Nancy Davis Reagan (born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921) is the widow of former United States President Ronald Reagan and served as an influential First Lady of the United States from 1981 to 1989. Born in New York, her parents divorced soon after her birth; she grew up in Maryland, living with an aunt and uncle while her mother pursued acting jobs. As Nancy Davis, she was an actress in the 1940s and 1950s, starring in films such as Donovan's Brain, Night into Morning, and Hellcats of the Navy. In 1952 she married Ronald Reagan, who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild; they had two children. Nancy became the First Lady of California when her husband was Governor from 1967 to 1975.
She became the First Lady of the United States in January 1981 following her husband's victory, but experienced criticism early in his first term largely due to her decision to replenish the White House china. Nancy restored a Kennedy-esque glamour to the White House following years of lax formality, and her interest in high-end fashion garnered much attention, as well as criticism. She championed recreational drug prevention causes by founding the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign, which was considered her major initiative as First Lady. Always protective of her husband, more controversy ensued when it was revealed in 1988 that she had consulted an astrologer to assist in planning the president's schedule after the 1981 assassination attempt on her husband's life.
The Reagans retired to their home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, California in 1989. Nancy devoted most of her time to caring for her ailing husband, diagnosed in 1994 with Alzheimer's disease, until his death in 2004. Nancy Reagan has remained active in politics, particularly in relation to stem-cell research.
In 1929, her mother married Loyal Davis (1896–1982), a prominent, politically conservative neurosurgeon who moved the family to Chicago. Nancy and her stepfather got along very well; she would later write that he was "a man of great integrity who exemplified old-fashioned values". He formally adopted her in 1935, and she would always refer to him as her father. After the adoption, her name was legally changed to Nancy Davis (since birth, she had commonly been called Nancy). She attended the Girls' Latin School of Chicago (describing herself as an average student), graduated in 1939, and later attended Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in English and drama and graduated in 1943.
Following her graduation, Davis held jobs in Chicago as a sales clerk in Marshall Field's department store and as a nurse's aide. With the help of her mother's colleagues in theatre, including Zasu Pitts, Walter Huston, and Spencer Tracy, she pursued a career as a professional actress. She first gained a part in Pitts' 1945 road tour of Ramshackle Inn, then settled in New York City. She landed the role of Si-Tchun, a lady-in-waiting, in the 1946 Broadway musical about the Orient, Lute Song, starring Mary Martin and Yul Brynner, after the show's producer told her, "You look like you could be Chinese.
After passing a screen test, she signed a seven-year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM) in 1949; she later remarked, "Joining Metro was like walking into a dream world. Davis appeared in 11 feature films, usually typecast as a "loyal housewife", "responsible young mother", or "the steady woman". She kept her professional name as Nancy Davis even after marrying. Her film career began with minor roles in 1949's The Doctor and the Girl with Glenn Ford, and followed with East Side, West Side starring Barbara Stanwyck. She played a child psychiatrist in the film noir Shadow on the Wall (1950) with Ann Sothern and Zachary Scott; her performance was called "beautiful and convincing" by New York Times critic A. H. Weiler. She co-starred in 1950's The Next Voice You Hear..., playing a pregnant housewife who hears the voice of God from her radio. Influential reviewer Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that "Nancy Davis [is] delightful as [a] gentle, plain, and understanding wife. A later critic admired the film's effort to convincingly portray Davis as pregnant—many other films from the time neglected to do so. In 1951, Davis appeared in her favorite screen role, Night Into Morning, a study of bereavement starring Ray Milland. The Times' Crowther said that Davis "does nicely as the fiancée who is widowed herself and knows the loneliness of grief, while another noted critic, The Washington Post's Richard L. Coe, said Davis "is splendid as the understanding widow. Davis left MGM in 1952, seeking a broader range of parts. She soon starred in the 1953 science fiction film Donovan's Brain; Crowther said that Davis, playing the role of a possessed scientist's "sadly baffled wife", "walked through it all in stark confusion" in an "utterly silly" film. In her last movie, Hellcats of the Navy (1957), she played nurse Lieutenant Helen Blair and shared the screen for the only time with her husband, playing what one critic called "a housewife who came along for the ride". Another reviewer, however, stated that Davis plays her part well, and "does well with what she has to work with".
