Mrs. Ford was a free spirit from the start. Elizabeth Bloomer, born April 8, 1918, fell in love with dance as a girl in Grand Rapids, Mich., and decided it would be her life. At 20, despite her mother’s misgivings, she moved to New York to learn from her idol Martha Graham. She lived in Greenwich Village, worked as a model, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Graham’s modern dance ensemble. “I thought I had arrived,” she later recalled.
But her mother coaxed her back to Grand Rapids, where Betty worked as a dance teacher and store fashion coordinator and married William Warren, a friend from school days. He was a salesman who traveled frequently; she was unhappy. They lasted five years.
While waiting for her divorce to become final, she met and began dating, as she put it in her memoir, “probably the most eligible bachelor in Grand Rapids” _ former college football star, Navy veteran and lawyer Jerry Ford. They would be married for 58 years, until his death in December 2006.
When he proposed, she didn’t know about his political ambitions; when he launched his bid for Congress during their engagement, she figured he couldn’t win.
Two weeks after their October 1948 wedding, her husband was elected to his first term in the House. He would serve 25 years, rising to minority leader.
Mrs. Ford was thrust into a role she found exhausting and unfulfilling: political housewife. While her husband campaigned for weeks at a time or worked late on Capitol Hill, she raised their four children: Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan. She arranged luncheons for congressional wives, helped with her husband’s campaigns, became a Cub Scout den mother, taught Sunday school.
A pinched nerve in her neck in 1964, followed by the onset of severe osteoarthritis, led her to an assortment of prescription drugs that never fully relieved the pain. For years she had been what she later called “a controlled drinker, no binges.” Now she began mixing pills and alcohol. Feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, she suffered an emotional breakdown that led to weekly visits with a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist didn’t take note of her drinking but instead tried to build her self-esteem: “He said I had to start thinking I was valuable, not just as a wife and mother, but as myself.”
The White House would give her that gift.
In 1973, as Mrs. Ford was happily anticipating her husband’s retirement from politics, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced out of office over bribery charges. President Richard Nixon turned to Gerald Ford to fill the office.
Less than a year later, his presidency consumed by the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned. On Aug. 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the only chief executive in American history who hadn’t been elected either president or vice president.
Mrs. Ford wrote of her sudden ascent to first lady: “It was like going to a party you’re terrified of, and finding out to your amazement that you’re having a good time.”
She was 56 when she moved into the White House, and looked more matronly than mod. Ever gracious, her chestnut hair carefully coifed into a soft bouffant, she tended to speak softly and slowly, even when taking a feminist stand.
Her breast cancer diagnosis, coming less than two months after President Ford was whisked into office, may have helped disarm the clergymen, conservative activists and Southern politicians who were most inflamed by her loose comments. She was photographed recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital, looking frail in her robe, and won praise for grace and courage.
“She seems to have just what it takes to make people feel at home in the world again,” media critic Marshall McLuhan observed at the time. “Something about her makes us feel rooted and secure _ a feeling we haven’t had in a while. And her cancer has been a catharsis for everybody.”