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First Lady Biography: Nancy Reagan
ANNE FRANCES "NANCY" ROBBINS DAVIS REAGAN
6 July 1921
Sloane Hospital, Flushing, Queens, New York
*Nancy Reagan was the ninth of ten First Ladies born in New York, the "mother state" of presidential wives; the others were Elizabeth Monroe, Hannah Van Buren, Julia Tyler, Abigail Fillmore, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, Frances Cleveland, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy and Barbara Bush.
*Nancy Reagan's godmother was the famous actress Alla Nazimova
Kenneth Seymour Robbins, born 23 February 1894, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, used car salesman; married secondly, Patricia Brinckerhoff Cross in 1928; died, 2 February 1972, New Jersey
Edith P. Luckett, born 16 July 1888, Washington, D.C.; married first to Kenneth Robbins, 27 June 1916; married secondly to Loyal Davis, 20 May 1929; worked after marriage as actress, playing a socialite and a maid on an NBC radio soap opera program "The Betty and Bob Show." A Democrat, she was a close friend of Chicago mayor Ed Kelley; died, 26 October 1987, Phoenix, Arizona.
* Living to 99 years old, Edith Davis was the longest-living mother of a First Lady
Nancy Reagan's parents divorced 23 February 1928; Edith Luckett resumed her theatrical career and sent her daughter to the home of her sister Virginia and her husband Audley Galbraith who raised her in their Bethesda, Maryland home. Nancy Reagan made visits to her mother whenever she was in New York for a lengthy theater run. Edith Luckett married a second time to Loyal Davis, neurosurgeon on 21 May 1929; she and her daughter moved to his home in Chicago.
Adoptive Father: In 1935, Nancy Robbins was adopted by neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, born 17 January 1896, Galesburg, Illinois; Nancy Reagan considered Davis to be her true "father." He was Professor of Surgery and then Professor Emeritus, at Northwestern University; died 19 August 1983, Scottsdale, Arizona
*Nancy Reagan is the only First Lady who was legally adopted by her mother's second husband, her birth father having ceded his legal title to her parenthood; although the widowed mothers of Abigail Fillmore, Eliza Johnson and Betty Ford remarried, none of their daughters were legally adopted by their stepfathers; the divorced mother of Jacqueline Kennedy remarried but her daughter was not legally adopted by her stepfather; the widowed mother of Frances Cleveland did not remarry until after her daughter was of adult age; the widowed fathers of Ida McKinley, Florence Harding, Lady Bird Johnson and Barbara Bush did not remarry until after their daughters were of adult age.
English, Spanish; The most recent of Nancy Reagan's ancestors to immigrate to the United States was eight generations before her, in the line of her paternal grandmother, John Moseley, born in Dorchester, England in 1638. All of her traced ancestors came from England. On a presidential state visit to Spain during which she tried a few flamenco dance steps, Mrs. Reagan told Washington Post reporter Donnie Radcliffe that there was a claim of Spanish ancestors in her family tree.
Nancy Reagan is an only child. She has a stepbrother, Richard Davis (born 1927), from the first marriage of her adoptive father Loyal Davis.
5' 4", brown hair, hazel eyes
Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C. 1925-1928; Girl's Latin School, Chicago, Illinois, 1929-1939; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1939-1943, bachelor's degree in dramatic arts
Occupation before Marriage:
After graduating from college, Nancy Reagan worked as a sales clerk in the Marshall Fields Department store in Chicago, and then as a nurse's aide, also in Chicago. Through her mother's friends in the acting profession, Nancy Reagan received a non-speaking role in the touring company of Ramshackle Inn, and the play eventually came to Broadway. Nancy Reagan settled in New York and landed a minor role in the musical Lute Song, starring Yul Brynner and Mary Martin. In 1949, after a successful screen test, Nancy Reagan accepted a seven-year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, moved to Hollywood, California, and performed in the first of her eleven feature films, The Doctor and the Girl.
30 years old, married 6 March 1952 to Ronald Reagan (born 6 February 1911, Tampico, Illinois, died 5 June 2004, Los Angeles, California), Screen Actors Guild president, film and television actor, former radio sports announcer at the Little Brown Church, North Hollywood. After a honeymoon at the Mission Inn, in Riverside, California and Phoenix, Arizona, the Reagans lived in a series of homes, settling in a modern home in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles, built and provided for by General Electric, the company for whom Ronald Reagan served as a national spokesman. The GE house was outfitted with all of the company's state-of-the-art technology.
Husband's First Marriage:
Ronald Reagan first married on 26 January 1940, January 26 to Sarah Jane Mayfield, known professionally as "Jane Wyman" ( born 5 January 1917, died 10 September 2007)
One son, one daughter; Patricia Ann Reagan ("Patti Davis"), born 21 October 1952; Ronald Prescott Reagan, born 20 May 1958
Stepchildren: From Ronald Reagan's marriage to Jane Wyman; Maureen Reagan, born 4 January 1941, died 8 August 2001; Michael Reagan, born 18 March 1945 (adopted)
Occupation after Marriage:
While her husband struggled for acting work, including a short stint as a Las Vegas performer, Nancy Reagan assumed the full-time work of mother and homemaker. She made three films after her marriage. Her last film, at Columbia in 1956, was Hellcats of the Navy, in which she and her husband appeared together. During Reagan's two terms as California Governor, she adopted several causes, including the welfare of returned and wounded Vietnam War veterans, fundraising and lobbying efforts on behalf of those Vietnam War servicemen who were either Prisoners of War or Missing In Action. As California's First Lady, she wrote a syndicated column and donated her salary to the National League of Families of American POW-MIA. She also regularly visited state institutions that cared for the elderly and physically and emotionally handicapped children; after observing a program that successfully brought these groups together as a form of therapy, the "Foster Grandparent Program," she promoted it throughout California and, eventually, the nation.
Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:
Although Nancy Reagan preferred to campaign with her husband rather than on her own, during the 1980 primaries she began to make her own appearances and make remarks that reflected her husband's views on issues; it reflected a growing role of candidates' spouses and was similar to the one Rosalynn Carter was simultaneously playing in the primaries. In the 1984 presidential campaign, Nancy Reagan was especially helpful during the last of a several televised debates. After concluding that the President had done poorly in a previous debate, she urged his advisors to ask him to memorize endless statistics. They did as she suggested and he proved more effective in the ensuing debate.
Inauguration day 1981 was the first one held on the west front of the Capitol Building, a decision favored by the Reagans since it meant the ceremony was facing the rest of the nation, as opposed to those of the past which faced towards the Atlantic Ocean. Media attention focused on the high cost of tickets to attend the 1981 Inauguration Ball and other invitation-only events, contrasting it with the 1977 Carter Inaugural which had more public events than any in previous history and Inaugural Ball tickets selling for $25 to guests. However, tickets to the 1981 Reagan Inaugural Ball were of comparative cost to those before the 1977 Carter Inaugural Ball.
Inauguration day 1985 marked two swearing-in ceremonies, neither of which were held on the Capitol Building steps; the first was traditionally considered "private" since it fell on a Sunday was held in the Grand Foyer of the White House and the "public" one held the following day was forced inside the Capitol Building Rotunda due to extremely cold temperatures, the first ever held at that site. Although the Reagans did not follow the Carter precedent of walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1981 or 1985, it was a tradition that was resumed by their successors.