Noted author Garry Wills believes that Davis was underrated as an actress overall, because her constrained part in Hellcats was her most widely seen performance. Davis seems to have downplayed her Hollywood goals: MGM promotional material in 1949 said that her "greatest ambition" was to have a "successful happy marriage"; decades later, in 1975, she would say, "I was never really a career woman but [became one] only because I hadn't found the man I wanted to marry. I couldn't sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress." Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon nevertheless characterized her as a "reliable" and "solid" performer who held her own in performances with better-known actors. After her final film, she appeared in television dramas such as Wagon Train and The Tall Man until 1962, when she retired as an actress. During her career, she served on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild for nearly 10 years.
During her career as an actress, Nancy Davis dated actors in Hollywood; she later called Clark Gable, whom she dated briefly, the nicest of the stars she had met. On November 15, 1949, she met Ronald Reagan, who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild. Concerned that she would be confused with another actress of the same name who appeared on the Hollywood blacklist, she contacted Reagan to help maintain her employment as a guild actress in Hollywood, and for assistance in having her name removed from the list. The two began dating and their relationship became publicly visible; one Hollywood press account described their nightclub-free times together as "the romance of a couple who have no vices". Ronald Reagan was skeptical about marriage, however, following his painful 1948 divorce from Jane Wyman, and he still saw other women. He eventually proposed to Davis in the couple's favorite booth at the Beverly Hills restaurant Chasen's. They married on March 4, 1952—in a simple ceremony designed to avoid the press—at the Little Brown Church in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The only people in attendance were actor William Holden, the best man, and his wife, the matron of honor. The couple's first child, Patricia Ann Reagan (better known by her professional name, Patti Davis), was born on October 21, 1952. Their son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, was born six years later on May 20. Nancy Reagan also became stepmother to Maureen Reagan (1941-2001) and Michael Reagan (born 1945), the children of her husband's first marriage to Jane Wyman.
Observers described Ronald and Nancy Reagan's relationship as close, real, and intimate. As President and First Lady, the Reagans were reported to display their affection frequently, with one press secretary noting, "They never took each other for granted. They never stopped courting." Ronald often called Nancy "Mommy"; she called him "Ronnie". While the President was recuperating in the hospital after the 1981 assassination attempt, Nancy Reagan wrote in her diary, "Nothing can happen to my Ronnie. My life would be over." In a letter to Nancy, Ronald wrote, "whatever I treasure and enjoy … all would be without meaning if I didn’t have you." In 1994, President Reagan wrote, "I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease … I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience." In 1998, while her husband was severely affected by the disease, Nancy told Vanity Fair, "Our relationship is very special. We were very much in love and still are. When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it's true. It did. I can't imagine life without him." Nancy was known for the focused and attentive look, nicknamed "the Gaze", that she fastened upon her husband during his speeches and appearances. President Reagan's death in June 2004 ended what actor Charlton Heston called "the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency."
Nancy's relationship with her children was not always as close as that with her husband; she frequently quarreled with her biological children and her stepchildren. Her relationship with Patti was the most contentious; Patti flouted American conservatism and rebelled against her parents by joining the nuclear freeze movement and authoring many anti-Reagan books. Nancy's disagreements with Michael were also shown publicly. In 1984, she was quoted on television as saying that the two were in an "estrangement right now". Michael responded that Nancy was trying to cover up for the fact she had not met his daughter, Ashley, who had been born nearly a year earlier. They eventually made peace, however. Nancy was thought to be closest to her stepdaughter Maureen during the White House years, but each of the Reagan children experienced periods of estrangement from their parents.
Reagan was First Lady of California during her husband's two terms as governor. She disliked living in Sacramento, which lacked the excitement, social life, and mild climate to which she was accustomed in Los Angeles. She first attracted controversy early in 1967, when, after four months' residence in the California Governor's Mansion in Sacramento, she moved her family into a wealthy suburb because fire officials had described the mansion as a "firetrap". Though the Reagans leased the new house at their expense, the move was viewed by many as snobbish. Nancy defended her actions as being for the good of her family, a judgement with which her husband readily agreed. Friends of the family later helped support the cost of the leased house, while Nancy Reagan supervised construction of a new ranch-style governor's residence in nearby Carmichael. The new residence was finished just as Ronald Reagan left office in 1975, but his successor Jerry Brown refused to live there. It was eventually sold in 1982, and California governors have been living in improvised arrangements ever since.
