She was a size-2 fashionista, a former actress who inspired media wrath decades ago for her couture and decorating appetites — not to mention her proximity to power.
The 4,372-piece red china she sought to gussy up White House entertaining — a gift from a private foundation, not a taxpayer expense as some thought — cost more than $200,000. At the time, critics denounced it as an unseemly show of excess in the depths of a national recession. Now, like Nancy Reagan herself, the china set has endured to become an iconic treasure.
Mrs. Reagan’s value in the White House was much more than as a sidelines tea-pourer with a penchant for Galanos gowns and a distrust of outsiders. She loomed large — often in her famed red power dress — in all aspects of her husband’s life and career, wielding outsized political influence for a first lady and helping to shape Reagan’s now-lauded and history-making Cold War policy.
Much more than many knew during his presidency, Ronald Reagan relied mainly on the council of his wife, even on the big issues. Some say she was likely his only true friend in Washington — much to the chagrin of his power-player associates, many of whom regarded her as the tiny but ferocious pit bull guarding the Oval Office door.
“I think she was the only person he really listened to, the only person he was really close to,” historian Kathy Olmsted, a professor at the University of California at Davis, said about Reagan’s complex personal-political relationship.
“A lot of what is known about her comes from the memoirs of Reagan’s advisers, who wrote a lot of kiss-and-tell books after they were out of office. They did disclose that there was this tug of war between her and some of his hard-line advisers, which made them despise her but made many historians see her as a moderating influence.”
Mrs. Reagan’s push against those from the far right helped save her husband’s presidency, Ms. Olmsted said.
“After [the Iran-Contra scandal], his approval ratings were abysmal,” the historian said. “There was talk of impeachment. She was perhaps his most forceful adviser in counseling him to meet with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and come to some sort of deal that led to the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty to cool tensions. It encouraged Reagan to go away from hard-line, hawkish policies and make peace and agree to reduce the nuclear arsenal. She played a big role in ending the Cold War.”
Born Anne Francis Robbins in 1921, the daughter of an actress and car salesman, she was raised for a time by relatives because her mother’s career kept her away from home. After her mother remarried, she was adopted by her stepfather, Loyal Davis, a well-known neurosurgeon and conservative whose name she took. She grew up in Chicago and graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1943.
After working several jobs, she followed her mother into acting, performing on Broadway in 1946 in a minor role in the production of “Lute Song.” Soon, after a screen test, she was working under contract for MGM in Hollywood, where she played small roles in 11 films. In her next to last movie, “Hellcats of the Navy,” she was joined on the screen by actor Ronald Reagan, whom she married in a simple ceremony in 1952. She retired from movies in 1962, her heart more devoted to marriage and a family than to a career on the silver screen.
The blended family included two children from Mr. Reagan’s first marriage to actress Jane Wyman and two children born after the couple married. It also became a lifelong partnership, with Mrs. Reagan famously devoted to her “Ronnie.”
Over her lifetime in the public eye, including during her husband’s tenure as governor of California, those closest to the handsome couple described them as deeply affectionate. Actor Charlton Heston, upon Mr. Reagan’s death, called their relationship “the greatest love affair in the history of the American presidency.”
A book chronicling their romantic relationship in letters, “I love you, Ronnie,” was published in 2000. Although Mrs. Reagan was criticized in the press for her fashion tastes and formality, her enduring devotion to her husband and her grace in dealing with his final illness and death have softened her image with time.
Political pundit Andrea Tantaros said Mrs. Reagan’s strength on behalf of her husband has been inspirational across generations.
“Behind every successful man is a strong woman: Nowhere was this more clear than the relationship between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. She was the backbone of that White House during her husband’s tenure, and her style was fierce and unique — and I’m not just talking about fashion,” Ms. Tantaros said. “Despite the controversy she invoked during her years in the West Wing, she was a role model for wives, mothers, young people and anyone who deeply loved the United States.”
Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., calls Mrs. Reagan “one of the most influential first ladies in modern times.”
“A lot of the people who were not following politics didn’t believe she was [influential], but people who had known Reagan and studied his governing knew Nancy was a power broker,” Mr. Watson said.
“In some ways, I’ve always felt that each first lady makes the next one possible,” he added. “And I think [Mrs. Reagan] made Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama a little more possible. Both are Ivy League lawyers who are seen as full political and policy partners” with their presidential spouses.
Mr. Watson said Mrs. Reagan deserves much credit for starting an open conversation about Alzheimer’s disease, the affliction that clouded the last decade of her husband’s life. Her stoicism in handling Reagan’s death in 2004 “brought the issue into every dining room and every office water-cooler discussion,” he said.
“She really displayed grace under pressure. It’s such a tough job for a loved one dealing with it, and I absolutely do think part of her legacy is the Alzheimer’s conversation.”
Mr. Watson also praised Mrs. Reagan, now 89, as “a legacy-shaper and advocate for her husband.”
“All presidents are concerned about legacies when they leave office. They invite historians to meet with them, their proxies go on talk shows. They write books to make their case,” Mr. Watson said. “The fact that Reagan was stricken with [Alzheimer’s] so early after leaving the White House, he never got the chance to do that. What we have seen with Nancy is that she has stepped up, consistently and quietly reaching out to his inner circle to make the case for her husband’s legacy.
“I think she was more ambitious than he was. And I think in a lot of ways, she is even more relevant today than she was a few years ago.”