Nancy Reagan was remembered Sunday as one of the most powerful and influential First Ladies in modern history, a woman who brought a sense of high fashion and style to the White House rivaled only by Jackie Kennedy.
Reagan died Sunday at age 94 of congestive heart failure. She will be buried beside her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, according to a statement. Further details of the funeral were not available at press time.
In the high-flying Eighties, Reagan took full advantage of the burgeoning field of American designers to bring glamour and big-name wattage to the White House. James Galanos, Adolfo, Bill Blass, Arnold Scaasi, Geoffrey Beene and Carolina Herrera were among her favorite designers, as was jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane.
Drawing on her own bedrock conservative values and her unapologetic faith in the power of intuition, Reagan stripped the platitudes from the traditional woman-behind-the-man stereotype of First Ladies and was a sharp contrast to the drab years of the Carter administration. Along the way, she helped publicize the American fashion industry, and, during her eight years in the White House, American designers became ambassadors of good taste and good business, commanding headlines right alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall, trickle-down economics and Star Wars defense buildup.
Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator at the museum at F.I.T., said, “Nancy Reagan, like Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, used the position of First Lady to highlight the significance of American fashion.”
Even as she was criticized for wearing designer dresses, for announcing her plans for new White House china, and for redecorating the family quarters, she refused to tone down her image, insisting that high style did not clash with political acumen. The First Lady remained eager to keep up with the goings-on in society and fashion even once she was in the White House. An assistant one day phoned the Washington office of WWD to complain that Reagan wasn’t getting her copy of the newspaper on time every day — so one was sent to her by overnight courier every evening to make sure it arrived on her desk the next day.
Her goal was to turn Washington into a social hub, and to do that she had to prove that politicians do not have to be frumpy to wield power. She filled the White House with famous friends, inviting actors such as Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart to some of the 56 state dinners held during her husband’s two terms, along with New York socialites such as Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller, and designers including Valentino, de la Renta, and Herrera.
“She always kept a sense of honor and love for her county and her husband,” Herrera said Sunday. “There was elegance and style that she gave to the position of First Lady of the country. She became a symbol of American fashion. The White House was always kept in the same historical way that Jacqueline Kennedy did. Everything she did, I must say, she did with great style, and she never forgot who she was representing in a historical way — that she was the First Lady of this country.
“Also, we must not forget her ‘Just Say No’ fight against drugs among young people. She was not only about fashion, elegance and style — she was also fighting for very important things. She was always very quiet but always with her husband, following him. She was not trying to run the country — she was the perfect First Lady.
“She became a symbol of American fashion, the truly, really American fashion, in every way — not just the way she was running the White House but the way she looked every time. She was perfect. That is the legacy that we will remember with all the dignity and all the honor she had for this country — and love for this country. She was very strong, but very dedicated to who she was. She had that very clear in her mind.”
Reagan knew what it meant to be a star, and fashion was key to building that image. Just as in moviemaking, nothing happens by accident. She used fashion to communicate with her audience. In the White House, she made “Reagan Red” her hallmark. But not before she used her inaugural-ball gown to make a different point. She was 59 and not given to lifting weights when her husband was elected president. It wasn’t youth or upper-arm muscle tone she wanted to convey when she called on Galanos to design a white, single shoulder sheath for the 1981 inaugural balls. She was telling Americans to take note of her husband’s political destiny. The dress was the same design she had worn 16 years before, when Ronald Reagan became governor of California.
She remained unapologetic about her style, even from the early days of her husband’s political career. In a 1966 interview in WWD, entitled “Reagan for Real,” she said, “I’m afraid people are going to have to take me just as I am.” Then on the campaign trail with her California-governorship-seeking husband, she said her stumping wardrobe would consist of “the clothes I wear for my normal life, a suit with a blouse is most comfortable.”
