Reagan, Nancy (1921—)

views updated

Reagan, Nancy (1921—)

American actress and first lady (1981–89). Born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City; daughter of Kenneth Robbins (an insurance salesman) and Edith (Luckett) Robbins Davis (an actress); attended Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.; graduated from Girls' Latin School, Chicago, Illinois; Smith College, B.A., 1943; married Ronald Wilson Reagan (an actor and later president of the U.S.), on March 4, 1952; children: Patricia Anne Reagan, known as Patti (b. 1952); Ronald Prescott Reagan (b. 1958); (stepchildren) Maureen Reagan; Michael Reagan.

Selected filmography:

The Doctor and the Girl (1949); East Side, West Side (1950); Shadow on the Wall (1950); The Next Voice You Hear (1950); Night Into Morning (1951); It's a Big Country (1952); Shadow in the Sky (1952); Talk About a Star (1952); Donovan's Brain (1953); Hellcats of the Navy (1957); Crash Landing (1958).

"In many ways, I think I served as a lightning rod," first lady Nancy Reagan wrote in her memoir My Turn (1989), referring to the fact that she enjoyed none of the adoration afforded her charismatic husband. "Something about me, or the image people had of me, just seemed to rub them the wrong way." Indeed, during her eight years in the White House, Reagan generated a constant stream of criticism and controversy ranging from trivial to sobering. At first, it was her clothes, her friends, and her plans to redecorate the White House that came under fire. Later, she was accused of usurping her husband's power, of literally taking control of the actions and appointments of the executive branch. In addition to image problems, Nancy Reagan endured a series of shattering events while she was in the White House, including an assassination attempt on her husband, the deaths of both her parents, and her own and her husband's bouts with cancer. But while she calls her years as first lady the most difficult of her life, she also views them as the most rewarding. "In 1988, during the space of a single week, I stood in the Kremlin with the Gorbachevs, had tea in Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth [II] , visited with [Margaret] Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, and stopped off a Disney World in Florida with some of my favorite people on earth, the Foster Grandparents," she recalls. Through the difficult times, she says, she had the constant love and support of her husband. Now, a decade out of the White House, Nancy Reagan is losing her husband to Alzheimer's disease, a turn of events made all the sadder in light of the couple's fierce devotion to each other.

Born Anne Frances Robbins in New York, on July 6, 1921, and immediately dubbed Nancy by her mother, Reagan was the only child of Kenneth Robbins, an insurance salesman, and Edith Luckett Robbins (later Edith Davis ), a moderately successful actress. Her parents divorced when Nancy was a baby, and she was entrusted to the care of Edith's sister Virginia Galbraith in Bethesda, Maryland, while her mother continued to pursue her acting career. When Nancy was eight, Edith married Dr. Loyal Davis, a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon who taught at the medical school of Northwestern University. The doctor, who had a young son by a previous marriage, took Nancy in, but did not formally adopt her until some years later. Davis, by all accounts, was a brilliant but formidable man who demanded perfection from his students, his colleagues, and his children. "To please Loyal Davis, Nancy emulated him, adopting his compulsion for neatness, his obsession with clothes, his mania for discipline," writes Reagan's unofficial biographer Kitty Kelley , who also portrays Davis as a racist and anti-Semite. Reagan expresses only admiration for Davis. "I was so proud of him," she writes. "Here was this wonderful, handsome, accomplished man—and he was my father!"

