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First Lovebirds: Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Actor Ronald Reagan and actress Nancy Davis first met on November 15, 1949. Reagan had been married to actress Jane Wyman, who became his wife on January 26, 1940). Reagan and Wyman had two biological children, Maureen (1941–2001) and Christine (who was born in 1947 but only lived one day), and they adopted a third child , Michael (born in 1945). But Wyman filed for divorce in 1948, claiming that her husband's Screen Actors Guild (SAG) union duties caused him to neglect their marriage. The divorce was finalized in 1949 and to date Reagan is the only US president to have been divorced.


Nancy was single when she met her future husband, though she had dated many actors, including Clark Gable, Robert Stack, and Peter Lawford. She met with Reagan because she had noticed that her name had appeared on the Hollywood blacklist and sought Reagan's help as President of SAG for assistance in having her name removed from the list. Reagan discovered that she had been confused with another actress of the same name and was able to help her. Shortly thereafter two began dating and their relationship was the subject of many gossip columns. Ronald Reagan was skeptical about marriage, following his painful 1948 divorce from Jane Wyman, but after three years of dating and he proposed to her in the couple's favorite booth at Chasen's, a Beverly Hills restaurant. They were married on March 4, 1952 in a simple ceremony designed to avoid the press at the Little Brown Church in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The only people in attendance were actor William Holden, the best man, and his wife, actress Brenda Marshall, the matron of honor.

The couple's first child, Patricia Ann Reagan (better known by her professional name, Patti Davis), was born on October 21, 1952. Their son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, was born six years later on May 20, 1958.

By all accounts, the two enjoyed a very loving relationship as intimate. As President and First Lady, the couple frequently displayed affection. Nancy's press secretary told the BBC "They never took each other for granted. They never stopped courting." He often called her "Mommy" and she called him "Ronnie".

When Reagan was recuperating in the hospital after the 1981 assassination attempt, Nancy Reagan wrote in her diary, "Nothing can happen to my Ronnie. My life would be over." In a letter to Nancy, Ronald wrote, "whatever I treasure and enjoy ... all would be without meaning if I didn't have you." In 1998, while her husband was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, Nancy told Vanity Fair, "Our relationship is very special. We were very much in love and still are. When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it's true. It did. I can't imagine life without him." When Reagan died in June of 2004, actor Charlton Heston said it was "the end of the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency."

Nancy's relationship with her children was not always as close as that with her husband. She frequently quarreled with her biological children and her stepchildren. Her relationship with her daughter Patti was the most contentious. For nearly 20 years, Patti was estranged from her parents. Soon after her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Patti and her mother reconciled and began to speak on a daily basis. Nancy was thought to be closest to her stepdaughter Maureen during the White House years, but each of the Reagan children experienced periods of estrangement from their parents.

Reagan was First Lady of California during her husband's two terms as governor. She disliked living in Sacramento. She attracted controversy early in 1967, when, after four months' residence in the California Governor's Mansion in Sacramento, she moved her family into a wealthy suburb because fire officials had labeled the mansion as a "firetrap". The Los Angeles Times' named her Woman of the Year in 1967 and called her "A Model First Lady". The Reagans held dinners for former POWs and Vietnam War veterans while governor and first lady.

When Reagan sought the GOP nomination for President in 1976, he did so only after getting Nancy's approval. She was active in the campaign, monitoring her husband's schedule, and occasionally holding press conferences. Both candidates wives (Nancy and Betty Ford) were strong women and both spoke out over the course of the campaign. Nancy was particularly upset that Ford had portrayed her husband as a warmonger.

Reagan ran again for the presidency in 1980, successfully this time. Nancy played a very prominent role in the campaign and her management of staff became more hands-on. She arranged a meeting among feuding campaign managers John Sears and Michael Deaver and her husband, which resulted in Deaver leaving the campaign and Sears being given full control. After the Reagan camp lost the Iowa caucus and fell behind in New Hampshire polls, Nancy organized a second meeting and decided it was time to fire Sears. She gave Sears a copy of the press release announcing his dismissal. Her presence at campaign rallies, luncheons, and receptions seemed to increase his confidence.

As First Lady, Nancy directed a major renovation of several White House rooms, financed by private donations.
The extensive redecoration was paid for by private donations. She said, "This house belongs to all Americans, and I want it to be something of which they can be proud." Her wardrobe consisted of dresses, gowns, and suits made by luxury designers, including Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. Her 1981 inaugural gown was estimated to cost $10,000 and the overall price of her inaugural wardrobe was said to cost $25,000. She favored the color red, calling it "a picker-upper." In 1989, Nancy was honored at the annual gala awards dinner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, during which she received the council's lifetime achievement award.

Nancy Reagan launched the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign in 1982, which was her primary project and major initiative as first lady. In 1982, Nancy Reagan was asked by a schoolgirl what to do when offered drugs; Nancy responded "Just say no". The phrase found its way into the popular culture of the 1980s and was eventually adopted as the name of club organizations and school anti-drug programs. She visiting a large number of drug abuse prevention programs and drug rehabilitation centers. She also appeared on television talk shows, recorded public service announcements, and wrote guest articles. She appeared in an episode of the hit television drama Dynasty to underscore support for the anti-drug campaign. She also appeared in an episode of the popular 1980s sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, When asked about her campaign, the first lady remarked, "If you can save just one child, it's worth it."


Nancy Reagan became very protective of her husband after the attempted assassination on his life in 1981. On March 30 of that year, President Reagan and three others were shot as they left the Washington Hilton Hotel. Nancy was alerted and arrived at George Washington University Hospital, where the President was hospitalized. When she saw her husband, he quipped to her, "Honey, I forgot to duck." When Senator Strom Thurmond entered the President's hospital room that day in March, passing the Secret Service detail by claiming he was the President's "close friend", presumably to acquire media attention, Nancy became outraged and demanded he leave. While the president recuperated in the hospital, the first lady slept with one of his shirts. When Reagan was released from the hospital on April 12, she escorted him back to the White House.

Nancy stated in her memoirs, "I felt panicky every time he left the White House" following the assassination attempt, and she made it her concern to know her husband's schedule: the events he would be attending, and with whom. This led to her consulting astrologer Joan Quigley, who offered insight on which days were "good", "neutral", or should be avoided, which influenced her husband's White House schedule. Days were color-coded according to the astrologer's advice to discern precisely which days and times would be optimal for the president's safety and success. White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan grew frustrated with this routine, creating friction between him and the First Lady. When news of the Iran-Contra affair broke, the First Lady felt Regan was at fault. She thought he should resign, and expressed this to her husband although he did not share her view. Regan wanted President Reagan to address the Iran-Contra matter in early 1987 by means of a press conference, though Nancy refused to allow Reagan to overexert himself due to a recent prostate surgery and astrological warnings. Regan became so angry with Nancy that he hung up on her during a 1987 telephone conversation. When the President heard of this treatment, he demanded—and eventually received—Regan's resignation. In his 1988 memoirs, Regan wrote about Nancy's consultations with the astrologer, the first public mention of them, which resulted in embarrassment for the First Lady. Nancy later wrote, "Astrology was simply one of the ways I coped with the fear I felt after my husband almost died... Was astrology one of the reasons [further attempts did not occur]? I don't really believe it was, but I don't really believe it wasn't."

Nancy strongly encouraged her husband to hold "summit" conferences with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev, and suggested they form a personal relationship beforehand. Both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had developed a productive relationship through their summit negotiations, but the relationship between Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev was not a friendly one. Mrs. Gorbachev would lecture Nancy on subjects ranging from architecture to socialism, reportedly prompting Nancy to quip, "Who does that dame think she is?"

At the end of her time as First Lady, however, Nancy Reagan said that her husband had not been well-served by his staff. She acknowledged her role in reaction in influencing him on personnel decisions, saying "In no way do I apologize for it." She wrote in her memoirs, "I don't think I was as bad, or as extreme in my power or my weakness, as I was depicted, however the first lady fits in, she has a unique and important role to play in looking after her husband. And it's only natural that she'll let him know what she thinks. I always did that for Ronnie, and I always will."

In October 1987, a mammogram detected a lesion in Nancy Reagan's left breast and she was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose to undergo a mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy and the breast was removed on October 17, 1987. Ten days after the operation, her mother, Edith Luckett Davis, died in Phoenix, Arizona. After the surgery, more women across the country had mammograms, an example of the influence the First Lady possessed.

Upon leaving the White House, the couple returned to California, where they purchased a home in a wealthy Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. They regularly attended Bel Air Presbyterian Church as well. In 1994 President Reagan revealed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Nancy made herself his primary caregiver and became actively involved with the National Alzheimer's Association and its affiliate, the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago, Illinois. In May of 2004, she wrote "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him." Ronald Reagan died in their Bel Air home on June 5, 2004. During the seven-day state funeral, Nancy traveled from her home to the Reagan Library for a memorial service, then to Washington, D.C., where her husband's body lay in state for 34 hours prior to a national funeral service in the Washington National Cathedral. She returned to the library in California for a sunset memorial service and interment. After accepting the folded flag, she kissed the casket and mouthed "I love you" before leaving.


Nancy Reagan has remained active in politics, particularly relating to stem cell research. In 2004, she urged President George W. Bush to support federally funded embryonic stem cell research in the hope that this science could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Although she failed to change the president's position, she did support his campaign for a second term. She hosted two 2008 Republican Presidential Candidates Debates at the Reagan Presidential Library, the first in May 2007 and the second in January 2008. While she did not participate in the discussions, she sat in the front row and listened to the debate. In February she suffered a fall at her Bel Air home and was taken to St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Doctors reported that she did not break her hip as feared and she was released from the hospital two days later. In October 2008, she was admitted to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center after falling at home. Doctors determined that the 87-year-old had fractured her pelvis and sacrum and could recuperate at home with a regimen of physical therapy.

In March 2009 she praised President Barack Obama for reversing the ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. She traveled to Washington, D.C. in June 2009 to unveil a statue of her late husband in the Capitol rotunda. She was also on hand as President Obama signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act and lunched privately with Michelle Obama. Nancy Reagan hosted a 2012 Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library on September 7, 2011. Of her mental faculties, NBC news anchor Brian Williams said "She's as sharp as ever and enjoys a robust life with her friends in California, but falling is always a danger of course. She's a very stoic, hardy person full of joy and excitement for life. She is not without opinions on politics and political types these days. She is, as most of her friends described her, a pistol."
Tags: first ladies, gerald ford, ronald reagan, strom thurmond
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