Bob Meadows
June 06, 2005 12:00 PM

Everything was in place for Nancy Reagan’s first trip to the White House in nearly a year. Hosts George and Laura Bush put her in the Queen’s Bedroom (with an antique bed so tall the petite former First Lady had to have a special set of steps), and the red-rimmed Reagan state china was polished and put into service. Favorite former staffers from the Reagan Administration were on hand, and a baritone sang “Nancy (with the Laughing Face)” at an East Room lunch on May 12 for 40 of her friends. But the day before, when a wayward Cessna 150 mistakenly flew into restricted Washington, D.C., airspace, Reagan was hurriedly ushered to a part of the White House she had never before seen: a safe room in the basement. “You know, they really didn’t have to do that” she later joked with friends.

That was the only speed bump in an otherwise flawless reentry into Washington and New York society by Reagan after a year of mourning in the seclusion of the Bel Air, Calif., estate she shared with her husband. His death last June 5, preceded by a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, had left Nancy emotionally depleted and physically frail, say friends. “She misses Ronnie tremendously—it’s just so hard for her,” says Betsy Bloomingdale, her good friend. But on May 9, Nancy, 83, set off on a 10-day trip to the East Coast that included a $2.5 million fund-raiser in D.C. for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, lunches in New York City with society fixtures like Barbara Walters and Gloria Vanderbilt (Tom Cruise‘s romance with Katie Holmes was a topic of gossip at one) and a performance of current Broadway hot ticket Spamalot, at which audience members gave her an ovation.

The whirlwind trip left images in stark contrast to the public’s last view of Reagan, grief stricken at her husband’s state funeral last June 11. Today, say the former First Lady’s friends, Nancy seems more energetic: She says she has put on a few pounds (a good thing, in her case), and her wit has returned. “That look of utter defeat and weariness is gone. Even her posture has changed. It’s wonderful,” says journalist Dominick Dunne, another old pal. “Her trip to Washington was a sort of coming out.”

Still, the memories of her 52-year marriage to Ronald Reagan are never far. “She sees Ronnie in so many things,” says Bloomingdale. But keeping up with Dutchess, the shar-pei puppy given by Merv Griffin to keep her company, proved too much of an effort for Reagan. She later found the dog (whose name honors her late husband) a new home. During her long seclusion, Reagan has worked on behalf of stem cell research—a controversial cause that has put her at odds with the current occupant of the White House—in the hope of helping to find cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She has also made frequent trips to the Reagan Library, both to visit Ronald’s grave and to help expand the library’s activities and influence. “Nancy lives to make sure that my father’s image is maintained,” says stepson Michael Reagan, 60. She has been in close touch with her daughter Patti Davis, 52, an author (see box), who calls daily, and son Ron, 47, a Seattle TV personality, who has also taken up the stem cell crusade.

Reagan hasn’t disclosed how she will mark the first anniversary of Ronald’s death. But in a rare TV interview on May 11 she did reveal to ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she sometimes speaks to her late husband, whose photographs fill the house they shared. “He’s very much with me,” Nancy said. “Everything still is all about him.”

Bob Meadows. Champ Clark in Los Angeles, Rebecca Paley and Carla Hay in New York City and Jane Sims Podesta, Jessica Voelker and Ellen Shapiro in Washington, D.C.

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