Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94

03/06/2016 AT 12:00 PM EST

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, the stylish and strong-willed widow of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, has died of congestive heart failure, her spokesperson confirms. She was 94.

"Mrs. Reagan will be buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, next to her husband, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5, 2004," her spokesperson said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. "Prior to the funeral service, there will be an opportunity for members of the public to pay their respects at the Library."

Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94| Death, Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan on May 11, 2005.

WENN

Reagan, who long prided herself on her trim figure – she claimed she worried away weight – suffered a broken pelvis in 2008 and, appearing extremely fragile, had stumbled and fell during an Aug. 23, 2011, ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi, California, though it was said she was not injured. In April 2012, she suffered broken ribs in a fall inside her Los Angeles home and was said to be recovering slowly.

Still, one thing that could never be diminished over the years: her unbending love for her handsome and charismatic husband. Their relationship was considered one of the great love stories of the 20th century.



"Sometimes," Ronald Reagan once wrote, "I think my life really began when I met Nancy."

Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94| Death, Nancy Reagan

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Hulton Archive / Getty

'Nice and Good-Looking'

Born in New York City, Nancy Davis was raised by an aunt and uncle in Maryland once her parents divorced soon after she was born. Her mother was an actress named Edith Luckett, and friends of Edith's, including Spencer Tracy, helped Nancy get into acting, too. After appearing in the 1946 Broadway musical Lute Song with Mary Martin and Yul Brynner, she was screen-tested and hired by MGM.

As a 26-year-old starlet in Hollywood in 1949, the ingénue was distressed to see the name Nancy Davis on a list of suspected Communist sympathizers. Though MGM promptly placed an item in a gossip column noting that she was not that Nancy Davis, the future Republican politician's wife saw opportunity in the mix-up. She knew that Ronald Reagan, 38, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, was a staunch anti-Communist who would certainly sympathize with her predicament. She also knew that Reagan had recently divorced actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had two children, Michael and Maureen.

"He seemed nice and good-looking – someone I thought I'd like to meet," Nancy would later write.

Nancy cajoled a director friend into calling Reagan and getting him to invite her to dinner, ostensibly to discuss her situation. Reagan agreed to the setup, but to protect himself from a bad blind date, he told Nancy that he had a predawn call the next day and it would have to be an early evening.

"'Fine,' I said. 'I have an early call too,' " Nancy would remember. "I didn't, but a girl has her pride."

By 3 a.m. they had not only admitted there were no early calls, they had also made plans for dinner the next night. "I don't know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close," Nancy would say.

Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94| Death, Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan and Barack Obama

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Reagan, however, was more cautious. Still smarting from his divorce, he said he wasn't ready for an exclusive relationship. Over the next two years, both dated others as their romance progressed. Then, by the spring of 1952, Reagan took the plunge.

"One night over dinner, I said, 'Let's get married,' " he recalled in his autobiography An American Life. "She deserved a more romantic proposal than that, but – bless her – she put her hand on mine, looked into my eyes and said, 'Let's.' "

To avoid media coverage, the two wed secretly on March 4, 1952, at the Little Brown Church just outside L.A., with actor William Holden and his wife, Ardis, as their only witnesses. Seven months later, Nancy gave birth to daughter Patti (Ron Jr. would arrive in 1958).

Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94| Death, Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan

Dirck Halstead / Time & Life Pictures / Getty

"My parents have about as close a relationship as I've ever seen anyone have," Patti Davis once said. "They really sort of complete each other."

They became the ultimate political couple, sweeping into Washington in 1980 with a coterie of glamorous friends, fancy clothes and the drive to make a White House invite the hottest ticket in town.

"Ronald and Nancy always looked so divine together," said society friend Betsy Bloomingdale. "It was another era, and they represented it."

Disturbing Signs

When he left office in 1989, Reagan and Nancy headed west to their beloved California, there to live out a glorious retirement. But soon there were signs, quiet at first, that all was not well. "Reagan seemed a little bit out of it," noted Gerald Ford's former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly.

Ronald's death in June 2004, preceded by his decade-long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, left Nancy emotionally depleted and physically frail. Still, the memories of her 52-year marriage to Ronald Reagan were never far.

Though her public appearances became rare, she spent a good deal of her time making frequent trips to the Reagan Library, both to visit Ronald's grave and to help expand the library's activities and influence.

To the surprise of many, in her 80s Nancy Reagan also became a political activist – and a staunch supporter of embryo stem cell research, which she believed could have helped Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's condition.

Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94| Death, Nancy Reagan

Nancy and Ronald Reagan

Wally Fong / AP

In 2009, she issued a statement praising President Barack Obama shortly after he reversed limits on research that had been imposed by the George W. Bush administration. "Nancy Reagan has been using the Reagan name to promote the cause of embryo stem cell research," Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future, said at the time. "Everyone knows President Reagan would never have supported that."

In her statement, Reagan concluded by saying, "Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases – and soon. As I've said before, time is short, and life is precious."

A fitting epitaph for a surprising and remarkable woman.

With reporting by LIZ MCNEIL
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