Describing himself to his fans in August, 1942, Ronald Reagan said he was "a plain guy with a set of homespun features and no frills" whose tastes and preferences were those of the average man.
"I like to swim, hike and sleep eight hours a night ," Reagan said. "I'm fairly good at every sport except tennis, which I just don't like. My favorite menu is steak smothered with onions and strawberry shortcake. Mr. Norm is my alias. I play bridge adequately, collect guns, always carry a penny as a good-luck charm and knock wood when I make a boast or express a wish. I have a so-so convertible coupe which I drive myself. I'm interested in politics and governmental problems.
"My favorite books are 'Turnabout' by Thorne Smith, 'Babbitt,' 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' and the works of Pearl Buck, H. G. Wells, Damon Runyon and Erich Remarque. I'm a fan of Bing Crosby. My favorite actress is my wife. I like things colored green and my favorite flower is the Eastern lilac. I love my wife, baby and home. I've just built a new one -- home, I mean. Nothing about me to make me stand out on the midway."
Reagan's celebration of his supposed averageness, in a "Photoplay" article called "How to Make Yourself Important," was a message to the fans he left behind when he was called to military service. Implicitly, it reflected Reagan's liberal outlook of the time, stressing equality over exceptionalism and crediting his film success to the shared average values of his fellow citizens. "Average will do it," Reagan wrote, expressing a credo that would survive throughout his various political incarnations.
Reagan's ranking of himself as an average man carried with it a power to speak for "the people," permitting him to identify with whatever audience he was facing. The actor's key advice to the fans he left behind was "(a) love what you are doing with all your heart and soul and (b) believe what you are doing is important -- even if you are only grubbing for worms in the back yard."
Mr. Norm was made to order for Hollywood, then the undisputed mass-culture capital of the United States. In the salad days of silent films, Hollywood had boasted a carnival atmosphere and was known to staid Los Angelenos as "the movie colony," where loose morals had replaced good manners.
But a series of morals scandals after World War I, coming when filmmaking was emerging as one of the nation's most profitable industries, jolted Hollywood and led to formation of a trade association, a code of conduct and a censor to police every movie.
A morals clause became a standard part of actors' contracts, and press agents were hired by the studios to sell and sanitize the private lives of stars. Actors were supposed to be clean-cut and wholesome, and studios were always on the lookout for "ideal couples" and "perfect marriages" that could be paraded before American moviegoers as symbols of happy Hollywood life.
Enter Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, made-to-order candidates for exploitation of their private lives. They were young, attractive, naive and untainted by scandal.
In a community where divorce was supposed to be commonplace, Reagan had never been married. The blonde and fiery Wyman had been married once, briefly, to apparel manufacturer Myron Futterman. She met Reagan while on the rebound and dated him during the filming of "Brother Rat." Their relationship was encouraged by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella O. Parsons, who also came from Dixon, Ill. Reagan's hometown . The columnist included both Reagan and Wyman on a nine-week "stars of tomorrow" vaudeville tour in 1939.
With Wyman taking the initiative, the romance blossomed. "Long before Ronald was aware of Janie's existence, she knew he was there," breathlessly reported "Photoplay." "But Ronnie had had his heart bashed in once and wouldn't look Janie's way for a long time. When he did, it was all over but the wedding."
Parsons, of course, announced it. "Life was very much the way Jane wanted it on a certain day our vaudeville tour took us to Philadelphia," Parsons said long afterwards. "Her brown eyes were sparkling and her voice was bubbling with happiness as she told me: 'Have I got a scoop for you! Ronnie and I are engaged!' I had known that Janie worshipped Ronnie, but I hadn't realized he was falling seriously in love with her. I announced the engagement that night from the stage and in the newspapers."
Even before Reagan and Wyman were wed, studio publicists, gossip columnists and fan magazine writers competed in their haste to proclaim the Perfect Marriage. One publication offered the couple an expense-paid trip to Hawaii if they would take a cameraman along to record their marriage ceremony and honeymoon.
Instead, Reagan and Wyman were married in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 26, 1940. They attended a reception given by Parsons at her home, honeymooned in Palm Springs and moved into the Beverly Hills apartment where Wyman had lived before the marriage. On Jan. 4, 1941, Wyman's 27th birthday, a baby daughter they named Maureen Elizabeth was born to the Reagans. Publicists cooed, celebrating a marriage they believed was made both in Hollywood and heaven.
A release from Warner Bros. publicity department on June 2, 1941, began: "THE HOPEFUL REAGANS. They Are Looking Forward to More of Everything Good -- Including Children."
Much of it is a banal dialogue between Ron and Jane that would have been more suitable for Jane and Tarzan. The Reagans with their baby "show signs of becoming one of the important first families of the film colony, a new dynasty, one might say, which will bear watching. It is a busy little family what with both papa and mama working in Warner Bros. pictures and little Maureen Elizabeth about to cut her first tooth -- in advance of all predictions, too."
The only negative note comes when Jane explains how they are using old furniture and want to buy new when they move into the eight-room house they are building on a hill overlooking Hollywood. Ronald interrupts before Jane can finish: "Depends on conditions and prices and war and things," he says. "We don't intend to get out on a limb."
By August, with her husband filming "King's Row," Jane brags about the marriage in "Silver Screen" in an article entitled "Making a Double Go of It." Mary Jane Manners quotes "Janie" as saying:
"Neither Ronnie nor I were stars. We were both featured players, making $500 a week. I wasn't a glamor queen, and he wasn't a matinee idol. We were just two kids trying to get the breaks in pictures. But look at Ronnie now. He's taken a scooter and gone leaps and bounds ahead of me. But I'm terribly proud of him -- all the same."
There is more, too much more, about how Ronnie converted her from nightclubbing to swimming, golf and other sports, and about how they spent their time looking at model houses before finally spotting the one they wanted in a movie. There is another published appeal for new furniture. There is a confession from Wyman that she had "always been the kind of girl that if there was anything I wanted, I'd go and buy it and think about whether I could really afford it afterward, but Ronnie won't go in debt."
Finally, there is a glimpse of how they get along together. "Ronnie and I are perfect counterparts for each other," she said. "I blow up and Ronnie just laughs at me. We've never had a quarrel because he's just too good-natured. I pop off and am over it in a minute. Then he makes me ashamed of myself because he's so understanding."
It might have been called the Goldfish Bowl Marriage. The expectations were so high and the claims made for the marriage by the studio so extravagant that the first signs of normal marital discord were treated by columnists and magazine writers as a national tragedy.
Reagan appears to have accepted the studio propaganda as literally true. He publicly celebrated the marriage and the sterling qualities of Wyman. He was unprepared for the snide realities of a breakup which the columnists covered as avidly, albeit sympathetically, as the public romance. Reagan's pride would have been damaged in any case, but he was embarrassed by the repeated references to marital trouble and lashed out at columnists for invading his private life. Never again would he allow them to come so close.
By the end of the decade Reagan was in transition -- between careers, marriages, political parties and ideologies. The 1940s had been a time of awakening and disillusionment for Reagan, as for other Americans. If a decade could be summed up in a single sentence, it would be, for Reagan, contained in the despair of Drake McHugh as he cried out, "Where's the rest of me?"
Reagan was still an actor, but acting was not enough for him. He still thought of himself as a family man, but he no longer had a family. He dated and went to parties, going through the motions of being a bachelor again. Even among his closest friends he was reluctant to talk about what had happened to him.
The 1950s would be another kind of decade for Reagan, a time of renewal and coming together. The one-sentence summary of this decade might be the then-popular slogan of General Electric: "Progress Is Our Most Important Product." Thanks to Nancy Davis and GE, Ronald Reagan's life in the 1950s became stable and rewarding again. While remaining for the time an actor, Reagan discovered a larger purpose.
At the beginning of the transition Reagan was restless and unusually critical of the industry which had nurtured him. He sniped at producers for failing to appreciate the talents of its prewar stars and at the "irresponsible journalism" of the Hollywood press for celebrating scandal and divorce.
"A star doesn't slip," Reagan told Hedda Hopper in 1950. "He's ruined by bad stories and worse casting." Even the friendly Hopper demurred, telling Reagan that a theater owner had told her that "he can't sell the older stars." Reagan kept at the producers, nonetheless, and he took after the press as well.
