In her 1989 memoir My Turn, Nancy Reagan wrote candidly about her obsession during her years as First Lady to protect her husband, Ronald Reagan, from physical harm, the ambition of those around him, and negative publicity. The couple's strong bond was renowned. "The love and devotion you show to each other," an acquaintance once commented, "isn't seen much around here."
Born in Manhattan on July 6, 1921, Anne Frances "Nancy" Robbins was herself the product of an unhappy marriage. Nancy's parents divorced shortly after her birth. An aunt in Bethesda raised her while her mother, an actress, supported herself in the theater. In 1931 Nancy's new stepfather, a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon, adopted her. This was Nancy's first exposure to wealth and privilege. Nancy Davis studied drama at Smith College, and was eased into a career in Hollywood by her mother's friends.
Nancy's acting career was moderately successful, but she left Hollywood after her marriage to Ronald Reagan in 1952. She feared not being able to balance motherhood and a career. In 1966, the wife and mother of two, Patti and Ron, landed a new role: First Lady of California. Nancy raised eyebrows as soon as she moved into -- and quickly out of -- the Governor's Mansion in Sacramento. The mansion, she said was a "firetrap" -- it had been so described by the fire department -- and she moved her family to an exclusive suburb. What Nancy claimed was concern for Ron's safety, many Californians perceived as snobbery.
This perception also followed Nancy to Washington. Since Jacqueline Kennedy's renovations of the early '60s, the White House had fallen into disrepair. Nancy believed the nation needed a more suitable First Home, and immediately began redecorating. Although the White House, after years of neglect, needed the lift, Nancy was criticized for spending frivolously in the middle of a recession.
Nancy's wardrobe engendered further criticism. Designers donated their fashions to Nancy in exchange for the exposure she afforded them, but the public balked. The Reagans were accused of not caring that America was having trouble making ends meet, while they lived and entertained lavishly, surrounded by well-heeled friends.
Nancy improved her reputation by personally championing drug abuse education. Some derided Nancy's approach as simplistic -- liberal Abbie Hoffmann likened her "Just Say No" campaign to "the equivalent of telling manic depressives to 'just cheer up'" -- but most gave her credit for raising drug awareness.
Although she largely left policy to the Reagan men, Nancy was deeply involved in selecting who those men were. Discreet as it may have been, her influence was undeniable. Those close to the Reagans were careful never to forget that the President and First Lady "attacked the world as a team." Nancy was reportedly instrumental in the shift from hard-line conservatives to foreign policy moderates which began with the replacement of Judge William Clark as National Security Adviser and Alexander Haig as Secretary of State by Robert McFarlane and George Shultz, respectively, midway into Reagan's first term.
Nancy Reagan's backstage handling became fodder for late-night monologues and a national concern in 1987, following the publication of Donald Regan's "For the Record." Regan believed, as did many others, that Nancy was largely responsible for his being replaced as Chief of Staff. In his sensational memoir, Regan revealed that the First Lady regularly dictated the president's schedule after consulting her personal astrologer. Regan never claimed that astrology influenced executive decisions, but the ensuing frenzy raised questions about who exactly was in control at The White House. In "My Turn," Nancy attributed her reliance on astrology to her fear that her husband would be shot again.
In October 1987 Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Incredibly, even her decision to have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy was criticized.
Nancy Reagan's detractors were vocal, but so were her supporters. For each of the eight years of Reagan's presidency, she was voted one of the ten most admired women in both Good Housekeeping and the Annual Gallup Poll.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?