon enmeshed in the Watergate scandal, the Reagans had already begun planning their next political move. In May 1974, they met with supporters at their home in Pacific Palisades. Among them was John P. Sears, a Washington lawyer who had worked for Mr. Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1960. Mr. Sears, alone of those who attended the meeting, predicted the Nixon resignation. That made an impression on Mrs. Reagan.
After Nixon resigned and was succeeded by Gerald R. Ford, Mr. Reagan began planning to challenge Mr. Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. Mrs. Reagan recommended hiring Mr. Sears to direct the effort, which Mr. Reagan narrowly lost. (Mr. Ford was then defeated by Jimmy Carter.)
Four years later, as Mr. Reagan again sought the nomination, Mrs. Reagan played a leading role in the firing of Mr. Sears. The campaign had just won the New Hampshire primary, but Mrs. Reagan nevertheless came to believe that Mr. Sears was a disruptive influence. She also had a hand in the hiring of his replacement as campaign manager, William J. Casey, whom Mr. Reagan later named Director of Central Intelligence.
But after Mr. Reagan won the nomination and got off to a flustered start in his campaign against President Carter, Mrs. Reagan became critical of Mr. Casey and urged her husband to bring in Stuart Spencer, who had run Mr. Reagan’s first campaign for Governor. Mr. Spencer was persona non grata in the Reagan camp because he had managed Mr. Ford’s campaign in 1976. But Mr. Reagan followed his wife’s advice. Mr. Spencer joined the campaign and ran it smoothly.
Not all of her advice was equally good. For instance, she opposed Mr. Spencer’s proposal that her husband debate President Carter. Mr. Reagan decided to debate and did so well that he surged ahead in the polls and won convincingly a week later.
A Sophisticated Turn
As First Lady, Mrs. Reagan was glamorous and controversial. The White House started serving liquor again after the abstemious Carter years. Mrs. Reagan reached out to Washington society. More sophisticated than she had been in Sacramento, Mrs. Reagan also reached out to politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans. She became friends with Millie O’Neal, wife of the House Speaker, Thomas P. O’Neill, who was a political foe of President Reagan by day and a friend after hours. During one period in 1981, when Mrs. Reagan was getting “bad press,” as she recalled, Mr. O’Neill leaned across at a luncheon and said, “Don’t let it get you down.”
Mrs. Reagan’s critics said she had brought the bad press on herself. After one look at the White House living quarters, Mrs. Reagan decided to redo them. She then raised $822,000 from private contributors to accomplish this. Another contributor put up more than $200,000 to buy a set of presidential china, enough for 220 place settings; it was the first new set in the White House since the Johnson administration.
Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama
With a slim figure maintained by daily exercise, Mrs. Reagan looked younger than her years and wore expensively simple gowns provided by Galanos, Adolfo and other designers. One best-selling Washington postcard featured Mrs. Reagan in an ermine cape and jeweled crown with the label “Queen Nancy.” It touched a nerve with Mrs. Reagan, who had been surprised at the press criticism of the china purchase and the White House redecoration. But the rest of the country was kinder. In 1981, a Gallup poll put Mrs. Reagan first on the list of “most admired women” in the nation. She was in the top 10 on the list throughout the Reagan Presidency.
White House image-makers, aware that President Reagan was generally well liked for his self-deprecating humor, urged Mrs. Reagan to use humor as a weapon against her critics. She did so spectacularly on March 29, 1982, at the Gridiron Dinner, an annual roast by journalists, where, to standing ovations, she made sport of her stylish if icy image in a surprise on-stage appearance as “Second Hand Rose,” wearing feathered hat, pantaloons and yellow boots and singing a parody of “Second Hand Clothes.”
