Jane Wyman could have had a bestseller.
But the Oscar-winning actress wouldn’t dish about her ex-husband. Not when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and not when he made history as the nation’s first divorced president.
Before Reagan, men with failed marriages were considered too tainted for the White House. Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce may have cost him the Republican primary nomination for president in 1964.
But by the time Reagan took the oath in 1981, with Nancy Reagan by his side in her royal blue suit and hat, the country was ready for the first lady to be a second wife.
And Wyman didn’t get in the way, though she surely knew plenty from her nine years of marriage to Reagan during Hollywood’s heyday.
Their time together — which included the birth of one child, the adoption of another and the death of a third — received little attention. Reagan never mentioned her in public. And Wyman got no more than a paragraph in his autobiography:
“The same year I made the Knute Rockne movie, I married Jane Wyman, another contract player at Warners. Our marriage produced two wonderful children, Maureen and Michael, but it didn’t work out, and in 1948, we divorced.”
And she honored him with similar silence.
Asked in 1968, right after Reagan became California’s 33rd governor, why she never spoke of her ex-husband’s political transformation and new starring role, Wyman was wry and succinct.
“It’s not because I’m bitter or because I don’t agree with him politically,” she said in 1968. “I’ve always been a registered Republican. But it’s bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives, that’s all. Also, I don’t know a damned thing about politics.”
Bad taste. Remember when there was such a thing?
But today, rather than a former film actor, we have an ex-reality-TV star in the White House. And his leading ladies are going at it, reality-show style.
Earlier this year, Ivana Trump did some interviews to plug her new book, “Raising Trump,” throwing shade at Mrs. Trumps #2 and #3. “I’m basically the first Trump wife. Okay?” Ivana said. “I’m first lady.”
So Melania Trump, wife #3, responded with some acid of her own. Her spokeswoman issued a statement, calling her “honored by her role as first lady of the United States. She plans to use her title and role to help children, not sell books.”
The palace infighting is so lurid, it got the king of the wife wars exercised. “This is actually happening. All the wives are fighting. Even I AM SPEECHLESS,” tweeted Andy Cohen, executive producer of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” series.
On Saturday night, Ivana was at it again, telling talk show host Ray D’Arcy that Melania “is trying her best” to be a successful first lady.
It’s a good time to remember that as recently as the 1980s, when the first Trump union made Donald and Ivana the toast of Manhattan’s gilded crowd, Wyman was exercising Victorian decorum. Even if decorum didn’t describe the Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s.
Reagan played off his good looks and broad-shouldered Everyman charm well into his old age. But his early days in Hollywood? A parade of biographies and tell-alls describe him as a player.
From Elizabeth Taylor to Lana Turner to Marilyn Monroe, the Gipper was a guy who allegedly got around.
Wyman and Reagan fell in love on the set. Their marriage in 1940 was his first and her third. They divorced in 1949, after Wyman reportedly fell in love with another co-star, Lew Ayres.
She didn’t marry Ayres, but her part in “Johnny Belinda” helped her win an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1948. She went on to marry two more times — both times to the same man — before finally giving up on nuptials. She remained a star on the small screen, starring in the television series “Falcon Crest,” as her third ex-husband won the Cold War and championed conservative family values.
“I guess I just don’t have a talent for it,” Wyman said once about her failed marriages. “Some women just aren’t the marrying kind — or, anyway, not the permanent marrying kind, and I’m one of them.”
She finally broke her silence about Reagan when he died in 2004.
“America has lost a great president,” Wyman said. “And a great, kind and gentle man.”
Wyman died three years later in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 90. Or maybe it was 93. She wasn’t that forthcoming about her birthday either.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Lew Ayres’s last name. This version has been updated with the correct spelling.
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