‘Relentless force’ behind Ronnie: Nancy Reagan remembered


(Compiled by Dana Cook)

Mike Wallace
 – broadcast journalist Prim and proper

…I’m certain I was the only working journalist who could boast that I had known Nancy Reagan longer than her husband had.
…[When] I met her, Nancy Davis was a student at Smith College, and I remember her as a prim and proper young lady who often wore white gloves and Peter Pan collars. Although I didn’t know her well in those days, she struck me as being shy and reserved—almost the opposite of her exuberant mother [actress Edie Davis]—and so I was rather surprised when I later learned that “sweet little Nancy” (as I then thought of her) and gone off to Hollywood to seek her own fame and fortune as an actress…The next thing I heard, she was getting married to the well-known actor Ronald Reagan. … (Chicago, c. 1940)

from Between You and Me: A Memoir, by Mike Wallace with Gary Paul Gates (Hyperion, 2005)

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Betty Friedan
 – feminist and author Coeds together of The Feminine Mystique

…We had been at Smith [College, in Northampton, Mass.] together though I knew her only vaguely, she an actress and I the editor of the newspaper and the literary magazine. We also both came from Illinois and if I remember correctly, we had taken the train home together on several occasions. I had followed her career as a professional actress after graduation with great interest because virtually no one but she and I were working. That was the era when Smith “girls” got married right out of college and did good volunteer work in the community.
So I was surprised, I guess, when she exhibited no interest in supporting the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]. The first time I tried to get her involved was on a bus at the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City. I sat down next to her and said: “Nancy, from one Smith girl to another, you have to be for the ERA, you know.” But I didn’t get anywhere.

from Life So Far: A Memoir, by Betty Friedan (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

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Helen Thomas
 – journalist Softened the hard line

In 1980, I was sitting on a campaign plane with Nancy Reagan and we began talking about the possibility that her husband was going to be the next president. I asked her what project she was thinking of pursuing and she said, “I’m going to take care off Ronnie.”
Nancy Reagan may be remembered for her high style and her campaign to get the nation’s youth to “Just Say No” to drugs. But to me, she has a special place in history for influencing her husband to take a softer line toward the Soviet Union and to seek a peaceful rapprochement with what he had branded the “Evil Empire.”

from Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times, by Helen Thomas (Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 1991)

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Andy Warhol
– pop artist No sex questions

…to interview Nancy Reagan for the cover [of Interview magazine]…
We were early getting to the White House, we got in and then Nancy Reagan came in and we were in the same room. And a waiter brought in four glasses of water…We talked about drug rehabilitation and it was boring. I made a couple of mistakes but I didn’t care because I was still mad at being told…not to ask sex questions. She had an assistant who sat there and took notes, and they said they weren’t doing their own tape of the interview but I’m sure they were. (1981)

from Diaries, by Andy Warhol (Warner Books, 1989)

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Lesley Stahl
 – broadcast journalist NutraSweet smile

The point of the [CBS] profile was to show the fun-loving, relaxed woman behind the first lady’s mask, to catch the real Nancy with her easy laugh. Maybe I could get her to tell a joke. …
But the minute the cameras rolled, I knew I was in trouble. Mrs. Reagan looked beautiful in a royal blue silk dress with a cowl neck, but she was tighter than a clenched fist, with an artificial smile that made her seem as natural as NutraSweet. I stopped the interview at one point, hoping the break would give her a chance to find herself. No such luck. Almost everything she said seemed to be recited from memory. (early 1980s)

from Reporting Live, by Lesley Stahl (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

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Ed Rollins
 – political consultant Relentless

Nancy had good political instincts and a great feel for public relations. She knew which brush fires could turn into firestorms. But unlike her husband, she was terribly insecure. He trusted everyone—even those who abused his trust. She didn’t trust anyone. It took very little to get her worked up; when she thought somebody on the staff was becoming a political liability for her husband, his or her days were numbered. She wasn’t known for taking many prisoners.
Many of her critics have described her as ruthless. I think relentless fits her better. She could be small and petty. Because of her persistence, she was the most feared person in the White House. She was easily swayed by personal appearance, for example, which is a big reason why she never cared much for Lyn Nofziger or me but was charmed by Jim Baker and Mike Deaver. Your chances for survival were always better if Nancy Reagan didn’t know who you were. Once you were in her sights and she decided you’d made a misstep, you were finished. She could really make your life miserable—and frequently did. If I’d had any idea just how much grief she’d give me over the next four years, I’d have traded in one of my two suits for body armor. (early 1980s)

from Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics, by Ed Rollins with Tom Defrank (Broadway Books, 1996)

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Zsa Zsa Gabor
 – actor Elegant, divine

…I visited Nancy and the President in the White House many times. …
Nancy is a good person—tough—but to me, Nancy is the most elegant woman in the world. She is divine—a perfectionist who almost succeeds in being perfect. She is woman who has blinkers on—who is brilliant, determined, sets her heart on something and invariably gets exactly what she wants. She really is the force behind Mr. Reagan—without Nancy, he would never have become president. I like Nancy a great deal but would hate to have her as my enemy. …

from One Lifetime Is Not Enough, by Zsa Zsa Gabor with Wendy Leigh (Delacorte Press, 1991)

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David Gergen
presidential adviser, journalist First Friend, good butcher, and academic

…To the extent that this extraordinarily private president [Ronald Reagan] confided his dreams and frustrations to anyone, it was Nancy. No other president I have known has had such a singular relationship with the First Lady, shutting out almost everyone else from his inner thoughts. She was First Friend, and so far as I could see, no one else came close as Second Friend. …
At first, Nancy stayed out of policy, but she cracked down hard when we overscheduled her husband and she closely monitored his staff for loyalty, compatibility, and effectiveness. Reagan hated to fire people; she didn’t. I remembered Nixon’s favorite quote from Gladstone: “Every prime minister must be a good butcher.” He was right; somebody has to be the disciplinarian, and in the Reagan White House, Nancy played the role. It didn’t help her in press reviews nor with those she fired. … (1980s)

from Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, by David Gergen (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

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Larry King
 – talk show host Moderate

I’ve gotten to be good friends with Nancy over the years. Many people never knew the real Nancy. Nancy was very important in that administration. Nancy is funny, shy, tough. She’s moderate, and she didn’t like the fanatics on the far right. If she didn’t like you, you were out, because Ronnie was crazy about her.

from My Remarkable Journey, by Larry King with Cal Fussman (Viking Canada, 2009)

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Merv Griffin
 – talk show host Supportive and compassionate friend and businessman

…[Girlfriend Eva Gabor’s] memorial service. Nancy Reagan came with me; I wouldn’t have made it through the day without her. She’s been a tremendously supportive and compassionate friend to me, not only in the immediate aftermath of Eva’s death [in 1995], but in the months and years that followed.
Since the president’s illness worsened, Nancy has had the very lonely role of caregiver. She never complains, but I know it exacts an enormous toll on her. We talk almost every day and I periodically succeed in coaxing her out of the house for either lunch or dinner. Last year we saw the revival of Kiss Me, Kate in Los Angeles. It was the first time I’d seen her enjoy an evening out in such a long time. We also have the same birthday, so it’s now become an annual tradition for us to share it together, usually with a quiet lunch at the Beverly Hilton.

from Merv: Making the Good Life Last, by Merv Griffin with David Bender (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

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[Dana Cook’s collections of celebrity encounters have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and journals. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com]

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