The flawed father figure

Times Staff Writer

Ronald Reagan idealized the close-knit American family but was himself an untraditional patriarch who headed a famously splintered brood.

During his years in public office, his children conducted family feuds in public, at times openly defied his values and rarely gathered for public or private functions. Before reconciling in Reagan’s twilight years, they sometimes used press interviews or books to communicate with one another.

His daughter Patti Davis, notorious for her colorful life and tell-all memoirs, remarked in 1991, “The mark of this family is that everybody is distanced from everybody else.... There was no glue in this family.”

Divorced and remarried, Reagan is survived by three children: Michael, adopted by Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman; and Davis and Ronald Prescott Reagan, his children with second wife Nancy Reagan (nee Davis), the former actress and future first lady. Daughter Maureen, born to Reagan and Wyman, died in 2001of malignant melanoma.

Children of Hollywood before their father entered politics, they struggled for attention like many celebrity offspring. They also treasured private moments spent with him -- especially on the family ranch near Malibu, where he taught them to swim and ride. They have described him as genuinely kind and an exceptional storyteller. Maureen, who enjoyed the closest relationship with their father, said she always remembered him as the hero of her childhood -- “this gorgeous, bronze Adonis.” Michael called him “damn near perfect.”


At the same time, Reagan displayed an emotional detachment so severe that the children later said they felt invisible or diminished even when he was around. Once Reagan failed to recognize Michael after giving the commencement speech at his graduation from an Arizona boarding school. “My name is Ronald Reagan,” he said to his son. “What’s yours?”

In 1998, Ron, known as the favored child, told a PBS interviewer he had never had a real conversation with his father. In some respects, he said, the frustration felt by each of the children to their father’s increasing obliviousness after the 1994 onset of Alzheimer’s disease was nothing new. "[We] banged our head against the wall -- you know, ‘Why can’t we get any closer? Why can’t there be more of a rapport?’ But after you accept that there just isn’t going to be [one], then you make your peace with that....”

Some have attributed Reagan’s remoteness to his father’s alcoholism or to his seemingly exclusive relationship with his wife Nancy.

Michael, in a 1988 memoir, wrote that he spent his childhood seeking affection. He complained that he and Maureen were raised by nannies and maids; after their parents divorced, they were sent to boarding school -- Maureen at age 7, Michael at age 5.

It was only when Michael was 14 and returned to live with his father that the children from his second marriage learned they had half-siblings from his first. “Patti was introduced to us siblings on a need-to-know basis,” Maureen wrote in her memoir. Because their parents had only gotten as far as to tell Patti about Michael, Maureen had to break the news that they were sisters. Maureen recalled that Patti, then 7, ran crying from the room.

A New York Times article in 1980 noted that while the parents were inseparable, the family seldom gathered and the children were left to go their own ways “except when called upon to make a formal public appearance.”

Sometimes, outsiders reportedly informed the Reagans about major events in their children’s lives. In 1980, reporters told them, for instance, that Ron had married his live-in girlfriend, Doria Palmieri; a friend and a Secret Service agent served as witnesses. They learned about their daughter Patti’s 1986 thinly veiled novel based on their lives through an item in Time magazine.

Though many of their troubles, resentments and disappointments may have been no different from those of any family who has struggled through modern issues, their stories played out on a larger stage to a national audience. Considering her movie star parents and access to the White House, Maureen harbored no illusions they were like other families. “What’s normal for me,” she told an audience in 1981, “isn’t the same as what’s normal for you.”

As the children fought to establish their own identities, family secrets spilled into the public spotlight.

In his 1988 autobiography, Michael disclosed that he had been sexually abused in 1953 by a camp counselor he had regarded as a father figure. He informed his father just before the book was published. “Dad went pale and put his arm around me,” he said later.

Missteps along the way

When he was grown, Michael floundered as he sought work in acting, speedboat racing and sales. In 1981, Michael used his father’s name in a letter soliciting potential customers from an Air Force contractor for his airplane parts company. Reagan told him, “Don’t write any more letters like that.” Later, Michael resigned his position.

Michael was also accused and cleared of kleptomania as well as stock fraud.

In 1983, Michael criticized Nancy Reagan to magazine and television reporters for spending more time with her foster grandparent program than with his children. He said he had not been invited to the White House.

The following year, after he declined to attend Patti’s wedding, then missed a family Thanksgiving, Nancy Reagan told a syndicated columnist he was “estranged” from the family. In response, Michael issued a news release and held a news conference saying he was “shocked and hurt.”

Maureen then accused Michael of having a “vendetta” against Nancy and said he had also ridiculed their brother Ron when he was a ballet dancer.

After a conciliatory family meeting one New Year’s, Nancy Reagan issued a statement through the White House press office: “Everybody loves each other.”

In recent years, Michael has found an audience as a Southern California talk show host, though trouble has continued to shadow his family. His son Cameron spent six months in jail for receiving stolen property in 1998. At the time, he was living on the streets after his parents kicked him out when he failed to hold down a job.

Maureen’s book disclosed that she had been brutally beaten by her first husband, a policeman, a situation she had not confided to her father. Married three times, she also tried several acting and business jobs before entering politics herself.

In 1982, she lost her bid for a U.S. Senate seat in California’s Republican primary; during the race, then-President Reagan, asked whether his daughter was really going to run, told journalists, “I hope not.” He later said he was joking. His brother Neil, however, accused Maureen of riding on her father’s coattails and publicly backed another candidate. During her campaign, Maureen took stands contrary to her father’s on abortion, gun control and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Later, she served as the U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and in 1987 was appointed by her father to co-chair the Republican National Committee.

The 1992 memoir of the most rebellious Reagan offspring, Patti, was the most scandalous. In “The Way I See It,” she described her mother as abusive and a regular consumer of prescription tranquilizers and her father as emotionally detached.

She described how, just before the book was published, she challenged her father to stop calling her birth, seven months after his marriage, “premature.” He replied, “Well, if the studio hadn’t made us change the wedding date, you wouldn’t have been premature.”

Patti came of age in the 1970s as cultural upheaval was dividing families across the country. At 13, she was sent to boarding school. Later, addicted to diet pills, she dropped out of USC, experimented with drugs, struggled financially and sold marijuana to pay for therapy. She lived with her boyfriends and openly disagreed with her father’s opinions on abortion rights and the Vietnam War. She made public appearances opposing nuclear power, which her father supported.

Angst in print

In the 1980s, Patti wrote the first of several unflattering books about her parents, “Home Front,” a thinly veiled novel about a distant father who becomes president.

She has dabbled in songwriting, singing, acting and writing. When she wrote an article in 1990 criticizing her father’s administration for exacerbating the homeless problem, Michael told the Los Angeles Times, “If she wasn’t writing articles about her father, she would probably be homeless herself because that’s how she’s making her money.” In the 1990s, she posed nude for Playboy and wrote an erotic novel.

Her brother Ron is said to have served as a family communicator for many years. Known for youthful high jinks that caused him to be expelled from private school, he later dropped out of Yale to become a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. Concerned about insinuations that Ron might be gay, Reagan told reporters, “He’s all man -- we made sure of that.”

In 1982, he was the subject of worldwide publicity when, after he had been laid off from the troupe, was photographed standing in line for unemployment insurance. Later Ron quit the ballet for entertainment journalism and show business talk show programs.

More liberal than his parents, Ron wrote a controversial article about Russia for Playboy magazine and appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in a risque skit, dancing in his briefs. The elder Reagan called the skit “amusing” but told reporters for People magazine he wished his son could find something “more dignified” to do than write for Playboy.

Pride from afar

Once his parents came to see him dance and later Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, told him how proud his father was. Ron told PBS he suspected Deaver had been assigned the task of delivering the message on behalf of Reagan. “I think he would have found it very difficult to say himself.”

Acquaintances said Reagan was never bothered by his children’s dissenting political views, but he appeared sincerely bewildered about their family being labeled dysfunctional.

After he left office and moved back to California, Patti wrote in her memoir that he called her to their home and asked her what had gone wrong. He denied that they were distant or out of touch, she wrote. “We were close,” he told her. “I’ve looked at the scrapbooks, the pictures.”

Before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Reagan tried to help mend fences. After Patti moved abruptly to New York in 1993, he called and wrote her, telling her he loved her and asking that she remember her mother’s birthday.

The family appeared to become closer as Reagan slipped away. In 1995, Patti wrote “Angels Don’t Die,” a tribute to her father’s religious faith. In 1996 she and her mother were calling each other every week.

In 1998, Patti later wrote in the Los Angeles Times, she apologized to him for her earlier behavior. She said she and her father were walking along the beach when she whispered in his ear, “I’m sorry I was such a jerk for so much of my life. Can you forgive me?” She said he blushed as his eyes turned to her and crinkled up in a smile. “Of course,” he said.

In 1999 Michael also wrote a tribute, “The Common Sense of an Uncommon Man: The Wit, Wisdom and Eternal Optimism of Ronald Reagan.” And Maureen, who had been diagnosed with melanoma in 1996, worked hard during her final years of life to raise awareness of the disease her father was battling, including serving on the board of the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Assn.

Patti and Ron were at the family home in Bel-Air with their mother when Reagan died Saturday, a family spokeswoman said. Michael, who had been there all day Friday, arrived a short while later.