In 1967 Nancy Reagan was appointed by her husband to the California Arts Commission, and a year later was named Los Angeles Times' Woman of the Year; in its profile, the Times labeled her "A Model First Lady". Her glamour, style, and youthfulness made her a frequent subject for press photographers. As First Lady, Reagan visited veterans, the elderly, and the handicapped, and worked with a number of charities. She was involved with the Foster Grandparent Program, helping to popularize it in the United States, then in Australia. She later expanded her work with the organization after arriving in Washington, and wrote about it in her 1982 book To Love a Child. The Reagans also held dinners for former POWs and Vietnam War veterans while Governor and First Lady.
Nancy drew controversy by announcing the purchase of 4,370 pieces of scarlet, cream and gold state china service for the White House at a cost of $210,399. Although the china was paid for by private donations, some from the private Knapp Foundation, the purchase raised eyebrows, for it was ordered at a time when the nation was undergoing an economic recession.
Her elegant fashions and wardrobe were also controversial subjects. In 1982, she revealed that she had accepted thousands of dollars in clothing, jewelry, and other gifts, but defended herself by stating that she had borrowed the clothes and that they would either be returned or donated to museums, and that she was promoting the American fashion industry. Facing criticism, she soon said she would no longer accept such loans. In practice, in addition to often buying her clothes, she continued to borrow and sometimes keep designer clothes throughout her time as First Lady, which came to light in 1988 based upon statements of several designers, for whom the arrangement was good for their businesses as well as for the American fashion industry overall. After first denying any such activity, none of which had been included on financial disclosure forms, Nancy acknowledged that she had "broken her little promise" by continuing to take loans and expressed through her press secretary "regrets that she failed to heed counsel's advice" on disclosing them. Such gifts and fashion loans were later determined to be worth about $3 million; the non-reporting of loans under $10,000 in liability was in violation of a voluntary agreement the White House had made in 1982, while the non-reporting of more valuable loans or of any clothes not returned that thus constituted gifts was in violation of the Ethics in Government Act.
The new china, White House renovations, expensive clothing, and her attendance at the wedding of Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales, gave her an aura of being "out of touch" with the American people during an economic recession. This and her taste for splendor inspired the derogatory nickname "Queen Nancy". In an attempt to deflect the criticism, she self-deprecatingly donned a baglady costume at the 1982 Gridiron Dinner and sang "Second-Hand Clothes", mimicking the song "Second-Hand Rose".
Nancy Reagan reflected on the criticisms in her 1989 autobiography, My Turn. Reagan describes lunching with former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert Strauss, wherein Strauss said to her, "When you first came to town, Nancy, I didn't like you at all. But after I got to know you, I changed my mind and said, 'She's some broad!'" Nancy responded, "Bob, based on the press reports I read then, I wouldn't have liked me either!
Nancy Reagan launched the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign in 1982, which was her primary project and major initiative as First Lady. In 1982, while visiting Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, California, Reagan was asked by a schoolgirl what to do when offered drugs; Nancy's response was "Just say no. The phrase proliferated in the popular culture of the 1980s and was eventually adopted as the name of club organizations and school anti-drug programs. Reagan traveled more than throughout the United States and several nations, visiting drug abuse prevention programs and drug rehabilitation centers. She also appeared on television talk shows, recorded public service announcements, and wrote guest articles.
In 1985, Nancy expanded the campaign to an international level by inviting the First Ladies of various nations to the White House for a conference on drug abuse. On October 27, 1986, President Reagan signed a drug enforcement bill into law, which granted $1.7 billion in funding to fight the crisis and ensured a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses. Although the bill was criticized by some, Nancy Reagan considered it a personal victory. In 1988, she became the first First Lady invited to address the United Nations General Assembly, where she spoke on international drug interdiction and trafficking laws.
Critics of the "Just Say No" campaign and the American "War on Drugs" argued that the program was too costly and questioned its purpose. Author Jeff Elliott states that the Reagan administration's synonymous use of the terms "drug use" and "drug abuse" was improper, referencing Dr. Michael Newcomb's claim that there is "no evidence that most people who experiment with drugs get hooked." It was also argued that the program did not go far enough in addressing many social issues including unemployment, poverty, and family dissolution; Nancy's approach to promoting drug awareness was labeled as simplistic by liberal critics as well.
Nonetheless, a number of "Just Say No" clubs and organizations remain in operation around the country, and they aim to educate children and teenagers about the effects of drugs. In 1983, Reagan appeared as herself in an episode of the hit television drama Dynasty to underscore support for the anti-drug campaign. As she continued to promote "Just Say No", she appeared in an episode of the popular 1980s sitcom Diff'rent Strokes and in a 1985 rock music video, "Stop the Madness".
