In a service filled with stories and humor, mourners joined Friday to memorialize Nancy Reagan, recalling an influential former first lady who was stylish, tough, tender, her husband’s fiercest protector.
Beneath a gray sky at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, hundreds of guests came to pay their respects to Reagan, who died at her Bel-Air home Sunday at 94. She was interred beside her husband, the nation’s 40th president, with whom she was inseparable in life.
Those paying respects reflected a life of broad experience, from Hollywood’s Golden Age to the White House, where she and her husband presided over what some have described as a conservative Camelot.
First Lady Michelle Obama, George W. and Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton sat side by side, and celebrities such as Mr. T, actor Tom Selleck, singer Johnny Mathis and newsman Tom Brokaw were in also attendance.
Reagan was eulogized as a romantic, but with a steely spine.
Her daughter, Patti Davis, recalled that in the months before her husband died, Nancy Reagan told her family she simply had to be at his side during his last living moments.
Davis faced her mother’s famous resolve with patience, telling her that was in God’s hands. But, sure enough, when Ronald Reagan took his last breath in 2004, Nancy was there, as she always was.
“Even God might not have the guts to argue with Nancy Reagan,” Davis told mourners and dignitaries. At a funeral in which she had planned every detail, down to the readings and the white peonies (her favorite flower) piled atop her coffin, Nancy Reagan was recalled as a woman who could be both charming and difficult, but who always was wholly devoted to her husband.
That Reagan, a former actress, most valued her role of wife was evident from the first Scripture reading from the book of Proverbs: “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.”
The crowd let out an “aww” at the reading of a letter to Reagan from her beloved "Ronnie" on Christmas 1981. In the note, read aloud by former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the president told his wife that there were “several much beloved women” in his life.
There was the nest builder, who, if stuck three days in a hotel room, would “manage to make it home sweet home.” There was the “sentimental lady” whose eyes filled easily with tears but who had a laugh like tinkling bells. There was his first lady, who brought grace even to “stuffy, formal functions,” turning them to fun.
“I’m also crazy about the girl who goes to the ranch with me,” Ronald Reagan wrote. She was a “peewee power house” at pushing over dead trees, and she was nice to have sitting beside him next to a fire.
“Fortunately, all these women in my life are you,” he wrote. “I love the whole gang of you – Mommie, first lady, sentimental you, the fun you, and the peewee powerhouse you.”
He signed it, “Lucky me.”
Nancy Reagan saved love notes from her husband in a shopping bag in a closet, James A. Baker, Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff, said in a eulogy. She would slip notes with jelly beans in with the clothes in his suitcase. While he was away, she would knit him socks, and he would write her every night.
But while she was a romantic, she was also “as tough as a Marine drill sergeant,” Baker said, calling Nancy Reagan her husband’s closest advisor and fiercest protector. The president’s aides, he said, learned to always keep her informed and to seek her support.
Her son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, echoed that sentiment.
“My father was inclined to believe that everyone was basically good,” he said. “My mother didn’t share that inclination, and she didn’t have that luxury. In my mother’s world, you were either helpful to her husband, or you were not.”
Ronald Prescott Reagan said his mother “was not always the easiest person to deal with” and could be demanding and difficult – but usually only so her husband didn’t have to be. When it came down to it, he said, “you couldn’t ask for a more loyal or dedicated friend.”
When the library was built, the Reagans decided they wanted to be buried together on the west side of the property, facing the Pacific Ocean. Ronald Prescott Reagan said that from there his parents would be resting in each other’s arms. His voice quavered as he imagined them watching the sunsets and his father telling his mother that the city lights below were her jewels.
“From here, she will be able to keep an eye on things,” he said, laughing. Before long, there might be tales of a “petite, Chanel-clad spirit” roaming the halls of the library, making sure things are running smoothly.
In the weeks after Ronald Reagan died, Nancy Reagan told Davis that she thought she heard his footsteps coming down the hall and that he would appear to her, long after midnight, and visit with her. It eased her loneliness, made her feel that he was near.
Over time, Davis said the visits ceased, but Reagan never stopped missing him, often turning on the television so the noise would fill the lonely silence.
After a group of uniformed military pallbearers moved Reagan’s casket outdoors, near the burial space, her son and daughter stood beside it, just before a rainstorm began.
As a choir sang “God Bless America,” Ronald Prescott Reagan kissed the palm of his hand and patted his mother’s casket.