Nancy Reagan – Loyalty
A century ago, divorce was virtually nonexistent, with less than five percent of marriages ending that way. Flash forward one hundred years and divorce is commonplace in American culture. Nearly 50 percent of all marriages that took place in the year 2000 will end up in divorce court. Yet during the last century, wedding vows have more or less stayed the same. Most couples still make the following vow while standing at the altar: “I take you to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish in good times and in bad until death do us part.”
Despite the tears and emotion that typically accompany these words, Americans do not seem to value their wedding vows as much as they did a century ago. The vows do not say, “I take you until I’m relatively unhappy, until you make me mad, or until I find somebody better,” although that seems to be the prevailing attitude toward marriage today. Every marriage, without exception, has high points and low points. To make it through the low points requires patience, sacrifice, and loyalty from both partners. Unfortunately, these character traits are at odds with a society that revolves around instant gratification. For the past several decades everything in America has become faster, easier, and more convenient. Relationships, however, still require old-fashioned hard work to make them successful. No new invention is going to change that fact.
Nancy and Ronald Reagan understood the meaning of their marital vows and knew what it took to make a marriage work. They never wavered in their commitment and love for one another. While this chapter focuses on Nancy Reagan, the two were very much a team. Ronald Reagan took the lead in the couple’s public life, but they were equals in their private life. Theirs is a love story of two people who respected and valued each other. Throughout their 52 years of marriage, their marital vows were tested but never broken. The Reagans’ loyalty to each other should inspire all of us to value marriage and the seriousness of that sacred commitment.
Nancy was born on July 6, 1921, to Edith Luckett, a single mom and stage actress. Edith joined a touring company to support herself and her daughter. As a baby, Nancy accompanied her mother as she traveled from play to play, city to city, in a laundry basket. Stagehands and cast members would take turns watching her while her mother was on stage. When Nancy was two and had outgrown the laundry basket, Edith made the difficult decision to leave Nancy with her Aunt Virginia and Uncle Audley in Bethesda, Maryland. The extended family took good care of Nancy, but she longed for her mother. For the next six years, Edith visited her daughter when she could.
In 1929 Edith married a neurosurgeon from Chicago and ended her acting career. Her new husband’s name was Dr. Loyal Davis. “He detested the name Loyal,” Nancy recalled. “I always thought it suited him perfectly, for he was nothing if not loyal—to his family, his students, his profession, his patients, and above all, to his values.” Nancy and her mother moved to Lake Shore Drive to live with Loyal and his son, Richard, from a previous marriage. Nancy acquired the family she dreamed of and quickly became accustomed to her new lifestyle. Although at first she found it difficult to share her mother with the new man in her life, Nancy came to love her stepfather, and he officially adopted her when she was 14 years old.
Nancy went on to attend Smith College in Massachusetts and became an actress. She dabbled in stage work, undoubtedly influenced by watching her mother as a child, but she preferred film. She signed with MGM Studios and made a dozen movies in all. However, Nancy has often claimed that her life did not really begin until she met Ronnie, as she affectionately referred to him.
Ronnie and Nancy began dating in 1950. He was an actor, as well as president of the Screen Actors Guild. In a time when women usually married young and divorce was rare, Ronnie and Nancy were somewhat unconventional. At the time of their marriage, Nancy was 31 years old and Ronnie was a 41-year- old divorced father of two. Circumstances and timing did not seem to matter, however, as they hit it off instantly. “Looking back now,” Nancy reminisces, “I still can’t define what it was about Ronald Reagan that made him seem so very perfect to me. I think we were just right for each other. I loved to listen to him talk. I loved his sense of humor. I saw it clearly that very first night: He was everything that I wanted.” Ronnie felt just as strongly. “Nancy moved into my heart and replaced an emptiness that I’d been trying to ignore for a long time,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Coming home to her is like coming out of the cold into a warm, fire-lit room. I miss her if she just steps out of the room.”
The two were married on March 4, 1952, in a small, private ceremony. The first year of marriage was a difficult transition. Ronnie had difficulty finding work in the ever-changing film industry, and Nancy left MGM to raise their daughter, Patti, who was born later that year. The Reagans faced challenges not unlike those of most couples in their first year of marriage. Adjusting to living together, raising a family, and finding the money to survive can put a strain on any relationship. However, Ronnie eventually found work on television and was able to provide a comfortable income for the family. Their second child, Ron, was born in 1958.
A few years later Nancy and Ronnie decided to buy a ranch in California, mainly because of his love for the outdoors. Nancy too grew to love the land and the animals, and it became something they shared throughout their life. The Reagans’ marriage was a partnership in which they saw each other as equals. Nancy once described it like this, “I don’t ever remember once sitting down and mapping out a blueprint. It just became ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ very naturally and easily. And you live as you never have before, despite problems, separations, and conflicts. I suppose mainly you have to be willing to want to give.”
Ronnie frequently sent Nancy love letters throughout their marriage. In 2001 Nancy published a collection of those treasured letters. They typically began with greetings such as “My Darling,” “Dear First Lady,” and “Dear Nancy Poo.” Ronnie wrote to her in July of 1953, “Man can’t live without a heart and you are my heart, by far the nicest thing about me and so very necessary. There would be no life without you nor would I want any.” In March of 1963, Ronnie wrote, “There is really just an ‘in between’ day. It is a day on which I love you three hundred and sixty five days more than I did a year ago and three hundred and sixty five less than I will a year from now.” Nancy had found a partner worthy of her loyalty, and the two made a great team, especially when Ronnie became interested in seeking political office.
Politics was a natural transition for Ronald Reagan. His interest in public service had been growing for several years, and in 1966 he was elected governor of California. Nancy supported her husband’s new career even though it meant living a very public life and a reduction in their income. Ronnie had earned a six-figure salary for several years while working in television, but in 1967 the governor of California earned only $40,000 a year. “I supported Ronnie’s decision to run for governor in 1966—not too much of a surprise,” Nancy explained. “I always supported him in whatever he wanted to do. But as the campaign began, I felt a little uncertain about my own life in the political arena. It was a new and unfamiliar world for me.”
The Reagans quickly adjusted to their new life in politics. Their favorite part was meeting new people each day and hearing their stories. “Ronnie and I now had new and different things to talk about every night at dinner,” Nancy recalls. “And yet, for us as a couple, the heart of our life had not changed, and in fact, it never did; nor did our private time together…. We still shared everything together.” Nancy fought hard to protect the private part of their lives. There were many people pulling her husband in different directions, and she tried to make sure that no one took advantage of him. “She’s a builder and defender of her own,” said Ronnie. “If you’ve seen a picture of a bear rearing up on its hind legs when its mate or one of its cubs is in danger, you have a pretty good idea of how Nancy responds to someone who she thinks is trying to hurt or betray one of hers.”
In 1981 when Ronnie became the fortieth president of the United States, the media began to wonder if his wife played too big of a role in his professional life. It was often suggested that Nancy was influencing government or foreign affairs. Some speculated that Ronnie and Nancy actually shared the presidential power. Nancy has always insisted that this perception was false. She had her own duties as First Lady. And she believed that her close relationship with her husband was both beneficial and important. Despite criticism from the press and others, the Reagans’ closeness, trust, and loyalty were a great comfort to both of them during his two terms as president. While other presidential marriages often became strained during the years spent in the White House, theirs flourished.
The Reagans, however, had their share of difficult times during the eight years that he served as president. The assassination attempt in 1981 was by far the most traumatic. Nancy spent several days wondering if her husband’s term in office would end the same way President Kennedy’s had 17 years earlier. Ronnie was shot on his seventieth day in office and he still had much to accomplish. After surviving surgery to remove the bullet, which was lodged one inch from his heart, Ronnie made a full recovery. For months after the shooting, Nancy protected her husband even more than usual, and she continued to worry throughout the remainder of his term. “I expected that the memory of the shooting would fade with time,” she said, “but it never has. For the rest of Ronnie’s presidency—almost eight more years—every time he left home, especially to go on a trip, it was as if my heart stopped until he got back.”
The next eight years brought other challenges and more trying times. Both of Nancy’s parents died, and she survived a bout with breast cancer. Ronnie survived colon and prostate cancer. “If Ronnie and I hadn’t been so close, I don’t know how we would have weathered the many sad and frightening experiences we had during the White House years,” said Nancy. Little did they know as they left the White House for the final time in 1989, their biggest challenge lay ahead of them.
After 20 years in public life, the Reagans returned to California to begin their retirement. In Nancy’s autobiography, published shortly after leaving the White House, she wrote, “And so as one door closes and another opens, we enter another phase of our lives. We’re both busy giving speeches…. Ronnie is busy with his memoirs, and we’re both getting reacquainted with California.” They were able to enjoy their retirement for the first few years, but when Nancy wrote those words she had no idea what the next phase of their life together would bring or what was waiting for them behind that next door.
