William Plummer
March 13, 2000 12:00 PM

In the second of People’s occasional series on the five former First Ladies, we profile Nancy Reagan—from her years as a budding starlet to her sometimes troubled stay in the White House to the struggles she faces as the loving spouse of a man brought down by Alzheimer’s.

It used to be that Nancy Reagan would call friends like Betsy Bloomingdale or Casey Ribicoff and say, “Let’s meet at Saks or take a run over to Crate & Barrel.” Until a year or so ago, she could even be spotted thumping melons at the upscale Gelson’s Market. But today she does most everything by phone, from shopping to keeping tabs on her enormous circle of friends. “When I fly out to L.A. from New York, we usually go to the Terrace at the Hotel Bel-Air,” says Peter Brown, a close friend and public relations executive who recently lunched with Nancy. “She was looking very tired. She hasn’t been getting much sleep. Still, people kept coming up to the table [to pay their respects], and she dealt with them, as always, in the most graceful way.”

That grace conceals the monumental stress that tugs at Mrs. Reagan every waking hour. Now more than ever, she occupies the center of her husband’s shrinking world. Ronald Reagan’s bout with Alzheimer’s, first revealed in 1994, appears to be entering its final phase. A few years ago he would spend several hours a day in his Century City office. He worked out regularly, played golf and strolled along the beach with his Secret Service agents. Today he sees almost no one but Nancy and his live-in nurse, and his motor skills have so deteriorated that he no longer exercises. “We are afraid he might fall,” says John Hutton, the ex-President’s longtime friend and physician. “He walks around the garden and occasionally may try to stand in the pool. The focus of his day is Nancy.” Hutton adds, “I don’t think it will go beyond the year 2000.”

And still, Nancy, 78, does not complain. She does not reveal how she has given up showing videotapes of the big events in his political life because he no longer recognizes them. Nor does she mention how she fights chronic exhaustion and was in fact a shut-in over Christmas and New Year’s with pneumonia and before that with a broken rib from a fall. Asked to describe her current life, she says only, “My time is spent with my husband, but as any doctor will tell you, the caregiver has to get out a bit. I do manage to get away from time to time with friends, either to have lunch or an early dinner.”

It is sadly ironic that even as Ronald Reagan is in steep decline, his once-controversial First Lady is reemerging in a new light. There was a time in the ’80s when Nancy could do nothing right. Seeming to believe the country wanted a return to the stylish Kennedy years, she extensively redecorated the White House and accepted $1 million worth of designer dresses and a 4,732-piece set of china worth $209,000. Never mind that the china was donated—it arrived around the time her husband’s administration was trying to cut back school lunch programs by counting ketchup as a vegetable.

There were reports too that she was causing heads to roll—some said she was behind the firing of Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan. By the end of 1981, her first year in the White House, she had one of the highest disapproval ratings of any modern First Lady. Even she acknowledges she made several blunders. “As with all things,” she tells PEOPLE, “you can think of things you could have done differently.”

But the public perception of Mrs Reagan has undergone a sea change. Once criticized for being too protective of her spouse, she is now being praised for precisely that. “Talk about rising to the occasion,” says Maureen Reagan, 59, the ex-President’s daughter with actress Jane Wyman. “I can say that as my father has weakened, Nancy has gotten stronger. She has gotten beyond denial and is facing this full-on.”

She is also facing this virtually alone. She no longer invites friends to the house, and three of Reagan’s four children are infrequent guests. Maureen, who lives 350 miles away in Sacramento and has become a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer’s Association, sees her father a couple of times a month. Radio talk show host Michael, 54, Reagan’s other child with Wyman, last dropped by with his kids before Christmas. But Nancy’s offspring—Patti, 47, a freelance writer in Malibu, and Ron, 41, a film-TV producer in Seattle—have made only rare appearances. “I think all his children loved him desperately,” Ron Jr. explained to 60 Minutes last fall. But his father, he said, needed only Nancy. Now, it seems, she has him all to herself. “It’s so unfair,” says Betsy Bloomingdale, her close friend. “There is no one there for her. She’s totally alone.”

In a way, Nancy Reagan—born Anne Frances Robbins in New York City on July 6,1921, to Edie, an actress, and her husband, Ken, a car salesman—was bred to it. By the time Nancy was 2, her parents had separated and left their only child with Edie’s older sister Virginia Galbraith—which allowed Edie to pursue her career onstage. For the next five years, Nancy lived with the Galbraiths in Bethesda, Md., and pined for her mother, the glamorous actress who periodically swept back into her life with hugs and promises to spirit Nancy away.

Sometimes Nancy would go to New York City to see Edie in a play. “The visits with Mother were wonderful,” she later wrote. “I loved to dress up in her stage clothes, put on her makeup and pretend I was playing her parts.” Still, Nancy Reagan’s biographers believe that she was formed by these dislocations of early childhood. “The early sadness remained at the heart of who she became,” says author Kitty Kelley. “But it also might explain her estrangement from her own children. There was something missing in her childhood, something crucial.”

