Nancy Reagan, who passed away last weekend, often said her life didn’t really “begin” until she met Ronald Reagan. But when you look at their love letters, it’s clear that she had a transformative effect on him, too.
“In the years preceding our marriage, he said he’d felt lost,” Nancy Reagan writes in “I Love You, Ronnie,” a book of their letters from their courtship in the 1950s until their days in the White House. “He hadn’t been able to recognize himself as he made the nightclub circuit,” Nancy writes, “dating starlets and enjoying being Hollywood’s ‘most eligible’ bachelor. He’d felt like he was wandering in the dark.”
In one of the first letters in “I Love You, Ronnie” — a missive written on their 29th wedding anniversary in 1981 — the former president admits that his life was empty before the couple’s blind date.
“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 and 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.”
Instead of the fairy tale trope of their time, in which a woman might hope to be “rescued” by a man, Ronald sees Nancy as his knight in shining armor.
Nancy was smitten immediately. “He wasn’t like any other actor I knew — or anybody else in the movie business,” she writes; she was an actress at the time. “He didn’t talk about himself. He didn’t talk about his movies. He talked about a lot of things, but not about ‘my next picture, my last picture …’ He was a Civil War buff, loved horses, and knew a lot about wine. In fact, he had a broad knowledge of a lot of different things. I loved to listen to him talk. I loved his sense of humor. I saw it clearly that very first night: He was everything that I wanted.”
They went out again the very next night, but things developed slowly. “We continued to see other people for a while,” Nancy writes. “Ronnie wanted to be sure, and, even though I’d never been married before, I wanted to be sure, too.
Ronald was traveling a lot for work, and this is when the letter-writing began. “I was always happy to get a letter from Ronnie in those early days,” Nancy writes. “He wrote to me when he traveled — to stay connected, to reassure me, I think, and to let me know I was in his thoughts.”
Ronald also had two children from a previous marriage, which gave Nancy pause. “It’s difficult to get ready to marry a man who has children — difficult for both sides, because the children have their own feelings.”
But Nancy got along well with Ronald’s children, Michael and Maureen, she writes, as well as with Ronald’s mother, Nelle.
They dated all through 1951, and by the end of the year reporters asked whether they might be tying the knot.
“I knew that I wanted to spend my life with Ronnie, and time was marching on,” she writes. In January 1952, she “decided to give things a push” by suggesting that she angle for an acting role in New York. That got him to finally say: “I think we ought to get married.'”
When they got married, in a small ceremony in 1952, Nancy was pregnant with their daughter, Patti. She was born seven months after their wedding, and Nancy immediately stopped working.
But it wasn’t because she was expected to stay home. “Ronnie didn’t ask me to — he would never have asked me to give up my career,” Nancy writes. “It was my idea. I liked acting, but I had seen too many two-career Hollywood marriages fail.”
In the beginning of their marriage, they were often apart while Ronald was away on acting jobs. A year into their marriage, for example, he wrote to her in a letter from New York: “I suppose some people would find it unusual that you and I can so easily span three thousand miles but in truth it comes very naturally. Man can’t live without a heart and you are my heart, by far the nicest thing about me and so very necessary. There would be no life without you nor would I want any.”
So we get it: They were very much in love, and said as much to each other in telegrams and letters drafted from the California governor’s office, the Oval Office and Air Force One.
The letters “begin as cheerful notes from the early years when we were dating,” Nancy writes, “then, in the first years of our marriage, they become deeper.”
No matter how deep the sentiments expressed, silly nicknames persisted. There are missives in “I Love You, Ronnie” addressed to Glamour Puss, Nancy Pants, Mommie, Mommie Poo Pants, written by a president of the United States (or Daddie Poo Pants, as he sometimes called himself).
Once Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s set in in the 1990s, the letters became “a kind of lifeline,” Nancy writes, bringing back Ronald in his own words. “One of the things my life has taught me,” she writes, “is how important it is to try to say ‘I love you’ in ways that can be preserved, looked at and read when you are alone or when there is adversity or when circumstances bring separation.”