Nixon was born Thelma Catherine Ryan in Ely, a small mining town in the mountains of eastern Nevada, the first daughter and third child of William (“Will”) Ryan, a miner, and Katharina (“Kate”) Halberstadt, a homemaker. Her father, proud of his Irish heritage, called her “Pat” because she was born on the day before St. Patrick’s Day. Later, when she enrolled in junior college, she made Patricia her formal name. Pat’s mother, a widow, also raised a daughter from her previous marriage. A son from that previous marriage was reared by his paternal grandparents. In 1913 the Ryans moved to southern California, settling in Artesia, a town south of Los Angeles. Will Ryan took up vegetable farming and became known locally as the “cabbage king.” But the family experienced much hardship. Their house had no electricity, and the children worked long hours on the farm. In 1925 Kate Ryan died of cancer, and since Kate’s oldest daughter had left home for junior college the year before, Pat took charge of running the household, caring for her father and brothers in addition to attending school. She graduated from Excelsior Union High School in June 1929.
Will Ryan died in May 1930. Nixon worked at various jobs in town to save money for college. In the fall of 1931 she enrolled at Fullerton Junior College while holding down a job at the National Bank of Artesia. But after a year of study she was asked to drive some family friends to Connecticut and took the opportunity to move to New York City. There she worked for two years as a secretary, an X-ray technician, and a store clerk to continue saving for college. Nixon returned west in 1934 and entered the University of Southern California on a scholarship. She studied merchandising, performed odd jobs, including bit parts for the RKO and MGM movie studios, and graduated cum laude in 1937.
In September 1937 Nixon began teaching typing, bookkeeping, and stenography at Whittier High School in nearby Whittier, California. She also acted in local theater. In 1938, at the auditions for George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woolcott’s play The Dark Tower, she met Richard Milhous Nixon, a twenty-five-year-old Whittier lawyer. Nixon courted her for two years, and they married on 21 June 1940. They had two daughters.
In 1942 Richard Nixon enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and while he served in the South Pacific, Pat Nixon worked for the Office of Price Administration in San Francisco. Richard Nixon returned to the United States in 1945, and for a while the couple lived in Middle River, Maryland. In September 1945 a group of southern California Republicans recruited Richard Nixon to run for Congress, and the Nixons moved back to Whittier in January 1946. Even though she was a new mother, Pat Nixon worked as her husband’s office manager on the campaign, the beginning of her career as a political wife. Richard Nixon won the election, and the family moved to Washington, D.C., in early 1947.
Richard Nixon’s political star rose quickly. He won election to the Senate in 1950 and to the vice presidency in 1952 and 1956. More than most politicians of his day, Richard Nixon showcased his family as part of an effort to project a wholesome image. Pat Nixon frequently appeared by her husband’s side, and she granted interviews to women’s and general-interest magazines. In 1952 she contributed a ghostwritten article to the Saturday Evening Post about her husband, “I Say He’s a Wonderful Guy.”
In 1950 Richard Nixon used Pat Nixon’s traditional, conservative profile as a foil to that of his opponent, the liberal congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, an outspoken and ambitious career woman. He invoked Pat in his famous “Checkers” speech, which he delivered in September 1952 after allegations of financial impropriety threatened to force his withdrawal as General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate. Protesting that he had not misspent campaign funds, Richard Nixon said: “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.” Liberal sophisticates mocked the performance, but Republican voters identified with what seemed an upstanding young couple.
During Richard Nixon’s vice presidential years, Pat Nixon became known as the epitome of the reliable suburban housewife: attractive, five feet, five inches tall, with a slim figure and strawberry blonde hair, but decidedly un-stylish with a simple, ordinary wardrobe. Unlike her controversial husband, she was unfailingly soft-spoken and restrained with her opinions, especially political ones, a trait she continued to exhibit as first lady. Conservative women’s groups awarded her honors, including Outstanding Home-maker of the Year in 1953, Mother of the Year in 1955, and the Nation’s Ideal Wife in 1957.
Privately Pat Nixon was not happy with her husband’s high political profile. Over the years she urged him not to run for office, but he did not heed her wishes. She invariably swallowed her reservations and threw herself into his campaigns. Richard Nixon ran unsuccessfully for president in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962, and after each loss she harbored relief as well as disappointment. “Politics was not what I would have chosen for him,” she once told an interviewer.
