It seems hard to believe that Nancy Reagan, the former First Lady best known for her love of expensive clothes and elegant parties, could have played a central role in fashioning the policies of the Reagan Administration.
During her eight years in the White House, she showed little interest in policy. Unlike Rosalynn Carter, she did not attend Cabinet meetings. Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, she showed no genuine grasp of the issues of the day. And she certainly never took charge of the government the way Edith Wilson did when her husband, Woodrow, fell ill. And yet Kitty Kelley, author of a scandalous new book entitled “Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography” (Simon and Schuster), insists that former President Ronald Reagan’s doe-eyed wife was the most influential First Lady in American history.
“She was our President for eight years,” Kelley, who also has written tell-all books about Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor, stated in a weekend interview. “If you ask me what’s the best thing I can say about Mrs. Reagan, I’d say, ‘She was a good President.’ ”
The much-ballyhooed book thus seriously challenges what long has been the conventional wisdom about Nancy Reagan’s role at the White House. And in so doing, it adds to the already burgeoning historical record of President Reagan’s many failures to fully take command of his own Administration and deals yet another blow to his place in history.
But Kelley’s assessment of behind-the-scenes White House policy is only a thin veneer of seriousness spread over an acid portrait of the First Lady and her husband that emphasizes sex and sleaze. To be sure, many people are mostz likely to buy the book, which goes on sale today, to read Kelley’s allegations about Mrs. Reagan’s longterm affair with Sinatra or her assertions that Reagan had numerous sexual encounters with other women--including one woman’s claim that she was date-raped in the early 1950s by the Hollywood actor.
Kelley’s four-year project, based on more than 1,000 interviews with family members, former staff members and friends of the Reagans, also claims that:
* Despite her own desire for expensive clothes, Nancy Reagan was a cheapskate who routinely recycled gifts she received by giving them to others, sent bills for her hairdresser’s air fare to the Republican National Committee and refused to pay taxes on the closets of clothes she solicited for herself from American designers.
* Mrs. Reagan has a vicious streak that Kelley believes is something akin to that of former President Richard M. Nixon, who maintained an “enemies list.” As Kelley tells it, the first time that Nancy Reagan saw Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, criticizing the President on television, she snapped to an aide: “You get her.”
* She frequently disparaged then-Vice President George Bush behind his back as weak and spineless, according to Kelley. The author says that the First Lady nicknamed Bush “Whiny” and often peddled to her friends a long-discredited rumor that Bush was having an affair with one of his aides.
* Mrs. Reagan’s well-publicized campaign against drug abuse was “a fraud,” according to one former White House aide, Shirley Watkins. Even though the First Lady used the issue to improve her image, she routinely spurned anyone who came to her seeking advice about dealing with drug abuse.
The Reagans have refused to comment on any of the allegations. Moreover, Sheila Tate, Mrs. Reagan’s former press secretary, said she doubts that the Reagans or their friends would read the nearly 600-page book.
Kelley, 48, insists that President Reagan’s former aides, as well as Mrs. Reagan herself, intentionally minimized the influence that the First Lady wielded in the White House.
Throughout Reagan’s eight years in office, top White House aides insisted that the First Lady’s influence was confined to personnel matters and to the scheduling of the President. In their memoirs, former Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and former Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver both complained that Mrs. Reagan plagued them with demands for schedule changes and insisted that they fire people who displeased her.
Kelley agrees that Mrs. Reagan controlled the schedule, but she portrays it as a device for controlling the President himself: For example, when Sen. Orrin K. Hatch (R-Utah) sought a meeting with Reagan in order to persuade him to grant a pardon to Oliver L. North, the key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, Mrs. Reagan nixed the idea simply by scratching Hatch’s name from the President’s schedule.
“I asked somebody, ‘How does it work?’ ” Kelley recalled in the interview.
“Well, they said, first Nancy tells the President what she wants done. Usually it’s done; he’ll do it. But on occasion, they said, he was like a truculent child, he might say, ‘No, I won’t do it.’ Well, she’ll get it done. When she did hit him head on and he resisted, she then would go out and have other people do it. She would bring in the reserves.”
Moreover, Kelley asked, “What are they going to do, stand forward and say, ‘This man (we) followed, carrying the flag of the Reagan revolution, was a puppet in his wife’s hands, can’t get anything done, took naps all the time; she’s the one that called the shots?’
“No, they’re not going to say that. They are going to say, ‘Well, she addressed herself to just personnel.’ ”
Mrs. Reagan’s impact on policy included the highest levels of foreign affairs as well. Like other writers before her, Kelley asserts that President Reagan sought an arms-control summit in 1986 with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev primarily because his wife believed that it would bolster his flagging reputation in the second term. But the Kelley book provides a fresh anecdote:
When the President’s aides gave him a detailed agenda for his first meeting with Gorbachev, according to Kelley, Reagan did not look at it.
“Have you shown this to Nancy?” he asked.
“No, sir,” the aide replied.
“Well,” Reagan said, “get back to me after she’s passed on it.”
Although the book provides some new and salacious details, it does not largely deviate from the standard portrayal of Nancy Reagan that has appeared in the media ever since she arrived in Washington, hand in hand with her husband, more than a decade ago.
Kelley paints her as a petty, self-absorbed, conniving woman, although unlike many modern biographers, she makes little effort to delve into the psychology behind Mrs. Reagan’s behavior.
There is no explanation, for example, of why a woman who can show a great deal of compassion for drug-addicted, hospitalized children apparently has no sympathy for the foibles of her own offspring.
Yet perhaps the most devastating part of the book deals with Mrs. Reagan’s refusal to embrace her own personal history.
Born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1923, she not only changed her name to Nancy Davis when she was 17, but she also gradually revised virtually every detail of her heritage and childhood.
“Nancy Reagan spent so many years redesigning the facts of her life that she came to accept her masquerade as real,” Kelley writes. “By the time she became First Lady, the mask had become the face. History was about to be deceived.”
Kelley believes that Mrs. Reagan saw nothing wrong with inventing herself anew, primarily because her mother, Edith Luckett Davis, an actress, had undergone a similar transformation. A bawdy, gregarious woman, Edith Davis routinely lied about her age and her birthplace.
Perhaps the cruelest part of Mrs. Reagan’s revisionist background was her portrayal of her real father, Kenneth Robbins, a life insurance agent. She falsely asserted he was a Princeton University graduate from a well-to-do family, at the same time claiming he was a ne’er-do-well who deserted her at birth.
According to relatives who talked to Kelley, Nancy Reagan conveniently forgot all of the efforts of her father to keep in touch with her after her mother married Loyal Davis, a hidebound physician whom Nancy adored.
Meanwhile, although sex sells books, Kelley insists her accounts of the sexual adventures of Nancy and Ronald Reagan are meant to do more than just stimulate or shock the reader. This was a First Couple, she reminds us, that stood firmly for family values.
“It goes to the very heart and soul of hypocrisy,” Kelley says. “These are people who have created themselves and became our moral arbiters. This was a First Lady who took a very strong stand on moral issues.”
Kelley’s book is a veritable catalogue of names of prominent Hollywood men with whom Nancy Davis allegedly had sexual relations during her career as a starlet in the early 1940s. It contends that she had a long-running affair with producer Benny Thau, who helped get her into the movies, although her film career never really took off.
Sinatra and Mrs. Reagan are alleged to have begun an affair in 1970, when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election as governor of California. It reportedly began with a trip to Chicago, where the two shared a hotel room, and continued into the White House, where the pair was known to have enjoyed long, private luncheons together.
Kelley, who engaged in a bitter legal battle with Sinatra before the publication of her earlier biography about him, believes the presidency was compromised because the singer, who has been linked to organized-crime figures, had such entree to the Executive Mansion.
As for Ronald Reagan’s alleged dalliances, they seem to have been confined to his younger years, before his arrival in Washington in 1981.
Selene Walters, then a blonde actress who later was romantically linked to the Shah of Iran, told Kelley that Reagan forced himself on her in the early 1950s, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
When she accused him of rape, she said, he replied: “Oh, I couldn’t help myself. Don’t worry about a thing. I’m going to call you and we’re going to go out, and then we’ll talk some more about your career.”
A short time later, she read he was going to marry Nancy Davis, who was already pregnant with their first child, Patti.
Kelley also contends that Ronald Reagan continued to see one of his longtime girlfriends, actress Christine Larson, after he married Nancy and that he was even with her when Patti was born. As Kelley puts it, “When his wife gave birth, Reagan was not with her in the hospital because he was with Christine Larson. In tears, he told her that he felt his life was ruined.”
Years later, a woman named Patricia Taylor recounts that she was seduced by then-Gov. Reagan at a party in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, when she was 18.
Many of Kelley’s assertions appear based on unsubstantiated evidence, however.
For example, she quotes Sheldon Davis, a former Diners’ Club employee, as saying that the Reagans were among a group of people who smoked marijuana at a party in the late 1960s at the home of Alfred Bloomingdale. But in the footnotes at the back of the book, one of the party-goers is also quoted as saying: “Big deal if he did pass a joint. But he didn’t.”
Kelley clearly expects to be accused of fabricating much of her material, particularly the allegation of an affair between Mrs. Reagan and Sinatra. But she insists she comes as close as any author can to verifying something that might have happened entirely in private.
“I bring you up to the bedroom door,” she says. “I don’t go behind the bedroom door. . . . But I can tell you that he went up there all the time--3 1/2-, four-hour lunches, where the lights were low and his music was playing, and all phone calls were held, including those of the President of the United States. What were they doing behind closed doors?”