In 1968, the Saturday Evening Post sent a young journalist named Joan Didion to Sacramento, California, to interview the wife of the governor of California. The resulting profile was one Nancy Reagan never forgot or forgave—among other knocks, Didion described Reagan’s smile as a “study in frozen insincerity.” In her memoir, My Turn, written 20 years later, Nancy recalled Didion’s depiction to illustrate how unfairly the press had always treated her.
It’s still worth reading Didion’s mildly cruel vignette, which appears in a softened and abbreviated form in her essay collection The White Album. Didion describes “pretty Nancy Reagan” standing in the dining room of her “rented house” (having rejected the governor’s mansion as not to her liking) taking direction from a television newsman who is asking her to perform for his camera the part of California’s first lady at home on a typical weekday morning. The newsman proposes that Nancy clip some flowers from her garden for an arrangement, which she brightly agrees to do. The cameraman then asks her to rehearse a dry run of clipping the hydrangeas. “Fake the nip,” he tells her. Clearly, Nancy is going to oblige.
The rap against Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday at 94, was essentially Didion’s—that she was a pampered, superficial actress performing a role as a politician’s wife. Having worked as an MGM company player in Hollywood in the early 1950s, Nancy was indeed trained to focus on creating the right kind of appearance to the public. She expected others to subsidize her gowns and jewelry, as well as the Reagans’ homes and parties. The circle of wealthy official friends she cultivated paid for the rented Sacramento house and swimming pool. After Ronald Reagan was elected and the couple arrived in Washington, Nancy and White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver staged the most extravagant inauguration since the Gilded Age. She wore a $10,000 hand-beaded gown by her favorite designer, Galanos. Soon thereafter, she ordered a $400,000 set of new china for the White House. After the Reagans returned to California, the same rich friends paid for their new home in Bel Air, one of the poshest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
What this critique of Nancy as vain and cosseted misses, though, is that she was ultimately much more concerned with her husband’s reputation than with her own, and that she proved the most effective keeper and promoter of it over the course of his political career. Ron without Nancy is unthinkable, first of all because she is the only person he completely loved and trusted, and the only one who made him truly happy. But equally important is the way the wary, suspicious first lady guarded the stature and interests of her ingenuous, trusting husband.
Nancy’s own insecurity and mistrustful instincts grew out of a sad and unstable early childhood. Her father left home even before she was born. Nancy’s bohemian mother, Edith Luckett, neglected her while pursuing a career on the stage. Raised by an aunt in Maryland, Nancy had as her only goal getting to live with her mother. That finally happened when she was 8, after Luckett married Loyal Davis, a socially prominent Chicago neurosurgeon.* Nancy’s subsequent ambition was to have Davis adopt her, which he did several years later. Her hard-won position as the daughter in a stable, prosperous home left her more focused on building a family life of her own than on continuing her promising career as an actress.
Ronald Reagan was on crutches when Nancy met him, and she seems immediately to have wanted to take care of him. He called her “mommy.” Their children—two from his previous marriage and two they had together—were jealous of their unassailable bond. In public, she fixed her husband with an adoring gaze that their daughter Patti described as “a mild state of rapture.”
Nancy saw Ronnie as a naïf in need of safeguarding from the many people who wanted to take advantage of him. After Reagan was elected governor, her closest ally in defending his interests was Deaver, the PR man who would go on to be a trusted White House aide. Other staff were well-advised to stay on the right side of her. In the 1980 Republican primaries, Nancy was the one who got her husband to fire his dictatorial campaign manager John Sears and bring back the exiled Deaver and Ed Meese, who subsequently got his campaign back on track, and along with James Baker, ran the White House during his first term.
In Washington, Nancy Reagan continued to assume the dual role of protecting her husband and safeguarding his public position. This prioritization became evident following John Hinckley’s assassination attempt in 1981. Nancy was undone by it, maintaining a vigil at her husband’s bedside. She began consulting the celebrity astrologist Joan Quigley to ensure that the president avoided inauspicious alignments after he returned to making public appearances. Fearing he would be killed, Nancy tried to persuade Reagan to retire to California in 1984 instead of running for re-election. Her influence extended deep into the inner workings of the White House. During Reagan’s second term, Nancy essentially fired Don Regan as White House chief of staff herself. Their conflict began when Regan took the position that the president needed less time to recover from his surgery for colon cancer than she thought he did. She soon came to blame Regan for not doing enough to shield the president from the Iran-Contra scandal. “I don’t feel his staff served him well in general,” she told the Los Angeles Times while they were still in the White House in November 1988.
It’s a myth that Nancy, either herself or through her stepfather, drove Reagan’s conversion from left to right. She actually disliked movement conservatives, partly for social reasons. In fact, Nancy had no political agenda of her own other than her husband’s image. In the Cold War, she wanted him to be seen as a peacemaker rather than a warmonger. This prompted her to side with Secretary of State George Shultz in his desire to reopen arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, over the objections of most of the rest of Reagan’s national security team. Nancy helped evict Reagan’s hawkish National Security Adviser William Clark, who worried that she and Deaver were plotting “an outbreak of world peace.” In the second term, Nancy offered crucial support in Reagan’s push for radical disarmament and his backing of Mikhail Gorbachev, despite her potent dislike for Mrs. Gorbachev.
Nancy’s role as her husband’s keeper intensified after he left office. When doctors told her that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she kept the news from him for a number of years, until 1994. After that, she cared for him behind a veil. For most of their 52 years of marriage, Nancy worried about how to present her husband to the world. For the last decade of his life, she felt that the best way to safeguard his image was by keeping him invisible. Based on the way his standing has grown since he left office, it is hard to argue with her judgment.
*Correction, March 7, 2016: This article misstated that Loyal Davis was an obstetrician. (Return.)