Betty Ford Juvenile/Educational Biography
Elizabeth Bloomer Warren Ford
April 8, 1918 -
Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Ford was the first daughter and youngest child of her parents, Hortense Neahr Bloomer and William S. Bloomer. Her father was an industrial supply salesman and Hortense was a stay-at-home mother. Although she was born in Chicago, Illinois, the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Betty was three. There she grew into an active, lively young girl who followed her older brothers in play. When she was eight, she began to study dance at the Calla Travis Dance Studio. She later described dancing as “my happiness.” She began to dream of a career in dance, both teaching and performing.
With the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, Betty began to teach dance to young children and to model at a local department store in Grand Rapids. Betty was only sixteen when her father died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. At this point, her teaching and modeling became needed income for her family.
Upon graduating from the Calla Travis Dance Studio when she was 17 and from Central High School when she was 18, Betty dreamed of continuing her dance education in New York City. However, her protective mother refused to let her go to New York on her own. As a compromise, Betty attended the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vermont, for two summers, where she studied under the legendary Martha Graham. After the second summer, Betty asked Martha if she could work with her and, to her delight, Martha agreed to take her on as a student. Betty moved to New York’s Chelsea section and worked as a fashion and hat model for the John Robert Powers firm to pay the bills and studied with Martha Graham. Betty’s talent was quickly recognized and she was chosen for the auxiliary troupe and even danced at Carnegie Hall!
Betty’s mother was never reconciled to Betty’s career choice and insisted that she return to Grand Rapids. Betty resisted but finally gave in after exacting a promise from her mother that if, after six months, nothing worked out for her, Betty would return to New York. Betty returned home and became a fashion coordinator for a local department store and established her own dance classes, teaching children dances such as the fox trot, waltz, and Big Apple. She also taught dance to children with handicaps. The lively young woman had a very active social life as well. Among the young men she dated was a childhood friend, Bill Warren. Her mother and her stepfather, Arthur Godwin, did not approve of the match, but the young couple wanted to be married. Reluctantly, her parents agreed, and the wedding was held in their home in the spring of 1942. The marriage was not a happy one and the couple divorced in 1947.
Not long after her divorce was final, friends introduced Betty to Gerald Ford, Jr. Jerry, who had been a football star at the University of Michigan and had graduated from Yale Law School, was an up and coming lawyer. They began dating and Jerry announced his candidacy for Congress. He proposed in February 1948, and the two were married on October 15, 1948 in Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids. Immediately she plunged into the campaign. Jerry won the first of what would become fourteen terms in the Congress of the United States as a representative from his home district.
The newly-weds moved to Washington, D.C. where they lived for twenty-five years. As Jerry’s political career blossomed and he rose in the Republican ranks to become the highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Betty was increasingly left at home, seeing to the needs of their four children and serving in the PTA, becoming a Sunday School teacher, and serving as a den mother for her sons’ Scout troop.
She was diagnosed with a pinched nerve in her neck in 1964 and was prescribed medications to handle that pain as well as the pain of her developing arthritis. She eventually became addicted to the medications. As she spent more and more time alone, she also developed a drinking problem that haunted her through her White House years. She began seeing a psychiatrist to deal with the stresses of political life but refused to admit to problems with medications or alcohol.
During the Watergate Scandal, President Richard Nixon maintained an active foreign policy initiative with China, and he invited Jerry and Betty to accompany him on his State visit there in 1972. A year later, when Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned amid criminal charges, the president chose Jerry as his new vice president. Perhaps no one was more surprised than Betty! She had only a few months to adjust to her role as Second Lady when the enveloping Watergate Scandal forced Richard Nixon’s resignation. With Betty by his side, Jerry took the oath of office on August 9, 1974 and became President of the United States. A month later, Jerry pardoned Nixon of all crimes he may have committed, a courageous act that probably served to more speedily heal the nation but one which effectively ended his own political career.
As First Lady, Betty brought the same enthusiasm and charm to the White House that she had approached every other challenge in her life. She not only honored all of the obligations to which former First Lady Pat Nixon had agreed, she took on more. She spoke out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and the right of a woman to have an abortion and openly stated her support for a woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was open and honest and the President’s advisors were concerned that her frankness would hurt him politically. Jerry refused to intercede, pointing out to his staff that Betty had a right to her opinions and a right to speak them!
Not long after becoming First Lady, Betty discovered a lump in her right breast. Instead of hiding her condition as many women at the time would have done, she spoke openly about the diagnosis of cancer and of the surgery and treatment the followed. It is reported that many women were moved to conduct their own initial breast examinations and to schedule mammograms because of her. Her openness about the power of early treatment for breast cancer also gave many women hope.
Perhaps her proudest moment as First Lady occurred when she successfully lobbied for the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Martha Graham, her former teacher. The award honored her artistic achievements and contributions to the artistic life of the nation. It also helped the nation remember that this First Lady had a healthy interest in the arts.
When Jerry was nominated by the Republican National Convention to be their presidential nominee in 1976, Betty threw herself wholeheartedly into the campaign. She was a natural! However, the pace of the campaign and its pressures aggravated the pinched nerves again, and she renewed the daily doses of pain medications. She also began drinking heavily again. Occasionally during public appearances, her speech was slurred due to the combination of pain medications and alcohol. When Jerry lost the election to Jimmy Carter, the Democrat, Betty was devastated. It was the first election Jerry had lost. The couple retired to California, looking for quiet and relaxation. However, what was perhaps Betty’s most important work was just beginning.
Jerry continued his political activities into retirement, often lecturing around the nation and speaking on behalf of Republican candidates. Betty was again often left alone and she continued to drink heavily and use large doses of pain medications. Her family became quite concerned and in 1978, just prior to her 60th birthday, they staged an intervention, forcing her to confront her growing dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. Shortly thereafter, she checked into Long Beach Naval Hospital. The treatment for these addictions was tough, but Betty has since acknowledged that it probably saved her life. These experiences led her to create the Betty Ford Treatment Center in Rancho Mirage, California. Again, Betty was open and honest about her problems, her addiction, and her rehabilitation experiences. This in turn has led to an improvement in the way Americans view substance abuse and recovery. The Betty Ford Center has paved the way in outstanding treatment schedules for chemical dependence, and Betty remains on the Board of the Center.
Betty Ford was a First Lady who was unafraid to speak out on the important issues of the day. However, it was in the confrontation of her own personal problems that she has made her greatest contribution to the nation.