Nancy Reagan, who as wife of the 40th president of the United States wielded more influence than any First Lady since Jackie Kennedy, died at her home in Los Angeles today and the age of 94. The cause of her death was congestive heart failure, according to a family spokesperson. Friends of Ronald Reagan have observed that without Nancy, he would not have become governor of California nor President of the United States.
Nancy was very much hands-on in both of her husband’s presidential campaigns. The first was unsuccessful in 1976, which saw a defeat for Republicans and the rise of Jimmy Carter to the presidency, but in the second the inseparable pair won the White House. During the Reagan years, it was Nancy who successfully sought the dismissal in 2987 of White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan in the wake of the scandal that ensued when it was discovered that he had orchestrated the sale of arms to Iran.
It was First Lady Nancy who brought in political consultants, including Democrat Robert S. Strauss, to persuade the stubborn president to apologize for the scheme hatched by Regan and orchestrated by Col. Oliver North to sell arms to Iran in order to divert funds to the Contras – the insurgents who were fighting the leftist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua on behalf of the United States. Mrs. neither sought nor received credit for the development. President Reagan apologized to the nation in a nationally televised speech and thus bolstered his sagging approval ratings.
In her book, “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan”, she wrote “He was all I had ever wanted in a man, and more.” Reciprocating her affection, Reagan said “How do you describe coming into a warm room from out of the cold?...Never waking up bored? The only thing wrong is, she’s made a coward out of me. Whenever she’s out of sight, I’m a worrier about her.” Mrs. Reagan said, in contrast, that she was worrier of the pair and that the president’s eternal optimism annoyed her. “I seem to do the worrying for both of us.”
Mrs. Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City. Her mother was the daughter of Edith Luckett and Kenneth Robbins. At the age of 2, her mother sent her to live in Maryland. When her mother re-married Dr. Loyal Davis, who adopted Nancy and gave her the family name. As Nancy Davis, she graduated from Smith College in 1943. She was cast in the MGM film “East Side, West Side,” which was released in 1949 starring Ava Gardner, James Mason, and Barbara Stanwyck. While she was but a bit actress in Hollywood, her greatest role would come after leaving the city of dreams.
After dating on and off, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis were married in 1952 at The Little Brown Church in the Valley, in Studio City CA. Their daughter Patricia Ann, who is known professionally as Patty Davis, was born in 1952. Their son, Ronald Prescott, was born in 1958. In addition to these children, Nancy Reagan is survived by her stepson, Michael Reagan, and brother, Dr. Richard Davis. Her stepdaughter, Maureen Reagan, died in 2001.
She was reluctant to enter politics, but took to it in a big way and was involved in hiring and firing political consultants and campaign staff working for her husband. As First Lady, she set about redecorating the White House and bringing new glamour to the Executive Mansion. For example, her fundraising brought in $822,000 to refurbish the White House living quarters, and another $220,000 for presidential china. She was well-known for her chic attire, tailored by Galanos and Adolfo. In 1981, a Gallup poll showed that she was the “most admired” woman in America.
Once the Reagan administration ended, Ronald and Nancy returned to Los Angeles where they lived in the Bel Air district. It was in 1994, after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was confirmed for the former president, that the next ten years of what she called “the long goodbye” began. As the former president declined, Nancy busied herself with “10 years of exacting caregiving, hurried lunches with friends” and “hours spent with old love letters” and advocating for a cure for Alzheimer’s.
At the funeral for President Reagan and Washington’s National Cathedral, Nancy showed distinct control of her emotions. At the burial service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, soldiers and sailors handed a folded American flag to the former First Lady. At sunset, Nancy Reagan held the flag close to her heart, placed it carefully on her husband’s coffin, and began to weep at last.
Nancy Reagan will be buried next to her husband at the library bearing his name in Simi Valley CA.
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.