The Reagan Re-Entry : After Years in the Capital Fishbowl, the First Couple Hope to Find a Little Calm in a Much Changed L.A.

Times Staff Writers

In 1981, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan left the comforts of the West Coast to become the quintessential Washington outsiders taking over the White House, Mrs. Reagan says she and her husband felt as if they had been put under a public microscope.

Their lives became more harried and less private than even they had expected.

Everywhere they went, there were crowds--admirers and detractors, members of the press and presidential security. Their friends were barraged with questions about the First Family. What they ate, who they saw, where they went--these were matters of enormous public interest. The President and his wife even had matters of their personal health widely publicized during their illnesses and after the assassination attempt.

But after eight years of unrelenting pressure and scrutiny in the nation's capital, the Reagans now hope to return to a very different life in Southern California, a place that has undergone its own changes in the years since the First Couple have been gone.

New Lives in Bel-Air

So how will the Reagans fit in when they come home to Los Angeles? Who will they see and what will they do? What do they want in their new lives in Bel-Air and at the Santa Barbara ranch?

Peace and quiet mostly, the First Lady said.

"I know there's always going to be a little microscope (on us), but it won't be as concentrated as it is here," she said in a recent White House interview. "We won't have those television cameras at the ranch. We'll be spending most of the time at Bel-Air, but . . . we'll go to the ranch."

The President and the First Lady, however, also have made it clear that they hardly will disappear once they return to Los Angeles and shed their present, hard-won status as the ultimate Washington insiders.

Mrs. Reagan plans to campaign in the fight against cancer and continue her war against drugs from an office in the Nancy Reagan Center at Phoenix House, a 150-bed residential drug treatment facility planned near Pacoima. The President will have his office in Century City's Fox Plaza, where part of his time will be spent working on the Reagan Library and Republican Party affairs.

Books and Speeches

Both Reagans will write autobiographies and give speeches.

They also will renew ties with friends in a Los Angeles social scene that has changed considerably in their eight-year absence. They'll live in swank Bel-Air, becoming neighbors to Michael Jackson.

And there promises to be a spate of social and official events--including a major Valentine's welcome home bash for Nancy--wedged comfortably between the Reagans' respites at the Santa Barbara ranch.

"The first thing, I want to get myself settled in the house and that takes a little time. But I'm going to be very involved at the drug center. Very. I worked awfully hard for 7 1/2 years on that and I'm not about to give it up now."

Mrs. Reagan said she was uncertain about whether she would go to the office on a daily or weekly basis.

"That'll all work itself out. I can't say how often I'll be there," she said. "But I'll be very involved. I'll be giving speeches, probably on two things: drugs and cancer. And probably life in the White House, I would guess."

While the President will probably stay active in politics to some degree as the GOP's elder statesman, Mrs. Reagan speculated that she will try to steer clear of partisan causes.

"I don't know when I'm going to have time to be politically active. And I think after 20 years, I've really given my time," she said.

Plans already are jelling for the Valentine's Day gala that will welcome Nancy Reagan home.

Good friend Erlenne (Mrs. Norman) Sprague is chairing what she promises will be "a fabulous event for Nancy," a luncheon in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel with Adolfo (one of Mrs. Reagan's favorite designers) presenting his spring collection.

The event is being sponsored by the Colleagues to benefit the Children's Institute International for abused children and drug-addicted babies, and, Sprague said: "We're expecting at least 400. Many of (Nancy's) good friends will be there."

Among those she named were Mrs. Marion (Earle) Jorgensen, Mrs. Armand Deutsch, Mrs. William Doheny, Mrs. Thomas Trainer, Mrs. Henry Singleton, Mrs. George Scharffenberger, Mrs. Virginia Milner, Mrs. Thomas B. Jones.

Nancy Reagan is a member of the Colleagues, Sprague said, adding that "hopefully" she will be an active member once again.

Intimates say they expect the Reagans, after a period of rest and quiet, to do "a good amount of socializing" within a circle of longtime friends that includes members of the President's onetime "kitchen cabinet," the group largely responsible for his rise in Republican politics.

And "we wanted ours to be the first event," Sprague said. "Remember, so many of the girls in this group are her very close personal friends."

'Very Hot Item'

Sprague, who hosted the Distinguished Ladies Reception at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1980 in honor of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, said tickets for the Feb. 14 luncheon, at $100, are "a very hot item."

Various friends, near-friends and charities will be tugging at the Reagans for appearances and support, but Mrs. Reagan said her efforts will focus on drugs and cancer.

That does not preclude stepping out just for fun. The Reagans "will not be reclusive," said longtime friend Nancy Reynolds, a Washington consultant.

"I would certainly think she'll be able to get out more than she has in Washington," said one of their best friends, Charles Z. Wick, director of the U.S. Information Agency.

In Washington, Mrs. Reagan lunched occasionally at the Jockey Club with columnist George Will and a few other intimates, but such outings were rare. She was never able to leave on ordinary ventures.

"I think she'll look forward to going back to the Brentwood grocery store," said Reynolds. "I've been with Nancy Reagan when she's been in the Brentwood grocery store. I don't mean she goes once or twice a week. I don't know what their household arrangements are, but just the idea that you can drop by places, a museum, somebody's home, a grocery store, that you can go in there without a motorcade, she'll like.

"I'm sure they'll go to friends' houses for dinner, maybe six or eight people, and they'll have friends over. They'll probably go visit friends in other countries, but I don't see them as tourists. They might go see the (William) Wilsons, who have a ranch in Mexico, and the (Walter) Annenbergs in Palm Springs."

The social set the Reagans move in, composed to a great extent of self-made millionaires and their wives, has its favorite causes as well as its private clubs. These friends support the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Music Center, the Colleagues, St. John's Hospital.

Close friends include William A. and Betty Wilson (he's a former ambassador to the Vatican); William French Smith, the former attorney general, and his wife, Jean; and Betsy Bloomingdale, widow of New York department store heir and Diners' Club magnate Alfred Bloomingdale.

Reagan's Yearly Golf Game

The Rancho Mirage estate of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg (he heads a publishing empire and once served as ambassador to England; she is former chief of protocol) is the setting each New Year's Eve for a party attended by the Reagans. The estate also has been the site of Reagan's yearly golf game on the course contained on the grounds. Playing once a year, Reagan never tallied the kind of score that would give U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange anything to worry about.

"I'm sure his golf game will improve," Wick said jokingly. "But he's very virile and everyone exposed to him can't believe how well he looks and how vibrant he is."

The once socially active Holmes and Virginia Tuttle--he was a wealthy auto dealer who in 1981 was instrumental in raising money to refurbish the White House living quarters--have retired to Santa Barbara.

Some of the Reagans' close friends have died during their eight years in Washington--Jack and Bunny Wrather and Justin Dart, among them.

The group's clubs include Los Angeles Country Club, Bel-Air Country Club and the Bel-Air Bay Club. The Reagans are not members of any of the three, all of which have waiting lists.

Jim Brewer, manager of the prestigious L.A. Country Club, asked if there would be a place for the First Couple, laughed and said, "Beats me." Is there possibly a plan to offer them honorary membership? "Not to my knowledge," he said. "I have no comment."

Favorite Dining Spots

When they dine out, the Reagans' circle is partial to the Regency Club, Chasen's, the Bistro and Bistro Garden down the street, Jimmy's on the edge of Century City.

Rosemarie (Mrs. Robert) Stack, a Bel-Air neighbor, said of Nancy Reagan: "I'm sure she'll go to the Bistro, the old Bistro." Many of the women have their hair done at Yuki on Sunset Plaza. They wear Galanos, Valentino, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Adolfo. They buy their groceries at Gelson's in Century City and Vicente Foods in Brentwood.

To help her set up housekeeping in the three-bedroom, six-bath house, Mrs. Jorgensen, Mrs. Bloomingdale and Mrs. Deutsch recently hosted a kitchen shower for Nancy Reagan.

For about 20 years, including her years as First Lady, Julius Bengtsson of Beverly Hills has been Mrs. Reagan's Los Angeles hairdresser, traveling to Washington and around the world to bob and brush the First Curls for important events. He styled her hair for the Annie Leibowitz photograph of the Ronald Reagans on the cover of the December Vanity Fair, where they are smiling and declaring: "HAPPY TRAILS. We're Outta Here!"

Contacted just after his return from Washington, where he coiffed Mrs. Reagan for the state dinner honoring British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Bengtsson--who also does Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mrs. Walt Disney, Hope Lange and Candice Bergen--said he expects to be doing Mrs. Reagan's hair at least once a week and "I suppose I'll be going to her house." (In the White House, there was a beauty salon.)

No, she does not have a standing appointment, he said, adding: "It will just depend on her schedule." One thing will remain constant, he said: "She needs her color done every three weeks."

There is little chance the First Lady in retirement will "fritter her life away at the Bistro," believes Suzanne Zada, a friend who for years numbered Mrs. Reagan among clients at her Beverly Hills skin salon.

Zada said she is certain that Mrs. Reagan, having "paid her dues" with her dedication to fighting drug abuse, will not abandon that now.

She said she has observed in Mrs. Reagan, who will be be 68 next July, that sense of making each day count, commonly seen in people who, like the First Lady, have had a brush with a life-threatening illness.

Some of Nancy Reagan's time will probably be spent with author Bill Novak, who has been working with her at the White House on her autobiography, due for publication by Random House in the fall or winter of 1989.

The project is "chugging along," said Random House publicist Carol Schneider, adding: "I would imagine you can expect some revelations. Whether they will be stunning or not, I can't say."

Mrs. Reagan said that her book will encompass her entire life, going back to her childhood. She will explain, for the first time in detail, her interest in astrology. Also, she said, "I'll talk about staff and my so-called influence in the White House. I don't know whether you'll be shocked or not."

Reagan will be working closely with Edmund Morris, once Morris completes the second volume of his Teddy Roosevelt biography, on a Presidential biography Random House plans to publish in 1991, the year his 80th birthday will be observed.

Mrs. Reagan will make appearances on behalf of cancer awareness, a cause for which she has shown interest since undergoing removal of a cancerous breast in October, 1987. (The President earlier had undergone surgery for colon cancer.)

But the Nancy Reagan Center will probably command the lion's share of her time, especially in fund raising. "We expect that Mrs. Reagan is going to be actively involved," said Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, president of the Phoenix House Foundation, which runs nine other drug treatment facilities in New York and California. "We plan that she will have an office there, that she will be there on a regular basis, that we will plan certain events around her."

When he first approached Mrs. Reagan about involvement, Rosenthal said, "she never envisioned this as (just) lending her name."

The center will be involved in education and research, he said, and "I would think Mrs. Reagan would participate in seminars and in any number of events" involving adolescents and adults recovering from drug abuse.

The goal is for the center to open in summer 1989. Reacting to opposition from homeowners in the neighborhood, Phoenix House had considered another location but, Rosenthal said, "It's unlikely that it will change. We have located an ideal site (the old Lake View Medical Center)."

If Mrs. Reagan is to be truly involved, he said, "it can't be any great distance away" from where she will live.

Site acquisition and minor remodeling of the existing medical facility will take an estimated $10 million. "To date, with both money in hand and pledges, we have about $4.5 million," Rosenthal said, adding that the Reagans' friend, Merv Griffin, who is chairing the campaign in Los Angeles, has raised "a large part" of that.

On Jan. 4, Barron Hilton will jump the gun by hosting a welcome-home party for the Reagans at the Beverly Hilton and is guaranteeing that, with help from the Conrad Hilton Foundation, if needed, the black-tie party will raise $1 million for the drug center. Griffin has lined up the entertainment, which will include Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles.

Reagan Library in the Works

Meanwhile, the President in retirement will be involved with plans for the $43-million Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, for which he helped break ground on a 100-acre site in the Simi Valley on Nov. 21. William French Smith is chairman of the library foundation's board of directors, which has raised $34 million in private donations, $20 million of that in pledges.

The library, when it opens in 1991, will house official White House records and personal papers donated by the President and Nancy Reagan, as well as films and videotapes of the Reagan years.

Is there a movie in actor Ronald Reagan's future? It's unlikely. One of the supermarket tabloids recently reported that Warren Beatty was making a Dick Tracy film and had offered Reagan a villain's role.

But Beatty, asked about it, dismissed the report as "one of the many inventions of those publications." Would he be interested in making a film with Reagan? "I like him very much, very much," Beatty said. "I just don't see why he would be interested in doing a movie."

Said good friend Wick: "I would be very skeptical about the chances of him appearing in anything other than a home movie."

But Citizens for America, a group organized in 1983 as Reagan's privately funded grass-roots lobby with help from longtime confidant Jack Hume of San Francisco, does hope to use the President's talents as a communicator. The President, said chairman Dr. Donald Devine, has agreed to become honorary chairman after he leaves office.

Citizens for America volunteers in 150 chapters across the country have made it their job to lobby for such Reagan programs and policies as the Grenada rescue operation and funding for the MX missile.

Their function after Ronald Reagan leaves the White House?

"We haven't set out the precise mission," Devine said, "but basically our mission will be to support Ronald Reagan's policies in the George Bush Administration." He added: "We'd love to get Ronald Reagan to do a couple of videocassettes on the issues" for public access television.

Devine said he hopes to meet with the President soon to discuss his role. "There has been some talk of trying to resume the President's radio show under Citizens for America auspices. Of course, we'd love that."

On StarLine Tours' map of the stars' homes, 668 St. Cloud Road now carries the notation: "The Bel-Air Home of Ron and Nancy Reagan."

Theirs is the only star attraction on St. Cloud, said Gina Williamson, who staffs StarLine's booth at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, but the $1.25 guide also directs gawkers to once-or-present homes of Bill Cosby, James Stewart, Gene Kelly and Chevy Chase.

Vans carrying tourists up into Bel-Air, past tiled and turreted mansions discreetly tucked behind electric gates, slow as they pass the fork of St. Cloud and Bel-Air roads, to give the tourists a good look. And neighbors navigating the narrow, curving road in their Jaguars and BMWs slow to avoid hitting construction vehicles lined up outside 668.

But for the Reagans, who had hoped for an abundance of privacy in their new lives, all the current hustle and bustle near their new home--especially the gawking by tourists--ought not to be too disquieting.

StarLine's Williamson, for example, reports that most of their clients are Japanese and "no one is really that interested" in the Reagans. "They want to know where Michael Jackson lives and where Elvis Presley lived with Priscilla."

For a time, rumors circulated that Mrs. Reagan was not completely satisfied with the 7,192-square-foot Bel-Air house, but she said such talk is unfounded.

"I don't know how this rumor started, that I didn't like the house, that this was just a temporary thing, that I really wanted a larger house," she said. "I said from the very beginning, I don't want a big house, I don't want big grounds, I don't want the trouble with the maintenance and all of that."

The Reagans should fit right into the block. Their new neighbors will not be overwhelmed by celebrity. As real estate agent Jeff Hyland of Hyland Alvarez Young put it, "He's just another President moving into the neighborhood," which is home to assorted entrepreneurs and millionaires such as Jerry Perrenchio, the movie mogul who will be the Reagans' only next-door neighbor.

Two years ago, Perrenchio--once Norman Lear's partner--bought for $13.5 million the Kirkeby Estate, best known as the Clampetts' home on "The Beverly Hillbillies." Of formidable size, it sits on a knoll behind gates guarded by a pair of stone lions.

By contrast, the home bought by 18 longtime friends as the Reagans' post-presidential residence is a modest, by old (i.e., East Gate) Bel-Air standards, '50-ish shingle-roofed salmon-pink stucco ranch-style house on a split lot; at $2.5 million, it was picked up, Hyland said, for land value. The Reagans have a three-year lease with an option to buy or re-lease.

Escalating Westside property values all but guarantee that the 18 investors, known collectively as Wall Management Services Inc., can sell 668 St. Cloud in three years at a tidy profit. Hyland noted that the Pacific Palisades home sold by the Reagans for $1 million when they moved into the White House recently resold for $2 million and "the owners didn't do a thing to it."

Marlin Fitzwater, the President's press secretary, has explained that, because a blind trust was set up for Reagan when he took office, "this lease allows them to make further decisions about the home once the President is out of office and has exact knowledge of (his) assets and income."

Together, Reagan's gubernatorial and presidential pensions alone will give him an annual income of about $130,000.

Terms of his home lease have not been disclosed, but Hyland said that, fixed up, the house has a fair market rental value that could be "considerably more" than $20,000 a month.

Interior designer Ted Graber, who had a hand in redoing the private quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for the Reagans, is overseeing the refurbishing of the President's Century City office and their Bel-Air home, where he is incorporating family furniture being shipped from the White House.

The decoration of the house "is coming along fine, I hope," said Mrs. Reagan. "It's awfully hard to do 3,000 miles away."

Beginning in 1984, Hyland and partner Juan Alvarez had shown a number of properties to Reagan "scouts," including Mrs. Jorgensen and interior designer Graber of Santa Monica. "But everything we came up with was too much money," Hyland said. Ultimately, 668 was bought directly from the elderly owner, Ruth Kroger.

"We were very lucky, really, " Mrs. Reagan said, "that the house was owned by a lady whose husband was a doctor who knew my father, and the grandchildren had gone to school with my children. And she died within a week of my mother. So it almost seems like it was meant to be. I'm very happy with it."

Always, Hyland said, he was told by house hunters that what the Reagans wanted most was "privacy, privacy, privacy." He observed, "Funny, this house is really not all that private."

That, however, is changing. A high chain-link fence, discreetly wired, has been superimposed on a low rock wall. Instant hedges shield the residence from the road below. And a guard is on duty in a kiosk that has gone up just inside the gate. Cameras are in place atop the pink brick chimney and in discreet locations around the 1.2-acre grounds.

Brass numbers on a new black rural-style mailbox at the curb identify the property as "668." Originally, the house was 666 St. Cloud but because 666 is the symbol of the anti-Christ in the Bible, the new occupants opted to arrange with the city for the change.

The Reagans' new home will be only about a 15-minute drive from Santa Monica, where their author-actress daughter Patti Davis and her husband, Paul Grilley, live. Grilley is a yoga instructor operating out of Studio West on chic Montana Avenue.

Mrs. Reagan is hoping that moving to California will help close a gap that has existed between them for about a year, dating to Patti's failure to attend the funeral of Mrs. Reagan's mother. Since then, there has been "no relationship," Mrs. Reagan said.

On the other hand, friends observe that Mrs. Reagan has become very close in the last eight years to Maureen Reagan, the President's older daughter from his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, possibly because Maureen was a key ally to her father in the 1984 campaign in closing the gender gap.

The closeness between Maureen and Mrs. Reagan "is wonderful," Mrs. Reagan said. "No, it isn't surprising. (Before) she was never around. She was out of town, she was in another part of the world. Now she lives most of the time here at the White House. So I'm very happy. And Michael and I are closer, which I am very happy about."

Michael, who with his family lives in Sherman Oaks, had a public feud with his parents over the small amount of time they spent with him but that since has been smoothed over. Mrs. Reagan always has enjoyed a close relationship with her son, Ron, who lives with his wife, Doria, in Los Angeles.

President and Mrs. Reagan, like others who have lived away from Los Angeles for a few years, will find a city that has changed.

A case in point is the modern history of the old Jeanette MacDonald house at 783 Bel-Air Road, close by the Reagans' new home. Its owners since MacDonald's death in 1965 have included the Mamas and the Papas, and Sly Stone.

Recently, the house was sold for $5 million by Andrew and Bettina Bancroft Klink to a Japanese investor who also bought the house next door for $7 million. Mrs. Klink said she understands "our house is to be occupied by his sister or his mother."

A local newspaper quoted Mrs. Klink as saying they had decided to sell because the arrival of the Reagans "will just ruin the neighborhood." Pure fiction, "ridiculous," she said, observing: "Obviously, having the Secret Service around doesn't make a neighborhood bad."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°