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September 18, 2000 12:00 PM

I’ve always said that my life began when I met Ronald Reagan,” writes former First Lady Nancy Reagan in I Love You, Ronnie, a charming collection of the President’s letters to Nancy, complemented by her own narrative, to be published this month by Random House. The letters, which begin during the couple’s storybook Hollywood courtship and span Mr. Reagan’s remarkable ascent to the White House and some years afterward, chronicle one of the most enduring—and endearing—love affairs of our time.

Throughout their 48-year marriage, the President, now 89, wrote his wife countless cards, telegrams, doodles and even letters from across the room. “I was struck by how much they said about him,” writes Mrs. Reagan, 79. “Not just as a President but as a man. And about us, the love we shared. I wanted to do something more with Ronnie’s letters than to send them to the Reagan Library, to make them available to the many people who love Ronnie.”

In the book and in the exclusive excerpt that follows, a sweetly uncomplicated portrait of the couple emerges—one that illuminates an extraordinary bond, not between a President and his First Lady but between a fella named Ronnie and his best girl. The letters reveal a devoted wife and a playful, tender husband who came up with so many terms of endearment for his Nancy Pants—My Darling, Senator, Mommie Poo, First Mommie—that he once joked in a note, “How did I get so many wives?”

The couple first met in 1949. Budding starlet Nancy Davis had seen her name on a list of Communist sympathizers and complained about it to influential Hollywood director and family friend Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy suggested calling Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild (and recently divorced from actress Jane Wyman), to straighten out the matter. (The listed name belonged to a different Nancy Davis.) Having seen the handsome actor in many movies, Nancy enthusiastically endorsed LeRoy’s suggestion.

Ronnie called me that same day and asked me to go to dinner. “It’ll have to be early though,” he said. “I have an early call.”

I said, “I have an early call, too.” I didn’t—and he didn’t—but we wanted to protect ourselves. He didn’t even know what I looked like. I That evening we went to dinner at LaRue’s, a glamorous place on Sunset Strip where a lot of picture people used to go. After dinner Ronnie told me that Sophie Tucker was performing at Ciro’s. I said I had never seen Sophie Tucker. “Well,” Ronnie I said, “why don’t we just go and see the first show?”

We stayed for the second show, and by then we had admitted that g neither of us had an early call the next day.

Looking back now, I still can’t define what it was about Ronnie that made him seem so very perfect to me. He didn’t talk about himself. He didn’t talk about his movies. He was a Civil War buff, loved horses, and knew a lot about wine. He was everything that I wanted.

After dating Nancy for over two years, Reagan finally proposed, and the two wed three months later, on March 4, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in the San Fernando Valley.

Our first years of marriage were not easy, though. Things were not going well for Ronnie in pictures. Hollywood had moved away from his style and image into a different feeling, which seemed darker and moodier. His career was really going downhill. He’d be sent scripts that were just awful, and he did a couple of pictures that were just awful.

I stopped working when Patti was born. I liked acting, but I had seen too many two-career Hollywood marriages fail. Ronnie was my whole life, and I didn’t want to risk anything happening to us.

Ronnie hosted General Electric Theater from the fall of 1954 until the spring of 1962. During that time, our life together was lived in the happy moments stolen away from the long stretches when Ronnie was on the road. When he found himself in strange hotel rooms across America, he wrote to me of his loneliness.

My Darling

…If we were home we’d have a fire and “funnies” and we’d hate anyone who called or dropped in.

As it is I’m sitting here on the 6th floor beside a phoney fireplace looking out at a grey wet sky and listening to a radio play music not intended for one person alone.

Nevertheless I wouldn’t trade the way I feel for the loneliness of those days when one place was like another and it didn’t matter how long I stayed away. With all the “missing you” there is still such a wonderful warmth in the loneliness like looking forward to a bright warm room. No matter how dark & cold it is at the moment-you know the room is there and waiting…

As Ronnie traveled around the country for G.E. Theater, visiting plants and meeting with executives, he learned what was on people’s minds. Gradually, his talks became more political, and a new set of views formed that would eventually lead him to the governorship of California.

Reagan left G.E. Theater in 1962 and for the first time in years was able to lead a full-time life at home with Nancy, Patti, then 10, and Ron, 4. For the next three years he acted in TV episodes of Wagon Train and Kraft Suspense Theater and hosted Death Valley Days sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax.

When he wrote this letter, in May 1963, he was in New York, working with the coauthor of his early autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?

My Darling,

…Do you know that when you sleep you curl your fists up under your chin and many mornings when it is barely dawn I lie facing you and looking at you until finally I have to touch you ever so lightly so you won’t wake up—but touch you I must or I’ll burst?

Years later, people would sometimes say I pushed Ronnie into a career in politics. Nothing could be further from the truth, and saying that shows a real misunderstanding of Ronnie. For the fact is—and this is something that nobody, oddly enough, picked up on—Ronnie has always been a very competitive person and never needed to be “pushed.”

I supported Ronnie’s decision to run for governor in 1966, but as the campaign began, I felt a little uncertain about my own life in the political arena. It was a new and unfamiliar world for me. Early on, I warned the campaign people: “You know, I don’t give speeches.” And they said, “You can take a bow, can’t you?” And I said yes, I thought I could manage that. Just that.

