Former first lady Nancy Reagan dies
Former first lady Nancy Reagan, the indispensable partner and protector of the nation's 40th president who became a fierce advocate in the fight against the disease that stole him from her, has died, the Reagan Library announced Sunday. She was 94.
“Her romance with Ronald Reagan was a storybook love story,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, editor of “The Reagan Diaries.” “She is the one who deserves credit for orchestrating the great legacy that is Ronald Reagan.”
“She was a true partner to the presidency,” said Anita McBride, a chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama said they were “fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice” when they arrived at the White House.
“Our former First Lady redefined the role in her time here,” they wrote. “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.”
Nancy Reagan often said, “My life didn't really begin until I met Ronnie.” She will be buried beside him on a hilltop at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. There at the president's funeral in June 2004, much of the world watched the tearful widow lean over his coffin to say farewell as the sun set over Simi Valley.
Gone was the so-called “dragon lady” who her press secretary Sheila Tate said could make the most powerful White House aide shake with fear. Nearly forgotten were the closets of designer gowns and cabinets of expensive china that she preferred, and for which she was criticized. Even her unblinking gaze of connubial adoration — The Gaze, reporters called it — that so annoyed feminists seemed forgiven.
In her place was a frail, barely 5-foot-4-inch bird of a woman who had spent a decade losing her great love to Alzheimer's disease, and who, after 52 years, had finally let him go.
She never stopped grieving.
“I miss him now more than I ever did,” she told CNN's Larry King in 2007. Despite a tight circle of friends and her work at the Reagan Library, she said, “I'm lonely because I don't have him.”
The Reagans' fierce devotion — their children complained they felt like outsiders in their own family — was legendary. She was criticized as an overzealous gatekeeper for her husband, who called her “Mommie.” Yet some who knew them say the out-of-work actor who had been divorced by his more famous first wife, Jane Wyman, might well have remained a Hollywood has-been had he not met a B-movie starlet named Nancy Davis.
“I don't think he would have ever got elected governor (or) president if she wasn't his wife,” said Stuart Spencer, who managed Reagan's California and national campaigns. “She was that important to him. She was the anchor.”
Help from actors guild
In Hollywood or Washington or on the campaign trail, “she was the perfect supporting actress in that she always made Ronnie look good,” said Bob Colacello, author of “Ronnie and Nancy Reagan: Their Path to the White House.”
She was born Anne Francis Robbins in New York City on July 6, 1921, but later shaved two years off her age. Her father, Kenneth Robbins, was a used-car salesman who soon skipped out of his marriage and his daughter's life. Her mother was Edith Luckett, a stage actress.
Divorced, Luckett toured in acting companies to earn money, leaving Nancy, then 2, with Luckett's sister in Bethesda, Md. She did not retrieve her until six years later, when Luckett married prominent Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis.
The family settled down to a life of privilege at his home on tony Lake Shore Drive.
Tracy helped Nancy Davis, who had taken her adopted father's surname, get a screen test in Hollywood. She signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949 and went on to appear in 11 movies. Most, she wrote in her memoir, “My Turn,” were “best forgotten.”
She wrote that the two people who became the Reagans met after she learned in 1949 that her name was on an industry blacklist of Communist sympathizers. Suspecting a mix-up with another Nancy Davis, she contacted the Screen Actors Guild for help. The union's president was Ronald Reagan. And in a story varnished into lore by the Reagans, their meeting led to romance.
Reagan was on the downside of his acting career and on the rebound after Wyman divorced him and took custody of their children, Maureen and Michael. After an on-again, off-again courtship, he and Nancy were married in a private ceremony on March 4, 1952. Seven months later, daughter Patti was born.
“When I married Ronnie, I thought I married an actor,” Reagan would write. They did co-star in the 1957 potboiler “Hellcats of the Navy.” By then, he was a spokesman for General Electric and learning he had a politician's gift of gab.
Nancy Reagan had been the breadwinner for a short time, but eventually she gave up acting to stay home with Patti and son Ron, born in 1958. She had a new career: Ronnie.
“She had one constituent,” said chief White House speechwriter Ken Khachigian, “and that was Ronald Reagan.”
As a newly hired speechwriter during the 1980 presidential campaign, Khachigian sat knee-to-knee with the Reagans in the back seat of a limousine. As the candidate known as “The Great Communicator” pored over his prepared speech, his wife told the aide, “You need to know that Ronnie is best when he's stirring the emotions in his audience.”
She said she “came within an inch of losing the man I love.” The March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on the president convinced her that “I had to be more involved in seeing that my husband was protected in every possible way.”
After the shooting, “her neurotic paranoia and need to control every detail of their lives really served her husband very well,” said Kati Marton, author of “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History.”
“He could pretend nothing bothered him because he knew everything bothered her, and Nancy was eternally vigilant.”
One way was to consult an astrologer to help plan her husband's schedule. That riled Donald Regan, her husband's chief of staff in the second term. He didn't like constant calls from the boss' wife. Underestimating the power the first lady wielded, Regan had even hung up on her.
That, said Khachigian, brought his downfall.
She enlisted Washington power broker Robert Strauss and trusted White House aides to engineer Regan's ouster, made all the more urgent when the biggest scandal of her husband's presidency — the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal — erupted on his watch.
“When Nancy was sidelined, that's when he got in trouble, like Iran-Contra under Don Regan,” Marton said. “She would have smelled trouble with Ollie North,” the National Security Council staffer charged with illegally funneling money to Nicaraguan rebels.
Reagan had her own ideas for her husband's legacy. Marton said she was key in encouraging detente with the Soviet Union, leading him “away from his ‘evil empire' posture toward a role as a man of peace.”
“Even though she wasn't a policy person, she knew what was going on,” White House aide James Kuhn said in a University of Virginia oral history interview. “She had a major role in getting him to engage the Soviet Union. She was the one who worked on him the most, to open up his mind.”
After a second term that saw him survive colon cancer surgery and her undergo a mastectomy for breast cancer, the Reagans retired to their California ranch. It wasn't all that long after they left the White House that the former president began to show signs of Alzheimer's disease. In 1994, he wrote a letter to the American people to say he was withdrawing from public life.
Nancy Reagan would live nearly a dozen more years after her soulmate's death. Occasionally, she appeared at events as her husband's standard bearer, as at the 2008 GOP presidential debate at the library.
She tried, as her deteriorating health allowed, to lead a full and meaningful life.
Now the two halves are whole again.