One of the stranger news stories, if you can call it that, of the last week was the very public dredging up of Nancy Reagan’s sexual history via a winding path that involved both conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s sister and pop legend Madonna. You can read a thorough explanation of what happened here, but the long and short of it is that the former first lady became a trending topic on Twitter after an old anecdote concerning her skill at fellatio during her Hollywood days resurfaced. Twitter users took it from there, with maximum vulgar glee. (The phrase “blow job queen” was one of the more polite epithets tossed around.) But it wasn’t exactly clear how reliable all of this was; the detail came from a much-debated biography from the early ’90s, for one thing. What really was going on with Nancy in Hollywood? Karen Tumulty, a Washington Post editor who published a new biography of Nancy Reagan (née Davis) earlier this year, kindly agreed to weigh in. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Heather Schwedel: When you saw that Nancy Reagan was trending, that must have been a little exciting as someone who just wrote a book about her. But then what did you think when you saw what it was about?
Karen Tumulty: It reminded me that sometimes, you just need to look away from Twitter.
The detail that was getting passed around—that when she was a twentysomething starlet, Nancy Reagan “was known to give the best blowjob in town”—came from a 1998 Village Voice article that cited a 1991 book by Kitty Kelley, who is known for her dishy biographies. Do you regard Kelley as a trustworthy source?
I deal with Kelley’s work quite a bit in my own biography of Nancy Reagan, and I in fact quote her a number of times where she came up with new material that very much aligned with my subsequent research 30 years later. But even from some of the same facts, I don’t necessarily draw the same conclusions.
How was Kitty Kelley’s book received when it was originally published?
It was a huge, huge bestseller, and it did cause quite a sensation. In some respects, it almost did the impossible, which is transforming Nancy Reagan into a sympathetic figure. I think I quote the New York Times in my book as making that exact point. Let me find that quote—here it is. A New York Times editorial denouncing the book wrote:
Funny thing is, the more that Americans wanted to believe wonderful things about their 40th president and the more Teflon they conferred on him, the more they seemed willing to believe the worst of his wife. Lightning rods have had it better than Nancy Reagan. OK, so she probably deserved more than a few of the jolts. But truly, nobody deserved this.
So the reaction to the book was so outsized that the New York Times thought it was necessary to defend Nancy Reagan, who is not someone they normally would’ve been defending?
Right, and in an editorial. This is not a defense in the book review.
The factoid that was circulating dealt with Nancy Reagan’s reputation in her Hollywood days and how she ended up with a contract at MGM, something you cover quite a bit in your book. What do you think that discussion was missing?
The actual story is even more interesting. There’s a lot of evidence that the person who initially helped her most was Spencer Tracy, who at the time was considered one of the most bankable, most beloved movie stars in Hollywood. He had been a family friend of Nancy’s mother going back to their early days on the stage not that long after the turn of the century. Nancy Reagan’s adoptive father and mother had come to Spencer Tracy’s aid a number of times, including when he needed to dry out from his alcoholic binges, finding him the hospital where he could have that privacy. So if you look at how her screen test was engineered remarkably in a way that it seemed almost impossible that she could have failed it, that’s interesting. She herself would acknowledge that all along the way in her show business career, from start to finish, she benefited from a lot of nepotism. She is very open about that and said, “I don’t think I would’ve gotten a single job on the stage if it hadn’t been for my mother’s friends.”
And then we do see that shortly after she arrived in Hollywood, she begins what appears to be some sort of relationship with the head of casting at MGM, Benjamin Thau. Now, this was a man who was kind of well known for demanding sexual favors of actresses in exchange for parts. This is what, 70 years later, we would call part of #MeToo, but back in the late 1940s, it was in some ways taken for granted.
Nancy Reagan herself acknowledged that she was pregnant when she married Ronald Reagan. So I just don’t find this idea that a single woman in her late 20s in Hollywood might have been sexually active to be such a revelation. As I note in the book, Nancy Reagan was far from the first woman to become a household name and then find that men who knew her back when are telling stories about her supposed availability. I just think the actual stories are more complicated and much more nuanced and really and truly more interesting than the salacious stuff that has circulated since then.
Reading about Benjamin Thau in your book, he sounds like a predator, basically.
Yes, exactly. And if you read memoirs of other women who were coming up in Hollywood at the same time—I think Marilyn Monroe talked about it—this was very much part of the act. Again, it’s not like #MeToo was invented in 2017.
It surprises me that Nancy Reagan would have been open about having been pregnant when she got married. Did she really freely admit that?
Well, in her first book—she wrote two memoirs—in the first one, she basically lies about a whole bunch of things, including her age. But in the second book, the one she published after leaving the White House, she makes this kind of brief sort of aside: “Patti was born precipitously,” and then she writes, “Go ahead and count.”
Did she ever respond to rumors about her romantic life?
Her romantic life, even before Hollywood, was pretty turbulent. In the book, I have the story about the boyfriend who got run over by a train, the broken engagement because she discovered her fiancé is gay. I do think that she and Ronald Reagan found a sort of stability and sustenance in each other that were really remarkable.
She gets kind of cagey about what exactly was her relationship with Benny Thau. Finally, under pretty good questioning from Bob Colacello, who wrote an excellent biography of the Reagans, Nancy insisted that the two of them had never been an item: She said, “I was not his girlfriend. He took a liking to me, that’s true.”
But Colacello doesn’t let up. He keeps pushing her, and she gets blunter and more candid: “I was not his. He would have liked to have married me. I did not want to marry him.” “He was a strange little man. He gambled a lot. I think he gambled all his money away. I finally got through to him that the answer was no. And that was it.”
Well, you know, she’s leaving a lot of room here to assume things. Ultimately, she does find other allies at the studio, but the fact is her movie career ends up being pretty undistinguished and pretty brief. That’s why it’s so ironic that the studio turned down Marilyn Monroe to sign Nancy Davis.
It wasn’t just Marilyn Monroe—in your book, you talk about her brushes with people like Clark Gable and George Cukor and Lana Turner. She knew everyone.
Her mother was a consummate networker, and she inherited both those skills and those connections—which by the way would come in incredibly handy when Reagan’s own career in politics was launching.
It seems like some of Nancy Reagan’s negative reputation has endured, and people who loathe her politics were pretty eager to use this as an opportunity to mock her.
She was a very controversial first lady, especially during the first year of her husband’s presidency. I think she had the lowest approval numbers of any first lady in modern history before her. She was a real lightning rod for criticism. Her husband was so popular that even a lot of his opponents wouldn’t attack him. I write at one point early in the book, “If he was called the Teflon president, she may have been the Velcro first lady.”
She was a woman who had her flaws, had her demons. The book documents them extensively, but she also exercised an influence in the Reagan White House that I think wasn’t well recognized at the time. That Twitter would suddenly find itself so almost puritanical over rumors about what happened over 70 years ago, it says more about Twitter than it says about Nancy Reagan.
Correction, Dec. 18, 2021: Due to a photo provider error, the caption of the original photo at the top of this post misidentified Nancy Reagan. The photo has been replaced.