In 1995 Ronnie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a debilitating illness that steadily robs the memory. As the mind continues to fade, sudden mood changes, violent episodes, loss of recognition, and an inability to reason become daily hurdles. The worst part of the disease comes when the patient is unable to recognize loved ones or recall any significant memories, no matter how special they may be. It was only after Ronnie’s diagnosis that the public came to truly understand the loyalty Nancy had to her husband and the bond that they shared. Millions of people came to admire Nancy as she continued to care for her husband as his illness progressed.
At that moment of Ronnie’s greatest weakness, Nancy remembered the vows that she had taken more than 40 years before—“for better, for worse, in sickness and in health”—and she never questioned what her role needed to be during her husband’s remaining years. She would take care of Ronnie, just as she always had. Nancy once said of her husband, “Everything was always fine as long as he was there.” Although Ronnie was physically with her for the next 10 years, it was not long before his memory and personality were gone. The Ronnie she knew and loved could not be seen anymore in the shell of a person that remained. Alzheimer’s is “really a very cruel disease, because for the caregiver, it’s a long goodbye,” said Nancy. Through it all, she pledged that she would, as always, remain by his side. “Theirs was an unalterable love,” one biographer wrote.
Nancy created a haven for Ronnie at their home in California. She was with him every day and ate dinner with him in his room every evening, even after he no longer recognized her. For 10 years she was his primary caregiver, rarely leaving the house for more than an hour or two at a time. She knew he found comfort in hearing her voice, even if that comfort came from a place buried deep within him.
During Ronnie’s final years, Nancy fiercely protected his privacy and dignity. She made sure that very few photos were taken or released during that time. She wanted the American people to remember Ronnie as a strong President, as the handsome former actor who led the country with conviction. She limited his visitors to only close friends and family. She knew that Ronnie would not want the world to see him in his diminished condition. Instead, to preserve his dignity, she bore most of the burden herself. “There are so many memories that I can no longer share,” she said, “which makes it very difficult. When it comes right down to it, you’re in it alone. Each day is difficult, and you get up, put one foot in front of the other and go—and love, just love,” Nancy said. This was Nancy’s life for 10 years.
Ronald Reagan passed away on June 5, 2004, with Nancy by his side. Even though he had not opened his eyes for months or been able to recognize Nancy for years, Ronnie looked into Nancy’s eyes for a few brief moments just before he died. It was as if he was saying “I love you and thank you” one last time. Then he was gone. Nancy described that last contact between them as “the greatest gift” he could have given her. Their daughter, Patti, described the moment like this: “It was his last act of love in this world and it was meant to cradle her until they are together again.”
Ronnie was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, overlooking the Santa Susana Mountains. He had loved the view from the hill, which is now his final resting place. On March 6, 2016, Nancy died and laid next to him. According to Patti, “They are laid to rest on a high hilltop, together as they were in life, a bit distanced from the rest of us because they were completed by each other.”
Robert Watson, a presidential historian, said, “If there was no Martha Washington, there would have been no George Washington, and I think Nancy deserves a lot of credit in Ronnie’s career—she was his promoter, supporter, cheerleader, pusher. And if it wasn’t for her, we might be mourning the man who had a decent role as George Gipp in the movie Knute Rockne instead of the most influential American political leader of the last 30 years.”
There will always be some speculation about just how influential Nancy was during Ronnie’s years in politics, but there is no doubt that her deep sense of loyalty, trust, and commitment strengthened him in his quest to be a great leader. Nancy found that same strength in her husband’s lifelong love when she stood by his bedside day after day and stayed true to the vows she had made decades earlier. “Shakespeare wrote plays about that kind of love,” says Patti. “Poets, songwriters, novelists, have tried to describe it.”
When Alzheimer’s took its toll on Ronald Reagan, it robbed him of the memory of being President of the United States. He no longer recognized lifelong friends, and sadly, he was completely unaware of his and Nancy’s fiftieth wedding anniversary on March 4, 2002. Whether he was able to comprehend it or not, however, it was Nancy’s love and loyalty that sustained him over the last 10 years of his life. Now that he is gone, it will be his love and their shared memories that will sustain Nancy.
Some parts of the Reagans’ relationship may sound old- fashioned, and they were. But the principles of cooperation, respect, patience, and loyalty still set the foundation for any solid marriage, even in the 21st century. The Reagans understood that it took hard work to make a successful marriage last, and neither was willing to call it quits when times got tough. Nancy and Ronnie were very deliberate about making their marriage a priority.