I LOVE YOU, RONNIE

The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan

By Nancy Reagan

Random House. 188 pp. $24.95

"I Love You, Ronnie," a book built around Ronald Reagan's love letters, cards and telegrams to his wife Nancy over their long courtship and marriage, will move, charm and cheer his fans. Penned in lonely hotel rooms as he traveled for General Electric, or in the California governor's office, or aboard Air Force One, or from a TV tray next door to his beloved's at the White House, the letters are models of their genre: handwritten, with nary a smudge, cross-out or second thought; playfully bedecked with little hearts and caricatures; and packed with inventive conceits.

Take his "presidential citation" from the Oval Office in celebration of an anniversary. In it, Reagan retraces their path to bliss: "Beginning in 1951, Nancy Davis, seeing the plight of a lonely man who didn't know how lonely he really was, determined to rescue him from a completely empty life. Refusing to be rebuffed by a certain amount of stupidity on his part she ignored his somewhat slow response. With patience & tenderness she gradually brought the light of understanding to his darkened, obtuse mind and he discovered the joy of loving someone with all his heart . . ."

No wonder she'd reeled him in. About three weeks after writing those words, in March of 1981, Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel--coming far closer to death, as Nancy observes in her emotional but candid narrative, than was commonly known. The following Christmas, his epistolary conceit was to extol all the beloved women who held his heart: first lady; compassionate madonna; nest-builder; ranch companion; sentimental lady; and the little girl who took a banana to bed lest her midnight munching disturb her mate. All, of course, were Guess Who.

But more revealing of Reagan the man is a letter he wrote from New York in 1953, as he floundered in a professional sump hole of cheesy nightclub stints, low-budget movies and minor TV parts.

"Eight million people in this pigeon crap encrusted metropolis and suddenly I realized I was alone with my thoughts and they smelled sulphurous," he wrote his "Dear Nancy Pants." "Time was not a healer--When dinner time finally arrived I walked down to '21' where I ate in lonely splendor. It was at this point with my self pity 'coming up fast on the rail' that you joined me . . . ." Having evoked her presence, he becomes the perfect date: "Yes, you and I had roast beef although 21 is one of those places where we'll have to say, 'Well done.' Medium to them means 'sponge off the blood.'

"Wanting only half a bottle of wine we were somewhat restricted in choice but we politely resisted the 'huxtering' of the wine steward (who couldn't pick sweet milk from vinegar) and settled for a '47-Pichon Longueville.' It was tasty, wasn't it? And I thought the most amusing incident (and the nicest) was when the lady to my left leaned over and . . . introduced the distinguished gentleman with her . . . the publisher of 'Gourmet Magazine' [was] surprised . . . to see someone choosing a wine so carefully and so intelligently in '21.' . . . I of course told them I wasn't really a gentleman I just happened to marry a lady. . . . We walked back in the twilight and I guess I hadn't ought to put us on paper from there on. Let's just say I didn't know my lines this morning."

Today's hip couple may cringe at the technicolor gallantry, corny cards and uncool nicknames like Nancy Poo Pants, Little Mommie, Your In Luv Guv, 1st Poppa or Prexy. Frazzled career women may hoot at Nancy's recollections of amorously tucking jelly beans and billets-doux into her young husband's luggage as he packed to hit the road.

Kids may be scandalized at the very thought of late-life smooching in the White House. "I can never get enough of kissing you . . . you are the light of my life. I just worship my Roommate," wrote their parents' president to his first lady. And the literary may sniff that the Reagan prose is not a pimple on Shakespeare's yen to "kiss the tender inward of thy hand" or Elizabeth Barrett Browning's counting of "the ways."

But: "Do you know that when you sleep you curl your fists up under your chin and many mornings when it is barely dawn I lie facing you and looking at you until finally I have to touch you ever so lightly so you won't wake up--but touch you I must or I'll burst?" he wrote in 1963.

Yep. That's it. That's amore. Until Ronald Reagan wandered off into the starless night of Alzheimer's, he called himself "the most married man in the world" and their mutual delight "our treasure." He was, and it was. His letters, Nancy's memories, most poignantly recapture their sunny days and moony decades, hand in sentimental hand.