The Problem of Being Patti
It seemed like a scene I’d wandered into by mistake. I looked out the window and saw people gathered outside the distant gates, pressing against the metal, staring through the bars. They’d be surprised to learn that I felt like the outsider, that as they stood beyond those gates, they were more a part of this historic event than I. Though I felt awkward and unreal, the inauguration was not a surprise to me; it was something I’d started preparing myself for, though not successfully, when I was still playing with dolls.
Patti Davis, Home Front.
It seems like a scene lifted from a life insurance commercial. Sun shines in the two-bedroom house on a side street in Santa Monica. The dog is scratching at the door, the Sunday paper is spread across the dining room table, and even the wind chimes are cooperating. Although the couple moved in only a few weeks earlier, the place has already acquired a homeyness that Norman Rockwell might have admired. There’s an Encyclopedia Britannica among the knick-knacks on the shelves. A wedding picture stands in one corner, a rocking chair occupies another and on the coffee table sits a copy of Unicorns I Have Known. “I like unicorns,” says the lady of the house sheepishly.
Dressed in jeans and V-neck sweater with no shirt underneath, she takes her guitar off the couch and sits down. If her face weren’t familiar—just this month it was featured on the cover of a supermarket tabloid trumpeting a supposed liaison with Don Johnson—she would be easy to mistake for a graduate student. One would never imagine this unpretentious house to be the residence of the daughter of the President of the United States. That suits Patti Davis just fine.
Although Patricia Ann Reagan, 33, has spent most of her years shunning her famous surname, she is about to capitalize on it. Her first novel, Home Front (Crown, $15.95), is appearing in bookstores this week. A “candidly autobiographical” work, according to the book jacket, Home Front chronicles the loneliness of the long-distance daughter, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Patti Davis. The book’s heroine is Beth Canfield, the upstart offspring of Robert Can-field, a former TV pitchman who, becomes to his daughter’s dismay, governor of California and then President of the United States. Sound familiar? Upon occupying the White House, Can-field’s fiercely loyal, fiercely fashionable wife, Harriet, immediately exclaims, “I just can’t wait to redecorate.” Beth clashes with her parents over her life-style, her lovers, her antiwar protests and her general distaste for all things Canfield.
The Reagan offspring have never been exactly a press secretary’s dream. Fresh from signing a contract to write for Playboy, Ron made good-natured fun of his parents when he was host on a recent Saturday Night Live. Yet none of the children has traded so brazenly on the family name and history as Patti is doing now. Written in the first person and pivoting upon her parents’ personas, Home Front is a literary striptease that might never have been published but for its author’s obvious family connections. What the book lacks in literary merit, it makes up for in entertainment value as a First Family parlor game. “There are some things that are very obviously true and some things that are very obviously not true and some things that are right in the middle and people aren’t going to know if they’re true or not,” says the author. “I’m not going to go into what’s real and what isn’t. But I hope readers feel like they’re looking through a keyhole into the life of somebody with a very unusual conflict.”
How Home Front will fare on the not-always-harmonious Reagan home front is a matter of no small speculation. The Reagans learned of the novel not from their daughter but from an item in TIME magazine. “I read about things in their lives before I’m told about them so that just sort of goes with the territory,” says Davis. “I simply told them really no more than what was printed—that it was a novel and a blend of fact and fiction. I didn’t feel any obligations to go into details.” Her parents did not read the book before publication, and Patti sent it to the White House only last week. The Reagans have not commented, but a close family friend says, “Of course there’s bound to be some hurt. Would you want to see all your warts in public, exposed by somebody in your family?”
Whatever the familial reaction to Home Front, Davis insists her motive was not public revenge or profit but personal catharsis. “My father was always well-known,” she says. “What’s hard about that is it seems like the only reason you matter is because you’re related to the other person. The book gave me perspective. It made me feel I could use these circumstances in an interesting way. I realized running away from circumstances as I did for so long is not the answer.”
Before peddling the book to publishers, Davis’ agent found her a collaborator, Maureen Strange Foster, a Los Angeles writer with two previous novels to her credit. After writing a chapter, Davis would turn it over to Foster for rewriting. Davis and Foster received a six-figure advance. For Patti, the book is a potential cottage industry. She is already much in demand on the talk-show circuit, and she hopes to turn the novel into a TV movie starring herself as Beth Canfield.
Excavating her family history was a mixed experience for Davis. In some cases, the digging was easy. Beth Can-field’s younger brother is a source of solace for the heroine. Like Ron Reagan, Brian regards public life as more amusing than annoying. “That character is very much my brother’s personality,” says Davis. “My brother is a very old soul. Even when he was a little boy, he had this very clear, very humorous perception. It’s really hard to ruffle him—and very easy to ruffle me.”
As in her own life, Davis found the matriarch of the Canfield clan more problematic. Nancy Reagan and her only daughter have always been a startling compare-and-contrast exercise. While the First Lady fancies designer dresses, Patti favors denim. According to Davis, it was only midway through the second draft of the novel that Harriet Canfield evolved from caricature to character. “There is a type of woman—and my mother is one—who has given up a lot for her man,” explains Davis. “The more prominent your husband is, the larger his ambitions are, the more you have to give up. When you do that, there’s a rigidity that comes. ‘Don’t you criticize my husband—even if you’re his child, don’t you criticize him.’ Those are hard characters to write because you have to give that portrayal, yet it makes them seem unsympathetic. I had to find a place to crawl inside the mother for a page or two and see what she’d given up.” Although the portrait of the President is less corrosive, Robert Canfield comes across as a well-intentioned but oldfangled politician—sort of an Ozzie Nelson in the White House.
