To outsiders they appear to be a study in sameness: eight California women with pert hairdos, longtime marriages to Republican millionaires—and a profound dedication to the declining arts of conspicuous consumption and perfect-wifeliness. They live close by one another in spirit and in fact—Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, Beverly Hills—and they are women of astonishingly similar tastes. They tend to patronize the same dress shop (the couturier department of I. Magnin), the same furrier (Maximilian), the same luncheon spots (the Bistro Gardens and Jimmy’s in Beverly Hills), the same restaurant for dinner (Chasen’s) and the same florists (David Jones and Stanley Kersten). “The most striking feature is their unfailing loyalty to each other,” says L.A. society writer Wanda McDaniel. “They have been allies for so long that it almost resembles a sisterhood—a secret sorority.”
They are Nancy Reagan’s closest friends—eight soulmates who have shared her confidences, her attitudes and her tastes for the past two decades. (All are at least in their 50s.) In the next four years the Big Eight—Betsy Bloomingdale, Bonita Granville Wrather, Martha Lyles, Jean Smith, Jane Dart, Virginia Tuttle, Marion Jorgensen and Betty Wilson—will be at Nancy Reagan’s side with aid and comfort as she sets out to make her mark on America. “We are finally going to see some real style in Washington,” gushes Julius Bengston, who designs Nancy’s familiar hairdo. “It’s a kind of style that requires effort and inventiveness—and lots of experience.”
The Big Eight have it. They are world-class partygoers and-givers, and all are movers in California society. Four of them are members—and three are co-presidents—of the Amazing Blue Ribbon 400, a philanthropic organization and the zenith of L.A. social clubs. While Nancy Reagan is not a member of that superelite, in her society of nine she is first among equals. “I’ve always looked up to Nancy,” says Martha Lyles—the wife of producer A.C. (Here’s Boomer) Lyles. “With her looks and her clothes, she’ll bring such dignity to the White House.”
Mrs. Reagan inspires fierce devotion in her friends and returns the favor—perhaps, some suggest, because she sees in them so pure a reflection of herself. “Nancy chooses friends the way all of us do,” says Bill Libby, who co-wrote Mrs. Reagan’s autobiography, Nancy. “We all choose friends who see the world as we do. She is a member of a group of old-fashioned women who think that women are going too far, that women are losing sight of traditional values.” Her friends have that in common as well. Although Wrather and Dart had successful acting careers before their marriages, and Wrather later became a producer, the Eight have otherwise been content with the role of wife. Their views on the issues of the day are conservative. “I don’t like the Equal Rights Amendment, Martha Lyles says frankly. “I’m a woman and I’ve gotten where I want to.”
Leaving politics to their husbands, Nancy and the Eight pursue instead their commitment to elegance and good taste in clothes and entertaining. Betty Wilson calls their taste in couture “practical cosmopolitan chic”—with serviceable daytime wardrobes by Adolfo and Galanos and evening wear that leans toward frilly de la Rentas or respectable Diors. The champion hosts among them seem to be the Bloomingdales, who have large monthly dinner parties. Betty and Bill Wilson frequently fly guests to their glittering hacienda in Mexico. Nancy’s home in the Palisades may not be the most lavish in her group, but her taste is considered impeccable. “She isn’t just your ordinary ball-of-flowers-in-the-middle-of-the-table hostess,” florist David Jones has observed. “She has an extremely fine-tuned and elegant sense of style that is at the same time very traditional and creative. Crystal balls mixed with ferns and heads of flowers, glazed pots of tulips with candles—that’s the kind of look she’ll give to the White House.”
Nancy is the tie that binds her circle of friends together, though her husband has known some of them longer than he has known her. He co-starred with Jane Bryan—who quit the movies when she married drugstore magnate Justin Dart—in a well-forgotten B movie called Girls on Probation in 1938. With Bonita Granville, he made Angels Wash Their Faces in 1939. Most of the men in the group were members of Reagan’s kitchen cabinet during his years as governor and served more recently on his transition team. But the friendships among the couples were first cemented by the wives.
Nobody seriously doubts that the bonds will hold in the next four years. Jean Smith’s husband has been nominated as Attorney General and they have found a new house in Washington; the Bloomingdales are already featured in breathless articles about the capital’s new social elite. The other couples are expected to make frequent cross-country jaunts. Even now designers and couturiers up and down Rodeo Drive are snipping and pinning the wardrobes the Eight will wear when they descend on Washington for the first time together. As Betty Wilson put it recently, contemplating the new red satin, custom-made Adolfo she will wear on Inauguration Eve (one of four designer originals she’ll be taking to the capital for the ceremonies): “I’m planning for one of the most glamorous events of my lifetime. It will be like Christmas every day. How could I miss my good friend’s finest hour?”