August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

From the moment Lorraine Wagner saw Ronald Reagan in the comedy Brother Rat, “I ‘Hi adored him,” she says. “He was probably my favorite actor, give or take one or two.” Galvanized as only a 13-year-old can be, Wagner (then Lorraine Makler) sent the movie star a fan letter in 1943. And though the likes of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power had replied to previous notes with form letters, Reagan sent an 8-by-10 photo with a real autograph. “This,” she says, “was a different kind of person. He cared.”

So Wagner wrote him a thank-you note, and to her delight, Reagan wrote back—and kept writing back. In a correspondence that spanned 51 years, the pen pals traded letters—he sent almost 200′, mostly handwritten missives—about their families, his movies and, as his political career took wing in the mid-’60s, life at the pinnacle of government and international affairs. “I’m really optimistic about what’s going on in the Soviet Union,” Reagan wrote during a 1992 visit to Russia. “I think the Soviets are really moving to become as free as we are.”

Recently, Wagner, 70, sold the letters to a Philadelphia autograph dealer, who hopes to resell them for $395,000. Although Nancy Reagan disapproves of the sale (“I really believe that if somebody wants to sell letters they should contact you first to see how you feel about it,” she said in a statement), Wagner says it’s time the rest of the world learned more about the ex-President’s true nature: “He has a sensitivity and kindness that is beyond reproach.”

For a teenage girl raised by a furniture store manager and a home-maker in working-class Philadelphia, the friendship of a movie star was an astonishing coup. “I wasn’t a very secure person,” Wagner recalls. Still, she became the president of the local chapter of Reagan’s fan club, and it wasn’t long before her idol’s letters took on a familial intimacy. “I’m still hoping that things will be different,” he wrote in 1948 when his marriage to Jane Wyman was crumbling. “I know she loves me even though she thinks she doesn’t.”

Reagan finally met Wagner in person at a U.S. Savings Bonds rally in Philadelphia in 1950. A year later, when Wagner and a pal traveled to California, Reagan’s mother, known as Moms Nelle, who died in 1962, picked them up at the airport and invited them to lunch at her house, where Ronnie was the surprise guest.

Reagan even sent her a silver tray as a wedding present in 1952 when she exchanged vows with Elwood “Wag” Wagner, a Navy man who went on to a career as a U.S. postal worker; they have a son, Scott, now 43, and a daughter, Sandy, 40. In 1965, Lorraine took a job as a clerk with the Internal Revenue Service, from which she retired in 1991.

Wagner’s pen pal kept her connected to Hollywood and then—as he ascended to the Presidency in 1980—to the highest reaches of power. But Reagan still found time to write the occasional note and to invite the Wagner family for three visits to the Oval Office. “He just raised his arms in a big welcome motion, and they hugged like old friends,” recalls Scott Wagner of his mother’s greeting in 1983. “No matter what he was, he still managed to be a normal person.”

While Wagner still sends letters to Reagan, she hasn’t heard from him since Alzheimer’s disease forced him to withdraw from public life. Still, she treasures her memories and the insight she has long had into one of the century’s most striking figures. “I’ve always felt with Ron that what you see is what you get,” she says. “There was no pretense to him in 1950 or through the last letter I got in 1994.”

Beneath the glamor of showbiz and the heady rush of political power, the bond between Wagner and Reagan remains. “I’m just glad I told him,” she says, “how grateful I was for his friendship.”

Peter Ames Carlin

Matt Birkbeck in Philadelphia

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