On Her Own Terms

updated 05/15/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the third of PEOPLE'S series on the five surviving former First Ladies, we profile Betty Ford, now 82, wife of Gerald Ford, 86, the 38th President. Once hopeful of becoming a famous dancer, she would instead build a legacy as a survivor of addiction and cancer who helped thousands deal with the same problems that shadowed her life.

Late one April morning in 1978, still in her pink bathrobe, Betty Ford sat bewildered on the living room couch of her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Minutes earlier she had cheerfully greeted her oldest son, Michael, and his wife, Gayle, at the front door. Betty hadn't been feeling well in recent weeks and assumed they had made the unannounced visit to see how she was doing. But then her husband and the rest of her children filed in, joined by Capt. Joe Pursch, a Navy doctor who Betty knew headed the Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service at Long Beach, Calif. "When she saw the concern on their faces, she suspected that something was up.

One by one, members of her family revealed how her drinking and prescription-drug abuse had made them hesitant to bring friends home, as well as reluctant to share confidences, since she wouldn't remember them the next day. "What struck really deeply," recalls Betty, "was when Michael and Gayle said they wanted to have children but wanted a grandmother who could hold them and love them and that they could depend on."

Today, Betty Ford happily notes that she has long since conquered her habit of using hard liquor to wash down pills prescribed for a pinched nerve in her neck, arthritis and sleeplessness. All the better to savor her reputation as one of the past century's most dynamic and beloved First Ladies. Inspired by the example of Eleanor Roosevelt, Ford spoke out passionately in support of political causes sometimes at odds with those of her husband's Republican Party—notably the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion. But unlike any First Lady before her, she also connected with Americans on a personal level by sharing her most intimate travails. Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony characterizes Ford as the godmother of the recovery movement that has swept the nation over the past two decades. "She transformed the political landscape," he says, "by demonstrating that you don't lose strength or dignity by admitting that you're human and have all the attributes and deficiencies that go with it." Ford acknowledged that she had sought the advice of a psychiatrist to help ease the burdens of being a political wife and mother. And after she was diagnosed with a malignant breast lump and underwent a radical mastectomy just two months after her husband was sworn in as President, she spared the public no detail of the ordeal. In the process, she gave women hope that, if diagnosed early, they too could survive breast cancer.

Ford is most celebrated, however, for revealing her addictions and devoting her life to helping others battle theirs. Founding the 80-bed Betty Ford Center just minutes from her home in Rancho Mirage, she became not just a guiding spirit but even an informal one-on-one counselor. Since the center opened in 1982, 39,000 patients have passed through its doors—two-thirds of whom have remained sober after treatment. Elizabeth Taylor, one of the center's most famous patients, credits its success directly to Ford: "She speaks as one recovering alcoholic to another. There are no airs about her being First Lady." Architect Barbara Littman, a patient in 1987, remembers bumping into Ford one day. "She's very accessible," says Littman, 57. "She makes it clear that she's right in there with us trying to deal with a disease that needs care. I felt if she could do it, I could, and that unequivocally changed my life."

Ford seems almost grudgingly aware of her place in history. "From what I read," she says, "I think I made my mark on the First Lady position." She is quick to add that playing advocate can have its pitfalls. Of Hillary Clinton she says, "Unfortunately she got off to a bad start with that medical program. But I think she's very bright, very able." Though she won't make political endorsements, Ford defends Clinton's candidacy for the U.S. Senate in New York.

"If she wants to run for office, that's her privilege," she says. "But I think it's doubly difficult to try to fill the role of a First Lady and a candidate."

Ford never planned on being either, though even as a young woman she thought she might someday be famous. Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer in Chicago on April 8, 1918, she was the third child and only daughter of conveyor-belt salesman William Stephenson Bloomer and his wife, Hortense Neahr Bloomer. Her mother used to say that little Betty popped out of a bottle of champagne: From the start she was spirited and energetic, and her childhood in Grand Rapids, where the family settled, was mostly sunny until she was 16, when her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on his car.

From the age of 8, the little girl had a passion for dance. She even passed up college for two summers of dance school in Vermont and a stint with the Martha Graham troupe in New York City. Graham, a pioneer in modern choreography and a firm believer in women's rights, profoundly influenced the young part-time model. "You don't study dance with Martha Graham and not come away affected," says Ann Cullen, Ford's assistant from 1979 to 1996. In her 20s, Ford, urged by her mother, returned to Grand Rapids. She married salesman Bill Warren in 1942, but the two divorced five years later. About that time, Gerald Ford, a college football hero turned lawyer, persuaded Betty to meet him for a beer. They wed the following year, and within a month, Jerry was elected to Congress.

Thus began Betty Ford's life as a political wife, a role she imagined would consist of more parts glamorous hostess than left-behind housewife. But with a growing family to care for—four children in seven years—Betty often found herself sidelined. "There wasn't a resentment per se," she says, "because I knew Jerry was doing what he loved, but I felt a little left in the shadows." In fact, Gerald lived for politics, serving in Congress for 24 years before being named Vice President by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned amid a scandal over kickbacks he'd received as governor of Maryland.

