Monday 26 September 2016

Former US first lady Nancy Reagan dies aged 94

Published 06/03/2016 | 17:46

Former US first lady Nancy Reagan, who has died in Los Angeles aged 94
Former US first lady Nancy Reagan, who has died in Los Angeles aged 94

Former US first lady Nancy Reagan has died in California at the age of 94.

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Her assistant, Allison Borio, said Mrs Reagan died on Sunday at her home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, of congestive heart failure.

Her marriage to Ronald Reagan lasted 52 years until his death in 2004.

A former actress, she was Mr Reagan's closest adviser and fierce protector on his journey from actor to governor of California to president of the United States.

She rushed to his side after he was shot in 1981 by a would-be assassin, and later endured his nearly decade-long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

In recent years she broke with fellow Republicans in backing stem cell research as a way to possibly find a cure for Alzheimer's.

Mrs Reagan's best-known project as first lady was the Just Say No campaign to help children and teenagers 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, she 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 obvious. 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 US Capitol, his widow caressed and gently kissed the flag-draped casket.

As the newly arrived first lady, Mrs Reagan raised more than 800,000 dollars from private donors to redo the White House family quarters and to buy a 200,000-dollar set of china bordered in red, her signature colour.

She was criticised 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 nickname "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 ousting Mr Regan's and persuading the president that it had to be done, because of the Iran-Contra scandal that broke under Mr Regan's watch.

She delved into policy issues, too. She urged her husband 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 US relations with the Soviet Union, over the objections of the administration's "evil empire" hawks.

Near the end of Mr Reagan's presidency, ex-chief of staff Mr 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 his 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 studied drama at Smith College and found stage work with the help of her mother's connections.

In 1949, MGM signed 5ft 4in, 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 who hear God's voice on the radio. In Donovan's Brain, she played the wife of a scientist possessed by disembodied grey 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 sympathisers. They discussed it over dinner, and she later wrote that she realised 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 that year and son Ron followed in 1958. Mr 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.

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