"Certain elements of the press, the kind that are addicted to yellow journalism, certain types of gossip columnists and so forth decided that they could attract more readers and sell more papers and get more listeners if they always went in for the more flamboyant, the more colorful, the exaggerated side of things, and in most cases the messy side of things," Reagan said while serving as master of ceremonies at the "Photoplay" awards dinner in 1951. Without mentioning the breakup of his own marriage, Reagan objected to "an invasion of our personal and private lives."
Off screen, the characteristically optimistic Reagan was uncharacteristically moody. His divorce stung him deeply. Reagan saw his children frequently, as Maureen remembers, but his absence from them on a daily basis gnawed at him. Then it was taken for granted that children should live with the mother. Years later, Reagan remarked that he approved of joint-custody arrangements and how he had missed growing-up time with his children.
"He really felt guilty that he had not spent the time with Maureen and Michael, that he felt that he owed them," said a friend. This friend viewed Reagan as needing to be married and "totally unsuited" for bachelorhood. Reagan acknowledges as much. Speaking of the period between his divorce and his introduction to Nancy Davis in 1951, Reagan says, "I was footloose and fancy free, and I guess down underneath, miserable."
Nancy Davis changed that. When she met Reagan she was an obscure and attractive actress at MGM, working in the film "East Side, West Side." Her mother, Edith Luckett, had been a well-known stage actress. Her mother's husband, Loyal Davis, was a successful Chicago neurosurgeon who had adopted Nancy.
After graduating from Smith College in 1943, Nancy capitalized on her mother's Hollywood connections and became an actress. On MGM studio records she listed her birthdate as July 6, 1923, two years later than the birthdate she gave Smith College. Although not without talent, she had no illusions of being a star and no particular ambition to become one.
Supplying biographical information to MGM in 1949, she said her "greatest ambition" was to have a "successful happy marriage." In 1975, for a compilaton of achievements of Smith College alumni, Nancy Reagan said: "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."
She did not know Ronald Reagan. He was a good-looking actor and the respected president of the Screen Actors Guild. When the opportunity to meet him presented itself, she demonstrated an inclination for the main chance that is one of her abiding characteristics. The pretext came when the name "Nancy Davis" showed up repeatedly on a communist mailing list and then on a list of left-wingers published in the "Hollywood Citizen News." This was in 1951, at the height of the Red scare.
On the set of "East Side, West Side," she complained to director Mervyn LeRoy, who said he would fix matters by calling his friend, the Screen Actors Guild president.
"I had never met Ronnie, and certainly Ronnie didn't know me from a hole in the wall, but I told Mervyn it was a fine idea," Nancy Reagan recalled years later, making no secret that her desire to meet Reagan heavily outweighed her fear of being falsely branded a communist.
By the time Reagan called back and reported that it was a case of mistaken identity, LeRoy realized that Nancy wanted more than political clearance. He insisted that Reagan convey his own messages, and a dinner date was arranged.
At their meeting she was completely smitten by the tall, athletic and courteous actor who arrived at LeRoy's on crutches because of a fractured leg from playing in a Hollywood charity baseball game. He was tired of bachelorhood and much taken by this young woman who was obviously more interested in Reagan than her career.
From the first, Reagan's friends thought of Nancy as a woman who was "good for Ronnie" and would be faithful to him. Soon they were "an item" in the gossip columns, though both of them would always be far more discreet about their intentions than Reagan and Wyman had been. A Hollywood newspaper account of the time describes "the romance of a couple who have no vices" in these terms:
"Not for them the hot-house atmosphere of nightclubs, the smoky little rooms and the smell of Scotch. They eat at Dave Chasen's, they spend their evenings in the homes of friends, they drive along the coast and look at the sea and a lot of time they're quiet. They go as 'steady,' according to one reporter, as any couple in Hollywood and Nancy knits Reagan argyle socks, though she doesn't cook for him."
They were married on March 4, 1952, with William Holden as best man and Ardis Holden as matron of honor. Without regrets, Nancy quit her acting career to become a wife and mother.