Early on, living in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., with Jerry and the children—Michael, now 50 and associate dean of students at Wake Forest University; Jack, 48, who runs a shopping-center kiosk business; Steven, 43, an actor; and Susan Ford Bales, 42, a board member at the Betty Ford Center—Betty filled her days with childrearing and housekeeping. But she admits that her husband's rise, coupled with her own failed dance career, caused feelings of inadequacy that in the mid-'60s led to increased drinking. What's more, she began mixing alcohol with prescription drugs. By 1965, fantasizing about driving off somewhere just to make the family worry, she snapped. It was then that Betty started seeing a psychiatrist.

Though she never doubted that her husband was the right man to be President, she describes Aug. 9,1974, the day he took the oath of office following Richard Nixon's resignation, as "the saddest day of my life, because of what our country was going through and all the people affected by Watergate." She also told Jerry she would fulfill all the duties of First Lady, but in her own way. "I did not plan to fit into a mold," she says. "I've always been independent."

Which meant that she would freely speak out in support of a woman's right to abortion, equal pay and higher positions in government. "I'm not combative," says Betty, "but I don't beat around the bush." Some critics suggested she was a political liability for her husband. "I remember a pollster coming into a meeting once after my mom really started opening her mouth," says Susan, "and he said, 'Because of your wife, we've lost 20 points in the polls.' Dad didn't care. He didn't always agree on issues with my mom, but his feeling was, 'That's Betty and that's fine.' " Actually the former President is the first to praise his wife's candor. "Her honesty has always been one of the qualities about her that I love," he says.

At the time of Betty's breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent mastectomy, many women's health issues were still hush-hush subjects. "It's hard to grasp how courageous it was for her to be open about her condition in those times," says Richard Norton Smith, director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids. So many women rushed to get mammograms following Betty's revelation that the reported incidence of the disease actually rose, with researchers referring to the blip as the Betty Ford phenomenon. In fact her stature grew immeasurably because she spoke out. During the 1976 presidential campaign, supporters wore buttons reading, "Elect Betty's Husband." Though she worked enthusiastically for Jerry's election, when he was defeated by Jimmy Carter she greeted Susan with the news, "You kids got a father back, and I got a husband back."

When the Fords retired in 1977, leaving Washington and heading for Rancho Mirage, Betty envisioned a comfortable and quiet life. But that picture changed radically after her family confronted her with concerns about her drinking and drug use. After a month in the Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service at Long Beach, Ford was released and was besieged with calls and letters from people with similar problems. "People wanted to know how in the world I'd done it," she says. "I realized there was a need and that I could help people just by sharing my experience and showing how my recovery changed my life." Soon, Ford and her neighbor, tire mogul Leonard Firestone, were raising money for an alcohol treatment facility at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. When the board asked Betty to lend her name to the facility, she balked at first. "This is a chronic disease," she says. "What if I couldn't stay sober?"

But she did. Today, hardly a decision is made at the Betty Ford Center without her input. "Her feeling is, her name is on that building and she doesn't want anything to go wrong," says Ann Cullen. "She teases her husband that he only made it to President, and she's the chairman of the board." Both Fords have talked about slowing down soon. But Jerry recently offered to help out in the coming presidential election, and Betty has yet to turn over her position at the center to Susan, who has been designated to take over for her mother when the time comes. The Fords gather regularly at their vacation retreat in Beaver Creek, Colo., with their children, seven grandchildren, old friends and Happy, their cocker spaniel. When they're home alone, Betty and Jerry eat dinner side by side on TV trays, watch Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and play heated games of gin rummy. "We enjoy just being together," she says. In fact, of all her accomplishments, she is most proud of the success of their marriage, which will reach the 52-year milestone this fall. "We were very much in love when we married and still are," she says. "We knew there were going to be rough spots, and I do believe getting through those things strengthens the togetherness."

Not that Betty is beyond having fun. A few Christmases ago she decided to put a photo of her and Jerry, wearing leather jackets and straddling a Harley, on their Christmas card. The former President objected and a compromise was reached. "About 50 of their close friends got the photo," says Richard Norton Smith. "Everybody else got something else." Sometimes, say friends, Betty's humor gets downright bawdy. "She tells filthy jokes she hears at the beauty parlor," says Cullen, "and half the time she has to explain them to her husband because he doesn't get them."

Meanwhile she is regularly summoned to the duty that has become her calling in life. "More than once a week," says daughter Susan, "she'll get a call from the center. She'll drop whatever it is she's doing, rush over, take the hand of usually a 60ish woman who thinks she shouldn't be there or there isn't hope for her, sit on her bed and walk her through her own story." Invariably she will say, "I'm 82. I've been clean and sober for over 20 years, and they've been the best years of my life."

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