Her name has become synonymous with candor about addiction, but when the idea was first suggested to Betty Ford to put her name on a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, the former first lady was afraid of what it might mean for her.
According to a new biography, Betty Ford, by Lisa McCubbin, excerpted in this week’s PEOPLE, when first approached to put her name on the center in Rancho Mirage, California, Ford, who had then been sober for a year, worried it might be too much, too soon. “Absolutely not,” she said at the time. “I’m new to recovery.”
But that wasn’t her only concern. According to the book, in the back of her mind, she was also thinking, “I’ll never be able to drink again.”
Ford, who had moved to Rancho Mirage with her husband, former U.S. President Gerald “Jerry” Ford, after leaving the White House, was also worried about how the decision would affect her four children. But her family unanimously supported her. “We’re proud of you, Mom,” they told her. “Go for it.”
And she did. But Betty Ford was much more than just a name on the Betty Ford Center. She was involved with every detail — from sharing her story with fellow patients to decorating, to choosing the art work, even the lamps and the rugs. When she found out there were no soap dishes, a week before the scheduled opening in October 1982, she went to the local Kmart to buy them — with the Secret Service detail alongside.
Ford also insisted that, just as she had not had any special treatment at the Navy-run rehab center where she had gone to kick her addiction to pain medication, there be no private rooms at the Betty Ford Center — and that no one’s wealth, status or celebrity be a factor in how they were treated.
That applied to even the most famous screen legends. When Elizabeth Taylor became the first celebrity guest to enter rehab at the Betty Ford Center in December 1983, she wrote in her diary: “It’s an experience unlike any other I’ve known. There are people here just like me, who are suffering just like me, who hurt inside and out, just like me.” One of them, a construction worker named Larry Fortensky, became her seventh husband.
Taylor was followed by many well-known names, including Liza Minnelli, Ali McGraw, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Keith Urban. To date, the center has helped more than 100,000 people. And, following Ford’s wishes, everyone is treated equally.
It’s a legacy that Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford, 61, is proud of.
“The first time she realized that she was going to have an impact is when she was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Susan recalls of the moment her mom went public with her diagnosis and her mastectomy. “She felt privileged to make a difference. And I think the same thing is true with addiction. I don’t think addiction and alcoholism has made the same leaps and bounds that breast cancer has. There’s just so much shame with that disease, as if it’s a personality defect. That’s just wrong. It’s a medical disease. I think there is [still] so much shame and denial that comes with addiction and alcoholism and that people are just not as accepting of it.”
It’s something her mom worked to change. “You can truly take health care and say ‘before Betty Ford and after Betty Ford,” Susan says. “Between breast cancer and drug and alcohol addiction, she made a major impact on health care.”