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Obituaries

From the archives:: As Ronald Reagan fades, Nancy takes on a new role

Nancy Reagan | 2000

Nancy and Ronald Reagan on his 89th birthday on Feb. 6, 2000. She gained sympathy and esteem from many after she cloistered herself in their Bel-Air home and devoted herself to his care.

(Associated Press)

Nancy Reagan, the former first lady of both California and the nation, has died at the age of 94. The following is a profile written almost 30 years ago about her changing role in the light of her husband’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

On the morning of her 76th birthday, “the most famous caregiver in the world,” as she is known in Alzheimer’s circles, took a break. With Ronald Reagan and his entourage of health aides and Secret Service agents out for a Sunday stroll, the former first lady slid into the back of her chauffeured silver Town Car for a quick ride to the Beverly Hilton, where her old friend Merv Griffin was waiting.

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It was the 6th of July, Griffin’s birthday too, and for astrology buffs like these two “moon children,” that makes for a special bond. (Their birthday horoscope: “You possess sense of drama, appreciate luxury, will be told you are charming.”)

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Behind a red-and-white striped umbrella near the sparkling pool of his hotel, the two nibbled fruit, exchanged small gifts and reminisced about happier times. Like most of the Reagans’ friends, Griffin did not ask how things were going at home. If things are going well, Nancy says so. If not, Griffin says, “Well, her face will say it all and I don’t have to ask.”

Soon, she would be back home in Bel-Air, curled up with a book in a corner of the sofa as her husband sits in his oversized wing chair, slowly fading away. “It’s not like in the movies,” Griffin says later. “It’s not the happy ending she was counting on.”

As Ronald and Nancy Reagan face the final chapter in one of the great love stories in American politics, the emotional burden of the former president’s Alzheimer’s disease has fallen heavily on his first lady’s slender shoulders. For the first time in nearly 50 years, she is faced with going on without her leading man.

However well she bears up to the task, Nancy Reagan has been changed by it. Even some onetime critics concede that the “Dragon Lady” of the Reagan White House seems to have lost her fire. The obsessions of the past--haute couture, astrology, even Ronald Wilson Reagan’s place in the history of the world--matter less. Friends, including a few prominent Democrats, and family--including the oft-estranged children--matter more.

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The woman who once “borrowed” more than $1 million in designer suits, dresses and gowns might now be seen wearing the same dress twice. Although she still has someone else do the cooking, she swaps recipes with her girlfriends, thumps the melons at the market and chats up the new butcher. According to one of her closest pals, “Nancy Reagan is now very much the hausfrau!”

As her husband’s condition worsens, the famous woman-behind-the-man finds herself cast in a challenging and unexpected supporting role. “Here is a woman who has made her husband’s life her career,” says Fred Ryan, a former presidential aide. “She has devoted herself to making Ronald Reagan’s life perfect, [but] no matter what she does now, his life will never be perfect again.”

*

The rambling 7,000-square foot house on St. Cloud Road has five bedrooms, six baths and a heated pool on more than an acre of land. But even that can cloy, it seems, if you’re not getting out much.

That was Nancy Reagan’s predicament two years ago when old friend Charles Z. Wick took it upon himself to fix that. Wick, the venture capitalist who had negotiated the president’s much-derided $2-million speaking tour of Japan a few years before, wanted to lure Nancy out of the house and used author Dominick Dunne to do it.

Though flattered, Dunne was astonished by Wick’s invitation to dine with Nancy. Although he had known the Reagans socially since the 1950s when he was a screenwriter, they had never been close. “No. 1, I’m a Democrat, and then I wrote that novel that everybody in her crowd got so down on me about, so it was quite a shock when I got this call,” Dunne says. (“An Inconvenient Woman” was a thinly disguised retelling of the story of the late Alfred Bloomingdale and his sexpot mistress.) “Charlie said the president’s very ill and Mrs. Reagan is almost completely housebound and she’s watching the trial constantly. He thought my being there might perk her up.”

Until the trial of O.J. Simpson, her favorite television show had been “Murder, She Wrote.” Now, Nancy was so taken with Dunne’s hot scoops from the courtroom that she arranged to be personally briefed by him for the remainder of the trial. Every week for the next 10 months, Dunne held court from noon to 1:30 at the home of Nancy’s friend and neighbor, former racetrack owner Marje Everett.

