Nancy Reagan, U.S. Presidential Wife and Protector, Dies at 94

  • Remembered for courageous struggle with husband's Alzheimer's
  • Brought Hollywood style, astrological tables to White House

Nancy Reagan, the former actress and first lady who nurtured the political career of husband Ronald Reagan, and was remembered for her unstinting devotion to the president as well as efforts to battle drug abuse and Alzheimer’s disease, has died. She was 94.

She died Sunday morning at her home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library said in a statement. The cause was congestive heart failure.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library via Getty Images

The Reagans were inseparable during their 52 years of marriage, and their deep mutual affection carried over into public life. Nancy Reagan encouraged a close personal relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa during tense arms negotiations in the 1980s. She sometimes organized Reagan’s schedule based on astrological readings, and caused a stir over White House renovations and pricey purchases.

“Nancy Reagan once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House,” President Barack Obama said Sunday in a statement. “She was right, of course. But we had a head start, because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice.”

James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s first chief of staff and second-term Treasury secretary, said via e-mail that she was “one half of the team that restored our nation’s pride and confidence in itself, and reinvigorated America’s leadership role in the world.”

‘Shared Devotion’

The 2016 Republican field praised Nancy Reagan’s dedication to her husband and country. “Theirs was one of our nation’s great love stories and a model of shared devotion to our country,” Ohio Governor John Kasich said in a statement. Texas Senator Ted Cruz lauded her “deep passion for this nation,” while front-runner Donald Trump called her “an amazing woman.”

Nancy Reagan, July 2012

Photographer: Michael Kovac/FilmMagic via Getty Images

For decades, many Republican candidates for public office have linked themselves in one way or another to the Reagan legacy. “With the passing of Nancy Reagan, we say a final goodbye to the days of Ronald Reagan,” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said in a statement on his Facebook page. “With charm, grace, and a passion for America, this couple reminded us of the greatness and the endurance of the American experiment.”

Her influence on the presidency was the focus of media attention and her eye for style reminiscent of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She campaigned against illicit drug use while Reagan was in office, and became an advocate of stem-cell research in later years as her husband battled Alzheimer’s, which took his life in 2004.

‘Long Goodbye’

Some in the press chided her for the adoring gaze she fixed on her husband when listening to his speeches, mocking “The Stare” as an on-stage act fitting for a couple who first met when they were actors. Yet the former first lady proved the depth of her devotion as she defended her husband’s image and privacy during his long illness.

Nancy Reagan, Nov. 1979

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ronald Reagan served two terms as California’s governor and two as the 40th U.S. president, winning re-election in 1984 with majorities in 49 of 50 states and the most electoral votes ever tallied.

In 1994, he wrote in a letter to the American people that he had Alzheimer’s disease, saying that he hoped his disclosure “might promote greater awareness of this condition.” The former first lady devoted the next decade to caring for him as he withdrew from public life, a period she referred to as “the long goodbye.”

Reagan’s revelation came “at a time when Alzheimer’s disease was truly in the shadows and together they began to change the conversation about Alzheimer’s disease for millions,” Harry Johns, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association, said in a statement. “The public disclosure of their Alzheimer’s experience created an enormous and much needed upsurge of interest in the disease from the general public and government officials.”

Stem-Cell Research

Nancy Reagan surprised social conservatives in 2001 when she wrote to Republican President George W. Bush urging support for embryonic stem-cell research. She didn’t sway Bush, who, citing “moral values,” blocked proposals to fund research on stem cells harvested from unused human embryos. Obama reversed the ban on federally funded stem-cell research in 2009, drawing Reagan’s praise.

“Science has presented us with a hope,” Nancy Reagan said in a May 2004 speech at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation event in Beverly Hills, California, less than a month before her husband’s death from the brain-destroying disease.

She hadn’t been as vocal on policy before, with the exception of her effort to reduce drug abuse among America’s youth with the “Just Say No” advertising campaign of the 1980s. In that campaign, she appeared in public service announcements, including a series that warned “the thrill can kill.”

‘Second-Hand Clothes’

Many Americans viewed Reagan as a spendthrift and clotheshorse in her early years as first lady. She refurbished the second floor of the White House, purchasing more than $200,000 worth of new china with private donations, at a time the nation was in a recession.

Her public image also was shaped by her preference for designer clothing, provided free of charge by their makers. A turning point came at Washington’s annual Gridiron Dinner in 1982, when Reagan, at the suggestion of her press secretary, Sheila Tate, mocked her own shortcomings in a surprise appearance on stage. In a skit, she dressed like a cleaning lady and sang reworked lyrics, “Second-Hand Clothes,” to the tune of “Second-Hand Rose.”

Critics later accused the former first lady of relying on horoscopes and astrologers to determine President Reagan’s scheduling. In her 1989 memoir, “My Turn,” she attributed the consultations to a fear for her husband’s safety after he survived the 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., who wounded and almost killed Reagan with a gunshot.

Brady Act

The attempted assassination helped garner Nancy Reagan’s support for the Brady Act, named for James Brady, the late Reagan aide who was shot and severely wounded by the president’s side.

“You didn’t have to be a Reagan Republican to admire and respect Nancy Reagan,” Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement. “She was a tower of strength alongside her husband, had strong beliefs, and was not afraid to chart her own course politically.”

Still, Reagan was dubbed the “Dragon Lady” for her influence over the president’s decisions. Donald Regan blamed her for orchestrating his firing as White House chief of staff in 1987, in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Regan, who died in 2003, wrote in his 1988 memoir that the first lady “regarded herself as the president’s alter ego, not only in the conjugal but also in the political and official dimensions, as if the office that had been bestowed upon her husband by the people somehow fell into the category of worldly goods covered by the marriage vows.”

Most-Admired Women

Responding in her memoir, Reagan said numerous government officials had complained to her about Regan’s performance and personality, and she merely passed along what she heard to her husband. She insisted that her power to get people fired was exaggerated.

“Believe me, if I was really the dragon lady that Donald Regan described in his book, he would have been out the door many months earlier,” she wrote.

Nancy Reagan “was a sounding board and she was an adviser” to the president, said Ross K. Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “I don’t think there was any question that in private she was enormously influential.”

Despite the criticisms, Americans voted Reagan one of the 10 most-admired women in the country each year of her husband’s presidency in surveys by “Good Housekeeping” magazine and the Gallup poll. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 1987, later had a mastectomy, and was declared cancer-free.

Early Life

Anne Frances Robbins was born on July 6, 1921, in New York City. She was called Nancy by her mother, Edie, an actress. She and Nancy’s father, salesman Kenneth Robbins, separated when Nancy was 2, and their daughter was sent to live with an aunt in Maryland while Edie pursued a career on stage.

After divorcing Nancy’s father, Edie married Loyal Davis, a prominent neurosurgeon, when Nancy was 6. Davis later adopted the young girl, and she began to use his surname. The family lived in Chicago.

She studied drama at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, before becoming a stage, film and television actress, appearing in 11 films from 1949 to 1956. Nancy and Ronald Reagan starred together in her final film, the war drama “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957).

First Meeting

The couple had first met in 1951, when Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild. They married on March 5, 1952, in Los Angeles. Nancy Reagan was three months pregnant at the time with their first child, Patricia.

“Our relationship is very special,” Nancy Reagan told Vanity Fair magazine in 1998. “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 my life without him.”

The former president’s feelings on the subject were comprehensively documented when Nancy decided to publish his love letters to her in the book, “I Love You, Ronnie,” in 2000.

Nancy Reagan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 2002 for what President George W. Bush called “her eloquent example of loyalty, courage and abiding love.” In 2000, she received the Congressional Gold Medal for her contributions as first lady.

In October 2008, Reagan suffered a fractured pelvis in a fall at her home. After rehabilitation, she traveled to Washington in 2009 to unveil a statue of her late husband in the Capitol rotunda. On the same trip she had a private luncheon with first lady Michelle Obama. In 2011, Reagan attended the funeral of former first lady Betty Ford in Rancho Mirage, California.

The Reagans had two children, Ron and Patricia. The former president had an adopted son, Michael, from his first marriage to Jane Wyman, in addition to a daughter Maureen, who died of cancer in 2001.

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