Finally at Ease in Her Unchosen Role as First Daughter, Patti Davis Makes Her Theatrical Debut

updated 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When New York actresses Susan Bigelow and Marsha Korb landed their roles in a summer-stock production of Vanities at the Cherry County Playhouse in Traverse City, Mich. (pop. 15,516), they were elated. But the euphoria changed to skepticism when they learned their co-star in the three-woman play would be Patti Davis, President Reagan's 30-year-old daughter. First off, Susan and Marsha were seasoned pros with credits on Broadway and in regional theater. Patti's experience consisted mostly of minor parts in movies and on TV. This would be her debut in legitimate theater. Besides, says Susan, "We expected her to be little Ms. President. You know—snotty, overdressed and affected."

They needn't have worried. As First Daughters go, this one is a definite free spirit. Last year, while her father was sounding the cry for a strong nuclear defense, Patti was busy appearing at antinuke rallies. She's lived with the Eagles' guitarist, Bernie Leadon, and has had a highly publicized fling with actor Peter Strauss. She's also, as they say, heavily into yoga, vegetarianism and jogging. Much to their delight, her co-stars have discovered Patti to be "a fascinating person—so open and caring," says Marsha. They also found her out-front in that California kind of way. When the three went to buy cheap, heart-shaped pins for the special men in their lives, Susan and Marsha purchased one apiece. Patti bought six.

As for her acting ability, Susan says, "we were amazed." The critic for the Grand Rapids Press had to admit, "Patti is a competent little actress."

"I wasn't nervous at all on opening night," says Patti, curled up in an armchair in her Traverse City hotel room. "I made up my mind I was going to do the best I could and not let my nerves get in the way."

Still, she was concerned about the subject matter of the play, which details the lives and loves of three high school cheerleaders in Texas. In the third act, Patti finds herself the owner of an erotic art gallery where the masterwork is a neon-lit, six-foot-tall phallus.

Her qualms, however, had to do with what the audience might think, not her parents. "I make my own decisions as an actress," she says flatly, "just as my father does as President." During the show's preview, her parents sent a good luck telegram from the White House. "They might have come if the show were going to run longer than two weeks," says Patti. "But they are sensitive about upstaging either my brother Ronnie or me. If they came, it would become their show."

It is the Reagans' high-profile "show" that Patti has distanced herself from over the years. While her father was Governor of California, she adopted her mother's maiden name. Patti had no illusions that she'd go unrecognized, "but in my fantasy I wanted to get recognition for my own work. Like people would say, 'Incidentally, do you know who she really is?' " In the long waits between acting gigs, her quest for selfhood led to a number of hostessing and waitressing jobs as well as a stint for Hugh Hefner in the catering service at his Playboy Mansion West in Beverly Hills. (No bunny costume, thank you, and entrance by the rear door only.)

"I made it a little too hard on myself," Patti admits now. "That was my stubbornness and rebelliousness. These days I'm more open and accepting of what comes into my life."

That transition was accompanied by no little pain. And ironically, it was her father's election that brought it about. "I dreaded his getting elected," Davis recalls. "I said I couldn't handle that—and I didn't. Right after the inauguration I got really sick. I couldn't breathe and had to be taken to the hospital emergency ward. It was stress. My whole body went into shock."

Though she recovered after a week of bed rest at home, the brush with nervous collapse forced her to take stock of herself. In the process, Patti says she realized that "things come into my life for a reason and I can handle this—or anything else—and grow as a person."

One of the more unwelcome things coming into her life recently has been the scuttlebutt that the relationship between Patti and her mother is, at best, icy. "This is just a pack of lies," says Davis, eyes welling with tears. "I wish the press would stop picking on my mother. She has very independent children. My parents are tolerant and accepting of us."

Particularly appalling to Patti is "that stuff about not being asked to the White House. It's ridiculous. I can go there anytime I want—but it's not my world. I enjoy seeing them more in California on the ranch. It's more private."

Life on the road is remarkably similar to the life Patti leads at home in her one-bedroom bungalow in Santa Monica. She jogs five or six miles per day and is dutifully followed by several of the nine Secret Service agents assigned to her—which led to an incident worthy of the Keystone Kops in Traverse City. Seems the locals got suspicious about this pretty girl being tailed by all those hulking guys. So they called the Traverse City Police, who wanted to bust the Secret Service men—until the agents showed the proper ID. Seems that to avoid pressure, Patti insisted there be no advance publicity. "The real Patti Davis," insists the woman who is nothing if not independent, "is no different than anyone else."

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