Liz Smith: Remembering A Great Lady — Betty Ford

The late, great Betty Ford

And more from our Gossip Girl: A night in New York with a crazy “Tabloid” … our Liz on what makes a really big star

“THE SEARCH for human freedom can never be complete without freedom for women,” said Betty Ford.

* * *

A FOND farewell this week to the groundbreaking Betty Ford, who brought reality to the role of First Lady. She was a first class human being, resolved to being down to earth and realistic in an unrealistic role.

I had one wonderful experience with Betty Ford, after she left the White House, but I think it reveals what a terrific person she was.

Mrs. Ford’s memoir had been written with the help of an old friend of mine, Chris Chase. One day I complained to Cris that my alcoholic brother Bobby needed “help.” Chris suggested I send him to the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment. I was mulling what to do about my beloved Bobby when my phone rang one morning. “Liz, this is Betty Ford. I passing through the Wichita airport and I wanted to ask about your brother and try to be of some help.”

I stuttered and stammered and finally said that I’d like to send him to the Betty Ford Clinic. Mrs. Ford asked where he was living? I told her Austin, Texas. There was a brief silence and then Mrs. Ford spoke:  “Liz, don’t spend your money sending Bobby to my clinic. It’s very expensive. There are numbers of great therapeutic places in Texas, just like mine. Send him to one of those. I’ll send you a list. They all ascribe to the AA principle, and one is just as good as the other.

“I wish you luck my dear, but in the end it will be up to Bobby to decide if he wants to recover. Good luck to you.”

That was Betty Ford — thoughtful, commonsensical, practical, realistic. Unable to brag on her own creation or to say that the Betty Ford Clinic was the best.

I have never gotten over my appreciation and regard for this First Lady, who didn’t know me from Adam, but stopped in the Wichita airport to give me good advice!

* * *

SPEAKING OF Betty Ford leads me to think of my old friend Elizabeth Taylor, the first celebrity to check into Mrs. Ford’s clinic, essentially putting it on the map. Elizabeth emerged from her experience a different person, and though she slipped back and had to undergo treatment again, a few years later, the downward spiral of her life had been altered. She never would have had the discipline and drive to spearhead her AIDS work without the lessons learned at Betty Ford.

And on the subject of La Liz, I want to say thanks to the New York Times’ mighty columnist Maureen Dowd. In her  July 10th column she asserted that not even the great director Martin Scorsese can do justice to the epic love story of Elizabeth and Richard Burton (should Scorsese go ahead with his idea to make a movie about the fabulous couple.)

Maureen gave me the last word on what constitutes a star at the end of her column.

“As Liz Smith once observed, ‘Whenever somebody says so-and-so is a big star, I say, ‘Have they been condemned by the Vatican?’”

* * *

THE AUDIENCE at Monday night’s screening of director Errol Morris‘ “Tabloid” documentary didn’t know quite how to react to the real life tale of Joyce McKinney, the Southern beauty queen who became obsessed with a Mormon missionary, followed him to Britain, kidnapped him and became, for a time, one of the most notorious women in the UK, a darling of Fleet Street scandal sheets.

Joyce is clearly “barking mad” as one of the tabloid editors describes her, but she is also extremely intelligent and quite appealing, even so many decades after her 1970’s heyday. (In later years she became infamous all over again, when she cloned a litter of puppies.)

“Tabloid” is 88 minutes of crazy. Depending on your taste for that sort of thing, it is very funny or quite unsettling. (Think “Grey Gardens.”) And while Joyce herself is no bed of roses, the men who made a living pursuing her come off even worse — smirking and laughing and unashamed about prying into every aspect of her life.

I will say this: “Tabloid” is mighty convincing anti-Mormon propaganda. When Joyce gets started on how Mormonism is really a cult, well … let’s just say this will not be a fave at Mitt Romney’s house.

The screening was at the IFC Center, way downtown. There was an after-party at a place called The Westway, near the Westside Highway. It used to be a gentlemen’s club.

Courtney Love, Kirsten Dunst, Spike Jonze and others wandered about. Parker Posey and Joan Rivers were promised, but seemed to be missing. (Actually, Joan was just an honorary co-host and was not really expected.) I will say the food was impressive. Pizza. Big boxes and big slices of excellent pizza. None of the usual teeny burgers and crab cakes and crackers enlivened a dab of something scary-looking.

As Village Voice scribe Michael Musto said, “Screw Parker Posey. I’m having pizza. I’m happy.”


8 Responses so far.

  1. avatar rick gould says:

    Betty Ford was a great example of somebody who learned something and then shared it with others. Her clinic and advocacy for bringing alcoholism out in the open gave Betty a great purpose for the second act of Ford’s life…

    …Just as Elizabeth Taylor’s fight against AIDS gave her a much-needed purpose in her middle years.

    And it’s interesting that the connection between the Ford and Taylor led to something beneficial for everyone, regarding the diseases of alcoholism and AIDS.

  2. avatar sevillomatic says:

    I enjoyed reading this story bout Betty Ford. It is nice to lay some humanity on a woman that has too often been a punchline.

    Reading the remembrnces of Mrs. Ford, it seems like neither Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama would be able to serve they way they have had she not laid the groundwork.

    CHEERS to her.