While she was still living with her aunt, Reagan was sent to Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school in Washington, D.C. In Chicago, she attended Girls' Latin, where she was only an average student but twice class president and acted in most of the plays. After high school, she attended Smith College, graduating in 1943 with majors in English and drama. Having long since decided to be an actress, and though she appeared in several plays at college, she obtained most of her early stage experience apprenticing at various New York summer theaters. She landed her first professional acting job through her mother's old friend ZaSu Pitts , who arranged for her to play a minor role (three lines) in Ramshackle Inn, which was on a pre-Broadway tour. Her first and only Broadway role was as the flower maiden in Lute Song, a musical about the Far East, starring Yul Brynner and Mary Martin . Said Reagan: "Mary Martin and my mother were old friends." In 1949, she was recommended for a screen test at MGM, at which time her family connections were once again called into play. This time, her mother's friend Spencer Tracy saw to it that the test was held under the best possible conditions and was directed by George Cukor, then one of the top directors in Hollywood. As a result, Reagan was offered a seven-year contract with the studio, which she signed in 1949. By most accounts, she was not star material. "You have to have something wonderful to become a star, and Nancy didn't have that wonderful something," said producer Pandro Berman. Reagan's first starring role was as the very pregnant wife of James Whitmore in The Next Voice You Hear (1950), but it failed to bring her much attention. She made 11 inconsequential films during the 1950s, including Night into Morning (1951), her personal favorite, and Hellcats of the Navy (1957), in which she costarred with her husband. Later on, she was fairly dismissive of her acting résumé. "I never was really a career girl," she told Wanda McDaniel of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1980. "I majored in drama at Smith and I became an actress because I didn't want to go back to Chicago and lead the life of a post-debutante. I wanted to do something until I found the man I wanted to marry." In her quest, Nancy dated MGM executive Benny Thau and a number of handsome young Hollywood actors, including Clark Gable, Robert Walker, and, of course, Ronald Reagan.

"My life didn't really begin until I met Ronnie," Reagan writes in her memoir. They met at a Hollywood dinner party, but their first date was arranged. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald invited Nancy to dinner at the suggestion of director Mervyn LeRoy, to advise her about getting her name removed from a list of Communist sympathizers that had appeared in one of the Hollywood newspapers. Reagan knew right away that he was the man she wanted to marry, but he was not at all so sure about her. "He had been burned in his first marriage, and the pain went deep," she says, referring to Ronald's first marriage to actress Jane Wyman , with whom he had a daughter Maureen Reagan and an adopted son Michael. It was an on-andoff courtship, and there were rumors at the time that Ronald was still hoping to reunite with Wyman. It wasn't until March 4, 1952, two years after they first met, that the couple finally

married in a small, private ceremony in Los Angeles, engaging their close friends William and Ardis Holden as best man and matron of honor. Following a honeymoon in Arizona, they settled into a house in the Palisades, a half-hour from the Reagan ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Seven-and-a-half months after the wedding, Nancy gave birth to the couple's first child, Patti Reagan , on October 22, 1952. ("Go ahead and count," she quips in her book.) The Reagans' second child, Ronald Prescott Reagan, was born in 1958.

By her own admission, Nancy was more successful as a wife than as a mother. Since Maureen and Michael stayed with their mother after their parents divorced, Reagan faced the usual problems that go with a blended family. She got along well with Maureen before she and Ronald married, but after the relationship deteriorated, mostly from lack of contact. Nancy and Maureen would not reconcile and become friends until the White House years. Ronald's second child Michael was three when his parents divorced, and he was particularly sensitive about being adopted. He spent his early childhood at a boarding school in Los Angeles, and at 14 moved in with the Reagans because he was having trouble living with his mother. Michael was rebellious as a teen and was sent away to school in Arizona. As an adult, his closer ties were with members of his biological family, with whom he was reunited.

Reagan's own daughter, Patti, was independent and rebellious from infancy, and Nancy calls their relationship one of the most disappointing aspects of her life. As a teen, Patti was also sent to boarding school in Arizona, then briefly attended college, dropping out to marry a guitarist in a rock group. After that marriage ended, Patti moved home and briefly reunited with Nancy, but their improved relationship was short lived. After a second marriage, she was rarely seen by her parents. Her condemnation of her family in her 1986 "autobiographical novel" Home Front assured a continued estrangement.

