Today a chapter in American presidential history has closed with the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. At 94 years, Mrs. Reagan’s life spanned almost a century of change in American political history and cultural life. During her time in the White House, she had made it her mission to blend the two together in a way that won her both admirers and critics.
Mrs. Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921 in New York City. Her parents — a Broadway actress and a car salesman — separated before her birth and divorced soon after, leaving their daughter to be raised by an aunt and uncle in Bethesda, Maryland, at age two. Her mother’s pursuit of an acting career across the country meant a lonely childhood for the girl nicknamed Nancy. When her mother remarried Chicago neurosurgeon and political conservative Loyal Davis in 1929, Nancy acquired the father figure she had long craved, and six years later the teenager convinced her father to surrender custody rights so that Mr. Davis could formally adopt her. Living proof that families are fragile, she nonetheless expressed an early commitment to the traditional family norms she would later promote as First Lady.
Nancy Davis attended a private girls’ school in Chicago and graduated from Smith College as a drama and English major in 1943. Her mother’s friends – influential personalities within the acting circles such as Walter Huston, Zasu Pitts, and Spencer Tracy – helped Nancy Davis get her first parts. After a brief romance with Clark Gable, she was rumored to have dated Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer casting director Benny Thau. MGM signed her on as the clean-cut girl next door, which limited her prospect at romantic leads.
At the same time, Screen Actor’s Guild president Ronald Reagan and his divorce from Jane Wyman made headlines in Hollywood. Nancy Davis arranged to meet him over the appearance of her name on a Communist blacklist, which turned out to be a mix-up with another actress of the same name. The two began to date, and for three years the gossip magazines marveled at this “romance of a couple who have no vices.” Their relationship remained non-committal, however. Reagan saw as many as sixteen other actresses during the same time period and was also rumored to still hold out hopes for his ex-wife. However, it was Nancy who ultimately won over Reagan. In March 1952, the two married in a small private ceremony. Nancy became the stepmother to Ronald Reagan’s two biological children and adopted son, but she was also two months pregnant with their first child, Patricia Anne. Their son Ronald Prescott was born six years later.
While the degree to which she steered Ronald Reagan into marrying her is a matter of debate, she and her father Loyal Davis influenced his political shift from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Her guidance helped Ronald Reagan build his political profile in the 1950s when he starred as the host to the General Electric Theater TV drama series. By the 1960s, Ronald Reagan’s views on the burdens of big government had become widely known, and Reagan’s public support for Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964 made him the darling of a new conservative movement.
Reagan’s landslide victory in California’s gubernatorial elections in 1966 also changed the role for Nancy Reagan who had retired from her acting career in 1962. But the manners and habits she had acquired in the Hollywood scene did not serve her well in her role as the Golden State’s first lady in the quiet and uneventful town of Sacramento. Her rejection of the run-down governor’s mansion in lieu of a 12-room Tudor-style home leased from wealthy friends earned her the nickname “Queen Nancy,” despite her insistence that she had asked for the move in the interest of her children and husband. She ordered the construction of a new governor’s residence in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, which was completed in time for his successor Jerry Brown who refused to live there.
Although praised by her supporters as a “Model First Lady” for her engagement with multiple charities, including the Foster Grandparents program, critics continued to consider her snobbish and out of touch. She also faced the opposition of her children, particularly her daughter Patti who openly rejected her parent’s conservatism. Throughout her political life, Nancy Reagan would struggle to stage her strained relationship with her children to meet the expectations of her conservative constituency.
Nancy Reagan first auditioned for the role of First Lady in 1976. Whereas Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and took on political positions of their own, Nancy Reagan described herself humbly as a mere sounding board for her husband, but not a voice in the administration. And by all appearances, her arrival in the White House four years later seemed to confirm her commitment to an apolitical role in her husband’s administration. Her ambition was to turn the Reagan White House into the Republican equivalent of the Kennedy’s Camelot. But the style, glamour, and youthful appearance the Kennedys brought to Washington D.C. took place in the dynamic and hopeful early 1960s.
By contrast, the pomp and circumstances that accompanied the arrival of the elderly Reagans took place in 1981 in the depth of economic stagnation, mass unemployment, and deep cultural conflicts. The opulent inauguration party, the many borrowed designer dresses that ended up in Nancy Reagan’s wardrobe, and the more than 80 state dinners once again made the First Lady appear to master style over substance. “She never seems to get an itch, her lips never stick to her teeth, she hardly blinks,” wrote Sally Quinn of the Washington Post in frustration. Reagan’s advisors discussed the “Nancy problem” he was facing in his reelection, and they worked on her approval ratings. In March 1982, she poked fun at her large wardrobe by singing “Second Hand Clothes” (originally titled “Second Hand Rose”), and her leading role in the “Just Say No” drug abuse prevention campaign endeared her to conservatives and the political center.
But it was Nancy Reagan herself who dramatically reinvented her supporting role as First Lady in the wake of her husband’s shooting in March 1981. In an apparent effort to protect Ronald Reagan from another threat to his life, Nancy obtained an increasingly strong influence over the president’s schedule. She consulted San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley for years in an effort to predict dangers and risks for her husband. She wielded considerable influence over staffing — not just in her own personnel of 18 in the East Wing, but in her husband’s office as well.
With passing years, Nancy Reagan also began to script more and more of Ronald Reagan’s political meetings and public appearances. Her interest in better relationships with the Soviet Union played a crucial role in Reagan’s acceptance of Mikhail Gorbachev’s disarmament overtures. By the time of her husband’s reelection, Nancy Reagan had expanded her supporting role into the lead that Hollywood had always denied her, yet she maintained the public appearance of a supportive and even tender spouse. Her famous “gaze” – the deep, immovable, unblinking view Nancy Reagan held on her husband during his public appearances – left a lasting impression on American audiences.
The Reagan’s return from Washington D.C. to the Bel Air neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1989 also coincided with the president’s declining health, and although Nancy Reagan continued to speak publicly against the dangers of drug abuse, the care for her husband took center stage in her life after his Alzheimer diagnosis in 1994. A loyal and conservative Republican throughout her life, she did praise President Barack Obama in 2009 for his decision to reverse the ban on federally funded stem cell research — one of the few hopes in the battle against Alzheimer Disease.