Ford, Betty (b. 1918)
Ford, Betty (b. 1918)
American first lady from 1974 to 1977, known for her candor, who established the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago Illinois; youngest of three children and only daughter of William Stephenson (an industrial supply salesman) and Hortense (Neahr) Bloomer; attended Fountain Street Elementary School; graduated from Central High School, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1936; attended the Bennington School of Dance at Bennington College, Vermont, for two summers; studied with Martha Graham in New York; married William C. Warren (a furniture dealer), in 1942 (divorced 1947); married Gerald Ford (president of the United States), on October 15, 1948; four children by second marriage: Michael Ford (b. 1950); John Ford (b. 1952); Steven Ford (b. 1956); Susan Ford (b. 1957).
In the course of ten months, Betty Ford went from being the wife of the House Minority Leader, to being the wife of the vice-president of the United States, to being the wife of the president of the United States, to being a sought-after first lady, a dramatic rise to national prominence by any standard. Entering the White House under the cloud of the Watergate scandal and the subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon, Ford called the day of her husband's oath of office the saddest of her life. During the next three years, Betty Ford not only blossomed into a gracious and capable first lady, but she became an outspoken and tireless crusader for women's rights. Daughter Susan Ford , credits her mother with almost single-handedly jump-starting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement. However, it was through her courage and honesty in dealing with her own personal tragedies, first breast cancer, then addiction to alcohol and drugs, that Betty Ford made her most significant and lasting contributions.
Born in Chicago in 1918, Betty Ford was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she enjoyed what she referred to as a "sunny childhood" and an easy transition into adolescence. A round-faced, chubby child, she grew up in a comfortable house in the city and spent summers at the family cottage at Whitefish Lake. She took ballet lessons from the age of eight and while in high school gave dancing lessons and modeled for a local department store to help her family through the Depression. Her carefree girlhood ended abruptly at the age of 16, when her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a freak accident while fixing the family car.
After high school Ford studied modern dance for two summers at Bennington College in Vermont and decided to make it her career. She spent several years in New York City, studying and performing with Martha Graham 's auxiliary concert troupe while supporting herself with modeling assignments for John Robert Powers. Graham has remained her idol through the years. "She was a great disciplinarian," she told Jerry Tallmer of the New York Post (December 15, 1973), "and that has given me the strength to carry on. Had I not had that association with her I might not have been able to do as well." At the persistent urging of her mother Hortense Neahr Bloomer , Betty returned to Grand Rapids for what was to be a six-month trial period. She stayed on, becoming a fashion coordinator for Herpolsheimer's Department Store and forming her own dance troupe. At age 24, she married William Warren, her high school sweetheart. Warren, however, did not share her desire for a home and children. The marriage was dissolved in 1947, on the grounds of incompatibility.
Soon after, she began dating former football player Gerald Ford, one of the most eligible bachelors in Grand Rapids at the time. After a nine-month courtship, they were married during his 1948 Congressional campaign, and began their life together in a small apartment in Washington, D.C.; they would later move to Alexandria, just outside the beltway. Ford worked in her husband's office, entertained constituents, and absorbed the ways of Washington. As her husband rose up in the Congressional ranks, she stayed home to care for her rapidly growing family. (Four children, three boys and a girl arrived between 1950 and 1957.) In her husband's absence (an estimated 258 days in some years), Ford was den mother, Sunday School teacher, PTA volunteer, and full-time mom and dad. "I couldn't say, 'Wait till your father comes home,'" she recalls in her autobiography The Times of My Life, "their father wasn't going to come home for maybe a week." It was a lonely life that sapped her self-esteem. She began, in a controlled manner, to lean on alcohol to relieve her feelings of inadequacy.
In 1964, Ford suffered a pinched nerve in her back which caused debilitating pain, and she began to take medication. As she developed tolerance for one drug, the doctors prescribed another; before long, she was taking pills in advance of the pain to ward it off. She learned much later that some of the pain she was trying to ward off was emotional. In her book, A Glad Awakening, which traces her recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, Ford admits that her pride in her husband's success was tempered with self-pity. "I was beginning to feel sorry for myself. It was poor me, who do they think is making it possible for him to travel all over the United States giving all those speeches? He gets all the headlines and applause, but what about me?" In 1965, about a year after she began mixing pain medication with alcohol, Ford had what she refers to as a minor crack-up and began to see a psychiatrist. Although he treated her low self-es-teem, he did not suggest that she stop drinking.
Gerald Ford became president through a series of bizarre events that began in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president during an investigation into kickbacks he had allegedly taken while governor of Maryland. Chosen by Richard Nixon to succeed Agnew, Gerald Ford was in office less than a year when Nixon resigned. For Betty Ford, the transitions were swift and terrifying, from her first interview with Barbara Walters as the wife of the vice president, to the moment on August 9, 1974, while they were
still living in Alexandria, when her husband was sworn in as president. "The words cut through me, pinned me to the floor," she later said. "I felt as though I were taking the oath with him, promising to dedicate my own life to the service of my country."
The day after the swearing in, she wrote in her diary:
August 10. At 7 am., the President of the United States, in baby-blue short pajamas, appears on his doorstep looking for the morning paper, then goes back inside to fix his orange juice and English muffin. Before leaving for his office, he signs autographs on his lawn.
