A new book reveals that Nancy Reagan was a "complicated" woman, who loved her "Ronnie" more than anything

By Sam Gillette
April 03, 2018 09:00 AM

Nancy Reagan’s signatures as first lady might be distilled down to a single color (red) and three words (“Just Say No,” the catchphrase of her campaign against drug use). But a new, insider account of Reagan’s eight years in the White House explores the less-public signatures of this petite but powerful figure in American history—including her long-lasting friendships with Britain’s royal family, and her tendency to chattiness so extreme that her otherwise adoring husband, President Ronald Reagan, sometimes turned off his hearing aids at dinner.

“[Nancy Reagan] was no cardboard cutout. She was sometimes complicated; she could get on your nerves. But who couldn’t?,” writes Reagan’s former press secretary, Sheila Tate, in her new book Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait, out April 3. “She could be stubborn and sometimes her judgment wasn’t perfect. She was a human being. Imagine that.”

Nancy Reagan could laugh at herself (like she did, while wearing a feather boa, during a performance for Washington’s Gridiron Club of mostly male journalists), Tate writes, with as much gusto as she pursued her causes and cherished her husband.

Nancy Reagan at the Gridiron Club.
Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; photographer: Jack Kightlinger

Tate delves into the legendary bond between Ron and Nancy, who once confessed that “her life didn’t really begin until she met Ronald Reagan,” and admits some unease over how the first lady let her worries—and an astrologer—dictate the president’s travel schedule after he survived an assassination attempt in 1981.

“Looking back, Nancy’s reliance on astrology just seems silly to me. But, at the time, the revelation that the president’s schedule was determined by an astrologer in California was very troubling and very damaging,” writes Tate. “However, understanding her anxiety about his safety, I can excuse her reliance on the astrologer. Sort of.”

See below for more highlights.

Attending Princess Diana’s wedding to cure her assassination-attempt blues

After the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt on her husband, Nancy Reagan couldn’t decide if she should attend the wedding of Prince Charles and soon-to-be Princess Diana on July 29 of that year. According to the book, Ronald Reagan encouraged her to attend “because he felt it would be good for [Nancy] after the stress and sadness of the past few months.” Once the first lady and her entourage arrived in England, there were “non-stop parties.” While Tate remembers seeing a “nervous” Lady Diana at the polo match before the wedding “biting her fingernails,” Nancy Reagan was finally able to relax.

Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Nancy Reagan’s dance with a “lesbian writer”

The author interviewed Doug Wick, who was a self-described “lefty” Democrat and long-time friend of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. According to the book, the first lady encouraged Wick to marry his then-girlfriend Lucy Fisher. At the couple’s wedding, the author writes that a “very successful lesbian writer” asked the first lady to dance. “Without missing a beat, Nancy said, ‘You lead.'” Tate writes. “And off they went to the dance floor.”

Off with the hearing aids

According to Dennis LeBlanc, a close friend of Ronald Reagan’s also quoted in the book, meals at the Reagan ranch were very relaxing. But Mrs. Reagan loved to chat so much over dinner that sometimes her husband would tune her out—by turning off his hearing aids. Tate writes that President Reagan would nudge LeBlanc under the table to indicate that he’d turned them off. If Nancy Reagan asked him a question, LeBlanc would then nudge her husband. “President Reagan would then say, ‘Darn it, Nancy, what did you say?'” Tate writes. “‘These hearing aids aren’t working right.'”

Ronald and Nancy Reagan
Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; photographer: Michael Evans

Saying “no” to John F. Kennedy Jr.

President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, and slowly declined until his death in 2004. According to the book, Nancy Reagan was so protective of him that she turned down John F. Kennedy Jr.’s request to feature the former president in an article about Alzheimer’s in Kennedy’s then-new magazine, George. According to the book, she was “very fond” of Kennedy but refused him because she wanted to protect her husband.

“For 10 years [Nancy] did not want to leave [Ron’s] side. ‘I couldn’t forgive myself if I was away and he passed away,’ she said,” Secret Service agent John Barletta told PEOPLE in March 2016. “She did not want to leave him. When he passed away it was very, very bad. She lost her friend.”

He added, “It didn’t matter what the rest of the world was doing as long as they were together.”

Lady in Red is on sale now.

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