Betty Ford, the outspoken U.S. first lady whose candid revelations about her struggles with breast cancer and drug and alcohol abuse helped spur awareness of issues few Americans had openly discussed before, died yesterday. She was 93 and lived in Rancho Mirage, California.
Ford “distinguished herself through her courage and compassion,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. She was “a powerful advocate for women’s health and women’s rights” who also “helped reduce the social stigma surrounding alcoholism and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment,” Obama said.
No details of Ford’s death were immediately available. Her husband, Gerald Ford, U.S. president from August 1974 to January 1977, died in 2006 at age 93.
A former dancer and fashion model, Betty Ford shocked the nation in 1974 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and openly discussed her mastectomy. Eight years later, after disclosing an addiction to pills and alcohol, she co-founded the Betty Ford Center, one of the first facilities for treatment of chemical dependency geared specifically to women.
Her decision to talk about her cancer publicly prompted thousands of women to call their doctors to schedule mammograms and learn about breast self-examination. In the week after her surgery, 27 clinics reported a four- to 10-fold increase in cancer-prevention inquiries, according to the American Cancer Society.
‘Patterns and Purposes’
“I believe we are all here to help each other and that our individual lives have patterns and purposes,” Ford said in a 1975 speech to the cancer society. “My illness turned out to have a very special purpose -- helping save other lives -- and I am grateful for what I was able to do.”
Ford’s legacy “will live on in people around the country whose lives are longer and better because of her work,” former President Bill Clinton, and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in a statement.
Time magazine in 2009 included Ford on a list of “Top 10 Colorful First Spouses,” noting her willingness to discuss sex and her affinity for dancing in the halls of the White House. On her husband’s last full day in office, she fulfilled a wish to dance on the Cabinet Room table, a moment captured by White House photographer David Hume Kennerly.
In a statement last night, former President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, praised Betty Ford’s “courageous candor,” which he said “helped forge a new era of openness” in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford, who became Nixon’s vice president in 1973, assumed the presidency after Nixon resigned in disgrace.
“Betty Ford helped restore the public’s faith in the presidency as an institution by creating an atmosphere of honesty,” said Edith Mayo, who created a Smithsonian Institution exhibit called “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image.”
Ford co-founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage in 1982 with longtime friend Leonard Firestone, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belgium under Nixon and Ford. The center reserves 50 percent of its space for women.
The scenic facility near Palm Springs has treated more than 90,000 patients, including celebrities such as Kelsey Grammer and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 2006, Ford established the Betty Ford Institute, which operates independently of the treatment center, to translate scientific findings into more effective research practices, educate health-care professionals about addiction, and advocate for better access to addiction treatment and prevention.
‘Contemporary and Realistic’
“Betty Ford made the role of first lady a contemporary and realistic position,” said historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written two books about U.S. presidential wives. “She humanized it.”
Occasionally rankling political advisers and taking stands that differed from those of her husband and fellow Republicans, she spoke out in favor of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and backed the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision affirming a woman’s right to have an abortion without restrictions during the first trimester of pregnancy.
In a “60 Minutes” interview in 1997, Ford disclosed that she had had a facelift. Earlier, in a 1975 interview with the same CBS News program, she’d said that she would likely try marijuana if she were a teenager and would support her daughter, then 18, if she chose to have premarital sex. CBS called it one of the most candid interviews in the show’s history.
Gerald Ford was supportive of his wife’s outspokenness. Though he sometimes joked about losing votes due to her comments, he told “60 Minutes” that he resisted pressure from members of his Cabinet to force the first lady into the background.
“I’ve never, to my best recollection, told her to say things differently or to have a different point of view publicly,” the former president said. “In the first place, I knew she wouldn’t abide by my recommendations.”
She studied dance at the Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont before moving to New York to join Martha Graham’s company. Her friendship with the renowned choreographer would continue until Graham’s death in 1991.
While in New York, she supported herself as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers agency, according to her official White House biography.
Back to Michigan
In 1941, Ford returned to Grand Rapids. There she began working as a fashion coordinator at a local department store. She also formed her own dance troupe and taught disabled children the value of rhythm and movement. She would later use her position as first lady to advocate for children with disabilities, the arts and women’s issues.
At 24, she married William Warren, whom she had known since childhood. They were divorced after five years.
She met Gerald Ford, a lawyer and former collegiate football star, in 1947. They were married the next year, two weeks before he was first elected to Congress.
“I was very unprepared to be a political wife, but I didn’t worry because I really didn’t think he was going to win,” she later said.
The couple had three sons, Michael, John and Steven, and a daughter, Susan.
Gerald Ford represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 until 1973, when Nixon picked him as vice president to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who had stepped down amid bribery charges.
Only six weeks after her husband became president, doctors found a malignant lump in her breast. She underwent a radical mastectomy, meaning the entire breast was removed as well as underarm lymph nodes and chest wall muscles under the breast.
During her recovery, she invited reporters into her hospital room to photograph her in her bathrobe. When the public showed their support by sending flowers, her husband said she would instead prefer donations to the American Cancer Society.
Breast cancer is currently the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among U.S. women. When caught early, the survival rate is more than 90 percent. Former first lady Nancy Reagan, who had a mastectomy in 1987, yesterday called Ford “an inspiration to so many through her efforts to educate women about breast cancer.”
After Gerald Ford lost to Carter in 1976, he and Betty moved to Rancho Mirage.
Her painful battle with cancer and the stress of her highly visible public role culminated in a dependency on painkilling drugs and alcohol.
In 1978, she sought treatment at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Four years later, again seeking to use the lessons learned from her own tribulations for public good, she founded the Betty Ford Center to treat chemical dependency.
Ford chronicled her life through the White House years in a 1978 autobiography, “The Times of My Life.” Her second book, “Betty: A Glad Awakening,” was published in 1987. It recounts her recovery from chemical dependency.
She was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, by President George H.W. Bush in November 1991. In October 1999 she and her husband were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “dedicated public service and outstanding humanitarian contributions.”
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