Compared to Patti, Ronald, Jr. ("Skipper"), was a docile child, and as such became Nancy's favorite. After his own brief rebellious period, he went on to a career as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. Although Ronald, Jr., has always shunned politics, he remained close to his mother. But like the rest of the Reagan children, he has expressed the belief that his parents were so devoted to each other that there was little affection left for their children.

Ronald Reagan's own acting career declined after 1952; since the couple had enormous expenses, Nancy went back to work shortly after Patti was born, appearing in films and television until 1962. In 1954, Ronald signed a contract to host the weekly television series "General Electric Theater" and to travel the country representing General Electric at its plants and conventions, which spurred his interest in politics. Although his decision to run for governor of California in 1966 was a family affair, Nancy was initially ambivalent about campaigning. Particularly terrified of speechmaking, she eventually agreed to hold less formal question-andanswer sessions, a format she stuck with throughout subsequent campaigns.

Ronald won the gubernatorial election in a landslide over Pat Brown, and the couple moved to the governor's mansion in Sacramento. They lived there only four months before Reagan declared it a firetrap unsuitable for the children and insisted they move. In April 1967, they relocated to an English-style country house in the suburbs, paying the $1,250 monthly rent themselves. (Friends later purchased the house, but still charged the governor the same rent.)

As first lady of California, Reagan became active in the Foster Grandparents Program, which linked senior citizens with physically and developmentally challenged children. She also served the POW-MIA cause during the Vietnam War and made regular visits to veterans' hospitals. Despite her good deeds, however, Reagan already had her serious detractors. Dubbed "Queen Nancy" by some Californians for refusing to live in the governor's mansion, she was further chastised when she called for donations of furniture from old estates to help decorate the rented house. The press also criticized her association with a wealthy clique of women later dubbed "The Group." They included Betsy Bloomingdale , Bonita Granville , Mary Jane Wick, Lee Annenberg , and Jane Dar , all of whom remained her good friends throughout her White House years. Reagan struck a particularly sour note with younger women caught up in the feminist movement of the 1960s. Some faulted her for giving up her career, while others found her insincere. ("The gaze," Reagan's adoring acknowledgment of her husband, became a particular source of ridicule.) Joan Didion , who visited Reagan in Sacramento, turned out a scathing article called "Pretty Nancy" for the Saturday Evening Post, in which she described Reagan's smile as "a study in frozen insincerity," and portrayed her as "playing out some middleclass American woman's daydream, circa 1948."

It was generally assumed that Reagan had talked her husband into his first run for president in 1976 against Gerald Ford, but she claims that after eight years in Sacramento, she was anxious to return to Los Angeles and a normal life. Once Ronald decided to run, however, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the campaign, which turned out to be an elaborate dress rehearsal. Reagan lost his bid in the primaries, although he built a solid base of support that carried over four years later when he ran for president against Jimmy Carter. This time the exhausting campaign resulted in a landslide victory, and in 1981 the Reagans were on their way to the White House.

Criticism of the new first lady began almost immediately with the "Million Dollar Inaugural," so called because of the hordes of wealthy people and celebrities who descended on the nation's capital. That air of glamour and formality would dominate the Reagan years, giving the impression, writes LuAnn Paletta , "that only the socially elite mattered." Early on, there was also a flap over Reagan's plans to redecorate the White House. At the root of the controversy was the fact that the Reagans chose to raise private funds for the project rather than accept the $50,000 government allotment given to each new president for renovations and upkeep. The press made much of the large donations made by many of the Reagans' wealthy friends, and the renovations were often contrasted with rising unemployment and homelessness. Judy Mann wrote in the Washington Post: "Nancy Reagan has used the position, her position, to improve quality of life for those in the White House." Friends also donated over $200,000 to purchase new china, which became another symbol of Reagan's supposed extravagance. (The china remained in the White House after the Reagans left.)

