Barbara Wilkins
September 16, 1974 12:00 PM

With only four months remaining before he turns over the keys to the mansion, California’s retiring Governor Ronald Reagan and his ex-actress wife, Nancy, have been ranch-hunting in the lush Santa Barbara area. When the search began earlier this year they were not looking—or at least he was not—for a one-family sybarite’s Sun City but rather a spread that might just possibly become in 1977 the Western White House. That, of course, was before the sudden accession of Gerald Ford, which made the 63-year-old Reagan not only a lame-duck governor but—barring another such unexpected upheaval in Washington—a presidential dead duck as well.

The seeming coup de grace came—despite the lobbying of his conservative backers—when Ronnie was passed over for the No. 2 spot for old nemesis Nelson Rockefeller. It rankled, particularly, that though Gerald Ford claimed to have consulted all Republican factions, Reagan insists he had no communications with the White House until General Haig phoned “shortly before the announcement.” The governor obviously considers himself a keeper of the conservative conscience of the party, and his post-Sacramento “plans,” he declares, “remain what they always were. I still intend starting in January to speak out on the issues I feel strongly about.”

Thus, Nancy’s dreams of a return to civilian life next year may be premature. Perhaps she shouldn’t be surprised, for while both were acting in movies an ideological issue brought them together in the first place. That was in 1951, and by then the Illinois-born former sportscaster had played in over 40 films. Nancy, the Smith-educated daughter of prominent Chicago surgeon Loyal Davis, had just decided to try Hollywood (“After all, you can’t sit around and do nothing”). Finding herself besieged by what she considered Communist crank mail and phone calls, she complained to her director, Mervyn LeRoy, who, in turn, took it up with Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. The old pro’s first advice, after noting that there were three other Nancy Davises on the SAG rolls, was to change her name. Within a year they were married, and that particular Nancy Davis was more or less retired from the business.

One year later they had a daughter, Patricia, now 21 and an aspiring singer, followed by Ronald Prescott, a 16-year-old sophomore at a Southern California boarding school. (By his previous marriage to actress Jane Wyman, Reagan also had two children—Maureen, 32, a twice-divorced radio talk-show host in L.A., and Michael, 29, a yacht broker down the coast.)

Early in their marriage the Reagans retained both of their apartments—for the closet space. By the time Nancy was on the best-dressed lists with her Puccis and Galanos, Reagan had begun his lucrative eight-year tour with the GE Television Theater and bought a comfortable, all-electric house in Pacific Palisades. (It is still their refuge from Sacramento at least once a week.)

By then Reagan was doing his TV work left-handed, one day a week, and spending much of the rest of the time getting his first live audience adulation on what he constantly calls the mashed-potato circuit. After his all-out drive in 1964 on behalf of Barry Gold-water, Reagan recalls, “I was asked to run for governor, but we just couldn’t buy it. It was such a total change of life.” It took them six months to say yes, after which Reagan defeated two-term Governor Pat Brown handily and in 1970 was again re-elected. He had publicly ruled out running for a third term even before winning his first, but now muses, “I’m going to miss this job.”

Certainly both he and Nancy are emerging from the eight years in top condition. Lean, fit, deeply tanned, the governor keeps in shape swimming and riding. At 51, Nancy is still a perfect size six. “I stay in marvelous shape,” she smiles. “I worry it off.” Among her accomplishments of their tour is a foster grandparent program that involves the elderly as surrogate grandparents for orphans, juvenile delinquents and the mentally retarded. The California-wide project has now spread to other states.

Nancy hopes that a return to private life will end the periods when Ronnie concentrates so hard he shuts her out. His only complaint is her cooking. Chides Reagan: “I think that fried chicken you cook and serve in the red and white cartons is wonderful.” Nevertheless, any mastery in the kitchen would be wasted on the governor. Reagan’s favorite food is macaroni with cheese. Their taste in entertainment is no more sophisticated. Old actress Davis finds “too much unnecessary violence and sex” in movies today, and they prefer television, particularly The Waltons.

As for the future, Ronnie writes off acting. The only role he missed playing, he says, is Patton. Politically, “I think that all of us would hope and pray that this Administration in the next two years will be so successful that there will be no question about 1976.” But then he cautions, “we ought to wait for a long time before anybody decides about 1976.” In the meantime, he relishes returning to the old mashed-potato circuit, where he is one of the party’s top fund-raising draws. “I want to talk about political and economic fairy tales,” he says, hitting away at his familiar bêtes rosées of welfare giveaways and excessive government.

The Reagans’ first priority, though, is finding spacious housing for the family menagerie. In Pacific Palisades they keep their cat and a German shepherd named Pogo. The pets in the Sacramento governor’s mansion are a cockapoo (a cocker-poodle hybrid) and Pogo’s brother Fuzzy. The German shepherds have been raised separately since they were pups. “We’d better have our ranch by January,” says Reagan. “Either that, or we can invite all our friends to the damndest dog fight ever.”

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