In her formative years, Betty Bloomer would learn the costs of addiction when her father, a long-time alcoholic, died. But she would also use her formative years to develop both a strong independent will and a gift for dance.
JANE ALEXANDER: The 1970's, Watergate, Women's Rights and Vietnam... Tumultuous times catapult Gerald R. Ford and his wife Betty into the White House. He was plainspoken and she was outspoken.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It is impossible to overestimate the impact that Betty Ford had on the office of first lady. She changes everything about the role of first lady.
ANNE CULLEN: There are thousands of women who are alive right now and in recovery that wouldn't be there if Mrs. Ford hadn't gone public.
JANE ALEXANDER: This is her story.
In Betty Ford's brief and unexpected reign as first lady she broke the mold. She was a Pro-Choice Republican who became the first first lady to take on a feminist agenda and one of the few to differ publicly with her husband.
BETTY FORD: I really always have been probably what you might say is outspoken -- sometimes to the detriment of my husband's role as president.
JANE ALEXANDER: Her ability to
be open and honest about her battles with breast cancer and drug and
alcohol abuse, saved millions. It was an incredible and sometimes painful
ACT I Dancer
In 1947, troops were flocking back home from the war and in Grand Rapids, Michigan the young and upwardly mobile gathered at Kent Country Club for Saturday night dances. It was here that hometown belle Betty Bloomer Warren would first spot the young lawyer Gerald Ford.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was a football hero who had not only been a hero at the University of Michigan but had been drafted by the pros. He was a bona fide war hero. He was incredibly handsome. He was the type of guy who would gravitate to a beautiful woman like Betty Bloomer Warren, and he does.
BETTY FORD: We just thought we would be good friends, companions and so many of our friends were married that it made it handy to have somebody to do things socially with or go to a movie with but with time I certainly developed a feeling that this was someone special in my life.
JANE ALEXANDER: It was indeed a special relationship a partnership that would endure for over half a century propelling Betty Bloomer Warren onto a world stage that would give her the biggest audience of her life.
She was born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer on April 8th, 1918. Her two brothers Bill and Bob, who were 5 and 8 years her senior, called her Betty. They grew up in a fashionable section of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a small mid-western city.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It was the epitome of middle class America.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty's mother, Hortense Nearh Bloomer, was from a wealthy family. She was also a perfectionist, whose standards Betty always tried to live up to.
Betty's father, Bill Bloomer worked as a travelling salesman selling conveyor belts.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It wasn't a privileged upbringing but it was a comfortable upbringing. Because of her father's success in sales, they were able to avoid being hurt very badly by the Great Depression.
JANE ALEXANDER: But that success meant Betty's father was rarely home.
BETTY FORD: My mother was a very independent woman because she had to be. She had been very much a role model in my life because my father was gone a lot
JANE ALEXANDER: The influence of two older brothers and a strong mother fortified Betty Bloomer's already independent nature.
LILLIAN FISHER: She spoke right out. You always knew how you stood and what she wanted. She wasn't a namby-pamby pretty little dancing doll. She was very much a solid character.
JANE ALEXANDER: A solid character that became comfortable performing at an early age. At age eight, Betty Bloomer danced with the Calla Travis Dance Troupe in their spring recitals and continued dancing through high school.
BETTY FORD: I became very interested in my dancing school. And I spent a lot of time with that because I enjoyed it so much. I kind of fell in love with dance.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: So she gravitated to modern dance. Which was an outgrowth of the artistic scene of the 1920's, was much more expressive, was much more free form. It was perfectly suited for Betty's adventurous personality.
JANE ALEXANDER: Before long Betty was the star of many dance recitals in Grand Rapids. She even modeled to pay for her dance lessons.
LILLIAN FISHER: She was very popular with the boys. There would be several of us who would sort of wait and see who is asking her for Friday and Saturday night dates and then see who was going to be left over for us.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She dated a great deal, she smoked early. She says she had her first drink at age 14. This was a young rebel.
JANE ALEXANDER: But Betty's teenage fun and revelry would come to a halt one day when she came home to discover her father had died.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was found in his garage, in the car, with the motor running and he asphyxiated from carbon monoxide poisoning.
BETTY FORD: It came as a shock because he died quite suddenly. I was 16 years old, which is a very impressionable age, a very important age.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: What was more important than how he died was what happened at the funeral when Betty was told for the first time by her mother that her father was indeed an alcoholic.
JANE ALEXANDER: The revelation of her father's alcoholism would become more significant as Betty struggled with her own issues later in life. For now, she watched as her mother carried on with a strength she would try to emulate.
BETTY FORD: She went out and she got her real estate license and sold houses. That gave me an idea of how independent a woman can be if she needs to be.
JANE ALEXANDER: After high school, Betty went to a summer dance program at Bennington College in Vermont.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It was the complete inverse of Grand Rapids -- very progressive faculty. And Betty found herself and found her artistic muse in Bennington.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty's muse was modern dance pioneer Martha Graham who was in residence teaching a summer workshop.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: Martha Graham wanted the performer to be able to lay everything on the line in public. There is no better definition of what Betty Ford would become than that.
JANE ALEXANDER: After Bennington, Betty followed Martha Graham to New York, but after two years she was still not in the principle dance troupe. Martha saw that Betty enjoyed her social life as well as dance.
BETTY FORD: Martha was very strict. She expected you to give it full attention 24 hours a day. So I had a lot of talkings-to by Martha. You know if you're really serious about this, you better settle down.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty decided she wasn't ready to fully commit to the life of a dancer, and gave into her mother's pleas to come home.
BETTY FORD: She kept talking about all my friends at home who were getting married and having these lovely weddings and trying to tempt me to come back.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty did return and married a traveling salesman named Bill Warren, whom she divorced within five years. She supported herself working as a model and fashion coordinator. And she lived in an apartment on her own. It was at this time that Yale Law School graduate Gerald Ford and Betty Bloomer Warren would cross paths.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was a perfect match for Betty Bloomer Warren, who had come back a much more cosmopolitan person from Bennington, and from New York.
JANE ALEXANDER: With her sense of humor, beauty and sophistication she was the tonic that loosened up this conservative young lawyer and in turn his serious convictions offered her a stability that both her father and first husband could not. In a matter of months they were talking about marriage.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: Gerald Ford was ready to accept his wife as a professional woman. He was ready to accept her as an outgoing, outspoken woman.
STEVE FORD: But you know, he kept a secret, he didn't tell her he was running for politics, he says, you know, I want to marry you. But, I've got a secret. I can't tell you till later.
Betty agreed to marry Ford, and soon after he revealed his secret: he planned to run for Congress, she wasn't thrilled, but though it was unlikely he would win.
STEVE FORD: He was running for Congress in a very conservative Dutch area, you know. And the idea of him marrying a divorced woman may not go over that well. I mean, that was politics back in the 1950s.
She swears to this day if she knew he was running for Congress she would have never ever married a politician.
JANE ALEXANDER: Ford won the primary, guaranteeing him the election in his Republican district. They were married on October 15, 1948, between the primary and the general election.
Betty would get a glimpse into her future as a political wife, when Ford arrived late to the wedding with muddy shoes from campaigning at a nearby farm.
Janet Ford, the matron of honor, would remark to the new Mrs. Ford, "You won't have to worry about other women, Jerry's work will be the other women."
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Their honeymoon consisted of a University of Michigan football game in Ann Arbor, followed by a decidedly unromantic trip up to Owasso, Michigan on a cold October night in the outdoors to hear Thomas E. Dewey orate. And this was sort of her formal initiation into the life of a political wife.