Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


The New First Lady

Posted on

The cast has straggled in for rehearsal. In one corner two or three girls are trying desperately to learn their lines, but in the other corner Nancy, with by far the longest role, is perched gaily on top of the radiator, apparently telling a grand story…When the fatal night comes, Nancy knows not only her own lines but everybody else’s. She picks up the cue her terrified classmates forget to give, improvises speeches for all and sundry. Just a part of the game for Nancy.—From a 1939 high school yearbook, describing Nancy Reagan in the leading role of her senior class play, First Lady.

Now she stood beside her husband in the tumult of election night, her adoring gaze riveted upon him. “She’s going to have a new title in a couple of months,” President-elect Ronald Reagan told the nation. “It really isn’t new because she’s been the first lady in my life for along time.”

When Nancy Reagan stands beside him again on January 20 for his swearing-in as the 40th President of the United States, she will assume a role for which she has been studying all her life: from her days at chic Girls’ Latin School in Chicago and Smith College through her training as debutante, MGM starlet and, finally, as Ronald Reagan’s Total Woman. Her performance in the 1980 campaign was flawless. After rubber chickens and ethnic specialties beyond number, she remained the perfect 106-pound size 6. By supernatural discipline, she seemed never to be mussed or wrinkled, and even in the last days before the election she listened to her husband’s campaign litany as if she were hearing it for the first time.

To the forces for women’s liberation, her ascension will not be taken as a happy sign; she forthrightly opposes the ERA, the right to abortion, premarital sex, live-in relationships and most other symptoms of the New Morality. “Nancy is an anachronism,” says one California woman on the Reagan team. “She lives in the ’50s, when it was a man’s world and women were there to be perfect wives. She lacks compassion for the issues of the day because they have never been in her sphere of life.” Her projects are expected to be noncontroversial and First Lady-like: notably Foster Grandparenting, a program that matches senior citizens with mentally retarded youngsters, and the rehabilitation of drug abusers. Yet it is clear from the relentless strength Nancy showed in the long months of campaigning that she is far from uninvolved in the grittier, more basic stuff of politics. Indeed, the question asked among her campaign entourage was not if, but how much, she influenced her husband’s policies. Now, after her triumph, it is worth asking what made the 57-year-old Nancy run so hard; the answer helps forecast what kind of a First Lady she will be.

It turns on the Reagans’ extraordinary romance, a relationship that has plainly lost nothing with age. “My life began when I married Ronnie,” Nancy says repeatedly and in all apparent sincerity. Her husband describes being with her as “coming from the cold air into a warm room.” During the campaign Mrs. Reagan’s close friend and former aide Nancy Reynolds recalls, “Whenever she went off on her own, we got a call about the fourth day from the governor, saying, ‘I want her back—give me back my wife.’ ” His staff says their reunions were a tonic. “His performance always revived when she was around,” says one aide.

To Nancy he is the one and only (though his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman qualifies him as the first President in U.S. history to have been divorced). She did break off one wartime engagement, to an Amherst student, and after family friend Spencer Tracy intervened to land her a screen test with MGM, there were dates with Cary Grant, Clark Gable and lesser leading men. But hers was never the Hollywood of boozy parties and too-late nights; she made her honorable intentions clear on the biographical form MGM asked her to fill out when she signed a contract in 1949. Any pet peeves? “Superficiality,” she wrote, “vulgarity, especially in women, untidiness of mind and person, and cigars.” Childhood ambitions? “To be an actress.” Greatest ambition? “To have a successful, happy marriage.” She told her cousin Charlotte Galbraith Ramage that all she ever wanted was “a husband and a house with geraniums at the windows.”

Some friends trace her longing for a secure family life—and her outspoken defense of traditional values—to her own broken home. Her father, a New Jersey car salesman, left her mother just after Nancy was born in 1923. When she was 2 years old she was sent to live with relatives in Maryland so that her mother, actress Edith “DeeDee” Luckett, could take work on the road. Five years later her mother had a new marriage—to Dr. Loyal Davis, a prominent, politically conservative neurosurgeon in Chicago—and a home for her daughter. Nancy’s life after that was well-to-do and rock-solid; Walter Huston and James Cagney were family friends, and young Nancy Davis (she was legally adopted when she was 14 years old) moved into Chicago high society. She was, a high school beau remembers, “straitlaced.” Chicago millionaire Augustus K. Maxwell Jr. adds fondly, “Let’s put it this way: Some of the girls were easier to kiss than others. But Nancy, you didn’t even make certain funny remarks in front of her. She could be, ummm, a little prim.” Friends from that period also felt she was embarrassed by her past, and Nancy neither forgave her natural father for leaving nor quite got over the years of separation from her mother. “It was hard for me to understand children who couldn’t wait to get away from home,” she recalled not long ago. “I had missed my mother so, and I was so happy when I could be with her.”

