Nancy Rea­gan

1921- 2016

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - An­drea Stone

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.”

Stu­art Spencer,

cam­paign man­ager


- 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.

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