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,” AnitaMcBride, a chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said in an interview Sunday with CNN.
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” whom her press secretary, Sheila Tate, said could make the most powerful WhiteHouse aide shake with fear. Near-
ly 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 5foot- 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 June 2007. Despite a tight circle of friends and her work at the Reagan Library, “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. It was also polarizing. 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’d 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.”
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. Silent movie star Alla Nazimova was godmother to the girl everyone knew as Nancy.
Divorced, Luckett toured in acting companies to earn money, leaving Nancy, then 2, with Luckett’s sister in Bethesda, Md. She didn’t 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. Show business friends such as “Uncle” Walter Huston and Spencer Tracy visited when they were in town.
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- GoldwynMayer in 1949 and went on to appear in 11movies. 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 amix- 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.
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.”
Nancy Reynolds, a former aide and close family friend, recalled traveling on a plane with Nancy Reagan a few weeks after her husband was elected governor of California in 1966. A man behind them was griping about Reagan’s stance in a budget battle in Sacramento.
“She pushed her seat back, looked him right in the eye and said, ‘ That’s my husband you are talking about and you don’t have the facts straight,’ ” Reynolds said. “Then she clicked the button that brought the seat up. She wasn’t shy.”
If she knew her husband best, her ability to gauge others was keen, too. In his autobiography, An American Life, Ronald Reagan wrote that his wife “was gifted with a special instinct that helped her understand the motives of some people better than I did.”
The president, whose 1984 re- election campaign theme was “Morning in America,” was “a bit whimsical and liked people of all stripes and persuasions,” Brinkley said. “Nancy had a built- in danger detector. She would weigh in constantly on who to trust and who not to trust.”
After the frugal Carter years of turned- down thermostats and cardigan sweaters, Nancy Reagan moved into the White House determined, as she later wrote, “to reclaim some of the stature and dignity of the building.”
But times had changed. The country was in a recession.
Controversy greeted the Reagans’ call for private donations to renovate the WhiteHouse living quarters when it was disclosed amid an oil crisis that some of the more than $ 800,000 raised came from the energy industry. Although a private foundation footed the $ 200,000 bill for new dishes, the news broke the day the Agriculture Department promoted ketchup as a vegetable on kids’ lunch plates. And the public didn’t appreciate that Reagan failed to return expensive borrowed gowns and jewelry.
A 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.”
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.
“Finally she had her beloved Ronnie all to herself,” Marton said, “and basically he ceased to be who he had been. It was the greatest tragedy of her life.”
“I don’t think he would have ever got elected governor ( or) president if she wasn’t his wife.”
- 2016 Alongside her husband, President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan waves from the limousine during the inaugural parade inWashington in 1981.
Nancy Reagan bows her head and touches the casket of her husband at a service in the Rotunda of the Capitol on June 9, 2004.