The rebellion of later younger generations left Nancy mystified, particularly when it touched her own family. Daughter Patti, now an aspiring actress, lived for a while with a member of the Eagles rock group, and son Ron quit Yale to become a dancer four years ago. Her recent autobiography, Nancy, mentions neither event; indeed, her two children are hardly mentioned at all. As for Reagan’s two children by Jane Wyman, writer Bill Libby, who collaborated on Nancy, believes “she would prefer to think that that marriage didn’t exist.”

Nancy sees reticence on family matters as a virtue. “Everyone has a right to a private life,” she says. “To be able to function in public life there has got to be some part of you that is yours. I’ve always had a hard time understanding people who go on talk shows.” A longtime aide to the new President is blunt but sympathetic: “Nancy Reagan is shy, uptight and insecure.” Nancy Reynolds explains: “In the beginning it was very hard for her. She took a lot of the attacks on the governor as personal attacks. That is why she is so cautious.” No doubt she will be the same in the White House.

Behind the scenes, though, Nancy is fiercely loyal to her kin. She is pleased that Patti is living at the family’s Pacific Palisades home now, and that a family friend, TV producer A.C. Lyles, recently hired her to do a guest spot on his show, Here’s Boomer. Nancy may criticize her own children, friends say, but outsiders do so at their peril. “Make an attack on her or her family and you’re up against a very angry lady,” says one of her closest aides. “She’s a fighter.”

That loyal belligerence has been mistaken by some as power-grabbing, Nancy suggests. “So much has been made of my influence,” she sighs. “You can’t be married for 28 years without having some influence over each other.” She admits to intervening when staffers overschedule Reagan’s time—”like any political wife”—but the bottom line is clear: “When push comes to shove, it’s his decision. He gets his way.” She insists she will not attend policy and Cabinet meetings, as Rosalynn Carter has done. As for worries that she might influence the President with pillow talk, she laughs: “That would be impossible—he goes to sleep very quickly.”

Those who know her say her chief influence on Reagan’s Washington will be in matters of style. As press aide Coral Schmid crisply puts it: “She’ll give the place back a sense of decorum.” A veteran of the Best-Dressed List for so long she has been installed in its permanent Hall of Fame, Nancy will no doubt bring more haute couture into the White House than it has seen since the days of Jackie Kennedy. The Reagans’ galas should be similarly elegant, with guest lists that feature West Coast business friends (Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale, Holmes and Virginia Tuttle, Armand and Harriet Deutsch) and the stars of social Hollywood (Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Ray and Fran Stark). The Reagans are expected to lift Embassy Row out of the precipitous social slump it suffered under the Carters—and to quietly end the Carters’ no-liquor rule inside the White House (the wines will remain California). Any changes will be no reflection on previous First Ladies, Nancy insists. “It’s a hard job and they’ve all done it differently,” she says. “Each has found a way that is right for her, and just because it’s not right for another doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

Perhaps the Reagans’ greatest gift to the style of official Washington will be their unabashedly public romance—which is more openly affectionate than that of the understated Carters. In a characteristic gesture on Nancy’s 53rd birthday in 1976, Reagan gave his bride (whom he calls “Mommie”) a 15-foot canoe christened TruLuv, paddled her out to the middle of the lake on their estate near Santa Barbara and serenaded her. In a letter to his son Mike on the eve of the young man’s marriage, Ronald Reagan touched on the reason why. “There is no greater happiness for a man,” he wrote, “than approaching a door at the end of the day knowing someone on the other side of the door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.” In that, he and Nancy are kindred spirits. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” as she put it in her autobiography, “but believing in true love, saving yourself for that true love and having one husband for all of your life just seems to me how things should be.” The Reagans’ courtship will continue in the White House. The President will depend on Nancy more than ever. She will listen for his footsteps. The state of their union will be fine.