In a sense, Patti Davis was a political liability for Ronald and Nancy Reagan from the start. As historians have duly noted, the couple’s elder child was born just seven months after their marriage in 1952. Like the heroine of her novel, Davis spent the late ’60s at a boarding school in the Southwest where she wrote poetry and cultivated an unconventional outlook. Like all of the Reagan children, she started but never finished college. And like Beth Canfield, she never wanted to lose her father—and by extension, herself—to the public arena. “It’s difficult not to resent the fact that my life changed because somebody else made a decision in their life,” says Davis. “You think, ‘Why do /have to put up with this?’ ” In search of an individual identity, she exchanged her famous last name for her mother’s maiden name while her father was governor. She kept a low profile on the presidential campaign trail, yet right after her father’s inauguration in 1981, Davis returned to Santa Monica and suffered a stress-induced nervous collapse that kept her in bed for two weeks. Typically, she didn’t share news of that setback with her parents at the time.
Throughout much of her father’s Administration, Davis has been portrayed as First Flake. There was Patti the aspiring actress, whose most visible role was as the girlfriend of a male stripper in a trashy TV movie. Then there was Patti the songwriter, whose album of original compositions was never released. Patti the Renegade led a personal life that relentlessly challenged what her father’s epitomized. Earlier, for four years, she lived with Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon. And she has spoken out against nuclear war and in favor of abortion several times. “The quickest way to get me to do something,” says Davis, “is to tell me not to do it.” A First Family intimate agrees, tracing Patti’s contrariness to immaturity and hardheadedness: “She always seemed to rebel. She just seemed to go in battering the walls down instead of trying to find the door.”
In the process Davis set new out-of-bounds lines for the nation’s First Daughters. “I think people got used to seeing very obedient presidential daughters,” she says. “I mean, the most risqué thing the Johnson girls did was when one of them went out with George Hamilton. And the Nixon girls….” She doesn’t even bother to finish the sentence. “I mean, I considered myself fairly normal, I didn’t, like, burn out on acid or something.”
Eventually, Davis discovered her most powerful role. To her family and the Republican right, she was a political liability; to her friends and the Democratic left, she was an opportunity. Davis realizes now she was being used by both groups. “I think it really hit me at the last big antinuclear rally at which I spoke. We did a press conference and there were all questions about my parents: ‘What did your father say about this?’ and ‘Did you talk to your parents about that?’ When I finished, Joan Baez said to me, ‘When are you going to get a chance to say what you want to say?’ And I thought, ‘No one is ever going to give me that chance.’ That was the point I realized I was in a no-win situation.”
Into the living room comes Davis’ husband of 18 months, Paul Grilley, 27. Dressed in jeans and a Nike sweatshirt, he has one hand over his heart and his other hand held aloft as if speechifying. “Paul’s imitating me,” says Davis. He walks over to the couch and initiates some mock roughhousing.
Has he read his wife’s book?
“What book?” he deadpans.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I told you,” replies Patti. “It must have been Don [Johnson] I was talking to.”
“Yeah, I read it,” says Paul. “But I didn’t offer any advice.”
“That’s not true,” says Patti. “You thought of the title.”
“I thought of the title,” he agrees. “It’s my contribution.”
“It’s a great contribution,” says Patti. “I had Paul to bounce things off of.”
After her media-monitored relationships with Leadon and actor Peter Strauss, Davis married Grilley, a yoga instructor. The son of a carpenter and a secretary, he grew up near Glacier National Park, Mont. “Paul understands her well,” says Davis’ manager, Larry Thompson. “He gives her confidence. The marriage has a calming effect on Patti. It gives her something else in her life to be consumed with.” But the tabloid report of a romance with Johnson and a rocky marriage have put Davis in a familiar position—on the defensive. “I’ve never in my life met Don Johnson,” she says. “As far as I know I’ve never been in the same room with him.”
Davis’ homestead is far more plebeian than presidential (the Secret Service men, says Patti, are “around, but very discreet”). She and Grilley live on a relatively modest income. “Since buying the house, we’re up to our eyebrows in debt,” says Davis. “At some point when I was growing up, I wanted to be poor because I thought poor people were more real. All those years wanting to be normal, which to me meant not being wealthy—I’m answering for that now.” But finances didn’t influence the decision to publish Home Front, Davis insists. “If I wanted money,” she points out, “I would have written a nonfiction book that exposed a lot. That’s a surefire way of getting money, and I didn’t do that.”
As time goes by, Patti and her parents have discovered the value of détente. “There’s more conversation and more compromising on each side,” says Larry Thompson. With no more elections and no further need for family harmony on the campaign trail, “There’s been a softening on her parents’ part,” he observes. The experience of writing Home Front has softened Patti too. “You can’t resent people for choices they made in their lives, even though they spill over into yours,” she says. “Maybe that’s the biggest change in me.” Says Thompson, “The combination of her marriage and telling her side of how she felt has released Patti’s frustrations. She’s much happier than she’s ever been.”
Davis still hasn’t changed her attitude toward politics. Although Home Front will undoubtedly be a Capital curiosity, Davis has refused to do any local promotion in Washington on her forthcoming book tour. “I think it would be like throwing me to the lions,” she says. The next novel she is writing (solo this time) has a political intrigue theme. “I’ve really stuck it to some people already, and I’ve just started,” she says. “My cynicism has to come from what I’ve witnessed. My feeling is people are always doing things under the table.”
As morning gives way to early afternoon, Davis returns to household demands. At the moment her mutt Sadie has shredded a yellow Kleenex all over the rug. Sadie’s mistress dutifully picks up the pieces. If Patti Davis could see herself through the window, she might believe that she’d finally gotten her childhood wish. To any passerby, she would look like ordinary people.