Ronald and Nancy Reagan's enduring love story captivated a nation – but their relationship was actually a complicated one for their family.
According to a 1992 memoir by daughter Patti, former First Lady Nancy, who died of congestive heart failure at 94 on Sunday, was a more loving wife than she was a mother. Patti remembers the Reagan household as a tense "battlefield" where Nancy criticized her daughter's weight and often slapped her in the face in anger.
It was perhaps the only flaw in the Reagans' epic romance. "Their love affair was probably more important than their love for their children," says Nancy's longtime friend Larry King. "The children were secondary to them."
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Nancy and her beloved "Ronnie" were practically inseparable throughout the more than 50 years they spent together as husband and wife – the two romantics even sometimes wrote each other love letters from across the room. "They were so close, sometimes there wasn't even room for the children," says biographer William Novak.
When the former president died in 2004, a sobbing Nancy refused to leave her husband's side, clutching the American flag that had draped his coffin as she cried. "The kids were very gently touching her, saying, 'Let's go, Mom,' " John Barletta, a former Secret Service agent who accompanied Nancy to the funeral, recalls to PEOPLE. "But she didn't want to go."
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For more on Nancy and Ronald Reagan's great American love story, pick up a copy of this week's PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday
"Like any widow, she adjusted," says her friend Betsy Bloomingdale. "But Nancy missed Ronnie terribly and always." Despite a strained past, Nancy saw her children, Patti and son Ronald Jr., "frequently" in her later years, adds Bloomingdale.
Nancy died in her sleep on Sunday – "How she wanted to go," says daughter Patti – just two days after marking what would have been her 64th wedding anniversary. As granddaughter Ashley Reagan wrote on Twitter, "Grandma and Grandpa are together again."
Reporting by KC BAKER, JEFF TRUESDELL and KARA WARNER