After spending the mid-1960s practicing law in New York City, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States in November 1968. As first lady Pat Nixon assumed a traditional role, receiving coverage from newspaper society pages for redecorating the White House living quarters and entertaining guests. She meticulously carried out social duties, such as writing thank-you notes. She protected her privacy, declining offers to write a syndicated column and requests that she hold regular press conferences.
Pat Nixon did undertake some public projects, but they were always uncontroversial. In 1969 she encouraged Americans to volunteer to aid the needy, and in 1971 she helped promote new federal parks. More unconventionally, she traveled extensively, accompanying the president on his breakthrough trips to China and the Soviet Union. Pat also traveled without her husband. She attended the inaugurations of several world leaders and visited Peru in 1970 in the wake of an earthquake. Every year from 1968 to 1971 the Gallup poll found her one of the nation’s most admired women. Richard Nixon continued to use his family to show the public, especially the so-called “Middle Americans,” whose votes he fervently pursued, that he possessed all-American values.
As women’s liberation swept the nation, Pat Nixon became a target of criticism. To many observers she seemed to have submerged her interests to her husband’s career. Feminists derided her as “Plastic Pat.” To the dismay of liberals, she could be dismissive of feminism, stating at one point that “women have equal rights if they want to exercise them.”
The Nixons’ marital relationship also seemed anachronistic during the sexual revolution. Both maintained proper, almost Victorian demeanors, and they kept separate bedrooms in the White House, even when television couples no longer did so. They never showed much tenderness toward each other in public. After his second inauguration as president, Richard Nixon wrote in his diary that he was pleased that “Pat did not kiss me” and that, on an occasion such as the inaugural ceremony, “displays of affection” were not “quite fit.”
Starting in 1973, after Richard Nixon’s reelection as president, the Watergate crisis consumed his presidency. The revelation of presidential burglaries, cover-ups, and other abuses of power threw his future into doubt. Pat Nixon stood steadfastly by her husband, publicly defending him when confronted. Although she had not known that the president had recorded his White House conversations, when she learned of the taping she thought he should destroy the tapes, viewing them as private, “like love letters.” Still the crisis distressed Pat Nixon greatly. She withdrew into solitude, eating less and less. Until the end she did not believe her husband should resign the presidency. When in August 1974 her daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower told her that Richard Nixon had decided to step down, Pat questioned, “But why?”
On 9 August 1974 the nation watched President Richard Nixon deliver his resignation speech and then join hands with Pat Nixon before leaving the White House for the last time. They repaired to San Clemente, California, where they kept a low profile for several years. Soon Richard Nixon began his campaign to revive his reputation for history, efforts in which Pat played little overt role.
Pat Nixon suffered various health problems after leaving the limelight. In 1976 she suffered a major stroke, which, it was said, occurred while reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about the end of the Nixon presidency, The Final Days (1976). Among the book’s revelations were reports from people close to the Nixons that they maintained for many years a sexless and to some degree loveless marriage. In 1979 the Nixons began the process of selling their home in San Clemente and began a move to New York City that was completed in 1980. In 1981 the Nixons again moved, this time to Saddle River, New Jersey. In 1983 Pat had a second stroke. A heavy smoker who refrained from lighting up in public, she also was plagued by emphysema. She died of lung cancer on the morning of 22 June 1993 in her home in Park Ridge. She is buried at the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in her husband’s native Yorba Linda, California.
Pat Nixon was perhaps the last of the old-style first ladies, seen by the public as mainly a wife, mother, and social figure without influence on the president’s politics or policies. Despite the criticism she received from feminists for hewing to this role, it generally kept her free of the scandal and hostility that plagued her husband. To her death she remained a symbol of both traditional domesticity and long-standing, silent suffering.
Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (1986), written by Nixon’s daughter, is the most thorough work on Nixon although clearly told from a loyal and loving daughter’s point of view. Lester David, The Lonely Lady of San Clemente: The Story of Pat Nixon (1978), is short and breezy. Many biographies of Richard Nixon contain biographical information on Pat as well. Roger Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1990), excellent and thorough if quite critical of Richard Nixon, covers only through 1952. Stephen E. Ambrose’s three-volume Nixon (1987–1991) is reliable though more encyclopedic than analytical. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (1976), has some information on Pat Nixon’s last year in the White House. Two good works on presidential couples that include lengthy sections on the Nixons are Gil Troy, Affairs of State (1997), and Carl Sferrazza Anthony, First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power (1990). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (23 June 1993), New York Times (23 June 1993), and Washington Post (23 June 1993).