Maureen Reagan, who as the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan raised national awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, the memory-robbing disorder that gradually forced her father’s exit from public life, died Wednesday of malignant melanoma. She was 60.
The political activist, commentator and author died peacefully in her Granite Bay, Calif., home near Sacramento, said her husband, Dennis C. Revell.
Reagan’s battle with the deadly skin cancer, diagnosed in 1996, was private at first. But she broke her silence about her ordeal in 1998 after a yearlong course of treatment that pushed the disease into remission. In late 2000 the disease was found to have spread and she began aggressive treatment at the John Wayne Cancer Center at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.
Doctors had hoped to put the disease into remission again with a multi-pronged assault of chemotherapy and other drugs. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is incurable once it has spread and patients generally live six to 12 months. Each year, 40,000 new cases are diagnosed and 8,000 Americans die from it.
Released from St. John’s after nearly four months, Reagan returned to her home in Northern California. In May, however, tests showed that the cancer had progressed. Lesions showed in bones of her right arm, liver and right ribs. She was admitted to Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael after experiencing periodic spasms and mild seizures over the Fourth of July. An extensive MRI found lesions in both sides of her brain. She was released from the hospital on July 23 but scheduled to undergo weekly chemotherapy.
The oldest of the former president’s four children, Reagan embraced many different roles during her lifetime, including entertainer, political analyst, political candidate, talk show host and author. With her sparkling, round eyes and prominent cheekbones, she often looked like a blond, pixieish version of her mother, actress Jane Wyman.
She devoted most of her last years to raising awareness of the debilitating, fatal disease that made her father the most famous Alzheimer’s patient in the world. As a board member and top spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Assn., she lobbied for more research money and early medical intervention and raised millions of dollars to combat the malady, which affects about 4 million Americans.
She often put her father’s illness and her obligations to the Alzheimer’s Assn. ahead of her own health, postponing medical care so she could be closer to the former president or maintain an energy-sapping schedule of national appearances on behalf of Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
“I consider this his unfinished work,” she once told the Sacramento Bee. “If this were any other disease, my father would be out telling people what they needed to know.”
In an interview with The Times in July 2000, Reagan spoke movingly about the impact of Alzheimer’s on her relationship with the man who was once the nation’s Great Communicator. Because Alzheimer’s patients are often upset by changes in their environment, she said she learned to temper her natural ebullience around her father and make quiet entrances, to “kind of slide into a room” and to gently take her leave.
Although her father only sporadically recognized her, Reagan, whose Secret Service code name was Radiant, said she learned to find joy in their small moments together. Asked what constituted a good day with him, she responded: “When I get several smiles and laughter. There’s nothing nicer than the sound of his laughter.”
In advocating more research spending, she always held out the hope that somehow science would find a way to erase the fog of dead brain cells so he could speak with her again.
In a sad coincidence, Reagan was undergoing melanoma treatment at St. John’s in mid-January when her father was admitted to the hospital for surgical repair of a broken hip. She never saw him while he was there, however.
On Wednesday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan praised her stepdaughter.
“Ronnie and I loved Mermie very much. We will miss her terribly,” she said, employing the former president’s nickname for his daughter. “Like all fathers and daughters, there was a unique bond between them. Maureen had his gift of communication, his love of politics, and when she believed in a cause, she was not afraid to fight hard for it.”
Reagan’s melanoma was diagnosed in 1996 when it appeared as a large, pigmented mole on the back of her right thigh. After extensive testing, she underwent a grueling year of therapy with intravenous interferon, a naturally occurring protein that helps the body fight viral infections and some cancers. The side effects were so severe that she did not see her father during that time. However, after treatment, doctors determined that the disease was in remission and she got back to her family and her Alzheimer’s activism.
Last October, she underwent emergency surgery in Chicago, where doctors discovered that the disease had spread; they removed lymph nodes from her knee to her groin and were planning additional treatment. In November, when she was admitted to Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael for colon surgery that she had put off to spend more time with her ailing father, doctors found a cancerous tumor the size of a Ping-Pong ball on the right side of her pubic bone. Physicians decided at that time to try an aggressive program to tame the disease. She was admitted to the John Wayne Cancer Institute on Dec. 11 and began the first 21-day cycle of treatment. Doctors expected to carry out about six cycles.
Reagan grew up in Hollywood, but hers was not an easy childhood. Her parents divorced when she was 7 and she was packed off to the Chadwick School in on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, returning home on weekends. She attended Emerson Junior High School in Los Angeles for a year before going to high school at Immaculate Heart. Only when she was 19 did her then-7-year-old half sister Patti, one of Ronald Reagan’s two children with second wife Nancy, learn they were related.
After a year of college at Marymount in Arlington, Va., she dropped out and began working, then met and was married briefly to a Washington, D.C., police officer. She accused him of beating and abusing her, and they divorced in 1962. A second marriage, to a Marine Corps lieutenant who became a lawyer, ended in divorce in 1968.
She married Revell, a Sacramento lobbyist and owner of a public relations firm, in 1981. On one of several trips to Africa for her father, they met a Ugandan girl, Rita Mirembe, whom they adopted in 1994. Last month, President Bush signed into law a special measure giving the girl permanent residency in the United States.
Reagan’s interest in politics dated back to when she was 11 and watched the first gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the national conventions in 1952. She became a committed Republican and soon was knocking on doors for Dwight Eisenhower. She sometimes pointed out that she was a Republican before her father, a Democrat who switched affiliation before running for California governor in 1966.
She became an officer of the Young Republicans and the Republican Women’s Federation in California and led Republican women advocating passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She founded a political action committee for Republican women candidates and became a prolific fund-raiser for them. In 1987 she became co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
She became the third Reagan child to write a book about her famous father with the publication in 1989 of “First Father, First Daughter: A Memoir.” Although a largely affectionate account, Reagan discussed the pain of her parents’ divorce and her lonely childhood and portrayed serious flaws in father-daughter relations. Confronting her father about why he hadn’t told the young Patti about her, she reported this reply: “Well, we just haven’t gotten that far yet.” She, in turn, never told her father about the brutality of her first marriage, which she grippingly described in the book.
She endured other embarrassments when she ran for public office. Unlike her father, she supported abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment for women. During her 1982 bid for the Republican nomination to the Senate, her uncle, Neil Reagan, supported her opponent. Her father, when asked by a reporter if she was running, replied, “I hope not” and did not publicly endorse her.
She made a second bid for office in 1992 when a new House seat opened in Southern California. This time she ran with her father’s support, but was defeated in the primary by another GOP candidate.
Commenting on press accounts of sibling-parent dysfunction in the Reagan family, she told the Washington Post in 1984: “I don’t think it’s really anybody’s business how we have all arrived at where we are today. The fact of the matter is we are a family. Whether we all like each other every day or not is irrelevant.”
Reagan was a U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and a trustee of Eureka College in Illinois--her father’s alma mater--and was active with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
She joined the Alzheimer’s Assn. national board in 1999 and had been national honorary chairwoman of its annual Memory Walk since 1997. She was the keynote speaker at the World Alzheimer Congress 2000 in Washington, D.C. In October she received the Alzheimer’s Assn. Distinguished Service Award.
In addition to Revell, she is survived by their 16-year-old daughter, Rita, her father and stepmother, her mother, her brother Michael Reagan, her half sister Patti Davis and her half brother Ronald Reagan Jr.
A public memorial service and Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Aug. 18 at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 1112 26th St., Sacramento, followed by private burial.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to one of the following: the Maureen Reagan Tribute Fund of the Alzheimer’s Assn., 919 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1100, Chicago, Ill. 60611-1676; Eureka College, P.O. Box 280, 300 E. College Ave., Eureka, Ill. 61530-0280; or the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley, Calif. 93065.