Highly private and speech-shy, her clothing choices were chronicled throughout her husband’s political ascent, from the white wool Galanos she wore to his inaugural ball as governor to the peach crepe faille Galanos ensemble she chose for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s 1981 wedding. In July of that same year, she went with an Adolfo white crinkle-cotton, full-skirted, square-dance dress with a red, white and blue sash for a surprise birthday barbecue for the president’s 58th. Her all-American style spiked Saks Fifth Avenue’s sales of Adolfo designs by 200 percent nationally in January 1981. She later faced critics for an inaugural wardrobe that cost $25,000, but Reagan allowed that the gown was a gift and would be later given to the Smithsonian.
Twice a guest at the CFDA awards, she received a lifetime-achievement award in 1988 while wearing a “Reagan Red” Oscar de la Renta gown. In May 2002, looking back on her eight-year run in the White House, she told WWD simply, “I miss the whole thing.”
Through the decades, Reagan’s style was often reduced to one word — Adolfo — whose striking red daytime suits and clean but not-to-be-missed evening gowns she wore repeatedly during her White House years.
Reached Sunday, the designer said he first befriended Reagan when her husband was the governor of California, a post he held from 1967 through 1975. “I’ve known Mrs. Reagan for a long, long time. We met through Betsy Bloomingdale, and then we became friends until just now,” he said. “She always called me directly. I never spoke with people connected to her.”
For his visits to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Adolfo would arrive armed with a selection of samples that Reagan would choose from based on whatever she had in mind. Follow-up fittings were practically incidental. “Mostly all the time they were just perfect, because she was between a size four and six. It was just right,” Adolfo recalled.
“Reagan Red” was not something that Adolfo developed on his own. “She had her own ideas, and then we would get together. It was a very pleasant arrangement. There are so many people who have different ideas about Mrs. Reagan, but I can tell you sincerely she was a charming, very nice and warm person,” he said. “We had a really wonderful relationship. I would go to the White House and that, but I was not part of her social circle. We were just good friends. It was not like the people who wanted to be with Mrs. Reagan blah, blah, blah.”
Adolfo was often in the loop when more formal eveningwear was needed for state dinners, such as the one in October 1981 for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. Reagan went with a striking off-the-shoulder black and gold gown with Eighties-worthy exaggerated sleeves and a black bodice from the designer. But he wasn’t always told what his designs would be used for. “Sometimes I knew, sometimes I didn’t,” Adolfo said.
“Sometimes Mr. Reagan would come in to say hello. He was a very nice, charming gentleman. After he was no longer the president, I went to their house in California. Everything was just perfect. In fact, the last time I saw Mr. Reagan, he was taking me all around the house, showing me all the trophies and all kinds of things,” the designer remembered.
Biographer William Novak on Sunday recalled feeling uneasy as he walked down the long “rather stately” corridor upstairs in the residence quarters of the White House for his introduction to Reagan in the late Eighties — a feeling that never really subsided in the nearly two years they collaborated on “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan.”
“This was a person who had a very scary media image. I was a little nervous about meeting her and working with her. She turned out to be nothing like that,” he said Sunday. “Even though reality showed a very different person, I never quite got past it. The other thing that made me nervous was this was a person who would rather listen than talk. That is a great quality in a friend, but if you are trying to help them write their memoir, you want them to hold forth.
“The vulnerability is what surprised me most,” Novak continued. “She was soft-spoken, grieving and reticent. If I’m not mistaken, she lost both of her parents during her White House years. And she almost lost her husband in a way that we, the public, didn’t understand at the time. The [assassination attempt] shooting early in the first term [in March 1981] was, as we all now know, much more serious than we were told. And they both had cancer during the White House years. This image that I had read about and heard about of this powerful, behind-the-scenes woman — I never saw any of that. I saw this person who was hurting and who was grieving. And she treated me very nicely.”
Born Anne Frances Robbins to an ambitious, Broadway stage actress in the middle of Prohibition, Reagan was two years old when she first moved to the Washington. Determined to pursue her own acting career, her mother divorced her husband and left her daughter with her older sister, husband and cousin in Bethesda, Md. Mother and daughter reunited six years later in Chicago, where Nancy Robbins, age 8, worked hard to please her mother’s new husband, the conservative neurosurgeon Loyal Davis. She was 16, a junior at Girls’ Latin School when he agreed to adopt her.
After graduating from Smith College with a major in drama, she used her mother’s stage contacts, including Spencer Tracy, Zasu Pitts, and her godmother, Alla Nazimova, to win parts in New York and Los Angeles, where, at age 28, she signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Nine months later, she met Ronald Reagan, enlisting his aid as president of the Screen Actors Guild, to remove her name from a mailing list for Communist literature. Soon after, she landed her breakout role, as a sincere, pregnant, middle-class housewife in “The Next Voice You Hear,’’ the fourth of her 11 movies.
Throughout her life, Reagan often made female reporters wince when she confided, “My life began when I met Ronnie.” Truth told, she was saying a lot about her discipline, focus, and determination.
When the couple met, Ronald Reagan was reeling from his divorce from Jane Wyman, his Academy Award-winning first wife. Helping him paint the fence at his ranch, introducing him to her parents, and supporting his every move and mood, she hung in there until, three years later, he asked her to marry him. From then on, Nancy Reagan dedicated herself to forging his destiny. In Ronald Reagan’s days as host of “General Electric Theater,” she raved about GE’s labor-saving household devises. As wife of the governor of California, she courted the wives of California’s richest, most ambitious conservatives to bankroll his campaign. Over five political campaigns, she grew from feeling wounded whenever the press dared criticize her husband to becoming the perfect political wife.
Through all her roles and on every stage, she relied on American designers to build her image as a wife who was refined, likeable and always a cut above the rest. As Carolyn Deaver, the wife of Michael Deaver, Nancy Reagan’s closest political aide, observed, “I knew she was different when I saw she only had one grommet on her belt.”
She also used fashion to project and polish an image of respectability without ever having to reveal anything specific about the influence she wielded when the spotlight went dark.
“I experience the world through my intuitions and feelings,” she wrote in “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan.”
Many of those feelings ran counter to the culture of her times. In an era of science, economics and huge military expenditures, Reagan was known for taking everything personally. When her husband spoke publicly, she focused only on him, in what reporters labeled “the gaze.”
When her husband was shot ten weeks into his presidency, she turned to astrology to manage his schedule. Four years later, when Chief of Staff Donald Regan refused to follow her wishes, she had him fired. In return, he promoted his own memoir by revealing her secret. When the public criticized her for being too self-involved, she began the Just Say No crusade against drug use.
Above all, Nancy Reagan played to win. When Reagan challenged Gerald Ford’s candidacy at the 1976 Republican Convention, she went head-to-head with Betty Ford at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City. After arriving a few minutes after the incumbent First Lady, Reagan took her seat as the crowd cheered. Betty Ford fought back, dancing “The Bump” with Tony Orlando. Nancy Reagan may have been fuming, but in her simple Galanos dresses she always looked the picture of feminine chic.
When the press mocked Reagan as out of touch with the rest of the nation, comparing her style as First Lady to Marie Antoinette, she scored points by making fun of herself. Appearing at the press corps’ annual Gridiron musical review, she changed into a funky getup and performed her own Barbra Streisand-like rendition of “Second-Hand Clothes.”
Reagan’s competitive approach to fashion occasionally landed her in the fashion faux zone. Three months after her Gridiron triumph, she overplayed her hand. On a ten-day, six-nation whirlwind European state visit, she offered an American twist to Coco Chanel’s little black dress. Welcoming France’s socialist President Francois Mitterrand to dinner at the American Embassy in Paris, she looked oddly out of place in a black chiffon skirt over rhinestone-studded, black satin knickers designed by Galanos.
