Forged of Hidden Steel

updated 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PAT NIXON NEVER LIKED THE OIL PAINTING that serves as her official White House portrait. It shows an enigmatic woman in an ice-blue dress gazing at her unseen audience with a haunted expression. The picture, she told her daughter Julie, "makes me look too sad."

It was consistent, though, with the way much of America saw this former First Lady, the wife of the only President to be driven from office under threat of impeachment. When, after years of failing health, she died of lung cancer on June 22 at the age of 81 at her Park Ridge, N.J., home, she remained a kind of tragic figure to those who knew her only as the woman who had stood for so many years at Richard Nixon's side, his erratic fortunes perfectly reflected in her face. Pal Nixon had been, so the conventional wisdom went, the perfect political accessory. But to those who knew her, she was much, much more.

In private she was the shoulder everyone leaned on. "Throughout all our ordeals. Pat has been stronger than I," her husband told The Washington Times last year. "Without Pat, I would not have made it." Indeed, Pat was very tough; she believed her husband should have fought impeachment—and that he should have burned the damning While House tapes that helped force him from office.

She could also be surprising. She was, after all, the most widely traveled First Lady in history and the first to visit a combat zone, when she journeyed with her husband to Vietnam in 1969. "She may not have been a bra-burning, jeans-wearing First Lady, but she was the first First Lady to say the word 'abortion in the context of being pro-choice, and she was the first First Lady to publicly call for a woman on the Supreme Court," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1961-1990. "Pat was more like Hillary Clinton than Nancy Reagan, although the perception is the opposite."

Too often the public read Pat's love of privacy and family as passivity, her dignity as plastic. Perhaps it was a problem of context—after the glamor of Jackie and the activism of Lady Bird, Pat's less obvious strengths were overlooked. Of course, compared with the dark and driven Dick Nixon, nearly anyone might have seemed a pale shadow.

During the personal ordeal of the Watergate era, many wondered how—or why—Pat stayed loyally at her husband's side. Those people forgot the First Lady's toughening roots, a hardscrabble early life filled with heartache. She was born Thelma Catherine Ryan on Saint Patrick's Day eve—hence her nickname, which she later legalized—in Ely, Nev. Her father, William Ryan, was a miner, and her German-born mother, Kate, a widow with two children from a previous marriage. The family soon moved to tiny Artesia, Calif., near Los Angeles, where William struggled as a farmer, drank heavily and fought with his wife.

When Pat was 13, Kate died of liver cancer, leaving her to keep house for her lather and two older brothers. Four years later, William succumbed to black lung disease. Pat held a series of jobs, including Hollywood extra and X-ray technician. Working 40 hours a week, she still managed to graduate from USC with honors. "I hate complainers. Pat said years later. "And I made up my mind not to be one."

Having landed a comfortable spot leaching business-related subjects at a high school in Whittier, Calif., Pat was in no hurry to settle down with the intense young lawyer who began talking marriage the very night she met him at an amateur theater audition. But after two years of a courtship so ardent that her suitor chauffeured her to dates with other men just to be near her, she finally said yes to Richard Milhous Nixon.

Together the couple embarked on three decades of public life that would take Nixon to Congress, two terms as Vice President and, finally, after painful defeats in races for the presidency and California's governorship, to the While House. Though it was a role she never wanted, Pat played the part of adoring political wife to perfection. Privately, however, she was reportedly mortified by her husband's maudlin Checkers speech during his run for the vice presidency in 1952, when Nixon countered charges he had profited from a political-expense fund by pleading genteel poverty and noting that Pat had only a ""respectable Republican cloth coat." It was one of Pats worst moments until August 1974, when she and her disgraced husband left the White House for what promised to be an ignominious exile.

It was not. Away from the unwelcome spotlight, she was at last able to enjoy the private pleasures of family and garden after recovering from the stroke she suffered in 1976. Pat watched daughter Julie, now 45, and her husband. David Eisenhower, 46, who live in Berwyn, Pa., with their children, Jennie, 14, Alex, 12, and Melanie, 9, publish well-received memoirs about their famous relatives. And she visited frequently with daughter Tricia, 47, who followed in her mother's footsteps as a gracious hostess, in the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, attorney Edward Cox, 46, and son Christopher, 14.

Most satisfying of all, Pal saw something she never anticipated in her lifetime: the political rehabilitation of Richard Nixon. "If I had a choice," she told PEOPLE in 1975, "I'd rather be admired less and have my husband tormented less. I'd prefer that people concentrate on a fair assessment of him and his presidency."

Tributes to Pat poured in as the family prepared for her funeral on June 26 at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. But one of the most meaningful salutes came while Pat was able to savor it. In her 1986 book, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, Julie Eisenhower tells about a surprise her mother gave the students at Patricia Nixon Elementary School in her California hometown the year after her stroke. The gift was a wishing well with a plaque reading May All Your Good Wishes Come True. "Despite the blows of life," her daughter wrote, "Patricia Nixon is still a romantic and a dreamer of dreams."

PAM LAMBERT
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City, CAROLYN KRAMER, SANDRA MCELWAINE and SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

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