An early example of her protective nature occurred when Senator Strom Thurmond entered the President's hospital room that day in March, passing the Secret Service detail by claiming he was the President's "close friend", presumably to acquire media attention. Nancy was outraged and demanded he leave. While the president recuperated in the hospital, the first lady slept with one of his shirts to be comforted by the scent. When Reagan was released from the hospital on April 12, she escorted him back to the White House.
Nancy stated in her memoirs, "I felt panicky every time [Ronald] left the White House following the assassination attempt, and made it her concern to know her husband's schedule: the events he would be attending, and with whom. Eventually, this protectiveness led to her consulting an astrologer, Joan Quigley, who offered insight on which days were "good", "neutral", or should be avoided, which influenced her husband's White House schedule. Days were color-coded according to the astrologer's advice to discern precisely which days and times would be optimal for the president's safety and success. The White House Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, grew frustrated with this regimen, which created friction between him and the First Lady. This escalated with the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair, an administration scandal, in which the First Lady felt Regan was damaging the president. She thought he should resign, and expressed this to her husband although he did not share her view. Regan wanted President Reagan to address the Iran-Contra matter in early 1987 by means of a press conference, though Nancy refused to allow Reagan to overexert himself due to a recent prostate surgery and astrological warnings. Regan became so angry with Nancy that he hung up on her during a 1987 telephone conversation. According to former ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson, when the President heard of this treatment, he demanded—and eventually received—Regan's resignation. In his 1988 memoirs, Regan wrote about Nancy's consultations with the astrologer, the first public mention of them, which resulted in embarrassment for the First Lady. Nancy later wrote, "Astrology was simply one of the ways I coped with the fear I felt after my husband almost died... Was astrology one of the reasons [further attempts did not occur]? I don't really believe it was, but I don't really believe it wasn't.
Nancy Reagan wielded a powerful influence over President Reagan. Again stemming from the assassination attempt, she strictly controlled access to the president and even occasionally attempted to influence her husband's decision making. She wrote in her memoirs, "I don't think I was as bad, or as extreme in my power or my weakness, as I was depicted, but went on, "[H]owever the first lady fits in, she has a unique and important role to play in looking after her husband. And it's only natural that she'll let him know what she thinks. I always did that for Ronnie, and I always will.
After the surgery, more women across the country went in for mammograms, a demonstration of the influence of the first lady.
In 1985, 1987, and 1988, while Cold War discussions took place regarding nuclear affairs between Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan, Nancy met with Gorbachev's wife, Raisa. The two women usually had tea, and discussed differences between the USSR and the United States. Their relationship was anything but the friendly, diplomatic one between their husbands; Nancy found Raisa hard to converse with and somewhat shrewd. Visiting the United States for the first time in 1987, Raisa irked Reagan with lectures on subjects ranging from architecture to socialism, reportedly prompting the American President's wife to quip, "Who does that dame think she is? Nancy had previously encouraged her husband to hold these "summit" conferences with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev, and suggested they form a personal relationship beforehand.
Both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had developed a productive relationship through their summit negotiations. In 1987, Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to visit Washington, D.C. since Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, and Nancy Reagan was in charge of planning and hosting the state dinner. The dinner would be an important one, as there was enormous anticipation for its occurrence. After the meal, Mrs. Reagan recruited pianist Van Cliburn to sing a rendition of "Moscow Nights" for the Soviet delegation, to which Mikhail and Raisa broke out into song. Former Secretary of State George Shultz commented on the evening, saying "We felt the ice of the Cold War crumbling. Nancy concluded, "It was a perfect ending for one of the great evenings of my husband's presidency.
Upon leaving the White House, the couple returned to California, where they purchased a second home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, dividing their time between Bel Air and the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, California; Ronald and Nancy regularly attended Bel Air Presbyterian Church as well. After leaving Washington, Nancy made numerous public appearances, many on behalf of her husband. She continues to reside in the Bel Air home, where she lived with her husband until his death on June 5, 2004.
Also in 1989 she published My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan, which gives an account of her life in the White House, speaking openly about her influence within the Reagan administration and discussing the myths and controversies that surrounded the couple. In 1991, the controversial author Kitty Kelley wrote an unauthorized and largely uncited biography about Nancy Reagan, repeating rumors of her supposed sexual relations with singer Frank Sinatra, and of her poor relationship with her children. The publications USAToday and National Review state that Kelley's largely unsupported claims are most likely false.
In 1989 the Internal Revenue Service began investigating the Reagans for whether they owed additional tax on the gifts and loans of high-fashion clothes and jewelry to Nancy during their time in the White House (recipients benefiting from the display of such items recognize taxable income even if they are returned). In 1992 the IRS determined the Reagans had failed to include some $3 million worth of fashion items between 1983 and 1988 on their tax returns; they were billed for a large amount of back taxes and interest, which was subsequently paid.
Nancy Reagan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush on July 9, 2002. President Reagan received his own Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 1993. Nancy and her husband were jointly awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on May 16, 2002 at the Capitol Building, and were only the third President and First Lady to receive it; she received the medal for both of them. During the seven-day state funeral, Nancy, accompanied by her children and military escort, led the nation in mourning by keeping a strong composure, traveling from her home to the Reagan Library for a memorial service, then to Washington, D.C., where her husband's body lay in state for 34 hours prior to a national funeral service in the Washington National Cathedral. She returned to the library in California for a sunset memorial service and interment, where, overcome with emotion, she lost her composure, crying in public for the first time during the week. After accepting the folded flag, she kissed the casket and mouthed "I love you" before leaving. Journalist Wolf Blitzer said of Reagan during the week, "She's a very, very strong woman, even though she looks frail.
Previously, she had directed the detailed planning of the funeral, including ordering all the major events and asking former President George H. W. Bush as well as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to speak during the National Cathedral Service. She paid very close attention to the details, something she had always done in her husband's life. Betsy Bloomingdale, one of Reagan's closest friends, stated, "She looks a little frail. But she is very strong inside. She is. She has the strength. She is doing her last thing for Ronnie. And she is going to get it right." The funeral marked Reagan's first major public appearance since delivering a speech to the 1996 Republican National Convention on her husband's behalf.
The funeral had a great impact on Reagan's public image. Following substantial criticism during her tenure as First Lady, she was seen somewhat as a national heroine, praised by many for supporting and caring for her husband while he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
In 2005, Reagan was honored at a gala dinner at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. There, she was treated regally; guests in the room included Dick Cheney, Harry Reid and Condoleezza Rice. It was her first major public appearance since the funeral. Asked what her future plans are, Reagan shook her head and responded, "I don't know. I'll know when I'll know. But the [Reagan] library is Ronnie, so that's where I spend my time." The following day she unveiled The Heart Truth First Ladies Red Dress Collection with Laura Bush at the Kennedy Center. Reagan was briefly hospitalized the following month upon falling during a trip to the United Kingdom.
In 2007 she attended the national funeral service for Gerald Ford in the Washington National Cathedral. She continues to present the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award to a notable person who "embodies President Reagan's lifelong belief that one man or woman truly can make a difference." On February 6, 2007, she presented the award to former President George H. W. Bush; other recipients include Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher. On May 3 of the same year, Reagan hosted and attended the first 2008 Republican Presidential Candidates Debate at the Reagan Presidential Library. While she did not participate in the discussions, she sat in the front row and listened as the men vying to become the nation's 44th president claimed to be a rightful successor to her husband, the 40th.
She attended the funeral of former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in Austin, Texas on July 14, 2007, and three days later accepted the highest Polish distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, on behalf of Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Library. She mourned the death of her friends Merv Griffin and Michael Deaver in August that year. In November, Nancy opened the temporary exhibit "Nancy Reagan: A First Lady's Style" at her husband's library. The exhibit chronicles Nancy's wardrobe and displays over eighty designer dresses belonging to her; it begins with her 1952 wedding suit and culminates with the suit she wore to President Reagan's 2004 funeral.
She traveled to New York City not long after and served as the guest of honor at a Reagan Library fundraiser hosted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Though speculation arose over whether Reagan might support Bloomberg in a presidential bid, nothing came of it and she served as hostess of the final Republican debate of the 2008 presidential nomination process on January 30, 2008 at the Reagan Library.
On February 17, 2008, Nancy Reagan suffered a fall at her Bel Air home and was taken to St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She did not break a hip, as doctors originally feared. She underwent tests which produced normal results and was released from the hospital two days later. She gained further media attention on March 25, when she formally endorsed Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican party nominee, for president of the United States. After releasing a statement on the death of Charlton Heston in April 2008, she attended his funeral in Pacific Palisades.