LOS ANGELES – Nancy Reagan, the helpmate, backstage adviser and fierce protector of Ronald Reagan in his journey from actor to president — and finally during his 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease — has died. She was 94.
The former first lady died Sunday at her home in Los Angeles’ Bel-Air neighborhood of congestive heart failure, assistant Allison Borio told The Associated Press.
Her best-known project as first lady was the “Just Say No” campaign to help kids and teens stay off drugs.
When she swept into the White House in 1981, the former Hollywood actress partial to designer gowns and pricey china was widely dismissed as a pre-feminist throwback, concerned only with fashion, decorating and entertaining. By the time she moved out eight years later, Mrs. Reagan was fending off accusations that she was a behind-the-scenes “dragon lady” wielding unchecked power over the Reagan administration — and doing it based on astrology to boot.
All along she maintained that her only mission was to back her “Ronnie” and strengthen his presidency.
Mrs. Reagan carried that charge through the rest of her days. She served as a full-time caretaker as Alzheimer’s melted away her husband’s memory. After his death in June 2004 she dedicated herself to tending his legacy, especially at his presidential library in California, where he had served as governor.
She also championed Alzheimer’s patients, raising millions of dollars for research and breaking with fellow conservative Republicans to advocate for stem cell studies. Her dignity and perseverance in these post-White House roles helped smooth over the public’s fickle perceptions of the former first lady.
The Reagans’ mutual devotion over 52 years of marriage was legendary. They were forever holding hands. She watched his political speeches with a look of such steady adoration it was dubbed “the gaze.” He called her “Mommy,” and penned a lifetime of gushing love notes. She saved these letters, published them as a book, and found them a comfort when he could no longer remember her.
In announcing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, Reagan wrote, “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.” Ten years later, as his body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, Mrs. Reagan caressed and gently kissed the flag-draped casket.
As the newly arrived first lady, Mrs. Reagan raised more than $800,000 from private donors to redo the White House family quarters and to buy a $200,000 set of china bordered in red, her signature color. She was criticized for financing these pet projects with donations from millionaires who might seek influence with the government, and for accepting gifts and loans of dresses worth thousands of dollars from top designers. Her lavish lifestyle — in the midst of a recession and with her husband’s administration cutting spending on the needy — inspired the mocking moniker “Queen Nancy.”
But her admirers credited Mrs. Reagan with restoring grace and elegance to the White House after the austerity of the Carter years.
Her substantial influence within the White House came to light slowly in her husband’s second term.
Although a feud between the first lady and chief of staff Donald Regan had spilled into the open, the president dismissed reports that it was his wife who got Regan fired. “The idea that she is involved in governmental decisions and so forth and all of this, and being a kind of dragon lady — there is nothing to that,” a visibly angry Reagan assured reporters.
But Mrs. Reagan herself and other insiders later confirmed her role in rounding up support for Regan’s ouster and persuading the president that it had to be done, because of the Iran-Contra scandal that broke under Regan’s watch.
She delved into policy issues, too. She urged Reagan to finally break his long silence on the AIDS crisis. She nudged him to publicly accept responsibility for the arms-for-hostages scandal. And she worked to buttress those advisers urging him to thaw U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, over the objections of the administration’s “evil empire” hawks.
Near the end of Reagan’s presidency, ex-chief of staff Regan took his revenge with a memoir revealing that the first lady routinely consulted a San Francisco astrologer to guide the president’s schedule. Mrs. Reagan, who had a longtime interest in horoscopes, maintained that she used the astrologer’s forecasts only in hopes of predicting the safest times for her husband to venture out of the White House after an assassination attempt by John Hinckley just three months into Reagan’s presidency.
Anne Frances Robbins, nicknamed Nancy, was born on July 6, 1921, in New York City. Her parents separated soon after she was born and her mother, film and stage actress Edith Luckett, went on the road. Nancy was reared by an aunt until 1929, when her mother married Dr. Loyal Davis, a wealthy Chicago neurosurgeon who gave Nancy his name and a socialite’s home. She majored in drama at Smith College and found stage work with the help of her mother’s connections.
In 1949, MGM signed 5-foot-4, doe-eyed brunette Nancy Davis to a movie contract. She was cast mostly as a loyal housewife and mother. She had a key role in “The Next Voice You Hear …,” an unusual drama about a family that hears God’s voice on the radio. In “Donovan’s Brain,” she played the wife of a scientist possessed by disembodied gray matter.
She met Ronald Reagan in 1950, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and she was seeking help with a problem: Her name had been wrongly included on a published list of suspected communist sympathizers. They discussed it over dinner, and she later wrote that she realized on that first blind date “he was everything that I wanted.”
They wed two years later, on March 4, 1952. Daughter Patti was born in October of that year and son Ron followed in 1958. Reagan already had a daughter, Maureen, and an adopted son, Michael, from his marriage to actress Jane Wyman. (Later, public spats and breaches with her grown children would become a frequent source of embarrassment for Mrs. Reagan.)
She was thrust into the political life when her husband ran for California governor in 1966 and won. She found it a surprisingly rough business.
“The movies were custard compared to politics,” Mrs. Reagan said.
She will be buried next to her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, spokeswoman Joanne Drake said.
