Former First Lady Nancy Reagan dies at 94

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan died Sunday morning at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to a statement by her spokeswoman, Joanne Drake.

While she may have appeared to be a traditional first lady, she evolved into an integral power player in her husband’s political success.

She was born Anne Frances Robbins in New York in 1921 — the only child of a salesman and an actress. After graduating from Smith College, Nancy became a professional actress herself. Billed as Nancy Davis, she landed a role on Broadway and went on to act in 11 films. It was in Hollywood that she met her future husband — then-actor Ronald Reagan — in 1951.

PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff sat down with Mrs. Reagan back in 2010 for the PBS documentary entitled “Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” which aired in 2011. It would be one of her last major televised interviews.

“He was unlike any actor I’d ever known. He never talked about himself,” Mrs. Reagan said. “He was very appealing to me. Good looking and attractive. I just wanted to know more about him.”

They were married in a small ceremony that following year. It was Ronald Reagan’s second marriage. The couple went on to have two children, Patti and Ron.

Actress Nancy Davis poses for a publicity photo taken in 1950. Photo from Reagan Presidential Library

Actress Nancy Davis poses for a publicity photo taken in 1950. Photo from Reagan Presidential Library

On screen, the Reagans starred opposite one another on only one occasion: the 1957 movie “Hellcats of the Navy” set during WWII. But after years in the Hollywood backlots, Ronald Reagan decided to enter the Republican political arena, and became the governor of California in 1967, serving two terms. He then set his sights on the presidency in 1980, winning the election in a landslide and defeating sitting Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Nancy Reagan became the First Lady of the United States in 1981 when Mr. Reagan took office as the nation’s 40th president. Mrs. Reagan played a pivotal role behind-the-scenes throughout his two terms in office, serving as his sounding board and often weighing in on major personnel decisions.

She told an Associated Press Luncheon back in 1985, “I see the first lady as another means to keep a president from becoming isolated. I talk to people. They tell me things. And if something is about to become a problem, I’m not above calling a staff person and asking about it. I’m a woman who loves her husband and I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare.”

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan during the Inaugural Parade on Jan. 20, 1981. Reagan Presidential Library

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan during the Inaugural Parade on Jan. 20, 1981. Reagan Presidential Library

“She was the indispensable person in his political success — save and except he himself,” recalled James Baker, President Reagan’s chief of staff. “She could be very instrumental and helpful, not that he would accept her judgment all the time because he wouldn’t, but she could nudge and gently cajole and find a way to move him forward.”

In one such example, Mrs. Reagan was able to nudge her husband toward a historic policy shift, a warming in relations with the then-Soviet Union and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Reagan administration would face a major test just 69 days into his presidency. An assassination attempt was made on Mr. Reagan’s life as he left an event in downtown Washington. The president was shot in the chest and lower arm, narrowly surviving the attack. Three others were shot and wounded, including Reagan’s press secretary James Brady who was left paralyzed. The first lady would become even more fiercely protective of her husband in the wake of that incident. She even consulted an astrologer to help determine the president’s schedule.

Nancy Reagan poses for Vogue magazine in the White House Red Room in 1981.

Nancy Reagan poses for Vogue magazine in the White House Red Room in 1981.

At the same time, the Reagans also ushered in a new era of glamour at the White House. Mrs. Reagan’s sense of style would become one of her trademarks — donning high-end designer gowns and suits, often in her signature color red. But her expensive tastes quickly became fodder for critics. With the White House in a state of disrepair after years of neglect, Nancy Reagan decided to renovate and redecorate. She was subsequently criticized for her lavish spending and entertaining in the midst of a recession.

Mrs. Reagan also used her platform as first lady to passionately speak out on a number of social issues. In 1982, she launched her major initiative — the “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign. She traveled nearly 250,000 miles around the United States and abroad speaking out against drug abuse.

After eight years in the White House, the Reagans returned to California and retired in the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air. In 1994, Ronald Reagan penned a letter to the nation revealing he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The former first lady became his primary caregiver as his health declined.

In 2004, former President Reagan died at the age of 93. His long illness prompted Mrs. Reagan to become a strong advocate for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. She also devoted much of her later years to preserving her husband’s legacy through her work at his presidential library.

Their son — Ron Reagan — said his mother also leaves behind an important legacy of her own. “I hope that history remembers her as somebody who was dedicated to the person she loved more than anybody else on earth,” Reagan said. “That’s what her life has been about. And she did her very best to make sure that he could do his very best.”

Support PBS NewsHour: