UPDATED 11:43 AM with funeral news: Nancy Reagan, wife of President Ronald Reagan and one of the most popular — and controversial — First Ladies in modern American history, has died at 94 of congestive heart failure. The one-time Broadway and Hollywood actress (and sometime trend-setting style icon) died at her Los Angeles home, according to her spokeswoman Joanne Drake. She will be buried March 11 next to her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, CA. The service is private but will be televised.
Throughout the years of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as President, from the beginning of 1981 through the beginning of 1989, Nancy Reagan exerted unparalleled influence over her husband’s White House, advising him on matters ranging from his Cabinet choices to, well, his cabinets, period. She drew fire for both, whether it was the decision to dismiss Chief of Staff Donald Regan after the embarrassment of the Iran-Contra scandal or the nearly $1 million in private contributions solicited for a White House makeover that included $200,000 for new china.
A nimble social operator with a long memory and a ferocious sense of loyalty, Nancy Reagan also was essential in returning a sense of glamor to the White House that had been absent since the era of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy. Like Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan was determined to sculpt her husband’s term in the popular consciousness. As Jackie had come up with Camelot as a metaphor JFK’s one-thousand days (smartly appropriating the hit Broadway show running at the same time), so Nancy refined her husband’s image as a Shane-like stone, quiet guardian of homespun values.
A sense of formality was restored to White House affairs and the Reagans used their social contacts across the DC beltway and the Hollywood power elite to put on a display of Conservative culture and taste. They adorned the cover of Vanity Fair magazine at least four times, typically in formal attire and addressed as “Ronnie and Nancy.” Even photographed on horseback at their ranch, the Reagan’s exuded comfortable taste. Their last VF cover was headlined, “Happy Trails To You” as the couple seemed to ride off, Hollywood style, into the sunset.
Nancy Reagan continued to operate quietly with lifelong friends in old line, if diminishing, Hollywood establishment after the Reagans left the White House. That was especially true in the aftermath of her husband’s public announcement — which she had encouraged — that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She emerged from her husband’s shadow, but never at the expense of the carefully cultivated image she had striven so diligently to create.
The former Nancy Davis was born July 6, 1921. She began performing in East Coast summer stock productions after graduating from Smith College in 1943. A Broadway debut in Lute Song opposite Yul Brynner and Mary Martin led to a Hollywood screen test, though legend has it that director George Cukor quickly passed judgement, and it wasn’t good: No talent, he told studio heads. Even so, she landed a small part in the 1949 Barbara Stanwyck-starrer East Side, West Side and had roles in The Next Voice You Hear and Night Into Morning.
In all, she’d appear in 11 films. She met Ronald Reagan when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and she sought advice about dealing with a possibly career-ending mention in a red baiting publication. The Reagans married in 1952 and appeared together in her final film, 1957’s Hellcats of The Navy. At the small ceremony in Studio City, the witnesses were William Holden and his wife Ardis.
Hollywood celebrities and Reagan friends began tweeting their responses today: