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Nancy's Class Act

updated 08/05/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1985 01:00AM

It was clear that she would rather have been with him, at his bedside in Bethesda Naval Hospital. But two days after hearing that the polyp removed from the President's colon was cancerous, Nancy Reagan, 64, was keeping up with her appointed rounds. In a helicopter 25 miles off Ocean City, Md., flying out to the aircraft carrier USS America, she told an aide, "This may be the best therapy for me."

Accompanied by Dr. Richard Davis, 60, the neurosurgeon stepbrother she leaned on for support and comfort during the crisis, the First Lady was learning firsthand about the Navy's antidrug and alcohol-abuse program. It was a long day even by White House standards—filled with the usual tour of the ship, an impromptu press conference, lunch in the mess with the sailors and a seemingly interminable briefing on the Navy's strategies to curb substance abuse. It took the deafening and unexpected blast of a naval gun aboard ship to reveal Nancy's jittery inner state. She flinched, crouched and covered her ears—prompting America's skipper, Capt. Richard Allen, to place his own hands over Mrs. Reagan's ears. When she straightened up, her first words were a plaintive "Where's my brother?" But only once did anyone see Nancy's eyes tear up, and that was to the carrier glee club's rendition of Ain't She Sweet.

For former actress Nancy Reagan, the public appearances during her husband's hospitalization called for her finest performance. The nation saw a model First Lady, anxious, yet straining to keep her composure and for the most part succeeding. "She was fine and never lost her control," says a Nancy-watcher in the White House press corps. "But she has looked drained and at times distracted."

Over the last year, and especially during the President's current bout with colon cancer, it has become apparent that Mrs. Reagan's once negative public image is a thing of the past. No longer is she envisaged as the imperious bird in a gilded cage who, in the midst of the 1981 national recession, decked herself in $950 silk evening pajamas, stocked the White House cupboards with $209,000 worth of china and kept company with such inveterate partygoers as Jerry Zipkin and Betsy Bloomingdale.

This month, when the bad news came, Nancy again showed herself a trouper. Within hours of learning her husband's tumor was malignant, she set her anguish aside to host a reception for 400 members of the diplomatic corps. Shifting easily—perhaps with relief—back to the role of loving wife and mother, she phoned her recuperating husband with the news that son Ron had just landed a job with ABC-TV as an entertainment reporter and packeted a bunch of newspapers to the hospital, writing on the top, "I miss and love my roommate." The public was touched by her courage and devotion to the ailing President, and Nancy Reagan was fully revealed as a poignantly vulnerable human being.

It is not a view she offers easily or often; the facts of her life seem to have conspired to make her a person of reserve. Her natural father, a New Jersey car salesman, left her and her mother, Edith Luckett Robbins, in 1921, just after she was born. When Nancy was 2, Edie, an actress, deposited her with an aunt in Bethesda and took to the road, seeking work. "Face it," says a family friend. "Edie abandoned her. That left marks." It wasn't until 1929, when Edith married Dr. Loyal Davis and reclaimed her 7-year-old daughter, that Nancy had a real home. Edith was raucously funny, equipped with a heart as big as all outdoors. By contrast Davis, a noted Chicago neurosurgeon, was conservative, quiet-spoken and solid. "Edie brought a sense of life into his boring world," says one intimate, "but Nancy always modeled herself after the doctor. He was her first love."

Her second was Ronald Reagan. They were married in March 1952 and the relationship seemed finally to resolve whatever conflicts lingered from Nancy's rootless early life. "I've often said my life really began with Ronnie," she wrote in Nancy, her 1980 autobiography. "What I really wanted out of life was to be a wife to the man I loved and mother to our children. It seems that everything else had just been a prelude to this."

Her children have always placed a distant second to her husband. "She loves young Ron and cried for days after he got married," confides a friend. "But the President has always been her top concern." A close aide to Reagan recalls the days at the governor's mansion in Sacramento: "We'd come in from a long day on the road, and she would be standing at the door looking wonderful. A drink was ready in the living room, the house was in order and she had the cook prepare a wonderful low-calorie meal. Her entire attention was on him and his comforts."

That single-pointed focus made it all the more painful to her when, as the President was endearing himself to the nation as a Man of the People, she was criticized as "Queen Nancy." In due course, concerns with appearances were eclipsed by matters of substance: the horror of the assassination attempt, the death of her father in 1982, the specter of her own cancer when a "potential trouble spot" was removed from her upper lip. By 1983 she was down from a size 6 to a size 4, her weight falling to 104 pounds, which made her look anorexic. Her friends feared she was near collapse. One said at the time, "She's not ill, just in a deep depression. Also, she has to deal with her mother, who is senile. They were never close. It was Loyal Davis that she really loved and she still hasn't gotten over his death."

As public opinion on Nancy shifted, critical stories about the First Lady gave way to plaudits for her commitment to the Foster Grandparents Program—a voluntary child-care organization—and her antidrug campaign, which has taken her 70,000 miles to 47 cities in 27 states. Drug abuse among school children had been an interest of hers years ago in California. "Her friends' children—and a child of her own—were involved with drugs," an acquaintance explains. "She talked about the subject constantly back then and wanted to get involved." Several aides argued that drugs were "too hot" a topic and that in any case Betty Ford had already made the most of it. But Nancy persisted, making her first extensive trip to drug facilities in February 1982. "Initially I was unsure if her visit was a political move," remembers George Belitsos of Youth and Shelter Services in Ames, Iowa. "But after seeing her with the kids I was convinced that she was sincere." Indeed, Nancy's high-profile presence has produced impressive results—raising funds, attracting volunteers and increasing understanding of the problem.

Withal, Nancy's friends are concerned about her. They say she has not had a good night's sleep since the President's cancer was diagnosed. "Having him in the hospital," says her former press secretary, Sheila Tate, "gave her a sense of being alone. At critical times she has a tendency to pull inward. She never falls apart. Hers is a controlled sadness." It's so controlled, in fact, says her good friend Mary Jane Wick, wife of USIA director Charles Z. Wick, that when she does talk about the President's condition, she will only say "how much this illness is going to improve public awareness and how millions of Americans will get medical examinations."

She may not display the strength of an Eleanor Roosevelt or the candor of a Betty Ford but grant her this: Nancy Reagan is a plucky First Lady.

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