Far more damaging were the 1988 reports that Reagan, about to leave office, had broken her 1982 pledge not to accept free clothes. She denied the charges until Los Angeles designer David Hayes said she had returned about half of the 60 to 80 made-to-order outfits he had given her. Reports that she had violated the Ethics in Government Act by not paying taxes on gifts meant that both she and President Reagan could be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. Only then did she instruct her aides to start hauling out armfuls of clothing she had kept for the last six years.
In the decades after she departed the White House, Reagan worked tirelessly to protect the image of her husband while at the same time fighting for research into Alzheimer’s disease — which her husband suffered from. She was proud to have been invited to the White House by every president after her husband, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She organized exhibitions and events at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to reach out to young people born after the Reagans left the White House. And after years fighting for conservative issues, she changed the playbill to celebrate bipartisan cooperation. She even sparred with a sitting Republican president, George W. Bush, calling on him to overturn the ban on stem cell research to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Along the way, she occasionally talked about her disappointments as a mother. The stiffest criticisms of Nancy Reagan, more than from the press or the political opposition, came from her children, Patti Davis and Ron, and her stepchildren, Michael and Maureen Reagan. Unable to control their message, she settled for the role of perfect daughter. Ending the preface to her memoir, she wrote, “My mother used to say, ‘Play the hand that’s dealt you,’ and that is what I have always tried to do.’’
Reagan’s death prompted an outpouring of condolences from former presidents and first ladies, as well as President and First Lady Obama. The Obamas said that Nancy Reagan “once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House.”
“She was right, of course. But we had a head start, because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice,” the Obamas said in a joint statement.
“Our former First Lady redefined the role in her time here. Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s, and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives.
“We offer our sincere condolences to their children, Patti, Ron, and Michael, and to their grandchildren. And we remain grateful for Nancy Reagan’s life, thankful for her guidance, and prayerful that she and her beloved husband are together again.”
“Laura and I are saddened by the loss of former First Lady Nancy Reagan,” said former president George W. Bush. “Mrs. Reagan was fiercely loyal to her beloved husband, and that devotion was matched only by her devotion to our country.
“Her influence on the White House was complete and lasting. During her time as First Lady and since, she raised awareness about drug abuse and breast cancer.” Bush said. “When we moved into the White House, we benefited from her work to make those historic rooms beautiful. Laura and I are grateful for the life of Nancy Reagan, and we send our condolences to the entire Reagan family.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton called Reagan an “extraordinary woman, a gracious lady, a proud mother and a devoted wife to President Reagan, her Ronnie.”
“Her strength of character was legendary, particularly when tested by the attempted assassination of the president and throughout his battle with Alzheimer’s,” the Clintons said. “She leaves a remarkable legacy of good that includes her tireless advocacy for Alzheimer’s research and the Foster Grandparents program. We join all America in extending our prayers and condolences to her beloved children and their entire family during this difficult time.”
“Ronald Reagan could not have accomplished everything that he did without his wife Nancy,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. “As first lady, she brought a sense of grace and dignity to the White House. She roused the country to redouble the fight against drugs. And she showed us all the meaning of devotion as she cared for President Reagan throughout his long goodbye.
“She loved her husband, and she loved her country. This was her service. It was her way of giving back,” Ryan said. “And all of us are very grateful. So on behalf of the entire House, I wish to extend our condolences to the Reagan family and offer our prayers on the passing of a great American, Nancy Reagan.”
Catherine Fenton, former assistant social secretary to Nancy Reagan, said in a CNN interview that the former first lady leaves a “remarkable” legacy among American first ladies, from her public fight against the proliferation of drugs to her efforts to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s. She also noted that her personal challenges, including a battle against breast cancer, were fought in the public eye and helped raise awareness for the disease.
Fenton said Reagan had “style and [a] presence in the White House.”
“She had a great finesse. She did come from Hollywood, and she had a great eye. We all, as young women, learned so much from her — the taste, the style, the protocol, creating an elegant, warm evening, whether it was for a small private group of friends or a state dinner,” Fenton said. “She did it very well, and she worked hard to make things just as perfect as possible. So we will miss her. She was remarkable.”