What you need to know about former US first lady Nancy Reagan

Former US First Lady Nancy Reagan arrives at a dinner hosted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth for US President George W. Bush at the British Embassy in Washington in this May 8, 2007 file photo.
Former US First Lady Nancy Reagan arrives at a dinner hosted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth for US President George W. Bush at the British Embassy in Washington in this May 8, 2007 file photo. PHOTO: REUTERS
Nancy Reagan at the Hilton Hotel in Singapore in 1973. Her husband Ronald Reagan, later a US president, was then President Richard Nixon's special emissary to Asia.
Nancy Reagan at the Hilton Hotel in Singapore in 1973. Her husband Ronald Reagan, later a US president, was then President Richard Nixon's special emissary to Asia. PHOTO: ST FILE
(From left) Then US President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan escort British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Dennis to the British Embassy in Washington on Feb 20, 1985.
(From left) Then US President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan escort British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Dennis to the British Embassy in Washington on Feb 20, 1985.PHOTO: REUTERS

Mrs Nancy Reagan, a former actress and former US first lady who nurtured the political career of her husband Ronald Reagan, died of congestive heart failure on Sunday (March 6) at age 94.

Here are 10 things to know about Mrs Reagan:

1. She was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City, and was called Nancy by her mother who was an actress.

 

Her father was a car dealer who abandoned the family soon after her birth. Her mother resumed her stage career when her daughter was two years old and sent the child to live with relatives in Bethesda, Maryland.

When Nancy was eight, her mother married Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, who adopted Nancy and gave her the family name. Almost overnight, Nancy Davis' difficult childhood became stable and privileged. Throughout the rest of her life, she described Mr Davis as her real father.

2. She graduated from the elite Girls' Latin School in Chicago and then from Smith College in 1943.

 
 

Blessed with beauty, a slender frame and large, luminous eyes, she considered acting as a career. After doing summer stock theatre in New England, she landed a part in the Broadway musical Lute Song with Mary Martin and Yul Brynner.

With the help of a friend, actor Spencer Tracy, her mother arranged a screen test by director George Cukor of MGM. Cukor told the studio that Davis lacked talent but she was nevertheless given a part in the film East Side, West Side, which was released in 1949 starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason and Ava Gardner. Cast as the socialite wife of a New York press baron, Davis appeared in only two scenes, but they were with Stanwyck, the film's top star.

3. Davis was cast in her first lead role - in the movie The Next Voice You Hear (1950) where she played a pregnant mother opposite James Whitmore. The next year, she starred in Night Into Morning with Ray Milland and she received good reviews for her role as a war widow who talked Milland's character out of committing suicide. She appeared in 11 films from 1949 to 1956.

4. She first met Mr Reagan, a former actor, in 1951 when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. The meeting took place over dinner at LaRue's, a fashionable Hollywood restaurant on Sunset Strip. She was reportedly smitten by Mr Reagan, even though he was on crutches after suffering multiple leg fractures in a charity baseball game. They married on March 5, 1952, in Los Angeles when she was three months' pregnant with their first child Patricia.

5. In public, Mrs Reagan would gaze at her husband adoringly and portrayed herself as a contented wife who had willingly given up a Hollywood acting career to devote herself to his career. "He was all I had ever wanted in a man, and more," she wrote in My Turn: The Memoirs Of Nancy Reagan, published in 1989. Her husband reciprocated in kind. "How do you describe coming into a warm room from out of the cold?" he once said. "Never waking up bored? The only thing wrong is, she's made a coward out of me. Whenever she's out of sight, I'm a worrier about her."

6. As the US first lady, Mrs Reagan's public image was shaped by her preference for designer clothing, provided free of charge by their makers. A turning point came at Washington's annual Gridiron Dinner in 1982, when Mrs Reagan, at the suggestion of her press secretary Sheila Tate, mocked her own shortcomings in a surprise appearance on stage. In a skit, she dressed like a cleaning lady and sang reworked lyrics, Second-Hand Clothes, to the tune of Second-Hand Rose.

7. She was dubbed the "Dragon Lady" for her influence over Mr Reagan's decisions as president. She sometimes set out to influence his decision making indirectly by taking her case to people her husband trusted.

"When she gets her hackles up, she can be a dragon," said former chief of staff Howard Baker, appointed after Mrs Reagan engineered the firing of his predecessor Donald Regan in 1987 over the Iran-contra scandal in which it was disclosed that Mr Reagan had secretly approved arms sales to Iran. In a 1988 interview, Mrs 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.

8. Sometimes her role as first lady took on a bizarre twist as she consulted astrologers to guide administration policy and her husband's scheduling. In her 1989 memoir My Turn, she attributed the consultations to a fear for her husband's safety after he survived a 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. who wounded and almost killed him with a gunshot.

9. In 1994, Mrs Reagan played a key role in her husband's widely praised disclosure that he had Alzheimer's disease and became a vocal campaigner for awareness of the disease. As his memory faded and he no longer recognised the woman he had loved for half a century, she 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.

10. The Reagans had two children Ron and Patricia. The former president had an adopted son Michael from his first marriage to Jane Wyman, in addition to a daughter Maureen, who died of cancer in 2001.

SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE