Some of the most vivid memories of Nancy Reagan reflect her enduring love of husband Ronald Reagan, whether gazing adoringly upon him at his inauguration as president, flashing a reassuring smile as the pair peered out of a hospital window after the assassination attempt or years later tenderly kissing his flag-draped casket.
Always the relentless protector of her beloved “Ronnie,” Mrs. Reagan carefully tended to the former president’s iconic image for a decade after his death.
Theirs was a love for the ages.
“She is once again with the man she loved,” Michael Reagan said in a tweet as word spread of his stepmother’s death at the age of 94.
She died Sunday morning at her home in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure, and she will be buried next to her husband at his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, said a family spokesperson.
During her life, she was vilified by some as a “dragon lady” who reportedly ran the show behind the scenes in the Reagan White House, but also was praised for her intelligence, quiet counsel and dedication to social causes that helped define the role of a modern first lady.
The former actress was a fixture at the side of her husband as he made an improbable assent from Hollywood actor to California governor to president of the U.S. Along the way, she served as both wife and trusted adviser, emerging as a relentless guardian of her husband’s image during political turmoil, the 1981 assassination attempt, his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and later as the widow faithfully keeping the Reagan flame.
For many, she is best known for her “Just Say No” campaign during the 1980s to keep youths from using illegal drugs.
Later, she not only cared for Reagan as Alzheimer’s disease slowly robbed him of his memories, eventually erasing his memories of her, but also worked tirelessly to spread awareness of the disease and raise money for medical research for a cure.
In announcing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, the former president wrote, “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.”
“Those who know her well know how magnificently she rose to the challenge of Alzheimer’s and how much she did to make the president’s last years comfortable,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday on Fox News. “She once said to me that it was a tremendously terrible disease because the person can look perfectly normal and yet you knew in their eyes that they were slowly fading away.”
Throughout it all, the partnership of Nancy and Ronald Reagan stands out as one of the great love stories of the times. It seemed as if every photograph of them together caught them holding hands.
He affectionately called her “Mommy,” and penned gushing love notes throughout his life that she saved and published as the book “I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan.”
It was published in 2002, two years before Reagan died. At the time, she said the love letters provided comfort when her husband could no longer remember her.
“Theirs is one of the great love stories of the American presidency, ranking with the Washington and Adams marriages,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and author of the new book “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.”
“She will be remembered as a not just the First Lady, but a Great Lady. I remember her many kindnesses in having the Reagan Library open sealed files for my research use and her many and kind letters,” he said. “She had many causes as First Lady, but the first was her undying devotion to her husband.”
Tributes from all sides
Respects and remembrances came from political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama offered condolences to the Reagan family.
“Nancy Reagan once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House. She was right, of course. But we had a head start, because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice,” the Obamas said in a statement.
“Our former First Lady redefined the role in her time here. Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s, and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives,” they wrote.
Former President Bill Clinton and former first lady Hillary Clinton, who is now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, issued a joint statement expressing their sadness at Mrs. Reagan’s passing.
“Nancy was an extraordinary woman: a gracious First Lady, proud mother, and devoted wife to President Reagan — her Ronnie,” they wrote. “Her strength of character was legendary, particularly when tested by the attempted assassination of the President, and throughout his battle with Alzheimer’s. She leaves a remarkable legacy of good that includes her tireless advocacy for Alzheimer’s research and the Foster Grandparent Program.
“We join all Americans in extending our prayers and condolences to her beloved children and her entire family during this difficult time,” said the Clintons.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Reagan could not have accomplished everything he did without his wife.
“As first lady, she brought a sense of grace and dignity to the White House. She roused the country to redouble the fight against drugs. And she showed us all the meaning of devotion as she cared for President Reagan throughout his long goodbye,” said the Wisconsin Republican. “She loved her husband, and she loved her country. This was her service. It was her way of giving back. And all of us are very grateful. So on behalf of the entire House, I wish to extend our condolences to the Reagan family and offer our prayers on the passing of a great American, Nancy Reagan.”
When she arrived in Washington, after her husband’s landslide victory over President Carter in 1980, Mrs. Reagan was derided as a vapid socialite who was consumed with evening gowns, fine china and redecorating the White House.
Critics labeled her “Queen Nancy” and mocked her excesses amid an economic recession and her husband’s plan to slash federal spending.
However, admirers credited her with restoring grace and elegance to the White House after the austerity of the Carter years.
Her substantial influence within the White House came to light slowly in her husband’s second term.
Although a feud between the first lady and Chief of Staff Donald Regan had spilled into the open, the president dismissed reports that it was his wife who got Regan fired.
“The idea that she is involved in governmental decisions and so forth and all of this, and being a kind of dragon lady — there is nothing to that,” a visibly angry Reagan assured reporters.
But Mrs. Reagan herself and other insiders later confirmed her role in rounding up support for Regan’s ouster and persuading the president that it had to be done because of the Iran-Contra scandal that broke under Regan’s watch.
She delved into policy issues, too. She urged Reagan to finally break his long silence on the AIDS crisis. She nudged him to publicly accept responsibility for the arms-for-hostages scandal. And she worked to buttress those advisers urging him to thaw U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, over the objections of the administration’s “evil empire” hawks.
Near the end of Reagan’s presidency, Regan took his revenge with a memoir revealing that the first lady routinely consulted a San Francisco astrologer to guide the president’s schedule. Mrs. Reagan, who had a longtime interest in horoscopes, maintained that she used the astrologer’s forecasts only in hopes of predicting the safest times for her husband to venture out of the White House after the assassination attempt.
Mrs. Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City. Her parents separated soon after she was born, and her mother, film and stage actress Edith Luckett, went on the road. Nancy was reared by an aunt until 1929, when her mother married Loyal Davis, a wealthy Chicago neurosurgeon who gave Nancy his name and a socialite’s home. She majored in drama at Smith College and found stage work with the help of her mother’s connections.
As Nancy Davis, she became a Hollywood actress in the 1940s.
In 1949, MGM signed 5-foot-4, doe-eyed brunette Nancy Davis to a movie contract. She was cast mostly as a loyal housewife and mother. She had a key role in “The Next Voice You Hear …,” an unusual drama about a family that hears God’s voice on the radio. In “Donovan’s Brain,” she played the wife of a scientist possessed by disembodied gray matter.
She met Reagan in 1950, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and she was seeking help with a problem: Her name had been wrongly included on a published list of suspected communist sympathizers. They discussed it over dinner, and she later wrote that she realized on that first blind date “he was everything that I wanted.”
They wed two years later, on March 4, 1952. Daughter Patti was born in October of that year, and son Ron followed in 1958. Reagan already had a daughter, Maureen, and an adopted son, Michael, from his marriage to actress Jane Wyman.
She was thrust into the political life when her husband ran for California governor in 1966 and won. She found it a surprisingly rough business.
“The movies were custard compared to politics,” she said.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.