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“It was just the three of us,” Dunne recalls. “And as soon as I arrived, we went directly to the table out on the lanai and talked about nothing but the trial. Really, it was quite extraordinary. I saw Nancy in a way I’d never seen her before--as a woman of extraordinary intelligence and depth who’s gone through terrible adversity.” Long after the trial, Dunne now calls Nancy “one of my greatest friends.”

Another Democrat who has been pulled into Nancy’s inner circle is Casey Ribicoff, wife of the former liberal senator from Connecticut. The women, who had been friends for years, are now “like sisters.” While it has not been announced publicly, the stately Abraham Ribicoff, 87, also suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. As often as three times a day, Nancy and Casey are on the phone, comparing notes, sharing memories their husbands have long since forgotten.

“We nourish each other. We speak the same language,” says Casey Ribicoff. “You can’t begin to understand what living with this is like unless you do live with it, day in, day out. I don’t know what I would do without Nancy.”

Two or three times a year, Casey and Nancy meet in New York City or the Hamptons. They window shop or take in a musical. “Everyone is so interested in the president’s condition, so anxious to wish them both well,” Casey says. “Walking along Madison Avenue, people come up and say how much they admire her, how they are praying for her. Block after block, street after street, the people are very warm, and very brief--not offensive in any way.”

Closer to home, in the aisles of Gelsons Century City market, shoppers also have discovered that the once aloof first lady seems warmer, more approachable. Even her appearance seems softer. The hair is longer, less brittle; the petite form (though still a designer size 4) a bit fuller.

“People just adore seeing her, and she so loves being out,” says Betsy Bloomingdale, widow of Alfred, one of Reagan’s multimillionaire Kitchen Cabinet benefactors. Although “Bets” was credited with guiding her friend through the heady world of high fashion, their shopping lists these days are more likely to include berries and basil than off-the-shoulder gowns and tasseled Chanel handbags.

“We all do what we can to get her out. I’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Neiman Marcus for a popover,’ or we’ll have her in to a small dinner with friends at home. She is always gracious, leaving early to get home to the president, but doing it discreetly, taking what I call a French leave,” Bloomingdale says.

She may enjoy marketing, but she still has no interest in cooking--a chore left to her household staff. She plans homey meals that will satisfy her husband’s still-hearty appetite, but takes many of her own meals out. At least three times a week, she lunches at the Hotel Bel-Air.

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Seated at her permanently reserved white-latticed balcony table overlooking the swan pond, she rarely bothers to order. “No, no,” says hotel manager Frank Bowling, “we know just what she likes. It rarely changes . . . spicy tortilla soup, chopped Cobb salad with low-cal dressing, Evian water straight up--no lemon, no ice.”

Weight, as always, is not a problem. She spends about an hour on the treadmill while she watches the news every morning and, by all accounts, is in excellent health, with no recurrence of the cancer that cost her a breast in 1987. But often, she looks tired.

“You know it’s been one of those nights with Ronnie up and down, up and down,” explains a friend. “She never did sleep well and now with things going on at all hours, she probably gets less rest than she ever did.”

*

It was Nov. 5, 1994, another morning-glory blue day in Bel-Air. Maureen Reagan and family were expected for lunch. But by midmorning, Nancy was on the phone with a different plan. “She said they wanted to leave for the ranch by 2 o’clock,” Maureen recalls. “I had a feeling something was up.”

Ryan, who was by then running the president’s office in Century City, had also received an early call and was sitting in the Reagans’ darkened den trying to absorb the news that he was about to issue to the world.

“The president and Mrs. Reagan had already decided to go public, but the president wanted to say it his own way,” Ryan says. “I remember he picked up a few pieces of stationery and walked over to a little round table in the corner where the sun was streaming in from the garden. He put his head down and immediately started writing.”

“My fellow Americans,” he began. “I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. . . . I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.”

When he finished, Ryan says, Reagan handed his letter to Nancy. “She didn’t change anything and she didn’t say anything. But her eyes filled up with tears.” By the time the letter was being transmitted around the world later that day, “Rawhide” was at the ranch and headed out for a ride, with “Rainbow” at his side.

Since then, Reagan’s decline has been precipitous. He is physically fit--he golfs most every Saturday at the L.A. Country Club with his doctor in the foursome, walks the boardwalk on Sundays--but he has lost the essence of himself. The Great Communicator has lost his ability to communicate.

“He’ll say, ‘Hello there. Nice to see you,’ in that pleasantly surprised way of his,” says one longtime acquaintance. “But the wonderful stories, the great fables and anecdotes that always told us so much about ourselves, and about him, they all seem lost in a haze. All at once, he’ll look startled, as if he doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know who he is . . . and then he might be back for a few minutes, and then disappear again.”

Many faces have long since faded from his memory. He knows his wife--"Nancy’s is once face he will never forget,” says Dr. John Hutton, the White House physician who discovered the president’s colon cancer and the first lady’s breast cancer--but he recognizes few others, including, friends believe, his children.

When the Reagans’ son Ron Jr. and daughter Patti learned of the diagnosis, both rushed home. Although Ron had maintained a comfortable, if often geographically distant, relationship, Patti had been estranged from her family for much of her adult life. Now, Patti was begging forgiveness. A best-selling writer who shocked her parents with her racy autobiographical novels, Patti quickly dropped everything to publish a sweet tribute to her father before moving on to her next title: “Bondage.”

“Having her daughter back was a wonderful, wonderful gift to Nancy,” says Dunne, whose own daughter, Dominique, was murdered in 1982. “I told her how thrilled I was to hear about the reconciliation, and Nancy said to me, ‘Oh, yes, I needed her.’ ” Unfortunately, observed Nancy’s brother, Dr. Richard Davis, in an Arts & Entertainment “Biography” segment last fall, Patti’s renewed devotion “came too late” for her father.

By then, according to Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, “the abysses of amnesia had opened beneath him.” In a New Yorker essay in early 1995, Morris described his last visit with the former president: “About six months ago, he stopped recognizing me. Now I no longer recognize him. For all the intimate familiarity of that face and body, for all the willingness with which he showed me his framed photographs, his jellybean jar, and his view of the Hollywood Hills, I did not feel his presence beside me, only his absence.”

Morris’ book is expected to be published by Random House next year, but Morris will not be visiting his subject again. “It’s much too difficult now, too sad,” says Morris’ wife, Sylvia.

As many as two years before Reagan’s farewell letter, his wife had been troubled by his increasing disorientation. She knew that his older brother, Neil “Moon” Reagan, was in the throes of Alzheimer’s (he died in December) and that his mother, Nellie, may have had the disease as well. But it was not until August 1994 that doctors gave a name to her husband’s frightening bouts of bewilderment.

“Of course, she was devastated,” Hutton recalls, “But, once again, she was the Rock of Gibraltar. And she wasted no time finding out as much about the disease as she could. She interviewed doctors, she read books and she used what she learned to create the best possible life she could for the president.”

The disease seems to run in families and, despite a growing national emphasis on research, Alzheimer’s remains incurable. Shortly after Reagan publicly shared the diagnosis, officers of the Alzheimer’s Assn., the Chicago-based research and support group, contacted the Reagans to offer their help. Later, the Reagans decided to lend their names to a new research initiative to increase public awareness and funding.

To date, there have been no seven- or even six-figure gifts to the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute from friends as there were to Nancy’s anti-drug foundation before it folded in 1995. But the association says the research it has helped promote already has produced clues to the possible benefits of such treatments as hormone replacement therapy and ibuprofen.

Early on, she devised a full schedule to keep her husband busy and fit. Every weekday, he dresses for work--she has to sign off before he leaves the house--and puts in four to six hours at his office on the 34th floor of the Fox Plaza in Century City. “Some days are busier than others. He meets with people, works on special projects, and signs books and photographs,” says his chief of staff, Joanne Drake.

The taxpayer-supported office has a budget of close to $150,000 a year, which pays for two full-time and four part-time employees. Both Reagans continue to receive around-the-clock protection from Secret Service agents, many of whom have been with them since his first presidential campaign in 1976.

When the Alzheimer’s diagnosis was delivered, few in the Reagans’ circle of friends knew anyone who had the disease. “We knew about Rita Hayworth, of course, but I think most of us--incorrectly it turns out--thought of that as a mental illness,” says one Los Angeles socialite.

*

As the man Nancy Reagan married slips further away, the former first lady is redefining her own life. Notoriously adept in her role as the powerful woman behind the man, she is now being encouraged by some friends to assume a more public role. And she remains skilled at manipulating the images she wants to project.

When she agreed to speak at the Republican National Convention in San Diego last summer, her mere appearance brought a groundswell of cheers and applause. “I am not the speechmaker in the family,” she demurred, and went on to quote extensively from her husband’s speech at the convention four years before.

“I am always saying to her, ‘Nancy, you represent the voice of Ronald Reagan now. You are the voice of Ronald Reagan,’ ” says Bloomingdale. “But she hesitates to try to step into that role. Remember, she’s really in this alone now at home and it’s difficult to find the energy to go on sometimes.”

Nancy Reagan has made few public appearances since the convention. This year alone, she attended the funerals of close friends Jimmy Stewart, political benefactor Dr. Norman Sprague and the oilman whose fortune helped fuel many Reagan campaigns, Henry Salvatori.

While she went to the Stewart service alone, she was with Betsy Bloomingdale at the Sprague service at St. Alban’s Church in Westwood, eyes puffy and red, leaning heavily on her much taller friend for support. Without fanfare, she also traveled to the funeral of George Shultz’s wife at Stanford University. “It was a wonderful gesture on her part and it meant so much to me,” said the former secretary of State.

In May, Nancy made a brief appearance in Philadelphia with President Clinton to boost national volunteerism, and she has spoken to a few groups in Los Angeles and New York to support Alzheimer’s research.

Every now and again, Nancy tends to business at the presidential library in Simi Valley from her office above the public exhibits and overlooking the crypts where she and her husband will be buried. No longer in thrall to the prophesying of astrologers, according to aides, both Reagans had resumed regular church attendance until about eight months ago, when Bel-Air Presbyterian pastor Michael Wenning began monthly prayer visits with Reagan in his office.

After the Reagans received the diagnosis, Reagan told his staff he would no longer make any public appearances. And both he and the first lady decided they would not give any interviews, even to her old friends Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace or George Will.

Although Nancy’s assistants reiterated her no-interviews policy when The Times asked to speak with her, they kept close tabs on the preparation of the article and helped with access to some friends.

Of the Reagan children, only Maureen--the former president’s daughter from his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman--agreed to be interviewed. She is also the only one of the children who has taken an active role in fund-raising for the Alzheimer’s Assn. Her brother Michael, a Los Angeles-based syndicated radio talk show host, after commenting in public about his father’s deterioration, has been silenced by his stepmother, according to sources close to both.

Although Maureen and Michael visit their father at his office and at home, neither Ron nor Patti have visited in months, Reagan friends say. Both called their mother and sent flowers on her birthday but did not leave their homes to be with her. Ron, who recently formed a new production company, lives near Seattle. Patti lives in New York.

“It simply breaks her heart,” says one friend, “but you can’t force your children to come and see their father and even if somehow you do force them, it doesn’t really count, does it? It’s not worth it for anybody.”

Late last year, Nancy quietly put her husband’s beloved ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains--Rancho del Cielo--up for sale for $6 million. At first she refused to allow Realtors to quote the asking price. But after months without a serious buyer, she permitted a Wall Street Journal correspondent to visit and describe the ranch’s 688 acres, panoramic ocean views and colorful history.

It has been more than a year since Rawhide was able to go there to chop wood or ride his favorite black thoroughbred, Little Man, into a sunset.

It was no secret that Nancy Reagan did not share her husband’s love for the rustic outdoors; still, her final visits there to pack up their belongings were wrenching. “Here is a couple who were not just husband and wife, but always the very best of friends,” Maureen says. “They have 45 years of shared memories--from Hollywood, from Sacramento, from Washington, and yes, from the ranch.”

But now, there is only one of them who remembers.

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