Ronald Reagan & Nancy Davis

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

It became known simply as "the gaze," that long, adoring look she directed toward her husband whenever Ronald Reagan stood to give a speech. Whether he was addressing his fellow members of the Screen Actors Guild or a joint session of Congress, Nancy was always there, eyes uplifted, pride radiating out of every pore. "Some of the reporters who wrote about me felt that our marriage was at least partly an act," the former First Lady wrote in her 1989 autobiography, My Turn. "But it wasn't—and it isn't."

Indeed, when it came to their love for each other, Ron and Nancy never had to pretend. They had "probably the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency," says their friend Charlton Heston. "You can't be around them for half an hour and not recognize the absolutely genuine total concern each has for the other."

At the White House, the two seldom walked together without holding hands and regularly had their dinner sent to their living quarters on trays so they could catch up on each other's day. "Absolutely the first thing he did every night when he came upstairs to the residence was talk to Nancy," remembers Sheila Tate, the former First Lady's press secretary. "He enjoyed just being with her."

That was equally evident on the campaign trail, where their goodbye kisses evoked blushes from even the most hard-bitten observers. "We would turn aside because we felt that there was something very special and private and wonderful going on between the two of them," recalls Chris Wallace, then an NBC White House correspondent.

When they couldn't be together, Ron left love notes on Nancy's desk, often signing them I.T.W.W.W., "as in 'I love you more than anything in the whole wide world' " Nancy would say. And on her birthday he sent flowers to her mother—"to thank her for giving birth" to his wife.

For his birthday and their anniversary, Nancy purchased as many as 10 cards and scattered them around their private quarters for him to find throughout the day. "They never took each other for granted," says Elaine Crispen, who succeeded Tate as Nancy's press secretary. "They never stopped courting."

Throughout their marriage, Reagan liked to explain his devotion to Nancy by quoting a line from his 1952 movie The Winning Team: "God must think a lot of me to have given me you." But their meeting probably had less to do with divine intervention than with Nancy herself.

As a 26-year-old starlet in Hollywood in 1949, Nancy was distressed to see her then-name, Nancy Davis, on a list of Communist sympathizers. Though her studio, MGM, promptly placed an item in a gossip column noting that she was not that Nancy Davis, the future 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. "He seemed nice and good-looking—someone I thought I'd like to meet," she would later write.

Nancy cajoled a director friend, Mervyn LeRoy, 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.

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).

Though parenthood proved difficult for the Reagans (Patti, Michael and Maureen have all been estranged from the couple at various times but have since reconciled), Nancy never let family strife or outside pressures come between her and her husband. "She's a nest builder and defender of her own," Ron would say when critics sniped at her fierce guardianship of him. "If you've seen a picture of a bear rearing up on its hind legs when its mate or one of its cubs is in danger, you have a pretty good idea of how Nancy responds."

"Nancy never believed that marriage was a 50-50 partnership," recalls Tate. "She thought it was more often 80-20, with sometimes one, then the other giving the 80 percent."

In recent months, of course, Nancy has had to give even more. Since the former President's diagnosis of Alzheimer's, she has been managing what she has called his "long goodbye." Every day, she makes sure he dresses in a coat and tie and spends several hours in his office on the grounds of their Bel Air, Calif., estate. She has also strictly forbidden all photographs, to protect his privacy. "It's awfully tough on her," says Chris Wallace. "This is the man she has centered her life on for 40 years, and she is seeing his decline." Yet her commitment is steadfast. "He is her hero, she is his heroine. They are devoted to one another," says Nancy's friend Aileen Mehle, the Women's Wear Daily columnist known as Suzy. "And especially now, Nancy is devotion itself."

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