On March 30, 1981, 70 days into her tenure as first lady, Nancy Reagan was returning from a luncheon when she was informed that the president's party had been involved in a shooting at the Washington Hilton, where the president had delivered a speech to the Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO. Initially, she was told that the president had not been shot but was at the hospital. Confused, she rushed to the hospital to discover that her husband had indeed been shot and was seriously injured, as was his press secretary Jim Brady, who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. (At first, the president thought he had suffered a broken rib when he was shoved into his car by a Secret Service man. It was not known that he had actually been hit by a bullet from would-be assassin John Hinckley's gun until he collapsed while walking into the emergency room.) Later, after he had surgery to remove the bullet lodged near his heart, Reagan would learn that her husband had come very close to death. The first lady remained by the president's bedside until he was allowed to return to the White House. In her autobiography, she admits that the psychological effects of the shooting were deep and lasted throughout the eight years she spent as first lady, causing her to fear for her husband's life every time he left her side. "I was so shaken by the events of that spring that it took me a couple of years just to say the word, 'shooting,'" she wrote. "For a long time I simply referred to it as 'March 30,' or, even more obliquely, as 'the thing that happened to Ronnie.' For me, the entire episode was quite literally, unspeakable."

It was in this vulnerable period immediately following the assassination attempt that Reagan became involved with San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley , who had formerly volunteered advice on the president's campaign and who now disclosed that she had known March 30 was a dangerous day for the president and that he should have stayed at home. (In Dutch, his biography of the president, Edmund Morris suggests that Reagan's interest in astrology went back much further, and that she was consulting Jeane Dixon when Ronald was the governor of California.) Filled with guilt at the thought that she might have prevented the attack, Reagan contacted Quigley, who was helpful and comforting. Subsequently, she began to contact her regularly, paying for the astrologer's services through a friend in California. "Joan's recommendations had nothing to do with policy or politics—ever," Reagan states unequivocally in her biography. "Her advice was confined to timing—to Ronnie's schedule, and to what days were good or bad, especially with regard to his out-of-town trips." Reagan's secret was safe until 1988, when departed Chief of Staff Donald Regan published his memoir For the Record, revealing that the first lady had relied on astrology. The disclosure humiliated both Reagan and the president.

To counteract Reagan's bad publicity during 1981, the White House staff, together with a group of public-relations specialists, devised the first lady's drug-abuse program, "Just Say No," which capitalized on a subject already of interest to her. It remained her cause for the next seven years, during which she traveled to 64 U.S. cities and 8 foreign countries to visit drug rehabilitation centers and to promote the Just Say No clubs, of which there were over 3,000 by 1988. The drug program would continue after Reagan left the White House, funded for a time under the Nancy Reagan Foundation. She also remained a sponsor of the Foster Grandparents Program and in 1982 published the book To Love a Child, which chronicles 12 relationships between foster grandparents and grandchildren who participated in the program.

Nothing boosted Nancy Reagan's ratings with the Washington press corps more, however, than her 1982 appearance at the Press Club Gridiron Dinner. Mid-point in the festivities, she appeared unannounced on stage dressed as a bag lady and singing a parody of "Second Hand Rose," a song called "Second Hand Clothes." The performance culminated with the smashing of a plate which resembled the infamous red china, and elicited a standing ovation. "No one thought that Mrs. Reagan had any slapstick, any self-mockery in her," said Hedrick Smith of The New York Times. Virginia governor Charles Robb remarked: "It was one of the most astute moves I've seen in a long time."

The most troubling aspect of Nancy Reagan's tenure as first lady was the growing perception that she had too much power, that she not only had the president's ear, but was directing policy decisions. "Did I ever give Ronnie advice? You bet I did," Reagan says. "I'm the one who knows him best, and I was the only person in the White House who had absolutely no agenda on her own—except helping him." Some have suggested that Reagan became more protective of her husband in an effort to hide the fact that he was slipping mentally, but whatever her motives the result had a devastating effect on morale among the White House staff. Reagan was associated with numerous firings and forced resignations from 1982 onwards, when she ousted her chief of staff Peter McCoy. Some of the most notable victims of her influence were Secretary of State Alexander Haig (1982), Secretary of the Interior James Watt (1983), CIA director William Casey (1987), and Chief of Staff Donald Regan (1987), but there were many others. According to Kitty Kelley, it was not until the Regan resignation that the public began to suspect that the first lady's leverage reached beyond that of a devoted, concerned wife to that of a policymaker.