At 10 am, an aide from the White House phones the wife of the President of the United States in Alexandria, and says, "What are you going to do about the state dinner?"
"What state dinner," I say.
Despite dire warnings from Pat Nixon that she might grow to hate life in the White House, Betty enjoyed her new-found celebrity. "I flowered," she later wrote. "Jerry was no longer away so much. And I was somebody, the First Lady. When I spoke, people listened. I could campaign for women's rights and against child abuse. I began to enjoy a reputation for candor, and was able to do some good." Indeed, from her initial insistence on sharing a White House bedroom with her husband, Betty Ford brought an openness and honesty to the White House that had been missing for years.
Less than two months into her stay at the White House, Ford was diagnosed with a malignant breast tumor and underwent a radical mastectomy. Speaking openly about her ordeal, she spurred hundreds of women to go to their doctors for check-ups. Within weeks of Ford's operation, Marguerite (Happy) Rockefeller , the wife of the vice president, also had a mastectomy and credited Ford with saving her life. Jane Howard , of The New York Times Magazine (December 8, 1974), praised Ford for bringing cancer out of the closet. "If she achieves nothing else during her husband's Administration, the light her trouble has shed on a dark subject would be contribution enough."
Ford unabashedly sought to influence her husband at every opportunity. "I used everything," she wrote in her autobiography, "including pillow talk at the end of the day, when I figured he was most tired and vulnerable." She championed the appointment of Carla Hills as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Anne Armstrong as ambassador to Great Britain. In January 1975, when Gerald signed an executive order establishing a National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, Betty celebrated it as a moral victory; a president of the United States was standing up for women and against "legal inequities between sexes." Most passionate in her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, Ford did a great deal of stumping for the ERA, phoning and writing legislators, making speeches. Eager to make her opinions known, she never dodged subjects or played it safe. "I felt the public had a right to know where I stood," she wrote later. "Nobody had to feel the way I felt, I wasn't forcing my opinions on anybody, but if someone asked me a question, I gave that person a straight answer." One of Ford's straight answers to a hypothetical question, her pronouncement on the "60 Minutes" television show that she would not be surprised if her daughter Susan had an affair, brought such a swarm of controversy that she feared becoming a political liability.
In addition to visits to China, Russia, and Japan, and the constant round of state dinners and parties (including one for Martha Graham, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom), Ford supported the Washington Hospital for Sick Children and worked for an organization called No Greater Love, which helped children of soldiers who were missing in action. She was involved with the Heart Association, Goodwill Industries, and the cancer and arthritis foundations. In 1976, she added campaigning to her hectic schedule, an activity she grew to enjoy, although initially speech-making churned her stomach. Any fears that she would be a liability because of her outspoken views were short-lived; she was often greeted with signs and buttons that read "Betty's Husband for President" or "Keep Betty in the White House." When Gerald lost to Jimmy Carter in a very close election, Ford was bitter and depressed. "In a sense, I was out of office too. As First Lady, there had been a lot of demands made of me. I had been equal to most of them, performed well and enjoyed my moment in the sun. People with low self-esteem crave reassurance from the outside world."
After leaving the White House, the Fords moved to Palm Springs, California, where Betty's neck condition worsened, exacerbated by developing arthritis. While building a new house and beginning her autobiography, Ford's dependence on pain killers increased; a doctor at the University of Southern California declined to treat her because of all the drugs she was taking. With her children and husband often away, she also began to drink again, a habit she had given up when her husband was vice president and president. The medication, mixed with alcohol, had debilitating effects. In the fall of 1977, when Ford narrated The Nutcracker ballet for Moscow television, critics tagged her performance as "sloe-eyed," and "sleepy-tongued." Finally her worried family held an intervention, and two weeks after moving into her new home, Betty Ford was on her way to the Long Beach Naval Hospital where she underwent a four-week detoxification program. As with her breast cancer, Ford chose to speak openly about her alcohol and drug addiction and, in doing so, gave countless people the courage to openly seek help.
In the four years following her recovery, Ford, along with Joe Cruse and Leonard Firestone, raised nearly $6 million in private funds to build the 14-acre Betty Ford Center, located at the Eisenhower Medical Center, in Rancho Mirage, California. Since its opening in October 1982, many celebrities, inspired by Ford's courage and honesty, arrived for treatment. "Betty Ford is responsible for taking the life-crippling stigma and shame out of what we now know to be a disease," said actress Ali Mac-Graw , one of the center's famous alums. As president of the center, Ford continues to work tirelessly to expand and improve the facility, which she admits has become the focus of her life. "The nice thing is that now I know I can make a mistake or two before I'm through with this world," she writes, "and it won't mean I'm unfit to live."
Ford, Betty, with Chris Chase. Betty: A Glad Awakening. NY: Doubleday, 1987.
——. The Times of My Life. NY: Harper and Row, 1978.
"The First Lady of Recovery," in Entertainment Weekly. May 10, 1996.
"Generations," in People. March 7–14, 1994, p. 229.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1975. NY: H. W. Wilson, 1975.
Paletta, Lu Ann. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts
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