Mrs. Reagan’s darkest memory was of March 30, 1981, when she received word that her husband had been shot by a would-be assassin outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. She rushed to the hospital (The George Washington University Hospital), where her husband, although fighting for his life, was still wisecracking. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he said to her, borrowing a line that the fighter Jack Dempsey supposedly said to his wife after losing the heavyweight championship to Gene Tunney in 1926. But Mrs. Reagan found nothing to laugh about. “Nothing can happen to my Ronnie,” she wrote in her diary that night. “My life would be over.”
After the assassination attempt, Mrs. Reagan turned to Joan Quigley, a San Francisco astrologer, who claimed to have predicted that March 30 would be a “bad day” for the President. Her relationship with Ms. Quigley “began as a crutch,” Mrs. Reagan wrote, “one of several ways I tried to alleviate my anxiety about Ronnie.” Within a year, it was a habit. Mrs. Reagan conversed with Ms. Quigley by telephone and passed on the information she received about favorable and unfavorable days to Mr. Deaver, the Presidential Assistant, and later to the White House Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, for use in scheduling.
Mr. Regan disclosed Mrs. Reagan’s astrological bent in his 1988 book, “For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,” asserting that the Quigley information created a chaotic situation for White House schedulers. Mrs. Reagan said that no political decisions had been made based on the astrologist’s advice, nor did Mr. Regan allege that any had been.
But the disclosure was nonetheless embarrassing to Mrs. Reagan; she and many commentators saw it as an act of revenge for the role she had played in forcing Mr. Regan out after the Iran-contra disclosures. Mrs. Reagan’s low opinion of Mr. Regan was well known; she had said tartly that he “liked the sound of chief but not of staff.” In fact, however, Mr. Regan’s resignation had also been demanded by powerful Republican figures, and the President had agreed to it. When Mr. Regan saw a report of this on CNN, he quit and walked out of the White House.
Within the White House, Mrs. Reagan was known as a meticulous taskmaster. Some staff members feared incurring her disfavor. The speechwriter Peggy Noonan was wearing walking clothes in the White House the first time she passed by Mrs. Reagan, who looked at her with disdain. “The next time I saw her I hid behind a pillar,” Ms. Noonan wrote in the book “What I saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era.”
Other staff members found Mrs. Reagan more approachable than her husband. One of these was the speechwriter Landon Parvin, who worked with Mrs. Reagan when she was engineering her husband’s recovery from the Iran-contra scandal and drafted the apology in the President’s televised speech.
Her Own Causes
As First Lady, Mrs. Reagan traveled throughout the United States and abroad to speak out against drug and alcohol abuse by young Americans and coined the phrase “Just Say No,” which was used in advertising campaigns during the 1980s.
In speeches about drug abuse, Mrs. Reagan often used a line from the William Inge play “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” in which a mother says of her children, “I always thought I could give them life like a present, all wrapped in white with every promise of success.” Mr. Parvin, in an interview, said she had become emotional when she read this line, “as if it had a power that went back to her own childhood.”
On October 17, 1987, a few days after cancer was detected in a mammogram, Mrs. Reagan underwent a mastectomy of her left breast. Afterward, she discussed the operation openly to encourage women to have mammograms every year.
After the Presidency, the Reagans returned to Los Angeles and settled in a ranch house in exclusive Bel Air. In 1994, Mr. Reagan learned he had Alzheimer’s disease and announced the diagnosis to the American people in a poignant letter, which Mrs. Reagan had helped him write.
For the next decade, Mrs. Reagan conducted what she called a “long goodbye,” described in Newsweek as “10 years of exacting care giving, hurried lunches with friends” and “hours spent with old love letters and powerful advocacy for new research into cures for the disease that was taking Ronnie from her.”
At Mr. Reagan’s funeral, at the National Cathedral in Washington, she remained in tight control of her emotions. Then she flew west with the coffin for a burial service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., where Mrs. Reagan will also be buried. At the conclusion of the ceremony, at sunset, soldiers and sailors handed Mrs. Reagan a folded American flag. She held it close to her heart, put it down on the coffin, and at last began to cry.