1981, January 20 - 1989, January 20
59 years old
When Nancy Reagan first became First Lady, her focus was on creating a home in the White House; rather than use government funds to redecorate as well as renovate the floors, doors and other hardware, she sought private funds to underwrite the work. In preparation for the required entertaining, she also carefully tested the meals that were to be served and also told U.S. New & World Report that she hoped to have new china ordered since there had been much breakage in the fifteen years since the Johnson set had been inaugurated. Rather than being purchased with federal appropriations, the cost of the new china set was entirely underwritten by the private Knapp Foundation. The combination of the redecorating, new china set, more formalized entertaining style than the Carters, in addition to her attendance at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana of England in 1981, and her acceptance of free clothing from designers (thus unwittingly violating the new Ethics in Government Act of 1978) led to the creation of a public relations dilemma. Contrasted in print and broadcast news with the 1981 economic recession, high unemployment and homeless families, the so-called "Queen Nancy" caricature was created and even occasionally invoked by Democrats as a means of criticizing the Administration. In addition, much as there had been some suggestion of a regional bias against LBJ's Texan background and the Carters' rural background in the national media, there was suggestion of one against the Reagans' southern California ties and entertainment industry careers.
With her intended work on the house and the patterns set for entertaining completed, Nancy Reagan began to focus in mid-1982 on the public issues and projects about which she intended to raise consciousness. Although she continued her support of the Foster Grandparents program, Nancy Reagan’s primary project was promotion of drug education and prevention programs for children and young adults. To this end, she traveled nearly 250,000 miles throughout the U.S. and several nations to visit prevention programs and rehabilitation centers to talk with young people and their parents, appeared on television talk shows, taped public service announcements, and wrote guest articles. At one California school, when Nancy Reagan had asked the children what the best and most immediate response should be when they were offered drugs, there were shouts of "just say no." The catch-phrase "just say no" soon proliferated through the popular culture of the 1980's, eventually adopted as the name of a loose organization of clubs formed in grammar, middle and high schools in which young people pledged not to experiment with harmful drugs. In April 1985 Mrs. Reagan expanded her drug awareness campaign to an international level by inviting the wives of world leaders to attend a White House conference she hosted on youth drug abuse. In October of that year, during the U.N.'s 40th anniversary, she hosted thirty international First Ladies for a second such gathering. When President Reagan signed the October 27, 1986 "National Crusade for a Drug Free America" anti-drug abuse bill into law, she considered it a personal victory and made an unprecedented joint address to the nation with him on the problem. In October 1988, she became the first First Lady to address the U.N. General Assembly, speaking on international drug interdiction and trafficking laws.
Perhaps Nancy Reagan's largest and most important work as First Lady, however, was her role as the President's personal protector. Part of this role grew out of the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt on his life. Forever afterwards, Nancy Reagan made it her concern to know his schedule: in what public venues would he be speaking, before what groups, at what time, as well as with whom he would be privately meeting. In time, her concern to protect her husband's personal well-being led her to consult an astrologer to attempt to discern precisely what days and at what times would be optimum for safety and success, and which slots were to be avoided because of potential dangers as reflected in the astrological readings. Both Reagans admitted that the President had a tendency to trust all those who worked for him, while the First Lady tended to perceive those who, in her words, might "end run him," essentially using their positions to further their personal careers or agendas rather than that of the President and the Administration. The President's long-time aide Michael Deaver also served as a trusted and important advisor to Nancy Reagan and he often approached her when he felt a problem might be developing. Nancy Reagan effectively supported decisions to replace various personnel, including the likes of National Security Council member William P. Clark, and the hiring of others such as Secretary of State George Schultz.
After Nancy Reagan witnessed the bold control exercised by Chief of Staff Donald Regan following President Reagan's 1985 cancer surgery, and then the fall-out he generated in mishandling the Administration's reaction to the Iran-Contra scandal, she felt that the President would be better served with a replacement. However, she was one among many who felt this way, including those working in the Administration and national media, from Vice President George H. Bush to Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Many of these figures would not bring their concern directly to the President, but rather to his wife. The ensuing media firestorm of exaggerated and unfair attribution of her influence was prompted by New York Times columnist William Safire’s March 1987 critique of her prerogatives and characterization of her as "an incipient Edith Wilson." The deposed Chief of Staff reacted by publishing a sensational memoir in which he disclosed her request that astrology be used in the president's official scheduling; no such personal revelations had previously been cast against an incumbent First Lady before to the degree that they were by Regan.
Although Nancy Reagan rarely ventured into specific policy, it was she who defied the conventional wisdom in the Reagan Administration State Department to promote the idea of the President forming first a personal relationship with the new Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev when he assumed power in 1985. She did so she recalled, simply because it made no sense to her that the two leaders were not at least in open dialogue with one another. The resulting friendship and then political negotiations resulted in the 1987 INF Treaty, which called for a mutual destruction of intermediate range nuclear missiles. The treaty proved to be a crowning moment for the Administration and was later considered by many to be an important step in the end of Soviet communism and the shift to democracy of several Soviet satellite nations. Nancy Reagan's devotion to seeing this through, as well as other aspects of her husband's legacy were made all the more dramatic in light of the fact that she underwent breast cancer surgery and shortly thereafter endured the death of her mother, all just prior to the treaty signing.
After publishing her memoirs entitled My Turn, in 1989, she established the Nancy Reagan Foundation, to support educational drug prevention after-school programs; it merged with the Best Foundation for a Drug-Free Tomorrow, out of which emerged the Nancy Reagan Afterschool Program, a drug prevention and life-skills program for youth. When her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994, they together let their name in support of the Ronald & Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago, Illinois for research into the illness, an affiliate of the National Alzheimer’s Association. Over the next decade her public activities were largely limited to the Los Angeles area, since she was the primary caregiver to the former president. One notable exception was the 1996 Republican National Convention in nearby San Diego, California, thus making her only the second former First Lady - and the first of her party - to do so (see "Post-Presidential Life" for Eleanor Roosevelt). After former President Reagan's death in June 2004, she became an outspoken public advocate for stem cell research, a scientific effort that promised hope for patients of Alzheimer's and other illnesses, despite the fact that her view was in direct opposition to that of the incumbent Republican president. She resides in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, California.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan has remained highly active in both public and private. She engages in a full life with her friends and family in California, despite a 2008 fall requiring hospitalization, from which she fully recovered. She has grown especially close to her daughter Patti Davis, as poignantly recounted in the latter’s 2009 book, The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us.
Nancy Reagan’s primary focus as a presidential widow has been to bring public attention to the legacy of her late husband. In July of 2007, Mrs. Reagan accepted the government of Poland’s most distinguished honorary recognition, the Order of the White Eagle, which was given in memory of her husband. Two years later, she was awarded an honorary degree from Ronald Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College. In June of 2009, she returned to Washington, D.C. for the unveiling ceremony of a statue of former President Reagan that was placed in the U.S. Capitol Building. She has been especially active in planning for his 2011 centennial, seated with President Obama in the White House as he signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act. She also presided over a ceremony marking the 2010 unveiling of a US postage stamp to be issued in commemoration of the centennial, and has helped to plan the Reagan Library’s numerous events for the centennial year.
As a former First Lady of the United States and yet a symbol of her late husband’s party, Mrs. Reagan has also successfully managed bipartisanship with party loyalty.
She fondly asserted the personal friendship that had existed between her and President Reagan and Senator Edward Kennedy, following his August 2009 death, despite their political differences. She also praised President Obama for his decision to reverse a Bush Administration federal funding ban on stem cell research. During her June 2009 trip to Washington, she was welcomed by the incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama for lunch in the family dining room in the private quarters, marking their first meeting.
Two of the earliest 2008 presidential candidates’ debates among those vying for the Republican nomination were hosted by Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Library, in May 2007 and January 2008. She attended both events, but followed the tradition of her late husband in not endorsing any one candidate during the primaries. She then publicly endorsed and appeared with the party’s presumed nominee for President, John McCain, whom she had known since her incumbency as First Lady, when he had first been elected to the U.S. Senate from Arizona. During the 2010 mid-term elections, the former First Lady endorsed two women Republican candidates for state and national office from California, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini, who ran for Governor and U.S. Senate, respectively. Encouraging the presidential library to again serve as a venue for debates, she attended one held there in late 2011 among 2012 Republican presidential candidates. She continues to attend important Library events, notably those with speakers active in political life and the media.