Late in her life, Reagan earned praise for many of the very qualities that saw her savaged by critics during Ronald Reagan’s two White House terms from 1981-1989 — her fierce protectiveness and outsized influence on the president.
Perceived as regal and cold, she was feared by White House aides who often found themselves butting heads with her over policy and personnel appointments.
She made her own mark as first lady with her signature “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign, launched in 1982.
But after leaving the White House, as she nursed Reagan through his descent into Alzheimer’s disease until his death in 2004, America softened its view of the former movie starlet.
Throughout her husband’s illness, Nancy Reagan emerged as the epitome of a loving wife, as well as one of the country’s best known advocates for stem cell research that might have saved her husband had a breakthrough been found in time.
President Reagan is viewed as something of a patron saint of conservatives and the patriarch of the modern Republican Party.
The diminutive former first lady wielded considerable political power, as a succession of Republican presidential hopefuls sought her endorsement over the years.
Born Nancy Davis in New York on July 6, 1921, she was the daughter of an actress and a car salesman who abandoned the family soon after she was born. Her mother eventually remarried to a neurosurgeon.
In 1949, she went to Hollywood where she acted in B-movies and met her future husband.
They married in 1952 after Reagan divorced his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, beginning a marriage that has been described as a love story to rival any that the couple acted out on the silver screen.
The pair, who wrote passionate love letters to each other over the decades, had two children: Patti, born in 1952 and Ron, born in 1958.
When Reagan went into California politics in the 1960s, Nancy recast herself as the ultimate political wife and confidante, serving as his first lady there from 1967-1975.
Only months after he took office as president in 1981, Reagan narrowly survived an assassination attempt that spurred Nancy to take a keener role as her husband’s protector, strictly controlling access to the president.
She sometimes set out to influence decision-making indirectly by taking her case to people her husband trusted. Other times, her role took on a bizarre twist as she consulted astrologers to guide administration policy.
“When she gets her hackles up, she can be a dragon,” former Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker said. Baker got his job after Nancy Reagan engineered the firing of his predecessor, Don Regan.
In a 1988 interview, Nancy Reagan said she was forced to exert her influence because her husband was poorly served by his aides, especially during the Iran-contra scandal that tarnished his reputation.
To the public, Nancy Reagan became best known for her glamorous designer clothes, Hollywood friends and reported social climbing, as well as her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
Behind closed doors, her actions were much more important.
“Nancy wasn’t popular and she operated under cover, usually through a surrogate,” columnist Eleanor Clift wrote years ago in The Washington Post.
Clift said Nancy’s “instinct for moderation drew her into debates over everything from social policy to U.S.-Soviet relations” as she tried to protect her husband from right-wing influence.
After the Reagans left the White House in 1989, “tell-all” books by Regan and especially an unauthorized biography by Kitty Kelley, cast Nancy Reagan in an unflattering light, even alleging an affair with Frank Sinatra.
But in 1994 she played a key role in her husband’s widely praised disclosure that he had Alzheimer’s and became a vocal campaigner for awareness of the disease.
As his memory faded and he no longer recognized the woman he had loved for half a century, Nancy Reagan again closed ranks around him, shielding him from public view and even from old friends to protect his image and dignity.
“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him,” a rueful Nancy Reagan said at an Alzheimer’s fundraiser years ago.
Reactions to Nancy Reagan’s death have poured in.
“With the passing of Nancy Reagan, we say a final goodbye to the days of Ronald Reagan'” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a failed GOP presidential candidate, said. “With charm, grace, and a passion for America, this couple reminded us of the greatness and the endurance of the American experiment. Some underestimate the influence of a first lady but from Martha and Abigail through Nancy and beyond, these women have shaped policy, strengthened resolve, and drawn on our better angels. God and Ronnie have finally welcomed a choice soul home.”
“Nancy Reagan was one of my heroes,” said former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “She served as first lady with unbelievable power, class and grace and left her mark on the world. She’s with her Ronnie now, but those of us she left behind will miss her dearly.”
“Nancy Reagan was totally devoted to President Reagan, and we take comfort that they will be reunited once more,” said former first lady Barbara Bush. “George and I send our prayers and condolences to her family.”
“Nancy Reagan will be remembered for her deep passion for this nation and love for her husband, Ronald,” GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said. “The Reagan family is in our prayers.”
“Nancy Reagan, the wife of a truly great president, was an amazing woman,” GOP candidate Donald Trump said. “She will be missed!”
“Laura and I are saddened by the loss of former first lady Nancy Reagan,” former President George W. Bush said. “Mrs. Reagan was fiercely loyal to her beloved husband, and that devotion was matched only by her devotion to our country. Her influence on the White House was complete and lasting. During her time as first lady and since, she raised awareness about drug abuse and breast cancer. When we moved into the White House, we benefited from her work to make those historic rooms beautiful. Laura and I are grateful for the life of Nancy Reagan, and we send our condolences to the entire Reagan family.”
“Nancy Reagan embodied what it means to represent America as first lady and her dignified and warm demeanor inspired America,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. “Mrs. Reagan will go down in history as a woman who left her own mark on the White House and our country. She was a longtime friend and supporter of many in our party, and will be sorely missed.”