Edie finally made good on her promises when she divorced Robbins and married Chicago surgeon Loyal Davis, a stern disciplinarian whom 7-year-old Nancy revered. Dick Davis, Loyal’s son from an earlier marriage and now a physician near Philadelphia, first met his stepsister in 1931, when he was 6 and, she was 10. “We used to play a game of ‘Help! Murder! Police!’ and we’d jump all over the furniture,” says Davis, now 74. In 1939, when his own mother died, he says that Nancy took him “under her wing. I’ve never forgotten it.”

Nancy, adopted at 16 by Loyal Davis, grew up to be a blend of her parents. According to Nancy Reagan biographer Frances Spatz Leighton, Davis was a perfectionist who was roundly disliked by interns at his hospital because he was so demanding. For her part, Edie mastered the role of the doting wife. In her 1989 autobiography My Turn, Nancy writes, “[My mother] cared for her husband. She expanded his social circle. She helped him in every possible way.” She says that Edie once told her, “Now, Nancy…when you get married be sure you have breakfast with your husband. Because if you don’t you can be sure that some other woman who lives around the corner will be happy to do so.”

After graduating from Smith College in 1943, Nancy went to New York to become an actress and won a role in a play starring ZaSu Pitts, an old friend of Edie’s. Then in 1949 she signed as a contract player with MGM and moved to Hollywood. It was in that same year, during the McCarthy witch-hunts, that she met Ronald Reagan.

A 28-year-old starlet, the deeply conservative Nancy Davis was alarmed to find her name on a list of Communist sympathizers. She knew that Reagan, then 38 and president of the Screen Actors Guild, was, like her, a staunch anticommunist and would share her outrage. She also knew that he was recently divorced from actress Jane Wyman. So she convinced a friend to approach the actor about inviting her to dinner. Reagan agreed but told her he had a predawn call, so they would have to cut their evening short. They not only stayed out until 3 a.m. but planned an encore the next night.

The Reagans married in March 1952 with only screen star William Holden and his wife, Ardis, present. Their daughter Patti was born seven months later, and in 1958, Ron arrived. It was about this time that Reagan changed from Democrat to Republican. He campaigned for Nixon in 1960, and four years later gave a speech for Barry Goldwater that electrified the GOP. By 1967 he was sworn in as governor of California—a feat many credit to Nancy. “I think if left to his own devices,” Ron told 60 Minutes, “[my father] might have ended up hosting Unsolved Mysteries on TV.” Already seeming imperious, Mrs. Reagan and her family chose not to stay in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. “The place,” she later wrote, “reminded me of a funeral parlor.”

Reagan ran California for eight years, then trounced Jimmy Carter in 1980 to become President. Nancy quickly fell afoul of the press over such gaffes as the china. Combine this with the glitzy Reagan retinue—the likes of Frank Sinatra and publishing magnate Walter Annenberg—and it is not hard to understand how Nancy, as Eleanor Clift wrote in The Washington Post, “became a symbol of the uncaring rich, a Barbie doll with an attitude.”

But the major blow to the Reagans was struck outside a Washington hotel by John Hinckley Jr., who put a bullet within inches of the President’s heart in March 1981. Out of the hospital in just 12 days, Reagan treated the attempt on his life with humor, saying, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Nancy, however, was traumatized. “You have to understand,” says ABC-TV newsman Chris Wallace, “Ronald Reagan was the sun in Nancy’s life, and to see him almost killed was the realization of her worst nightmare.”

Desperate to protect her husband, Nancy got the name of an astrologer from showbiz pal Merv Griffin. Recalls Griffin: “She said, ‘I want to talk to that woman because she can tell me when Ronnie should travel and when he shouldn’t.’ ” When word got out that Nancy was consulting the stars, she was subjected to further ridicule in the press.

Nor was Nancy given much credit for her “Just say no” antidrug program—which some said accomplished little. But even foes were impressed by the stoic grace she brought to her 1987 bout with breast cancer. “I guess it’s my turn now,” she said, referring to Reagan’s colon cancer of two years earlier. Unwilling to cancel commitments to charity, Nancy put doctors on hold for several days before undergoing a mastectomy.

In 1989 the Reagans left Washington and moved into their $2.5 million, three-bedroom Bel Air house overlooking Los Angeles. Their friends expected that the President’s retirement would be the greatest time of his and Nancy’s life. Then, in 1994 during an annual checkup, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For all the sadness the illness has brought into their relationship, there are glimmers of a bond that refuses to let go. “To watch them is very romantic,” Hutton says of the Reagans, who will follow up last month’s birthday party with a celebration on March 4 of their 48th anniversary. “Their love seems as real as when I’d watch him help her from her horse after a morning’s ride. She would slide down into his strong arms and he would suspend her in a fond embrace.” It is a picture to cherish—one, perhaps, that will survive the ravages of time and disease.

William Plummer

John Hannah and Pamela Warrick in LA. and Margery Sellinger in Washington, D.C.

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