In the summer of 1985, when the president was operated on for colon cancer, there were those who believed that the first lady was actually running the country. In her defense, Reagan's good friend George Will wrote: "[T]he first lady is a doctor's daughter who, if the 25th Amendment provided for transferring power to First Ladies, could have proven in just eight hours how formidable a person in a size four dress can be. In George Bush's eight hours as acting president, the deficit increased $200 million. Nancy never would have allowed that."

In October 1987, Reagan was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her decision to have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy followed by radiation sparked yet another controversy. Doctors around the country criticized her choice of treatment, and the director of the Breast Cancer Advisory Center was quoted in The New York Times as saying that the decision "set us back ten years." Nancy resented the statement, believing that a mastectomy was the sensible thing for her to do and the best way to get it all over with. "I couldn't possibly lead the kind of life I lead and keep the schedule that I do having radiation or chemotherapy," she said. "There'd be no way. Maybe if I'd been twenty years old, hadn't been married, hadn't had children, I would feel completely different. But for me it was right." Reagan was still recovering from surgery when her mother died.

The Reagan administration suffered its most difficult period beginning in 1986, following the disclosure that the United States had sold arms to Iran in order to assist the Contras, the U.S.-backed rebels in Nicaragua. The revelation brought censure from the American public and from both political parties. "We've paid ransom, in effect, to the kidnappers of our hostages," said former President Jimmy Carter. As the matter was investigated, the threat of impeachment arose and the president's ratings tumbled. It was at this time that Reagan was instrumental in the firing of Donald Regan, a matter over which she received some of harshest criticism. Journalist William Safire of The New York Times referred to Reagan's "extraordinary vindictiveness," calling her "the power-hungry First Lady."

After the Reagans left the White House to George and Barbara Bush , they retired to California and private life. Reagan immediately set to work on her memoir, a means by which she could have her say and move on. The Reagans enjoyed only a few good years before the former president was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994. Since then, Nancy Reagan has taken on the role of caregiver. "She's providing the rope out there and pulling him through," says Robert Higdon, former head of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. "Beyond everything, she will always make sure he is taken care of." In 2000, the former first lady carried out an abbreviated tour promoting a book of her love letters from the president. She also remains active in a few causes, including Alzheimer's research and her anti-drug campaign. Most of her time, however, is devoted to the enormous task of overseeing her husband's final days. "She's alone a lot of the time," says a friend. "And she is very lonely."


Fields-Meyer, Thomas. "To Love and Honor," in People Weekly. December 15, 1997.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Kelley, Kitty. Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Leighton, Frances Spatz. The Search for the Real Nancy Reagan. NY: Macmillan, 1987.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1982. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1982.

Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. NY: Random House, 1999.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. World Almanac, 1990.

Reagan, Nancy, with William Novak. My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. NY: Random House, 1989.

Warrick, Pamela. "Nancy's New Role," in the Los Angeles Times. August 3, 1997.

selected reading:

Davis, Patti. Home Front (novel). NY: Crown, 1986.

Deaver, Michael K., with Mickey Herskowitz. Behind the Scenes. NY: William Morrow, 1987.

Reagan, Maureen. First Father, First Daughter: A Memoir. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1989.

Reagan, Michael, with Joe Hyams. On the Outside Looking In. NY: Zebra Books, 1988.

Reagan, Nancy. I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan. NY: Random House, 2000.

Reagan, Ronald. Speaking My Mind. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Regan, Donald T. For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Wallace, Chris. First Lady: A Portrait of Nancy Reagan. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts