Nancy Reagan, the former First Lady of the United States who has died aged 94, probably exercised more power than any other president’s wife.
Edith Wilson usurped the executive function after President Wilson’s stroke; Rosalynn Carter sat in on Cabinet meetings; Hillary Clinton began by nursing the ambition of carrying Medicare reforms. But Nancy Reagan, operating under a public cover of wifely submission, was the crucial influence over her husband’s entire political career.
“If Ronald Reagan had married Nancy the first time round,” James Stewart once remarked, “she could have got him an Academy Award.”
As a politician, Reagan’s appeal was that of an easy-going, uncomplicated nice guy, whose forte was to bring common sense to bear upon the intractable problems of state. The image proved extraordinarily successful because in large measure it was based upon truth.
But nice guys, by definition, do not possess the ruthlessness and drive required to secure the presidency of the United States. Californian millionaires put up the money for Reagan’s attempt on the White House; Nancy Reagan provided the intensity of purpose that clinched success.
Her determination to see her husband on the pinnacle of power was unimpeded by imagination, idealism or humour – or by any competing interest. Her desire had grown out of the insecurities of her youth, and was pursued with a deadly combination of wariness and suspicion.
“Ronald Reagan trusts everyone and likes everyone,” explained Nancy Reynolds, who handled public relations for the Reagans. “Nancy has a more discriminating antenna about people. She’s seldom wrong.
“And if she feels someone is hurting him she’ll speak out. She’s a tiger at such moments, and thank God for it, because her husband is the kind of man who never says no. She makes sure the sharks are kept at bay.”
Similarly, on the campaign trail she made quite sure that Reagan’s aides were kept up to the mark. In the White House – particularly during the President’s second term, when his faculties were clearly on the wane – her hostility meant political death, and her penchant for firing people earned her the nickname of “Little Gun”.
Donald Regan, chief of staff at the White House from 1985 to 1987, found himself continually harassed by the First Lady in his attempts to extricate the President from the ramifications of the Iran Contra affair.
Mrs Reagan exercised unchallenged sway over the President’s schedule. And, as Regan explained, “virtually every move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco (Joan Quigley) who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in favourable alignment for the enterprise.”
Nancy Reagan’s obsession with astrology did not become public until Regan published his memoirs in 1988. But long before that her performance as First Lady had raised eyebrows. In private she would hold her staff at bay with frozen stares; in public she would fix her husband with a gaze of rapt, not to say imbecile, adoration.
Yet she was always ready to take action at awkward moments. There was a press conference in 1984, for instance, where Reagan, asked about his plans for talks with the Russians on space weapons, suddenly seemed incapable of speech. “Tell them we’re doing everything we can,” hissed the First Lady through lips that barely moved. “We’re doing everything we can,” echoed the President.
Her devotion, however, remained constant. “My life began when I married Ronnie,” she said. “I think I would have died if I hadn’t married him ... He is my hero.”
The sceptical remained unconvinced. They were also surprised by Nancy Reagan’s commitment to social causes. They knew that she loved expensive clothes (and especially those that designers made for her gratis); and that she instinctively preferred the company of the super-rich.
As soon as she entered the White House she carried out extensive redecoration, and ordered a set of china costing over $200,000 – this at a time when the President was stressing the importance of restricting expenditure.
In consequence, although Nancy Reagan put many hours into the campaign against drug abuse – visiting 64 American cities and eight foreign countries, and helping to found 3,400 Just Say No clubs – she never succeeded in creating a compassionate image.
Her critics pounced on any slip up, such as when she telephoned from a fundraising event in Chicago in 1980. “Oh Ronnie,” she enthused, “I wish you could be here to see all these beautiful white people ... black and white people, I mean.”
She was born Anne Frances Robbins in New York on July 6 1921. Her father, Kenneth Seymour Robbins, was an insurance salesman, albeit from an old New England family. Her mother (née Edith Luckett), a loud-mouthed woman given to swearing and dirty stories, pursued a rackety theatrical career independently of her husband. Alla Nazimova, a close friend of Edith’s and one of the American theatre’s leading lesbians, was appointed the child’s godmother.
By the time Nancy was two, her parents’ marriage was virtually over. She was parked with a maternal aunt at Bethesda, in Maryland, while her mother pursued her theatrical ambitions; in the summer she would visit her father in New Jersey.
Her parents divorced in 1928, and Kenneth Robbins remarried later that year. In 1929 her mother married Loyal Davis, an austere and forbidding Chicago neurosurgeon of tightlaced, unforgiving Republican views.
Edith Davis assiduously pushed her unprepossessing new husband’s career, while she herself worked in radio soap opera. Nancy, too, took to drama. At Girls’ Latin School in Chicago, she took one of the lead parts in First Lady, a play about two formidable women, each determined to put her man into the White House.
In 1938 Nancy Robbins was adopted by her stepfather, and thereafter featured as Nancy Davis, making no effort to see her real father. The next year she went to Smith College, where she continued to dabble in drama. In 1944, after graduating from Smith, she became engaged to one James Platt White Jr, but the match was soon broken off.
Nancy Davis now pursued an acting career, and landed a part with three lines in a show called Ramshackle Inn, on tour at Detroit; soon afterwards it came to Broadway. Then in 1946 she had another small part, as a Chinese handmaiden in Lute Song, with Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.
