- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

PERSONALITY: Bob Colacello, erstwhile chronicler of the celebrity scene for Vanity Fair and the author of “Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up,” a personal memoir of the eccentric pop icon during the years (1971-83) Mr. Colacello was editor of Interview magazine.

MOST RECENT ACHIEVEMENT: “Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path to the White House — 1911-1980,” the first of a two-volume biography of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, delves behind the scenes of one of the most extraordinary marriages in history. Based on the full cooperation of Mrs. Reagan, access to her personal papers and interviews with close friends who have gone on the record for the first time, Mr. Colacello’s massive, six-year effort goes a long way to “set the record straight” about the couple’s early lives, family relationships, film careers and ultimate rise to power.

Q. What surprised you most about the Reagans?

A. One thing that hit me was just how cruel Jane Wyman was in the way she got rid of Ronald Reagan. One day, she just told him, “You bore me; get out.”

Q. After his death, she did say he was a great man.

A. She issued a two-sentence statement under duress after her friends in Palm Springs told her she had to. I’ve had a few dinners with her. She hates to talk about him. The minute you say the word “Ronnie,” she gives you a look that would kill. She is a difficult, bitter sort of woman who had a difficult childhood and a hard time making it in Hollywood. She was a great actress; she just wasn’t a great wife. She was bored with him and had no interest in politics whatsoever.

Q. But he bored the people in Hollywood, too.

A. They were into their careers and their next movie. Reagan wanted to talk about the communist threat and the Red menace. What also surprised me was how driven and competitive he was from a young age, and how he gravitated toward older mentors who had a lot more money than his father. But he always hid his ambitions and wasn’t threatening to people.

Q. What surprised you about Nancy?

A. Just how glamorous and enchanting her upbringing was, especially after her mother married Dr. Loyal Davis. … Her mother was friends with Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Mary Martin and Walter Huston, and they stayed with her when they came to Chicago. It was hardly a conservative Republican household.

Q. You say that Nancy had a tendency to “whitewash or sugarcoat,” “sentimentalize and mythologize” the past.

A. There was a lot of resentment of Nancy Reagan because she presented this picture-perfect biography of herself. At first, she even tried to deny that her real father existed and that he had left her mother after she was born. She said Loyal Davis was her real father. Maybe it’s part of her survival instinct that she tends to whitewash or forget the difficult parts of her life. Of course, that’s what makes one more sympathetic as a human being to the general public.

Q. The Reagans weren’t terribly close to their children.

A. They raised them. They didn’t have the kind of money to have nannies or a big staff. But the children grew up in the ‘60s, when young people tended to be alienated from their parents. Hollywood kids haven’t fared that well, either. The parents are very busy, and their presence is often so overwhelming that the child wilts in the shadows.

A. You say the Reagans didn’t seem all that extraordinary at first.

A. He was in his waning days at Warner Bros. when they met. She had a moderately successful career at MGM but was terminated before they wed. So, two charming and attractive but out-of-work actors get married. Fourteen years later, he was governor of California, and 14 years after that, he was president of the United States. How did that happen? That’s what this book is about.

Q. He gave her a lot of credit, said he couldn’t have done it without her.

A. A lot of people I interviewed said that.

Q. Is this a classic tale of “Behind every great man is a powerful woman”?

A. A classic case, almost archetypal. But Ronald Reagan had the big ideas, was the visionary. What he lacked was an ability to differentiate among people. He liked everybody. He couldn’t fire anyone. His father was an alcoholic who lost many jobs. It was too painful for him to tell somebody they had to go. So Nancy helped choose the people, and if they didn’t deliver, she wanted to know what was going wrong. All along the way, she was the tough one.

Q. She also sought out those who would become her personal friends.

A. One of the things the book reveals is how consciously she put together the “Kitchen Cabinet.” The women she sought out as friends in L.A. — beyond Hollywood — all happened to have husbands who were big financial contributors to the Republican party.

Q. There is a revisionist view that counters her reputation as a power-mad, social-climbing clotheshorse.

A. The last 10 years of her husband’s life — while she was at his side as he declined from Alzheimer’s — certainly built a lot of sympathy for her. She was not flying off to dinners in London, Paris and New York or going to the Vanity Fair Oscars party — even though she was asked every year. She did not buy a lot of clothes. But that’s not to say she was some angel. She did social-climb in the sense that she cherry-picked her friends with her husband’s passion for politics in mind.

Q. Jacqueline Kennedy did many of the things Nancy was later criticized for.

A. First of all, Nancy was a Republican. Second, the press didn’t go into things as much when the Kennedys were in the White House. Nobody asked to see Jackie’s dress invoices from Oleg Cassini or how much money Bunny Mellon gave her. After Watergate, there were people going through Oscar de la Renta’s garbage pails on Seventh Avenue to find out if Nancy Reagan had paid for a hat.

Q. The Reagans turned out to be very popular in Washington.

A. Nancy knew it was a Democratic town and that the so-called “Georgetown set” were very powerful in terms of influencing the media. She made friends with Kay Graham, Susan Mary Alsop, Evangeline Bruce, Oatsie Charles, Jim Billington, Bob Strauss, George Will. People were pleased and flattered to be invited … and they got to see one on one that Ronald Reagan wasn’t some war-mongering bomb thrower who didn’t know what he was talking about.

Q. He was hardly an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford famously described him.

A. He had been subscribing to the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor since 1937 or 1938, when he was a young actor in Hollywood. He knew his world affairs.

Q. You point out that the Reagans’ social set was very wide.

A. They were not isolated like the Bushes, who don’t have many state dinners. That’s ridiculous. Foreign leaders like to come to the White House.

Q. Nancy was criticized for her entertaining.

A. People said she was too interested in the china, the flowers, etc. But she knew that by creating a beautiful house and atmosphere, she was helping to advance her husband’s goals, because important people want to come and they can help him. The social game has a purpose; it’s not just a frivolous thing.

Q. She asked you not to portray her as a “master backstage manipulator.”

A. She has always been nervous about putting herself forward too much. She doesn’t want to detract from his legacy. “Everything I did, I did for Ronnie,” she told me. The fact of the matter is that they were a 50-50 team.

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