First Ladies: Nancy Davis Reagan

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Nancy Reagan was First Lady to her husband, Ronald Reagan. She is also the only First Lady to have been a Hollywood actress. After her husband was diagnosed

Nancy Reagan

with Alzheimer’s she became an advocate for stem cell research.

Anne Frances Robbins was born on July 6, 1921 in New York City. From birth she was commonly called Nancy. She was the only child of Kenneth Seymour and Edith Prescott Luckett Robbins.

Her parents separated soon after she was born, but was not divorced until 1928. For six years she lived with her aunt and uncle, Audley and Virginia Luckett Gailbraith.

In 1929, her mother married Loyal Edward Davis, whom she got along well with. He formally adopted her in 1935, and she always referred to him as her father. Nancy later wrote that he was “a man of great integrity who exemplified old-fashioned values.” With the adoption she legally became Nancy Davis.

Upon graduation from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1943, she worked as a sales clerk and nurse’s aide. With help of her actress mother’s colleagues, she began to pursue a professional career as an actress.

Nancy Reagan

Upon passing a screen test for MGM she moved to California in 1949. She appeared in eleven feature films.

In 1975, she would say, “I was never really a career woman but became one only because I hadn’t found the man I wanted to marry. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress.” Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon nevertheless characterized her as a “reliable” and “solid” performer who held her own in performances with better-known actors.

Nancy Davis competed for roles against Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, and Janet Leigh. She dated actors such as Clark Gable, Robert Stack and Peter Lawford. She served on the board of directors for the Screen Actors Guild for nearly ten years.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Nancy noticed her named on the Hollywood blacklist and asked to meet with the Screen Actors Guild President. His name was Ronald Reagan and they met on November 15 1949.

The couple married on March 4, 1952 in Los Angeles, California. The couple’s daughter Patricia was born later that year and their son, Ronald Jr, was born in 1958. Nancy also became stepmother to Reagan’s two children from his marriage to Jane Wyman.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Nancy Reagan would make numerous TV appearances.

While her husband was Governor of California, Nancy served as First Lady of California. Her husband appointed her to the California Arts Commission in 1967. In 1968, she was named Los Angeles Times’ Woman of the Year; in its profile, the Times labeled her “A Model First Lady”.

Nancy Reagan

As first lady, Reagan visited veterans, the elderly, and the handicapped, and worked with a number of charities. She became involved with the Foster Grandparents Program. The Reagan’s held dinners for former POWs and Vietnam War veterans while governor and first lady.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. She directed a major renovation of several White House rooms on the second and third floors.

Nancy Reagan was also known for her fashion sense.

Nancy Reagan was very protective of her husband and with him after her husband’s assassination attempt. She controlled who had access to her husband, made decisions she felt was best for him, sought psychics and encouraged her husband in his political dealings, such as to hold the “summit” conferences.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

In 1982, Nancy Reagan launched the “Just Say No” campaign to drug awareness.

In October 1987, she underwent a mastectomy due to a lesion in her left breast.

Upon leaving the White House, the Reagan’s purchased a home in Bel Air, California.

In 1989, she published her autobiography, My Turn and established the Nancy Reagan Foundation.

In 1994, her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and she became his primary caregiver. She was also an advocate for stem cell research for Alzheimer’s.

In 1996, she spoke at the Republican Convention on behalf of her husband.

In July 2002, President George W. Bush awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Nancy Reagan

In 2002, President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan, each received the were jointly awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on May 16, 2002, at the U.S. Capitol building, and were only the third President and First Lady to receive it; she accepted the medal on behalf of both of them.

Ronald Reagan died at their Bel Air home on June 5, 2004. The funeral had a great impact on her public image. Following substantial criticism during her tenure as first lady, she was seen somewhat as a national heroine, praised by many for supporting and caring for her husband while he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. U.S. News & World Report opined, “after a decade in the shadows, a different, softer Nancy Reagan emerged.”

President Reagan’s death in June 2004 ended what Charlton Heston called “the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency.

Nancy Reagan continued to live in their Bel Air home and remain active in politics, especially stem cell research.

Nancy Reagan

In 2005, Reagan was honored at a gala dinner at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., marking her first public appearance since her husband’s funeral.

In 2007, she accepted the highest Polish distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, on behalf of Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Library.

On March 6, 2016, Nancy Reagan died. She was buried beside her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Reagan was the second-longest-lived First Lady of the United States, after Bess Truman who died at the age of 97. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan was the second-longest-lived President, trailing only Gerald Ford.

If nothing else, Nancy Reagan will be remembered for the love, adoration, care and protection she provided for her husband over the decades they were together.