First Ladies: Betty Ford

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Betty Ford was the First Lady for her husband, Gerald R. Ford. She brought awareness to breast cancer and the battle with alcoholism through her own struggles.

Gerald and Betty Ford

Elizabeth Ann “Betty” Bloomer was born on April 8, 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. She was the third child of William Stephenson and Hortense Bloomer, Sr. As a child she was called Betty.

In 1929, after the stock market crash, Betty began to model clothes and death dance to children in order to earn money. She was only eleven years old when she began.

In 1935, she graduated from the Calla Travis Dance Studio.

Her father died when she was sixteen years old.

After studying dance in Vermont, she moved to New York City to study with choreographers Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. She joined their auxiliary troupe and performed with the company at Carnegie Hall. To finance her dance studies, she worked as a fashion model.

Her mother opposed her daughter’s choice of a career and insisted that she move home, but Bloomer resisted. They finally came to a compromise: Bloomer had to return home for six months, but if she still wanted to return to New York City at the end of that time, her mother would not protest further. Bloomer became immersed in her life in Grand Rapids and did not return to New York. She also organized her own

Betty Ford

dance group and taught dance at various sites in Grand Rapids.

Her mother remarried during the time her daughter moved back home to live with her.

In 1942, Betty married William G. Warren, whom she’d known since she was 12 years old. The couple moved frequently and she worked as a model and saleswoman. The couple had no children.

Warren was an alcoholic and in poor health. Just after Betty decided to file for divorce, he went into a coma. She took care of him for another two years as he convalesced, at his family’s home. She stayed upstairs while he was nursed downstairs. After he recovered, they were divorced on September 22, 1947, on the grounds of “excessive, repeated cruelty”.

On October 15, 1948, Elizabeth married Gerald Ford. In the first of adjustments for politics, he asked her to delay the wedding until shortly before the elections because, as The New York Times reported, “Jerry was running for Congress and wasn’t sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer.”

The couple had four children together. Michael Gerald Ford was born in 1950, John Gardner Ford in 1952, Steven Meigs Ford in 1956 and Susan Elizabeth Ford was born in 1957.

Betty Ford

The Fords moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and lived there for twenty-five years. Gerald Ford rose to become the highest-ranking Republican in the House. After Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President in 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to the position. He succeeded to the presidency in 1974, upon Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

During her time as First Lady, Betty Ford had high approval ratings, even if she was outspoken and honest.

Weeks after becoming First Lady, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer on September 28, 1974, after having been diagnosed with the disease.

Ford decided to be open about her illness because “There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration.” Her openness about her cancer and treatment raised the visibility of a disease that Americans had previously been reluctant to talk about.

Betty Ford was a strong advocate for the arts during her time as First Lady.

After Gerald Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Presidential election she delivered her husband’s concession speech because he had lost his voice while campaigning.

In 1978, the Ford family staged an intervention and forced her to confront her alcoholism and an addiction to opioid analgesics, which had been prescribed in the early 1960s for a pinched nerve. “I liked alcohol,” she wrote in her 1987 memoir. “It made me feel warm. And I loved pills. They took away

Betty Ford

my tension and my pain”. She went into treatment for substance abuse.

In 1982, after her recovery, she established the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, for the treatment of chemical dependency,including treating the children of alcoholics. She served as chair of the board of directors. She relinquished her seat to her daughter in 2005.

Barbara Bush, one of Ford’s successors as First Lady, observed that Ford, after discovering she was dependent on drugs, “transformed her pain into something great for the common good. Because she suffered, there will be more healing. Because of her grief, there will be more joy.”

Betty Ford wrote or co-authored several books about her battle.

The Ford’s divided their time between their homes in Rancho Mirage, California and

Betty Ford

Beaver Creek, Colorado.

In November 18, 1991, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. That same year, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to her and her husband.

On May 8, 2003, Ford received the Woodrow Wilson Award in Los Angeles for her public service, awarded by the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution.

Poor health began to curtail her public life and appearances.

Gerald Ford died on December 26, 2006. The Fords, who were married 58 years, were among the more openly affectionate First Couples in United States history. Neither was shy about their mutual love and equal respect, and they were known to have a strong personal and political partnership.

Betty Ford died on July 8, 2011 at the hospital in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 93 years old. She was buried beside her husband at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

Her legacy will long outlive her with all of the lives changed through the Betty Ford Center.


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