  3. avatar Richard Bassett says:

                      Even before and after her occupancy as the President’s wife, she remained committed to many causes…having lived through a number of them herself. She was introduced as First Lady to America suffering from breast cancer and, after having a mastectomy, spent many weeks recovering. This was thirty five years ago, before all of the advancements in that specific issue were available. The word was hush-hush, until she brought it out in the open.
                   A self-admitted feminist, she chose to tackle situations that were usually swept under the rug. It must have been very difficult to be so active while addicted to (pain medication) opiates. You feel psychical dependence for them in a short period of time. So many of our pain killers, opiates, take away the physical pain, but then one must tackle the psychological dependence. After treatment, there can be a new day in front of you. Withdrawal will make you feel very well, opposed to withdrawal from alcohol and sedatives, which could kill you. All too technical to get into here. I am sure that Betty wanted to spare others from the pain. Withdrawal symptoms can marginally take the edge off addiction with medication, but there is a psychological element that must be addressed and society (supportive families/friends) play a large role in maintaining sobriety.
                 The Betty Ford Center seems to mimic the twelve steps of recovery. AA meetings and NA (narcotic anonymous) meetings are included in treatment plans. But some fear these programs, believing that they will turn into a ‘cult individual’. That is never going to happen. Support is drawn from the other members in or who have been in similar situations. The purpose of the 12 steps of recovery is to, not only to keep one in recovery, but to bring quality to a healthier life.
                 There are alternatives to living the AA/NA programs which cause you to sharpen your coping skills. In other words, if AA doesn’t work for you…there may be a program that does. AA works with empathy, honesty and compassion while SMART recovery (another addiction program based on irrational thinking keeping us stuck) concentrates on the psychology of recovery. And both programs work concurrently with each other very well. The “work” comes from the one who is suffering with the infliction.  In our society, it is stressed that going to Rehab, whether it be for five days or thirty days, will conquer the addiction. But will it work?
                          At the end of Rehab, living life on life’s terms begins. Your new life begins. The more recovery time that you have, the easier it becomes to ask for the help that you think that you need. Both psychologists and psychiatrists will assist you with any difficult that you may experience.

                  In the early 1980’s, Betty Ford realized this. She most likely was not the only one who magically became the only one to realize this, but she was the first to lend her name to this type of recovery. At one time, some physically & psychologically addicted ‘ drunk’ would enter a hospital and exit a week later, no longer physically addicted only to find you soon in same cycle occur again…until people died.  There is so much more to not drinking than just not drinking. If you can find a comfort zone either with the AA 12 step fellowship of AA/NA, or the psychology behind SMART recovery or even wiping it from your life alone, then you are ahead of the game.

                        I am an Addictions Counselor in desperate need of my CEU’s (continuing education credits) but have worked for years in this field. Betty Ford put a name to it. There are hundreds of Betty Ford Centers now, along with other private treatment centers, state facilities, city facilities or even techniques that can take place at home. The motto, “Wherever works”….but if nothing is done, nothing changes. I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here.

                         It must have been a joy for Betty Ford to see this empire built and she will, forever be remembered or it.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      If anything she was an accidental feminist and at no time did she indicate she resented her role in life which was wife and mother. But she did indicate she resented the attitudes of men that wife and mother was the only role allowed a woman.

      As for the Betty Ford Center it would not have been possible had it not been for people like you willing to devote themselves to working with people with addictions. Quite a few of whom were inspired by her which is really her legacy. The inspiration she gave to so many.

  4. avatar KarenR says:

    Betty Ford – the fifth quiet giant that we here in Michigan have lost in the last six years – humble role models who touched us in ways we can scarcely begin to realize or imagine. They cannot be replaced but we need more cast in similar molds.

    It hurts.

    We miss you all.

  5. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Having covered from the “odd couples” in attendance at the funeral I have to wonder what hre reaction would have been. George W Bush with Nancy Reagan and then with Hillary Clinton in California.  Barbara Bush with Bill Clinton in Michigan. The Bushes and Clintons are of rouces sort of “one big happyph family” at this point. But it was odd to see Nancy Reagan with th man she tagged “The Village Idiiot.”  Of course it was odd to begin with since there was “no love lost” as they say given the fact that the Reagan’s pettiness over Gerald Ford winning the primary in the 1976 race which resulted in their being “too busy” to campaign for him and which resulted in Jimmy Carter winning and some extraordinarliy appalling comments along the way by Nancy Reagan.  But there she was. With The Village Idiot.

    The Fords represented a very brief period of sanity as well as healing for this country. But the insanity would return four years later in 1980.  They were a tough act to follow. But then no one really attempted to follow them. Theirs was a Republican Party being shelved along with the memory of Eisenhower. They, like the Eisenhowers, were nice people. And by 1980 nice people were no longer part of our political process.  The “kinder, gentler nation” of George HW BUsh quickly became the “meaner, nastier nation” we now live in.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Why is it that when you correct the “boo-boos” sometimes the uncorrected version is what posts?  Oh, to reutrn to the good old wowOwow that worked much better.

    • avatar KarenR says:

      Two great comments from observers ~

      With regard to Mrs. Ford’s request for Cokie Roberts to speak on political friendship and civility: “Mom says stop fighting and go to your rooms!”

      and from a Grand Rapids area resident on the Fords never losing touch with working Americans: “The Fords represent the Camelot of the common man, and what the regular guy could aspire to as a way to live and a way to be happy and they achieved it.”