Pat Nixon Dies; Model Political Wife Was 81 : First Lady: She quietly stood by the former President through the heights and depths of his career.
Patricia Ryan Nixon, the poised, gracious, model political wife through the roller-coaster rises and disgraceful fall of former President Richard Nixon’s turbulent career, died Tuesday at their home in Park Ridge, N.J. She was 81.
Mrs. Nixon, a heavy smoker although she never permitted herself to be seen smoking in public, died of lung cancer. She had suffered from lung disease for several years and was hospitalized last February for emphysema when the cancer was discovered.
Nixon and their daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, were at her bedside when she died at 5:45 a.m. EDT, according to a statement from Nixon’s New Jersey office.
For three decades Pat Nixon was always there, the loyal and sometimes obviously suffering wife standing stoically behind her husband as he pursued a career that took him to the unprecedented heights--and depths--of public life.
The former First Lady cried only twice in public--when her husband lost his 1960 bid for the presidency to John F. Kennedy, and when he made his farewell speech on Aug. 9, 1974, after the Watergate scandal forced him to resign.
She once said her “only goal” was to “go down in history as the wife of a President.”
Her reclusive years after leaving the White House have been described as “Garboesque,” with her resorting to wigs and disguises to go shopping. She suffered a major stroke in 1976, which her husband attributed to her reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days” about Watergate. She had another stroke in 1983 and had been in frail health for years.
“She cherishes the privacy of her retirement years,” daughter Julie wrote in her loving 1986 biography, “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” which strove to establish her mother’s accomplishments as the most widely traveled First Lady in history with trips to 80 nations, her laudable addition of antiques to the White House and her promotion of volunteerism.
One of Mrs. Nixon’s last public appearances was in Yorba Linda on July 19, 1990, for the dedication of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, and at a dinner that night for 1,600 friends at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. The library, where her memorial services will be conducted Saturday, includes a Pat Nixon room and grounds planted with the red-black Pat Nixon Rose developed by a French firm in 1972 when she was First Lady.
“She is a true, unsung hero of the Nixon Administration and our country owes her a great debt of gratitude,” former President Ronald Reagan said at the dedication. He echoed that appraisal in a statement Tuesday.
California Gov. Pete Wilson said, “She was a woman of great strength and generous spirit. In time of trial and turmoil, she shared that strength and spirit not just with her family, but with the nation.” Wilson will deliver one of her eulogies Saturday. “She never sought public life, but she met its obligations with dignity and unfaltering good cheer.”
President Clinton saluted Mrs. Nixon on Tuesday as “a quiet pioneer whose concern for family and country will leave a lasting mark on history.”
Former President George Bush, noting that Mrs. Nixon’s Secret Service code name was “Starlight,” has called her “a gracious First Lady who ranks among the most admired women of postwar America.”
In addition to her considerable presence at the Nixon Library and Birthplace, Mrs. Nixon’s childhood home in Cerritos has been made into the four-acre Pat Nixon Park.
Thelma Catherine Ryan was born March 16, 1912, in the mining town of Ely, Nev.
Her father, William Ryan, was, in Mrs. Nixon’s words, “100% Irish”; he nicknamed her “Pat” because she was born on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. The nickname stuck so well that, disliking Thelma, she later had her name changed to Patricia.
Ryan had been a miner in Nevada, but when their baby girl was a year old, the family moved to Artesia, a small town about 18 miles from Los Angeles, where they ran a 10 1/2-acre truck farm.
Pat was only 13 when her mother died, leaving her to cook and care for her father and two half-brothers. Five years later, her father died.
Pat Ryan had just graduated from Excelsior Union High School and knew she would have to finance her own further education.
She began by attending Fullerton Junior College, paying her way by working at the National Bank of Artesia. A year later, she drove an elderly couple in their “huge and ancient” Packard across country to New York City, where she worked as a secretary, X-ray technician and store clerk.
Savings in hand, she returned to enroll at USC, where she specialized in merchandising, and worked in the cafeteria and library and as a model and movie extra. She was graduated in 1937, with honors. Because of the Depression, she abandoned plans to become a department store buyer, and settled for a job teaching commercial subjects at Whittier High School at $190 a month.
Trying out for a part in a play with a little-theater group in Whittier, she met a young lawyer named Nixon. He told her immediately that he planned to marry her, but it took him two years to persuade her. On June 21, 1940, they were married in a Quaker service at the Mission Inn in Riverside. They set up housekeeping in an apartment over a garage and Pat Nixon kept teaching.
Then came World War II, and Richard Nixon obtained a Navy commission. Mrs. Nixon followed her husband from post to post around the country, working as a bank teller in Ottumwa, Iowa, and finally taking a government job in San Francisco in 1943.
Richard Nixon returned from the war with political ambitions, and the couple’s carefully tended nest egg--which Mrs. Nixon hoped would buy a house--helped finance his first political campaign.
The 1946 campaign was successful, and the future President won a seat in Congress just a few months after their first daughter, Patricia (Tricia) Nixon, was born. The Nixons moved to Washington, settling in a cramped duplex where their second child, Julie, was born.
Nixon served two terms as a member of the House of Representatives.
In 1950, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate after defeating three-term congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in one of the most vitriolic campaigns in California history. Playing on her McCarthy-era votes against funding for the House Un-American Activities Committee and her opposition to contempt citations for the “Hollywood 10,” Nixon branded Mrs. Douglas “soft on communism.” She was dubbed the “pink lady” and her political career was ruined. The late Mrs. Douglas achieved a measure of satisfaction during Nixon’s dark Watergate days when bumper stickers appeared stating, “Don’t Blame Me--I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.”
The Nixon family moved into a comfortable home in Spring Valley in suburban Washington, where Sen. Nixon’s public relations staff pictured Mrs. Nixon as the “perfect wife and mother,” enjoying cooking, housecleaning and pressing her husband’s pants.
“I really did like those things,” she said years later. “And when he was nominated for vice president in 1952, I really hoped he might not accept.”
But she was graciously effective on the campaign trail, and the candidate could always count on rousing applause when he introduced her: “All right . . . I’m controversial. But here’s Pat!” Nixon dedicated his first book, “My Six Crises,” to her: “To Pat: She also ran.”
Her goodwill and disposition earned general admiration. The Gallup poll named her among the nation’s most admired women in 1957, ‘68, ‘69, ’70 and ‘71; Homemakers Forum selected her as the “Nation’s Ideal Housewife” in 1957.
The first big problem to test her much-admired serenity came during the 1952 vice presidential campaign; Nixon’s honesty was questioned because of his acceptance of an $18,000 fund for political expenses.
Defending himself on television in what came to be known as the “Checkers speech,” Nixon mentioned his wife several times, noting:
“It isn’t very much, but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this: that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
The next major ordeal came a year later when she accompanied the new vice president to Caracas, Venezuela, and encountered a screaming, spitting, rock-throwing mob.
One demonstrator grabbed Mrs. Nixon by the hand and shouted in her face. She tried to smile and remain composed while an aide helped her into a waiting limousine, where she sat looking straight ahead and showing no alarm as infuriated youths dented the car with stones and sticks and smeared the windows with eggs and spit.
In 1960, television viewers who watched Nixon concede victory to John F. Kennedy in the presidential election saw tears in Mrs. Nixon’s eyes. But she admitted a secret delight in the return to private life in California.
Two years later her husband ran, unsuccessfully, for governor of California. The Nixons moved from Bel-Air to a 10-room cooperative apartment on 5th Avenue in New York City, where Nixon saw greater professional opportunity as a lawyer.
The Nixon daughters attended school in Manhattan and Nixon’s income was reported in the $200,000-per-year bracket. Above all, they lived privately. And Pat Nixon loved it.
It took a great effort of will, she openly admitted, to return to public life six years later when her husband made yet another try for the presidency. But she again immersed herself in politics, and with her help, Nixon at last became President.
As First Lady, she entertained conscientiously, with an emphasis on the formality and protocol that was lacking in the two previous administrations. The first four years were, if not quite enjoyable, at least acceptable.
But at the beginning of the second term, which Nixon won in a reelection landslide of unparalleled proportions, the disease that came to be known worldwide as ‘Watergate” invaded the bloodstream of his presidency. It took two years to prove fatal.
As the months passed, and the revelations became more and more damaging, the First Lady seemed at first to stiffen her resolve to carry the matter off with poise.
“The truth sustains me,” she said on one occasion, “because I have great faith in my husband. He’s an honorable, dedicated person. And when you know the truth, you have nothing to fear. I have a very positive outlook.”
But as time passed, there were occasional flashes of irritation. When House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) arrived at a Capitol Republican Club reception for the First Lady after he had suggested that the President consider the possibility of impeachment, she welcomed him warmly, but--facing a battery of news cameras--smiled archly and said: “Let’s look like we’re friends.”
White House aides finally began to worry about her health. The always svelte, 115-pound Mrs. Nixon seemed to be eating less and less, often returning plates untouched from her rooms, where she spent more and more time. One of her few breaks from tension came in the form of occasional walks--her hair covered by a scarf to avoid identification--along streets near the White House.
Nixon said his wife was “at her very best when the going was toughest.” But those closest to her knew that the toll was heavy. When the end finally came with her husband’s decision to resign, she returned to California with what friends agree was “an inaudible but very real sigh of relief.”
The Nixons moved back into their palatial estate in San Clemente, but in 1979 returned to New York to be closer to their family.
In addition to her husband and daughters, Mrs. Nixon is survived by four grandchildren, Christopher Nixon Cox and Jennie, Alex and Melanie Eisenhower.
Services for family and friends will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, with the Rev. Billy Graham, a family friend, presiding. Burial will be private on the library grounds.
Mrs. Nixon will lie in state at the library on Friday, with public viewing scheduled from 5 to 9 p.m.
Times staff writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this article.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics team.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.