The Leading Man
Writing Their Own Script, They Loved Happily Ever After
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page D01
She was a starlet, and he already was a president, a tall, handsome leading man who headed the Screen Actors Guild. Nancy Davis met Ronald Reagan in Hollywood in 1949, on a blind date, or, as she would write a half-century later, "a date that was blind for Ronnie but not for me. I'd seen him in pictures -- and I liked what I saw." Daughter of a showgirl and a surgeon, Davis wrote in her biography for the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that her greatest ambition beyond her career was "to have a successful, happy marriage."
Together, the Reagans certainly achieved that, forming a circle of two so intimate and often impenetrable that the couple's own children sometimes felt excluded. "They absolutely are a team. You do not get one without the other -- ever," said Maureen Reagan, the late daughter of the former president and actress Jane Wyman. From the day they married, Nancy Reagan devoted herself to her husband, 10 years her senior.
He was her career.
She tended his image and guided him through increasingly ambitious aspirations. In return, he trusted her totally and romanced her for decades, writing hundreds of florid letters "from Poppa" to "My Mommy Poo." In their last years, he would rely on her more than he ever had, as Alzheimer's disease stole his memory and speech. She would exhaust herself as his caregiver, rarely leaving their California home. By their 50th wedding anniversary, a milestone the Reagans long had hoped to mark in grand style, Nancy said she didn't know if her Ronnie knew her. "They were very short, the golden years," Nancy Reagan said on "60 Minutes."
But, oh, the rest of it!
After that first blind date, which included dinner and a Sophie Tucker show, Nancy Davis kept after Ronald Reagan, who was heartbroken after his marriage to Wyman broke up. He dated plenty of other starlets and even proposed to one, according to one biography. But Nancy persevered, ingratiating herself with his children. When Reagan began to take her along to his weekend ranch, Nancy would sing songs in the car with Maureen and put Michael on her lap, massaging the little boy's neck all the while. Eventually, she got pregnant with Patti, and they married in 1952. He was 41; she was 30. His children were not at the wedding, and Maureen wrote later that she and Michael, away at boarding school, "felt a little weird to be sitting in a strange house waiting for a phone call" that her father and his girlfriend had tied the knot. "My life began with Ronnie," Nancy once said, adding that she never saw herself as a separate person.
The political partnership began well before his initial run for California governor in 1966, when state politicos began urging him to become a candidate, based on his effectiveness as an electrifying speaker and fundraiser on behalf of others. "For about two weeks, we talked about it constantly -- during dinner, after dinner, and late at night, in bed," Nancy recalled in her 1989 memoir, "My Turn." When he ran, she campaigned in towns where he couldn't be. When he won, she refused to live in the run-down governor's mansion in Sacramento. His advisers were outraged, but the Reagans moved into a rented house in the suburbs.
Through the two terms in the White House, the Reagans seemed to float with glamour, dancing at their glittering State Dinners, she in those size 2 Galanos gowns, he in his tuxedo. Behind the scenes, Nancy feuded with the children and the president's staff, fights that were eagerly and thoroughly discussed in the media. Critics slammed the Reagans as hypocrites, for espousing family values while their own family relations often were ruinous. The couple was estranged from Michael and Patti for years. But these disputes all occurred outside the circle of that marriage. Ron and Nancy's relationship was loving, and simple.
"All the hokum about how they were each at the center of the other's life was true," says Peggy Noonan, Reagan's former speechwriter. "In some of the ways they were different, they complemented each other: He got her to the ranch, she got him within a wider circle of friends in town. He liked to think about what he was reading and ponder abstractions; she made sure the house was up and running. He had a constitutional optimism; she was a worrier, so he calmed her and she alerted him when necessary."
Says Michael Deaver, their friend and former longtime aide: "He had some weaknesses that she would have to watch out for. He was too kind. He couldn't say 'no' or 'discipline' or 'fire,' so she became the heavy." Nancy really was the chief personnel officer of the White House, and she didn't need an office in the East Wing -- she had that telephone to her ear. "She was really interested in him succeeding," says Deaver. "To her, that was her own success."
It was the first lady who pushed Reagan away from his Evil Empire posture toward peacemaking, says Kati Marton, author of "Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History." "Her instinct for his legacy propelled her to convert him from a warmonger to a peacemaker."
Rather than denying her reputation as dragon lady of the administration, the president seemed to appreciate it. Nine months after the assassination attempt, he wrote to her, "I love the whole gang of you -- Mommie, first lady, the sentimental you, the fun you and the peewee powerhouse you."
"The secret to Ronald Reagan is that there really is no secret," wrote Nancy in "My Turn." "He is exactly the man he appears to be. The Ronald Reagan you see in public is the same Ronald Reagan I live with."
She was always touching him, petting his hair, massaging his neck, recalls Deaver. In the written and photographed record of their years together, running for governor, walking in inaugural parades, strolling Camp David, after the attempt on his life and her mastectomy, the Reagans always are holding hands, hers slipped into his. Sometimes, she wanted to hold him with both hands, and she reached around with her free hand to clasp his wrist as well. Holding hands, they could almost swing free of one another in their stride, while staying in touch, skin against skin.
Writing an introduction to Harry Benson's 2003 book of photographs, "The President and Mrs. Reagan," their daughter, Patti Davis, said she saw her parents "as people who nurtured their love for each other every day, who knew that friendship is the mortar holding love together, who closed their eyes when they kissed, and who held hands like teenagers. . . .
"As my father leaves, slips away into the shadows of Alzheimer's, a mysterious and cruel disease, his hand still reaches for another hand to hold," Davis wrote. "His grip is still surprisingly strong, and I will always believe that he knows when it's my mother's hand he's holding."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ronald and Nancy Reagan formed a partnership that lasted more than 50 years. Here they relax at their California ranch in 1982.
(Michael Evans -- The White House)