Her mother knew Spencer Tracy, who managed to fix her up with a date with Clark Gable. Tracy also obtained a screen test for her at MGM, and in March 1949 she signed a contract with that studio at $300 a week.
A number of small parts followed: as a psychiatrist required to unlock the memories of a traumatised six-year-old in Shadow on the Wall (1949); as – suitably enough – the dutiful daughter of a prominent neurosurgeon in The Doctor and the Girl (1949); and as a meddlesome interloper who tells Barbara Stanwyck her husband is having an affair in East Side, West Side (1949).
It was in the autumn of 1949 that Nancy Davis first met Ronald Reagan, whose movie career was already in decline, but who had become President of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan had been previously married to the actress Jane Wyman with whom he had two children.
Nancy Reagan recalled that she had known “right away” that Ronald was the man she wanted to marry. Certainly, she pursued him, asking him to sort out the embarrassment that had arisen as a result of another Nancy Davis having appeared among the list of those who had questioned the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Reagan, though, was involved with several other women, and it was only after Nancy Davis became pregnant that, in March 1952, he married her. Their daughter Patti was born that October.
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Meanwhile Nancy Davis’s career had been foundering. As a heavily pregnant wife in The Next Voice You Hear (1950) she projected, according to Spencer Tracy, “all the passion of a Good Humor ice cream – frozen, on a stick, and all vanilla.”
She was a schoolteacher in It’s a Big Country (1951), and a gutsy war widow (her favourite part) in Night Into Morning. But she made no mark in these films, nor in Shadow in the Sky (1951) and Talk About a Stranger (1952). In January 1952 Warner ended her contract.
Ronald Reagan’s career was also at a low ebb in 1952, though he would be saved two years later by a lucrative contract to introduce General Electric Theatre on television. Before that Nancy had been in Donovan’s Brain (1953), as the wife of a mad scientist. Later, the Reagans appeared together in Hellcats of the Navy (1957), and the next year Nancy Reagan made her last film, Crash Landing (1958).
By the time that their son Ronald “Skipper” Reagan was born in 1958, the Reagans were becoming more closely involved with politics. Under the influence of Loyal Davis, Reagan’s views had hardened; he had developed a particular horror for “socialised medicine”. Though he campaigned as a Democrat for Nixon in 1960, he became a Republican – and a Right-wing one – soon after John Kennedy’s victory. Four years later Reagan was the one bright spot in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.
Nancy Reagan was certainly behind her husband’s decision to run for Governor of California in 1966, backed by a group of Californian millionaires. Always at home with the super-rich, she formed an especially close attachment to Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of Alfred whose grandfather had founded the department store.
Reagan’s victory in California offered opportunities for internal decor that she did not mean to forego. Calling on her rich friends for donations, she built a new governor’s mansion overlooking the American River outside Sacramento. She also had her first taste of press hostility, when Joan Didion penned a withering piece about her for the Saturday Evening Post.
It was certainly difficult to strike a human spark from her in interviews. “She just drove me nuts,” complained another journalist, Nancy Collins. “She just sits there with her legs glued together, her hands all white knuckles, teeth grinding and that face just a mask – no animation, no laughter, no spontaneity, nothing. She was awful, just awful.”
Reagan made a cursory attempt at the presidency in 1968, marked by his wife’s claim that she was really much happier in California. It was as well, then, that Reagan was re-elected as Governor in 1970, albeit with a reduced majority.
Notwithstanding the emerging Watergate case, there was no chance of Reagan making a realistic challenge to President Nixon in 1972. But the fall of Nixon and the presidency of Gerald Ford offered new hope. “Nancy’s beam is like a lighthouse,” sang Frank Sinatra at Republican fundraisers in 1974, “she sees her husband in the White House.”
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She proved a formidable force in Reagan’s campaign in 1976 to wrest the Republican nomination from President Ford, and though in the end the power of White House patronage proved too strong, failure stimulated rather than quenched her ambition. What with the failures of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the well-honed efficiency of their public act, the Reagans enjoyed a relatively smooth passage to the presidency in 1980.
Of their two children, the elder, Patricia (“Patti”) became an actress and model, changed her name to Patti Davis and, in 1986, published a novel entitled Home Front, an obviously autobiographical tale about the daughter of a television star who becomes president of the United States. The character’s mother features as a distant figure obsessed with clothes and given to preaching the virtues of chastity. Their son, Ronnie, became a ballet star and later a television host.
Several years after he left office (at the end of his second term in 1989), Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Nancy Reagan subsequently became an outspoken advocate for stem cell research and continued to protect her husband’s image. “Ronnie has a wonderful disposition, always has had, and still has. He’s a dear, sweet, wonderful man,” she observed. “I certainly wish it was different. But you learn something out of everything.”
Ronald Reagan died in 2004. During a seven day state funeral Nancy Reagan led the American nation in mourning, and at a sunset memorial service kissed her husband’s coffin and mouthed the words “I love you.”
As she became increasingly frail she withdrew from the public eye although she retained her links to the political community, including Margaret Thatcher whom she described as strong but with a “nice soft side”.
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2009 she revealed that Michelle Obama had called her for advice on hosting guests at the White House.
Nancy Reagan is survived by her son and daughter and a stepson from her husband’s first marriage.
Nancy Reagan, born July 6 1921, died March 6 2016