Sacramento didn’t have many houses equipped to handle what’s expected of a governor and his wife, but we did manage to find one that did just fine. The house wasn’t big enough for entertaining, but it had a wonderful backyard, with beautiful camellias and a pool, so we would wait until early summer and then we’d have our parties. We’d put a floor over the pool and have an orchestra and other entertainment, or in the hot weather we’d just have swim parties. People like Jack Benny and Red Skelton would come and perform, and soon enough, the neighbors’ kids would be crowding around, hanging over the fence to watch the entertainment. I’d invite them in, and they’d sit on the grass and listen with everyone else.

At home, Ronnie and I disagreed so rarely that when we did it was a major event. As he says in the following letter [which was written in the mid ’60s], one argument kept him up half the night.

Dear Mrs. Reagan

And you are Mrs. Reagan because Mr. Reagan loves you with all his heart. Every time Mr. Reagan sees the evening star or blows out the birthday candles or gets the big end of the wishbone he thinks the same wish—a prayer really—that so much happiness will go on and somehow be deserved by him.

It is true sometimes that Mr. Reagan loses his temper and slams a door but that’s because he can’t cry or stamp his foot—(he isn’t really the type.) But mad or glad, Mr. Reagan is head over heels in love with Mrs. Reagan and can’t even imagine a world without her—

He loves her

Mr. Reagan

Near the end of Reagan’s two-term tenure as the governor of California (1966-1974), aides had begun to envision a run for the Presidency in 1976, but Nancy didn’t believe it would happen. Still, Reagan came close to wresting the nomination away from incumbent President Gerald Ford, and four years later he defeated President Jimmy Carter. And he continued writing to his wife—only now on White House stationery.

March 4, 1981

Dear First Lady

As Pres. of the U.S., it is my honor & privilege to cite you for service above and beyond the call of duty in that you have made one man (me) the most happy man in the world for 29 years.

Beginning in 1951, Nancy Davis, seeing the plight of a lonely man who didn’t know how lonely he really was, determined to rescue him from a completely empty life. He sits in the Oval Office from which he can see (if he scrooches down) her window and feels warm all over just knowing she is there.

The above is the statement of the man who benefited from her act of heroism.

The below is his signature. Ronald Reagan—Pres. of the U.S. P.S. He—I mean I, love and adore you.

At the top of my list of duties as First Lady was taking care of Ronnie. Sometimes, though, at the most important moments in the President’s life, you just can’t be there. March 30, 1981, began like a perfectly normal day. Around noon, I went to a luncheon in an art gallery in Washington. I suddenly had a strong feeling that I wanted to get back to the White House. I’d never felt anything like that before, so I made my excuses and left. When I got back to the White House, I saw George Opfer, the head of my Secret Service detail, standing at the bottom of a ramp.

“There’s been a shooting,” he said. “But the President’s all right.”

I was headed for the elevator.

At the hospital there was so much noise. I went into the emergency room, and Ronnie was lying there with an oxygen mask over his face. When he saw me, he lifted it up and said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” The bullet had been lodged an inch from his heart. That night, I slept on Ronnie’s side of the bed. It made me feel closer to him somehow.

The assassination attempt made us realize how very precious our lives were. This comes through very strongly in Ronnie’s Christmas letter of 1981.

Dear Mrs. R.

…There is of course my “First Lady.” She brings so much grace and charm to whatever she does that even stuffy, formal functions sparkle and turn into fun times. All I have to do is wash up and show up.

There is another woman in my life who does things I don’t always get to see but I hear about them and sometimes see photos of her doing them. She takes an abandoned child in her arms on a hospital visit. The look on her face only the Madonna could match. The look on the child’s face is one of adoration. I know because I adore her too.

There is another gal I love who is a nest builder. If she were stuck three days in a hotel room she’d manage to make it home sweet home. She moves things around—looks at it—straightens this and that and you wonder why it wasn’t that way in the first place.

I’m also crazy about the girl who goes to the ranch with me. If we’re tidying up the woods she’s a peewee powerhouse at pushing over dead trees.

Then there is a sentimental lady I love whose eyes fill up so easily. On the other hand she loves to laugh and her laugh is like tinkling bells.

Fortunately all these women in my life are you—fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you. I love the whole gang of you—Mommie, First Lady, the sentimental you, the fun you and the peewee powerhouse you.

Merry Christmas you all-with all my love.

Lucky me.

In August 1994 President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease—a degenerative neurological disorder that afflicts up to 4 million Americans. On Nov. 5 he wrote a final letter—this time to the American people—disclosing his condition in hopes of provoking discussion and lessening the stigma surrounding his illness. He has not appeared publicly since 1994, and now, more than ever, Mrs. Reagan is the center of the President’s ever-narrowing world.

It is difficult to describe my life now. There’s a terrible loneliness. No one can really know what it’s like unless they’ve traveled this path. You know that it’s a progressive disease and there’s no place to go but down, no light at the end of the tunnel. There are so many memories that I can no longer share, which makes it very difficult. When it comes right down to it, you’re in it alone. Each day is different, and you get up, put one foot in front of the other, and go—and love. Just love.

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