Ahoy, Mate! Nancy Reagan Christens the USS Ronald Reagan — and Suzy Was There

In March 2001 in Newport News, Va., with a relentless rain falling, Nancy Reagan, wrapped against the chill, christened the aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, the metal mountain that is the most powerful ship on earth.

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

On July 17, 2003, at the Norfolk, Va., shipyard, Nancy Reagan, under a blazing sun, wearing a white cotton pantsuit, sponsored the commissioning of this same great ship named for her husband, following a great naval tradition called “Bringing the Ship to Life.” Indeed, when Nancy sang out the words “I bring this ship to life,” she was doing just that as 20,000 people looked on.

The USS Ronald Reagan, under construction since February 1998, is the newest and most modern carrier ever to join the U.S. Navy. She is a marvel of nuclear power, a behemoth warship, heavily manned and equipped to conquer. The steel embodiment of President Reagan’s motto, “Peace Through Strength.”

This then is the Ronald Reagan: She cost $6 billion to build — American taxpayers footed the bill — and travels at a speed of 30 knots. Her airfield encompasses four and a half acres. The ship is 1,096 feet long, 26 stories above the waterline, weighs 722 tons, carries more than 80 aircraft and a crew of 6,000 sailors. Fully loaded, she can carry $3.5 million worth of food, serves 18,000 meals a day, around the clock, prepared by 87 cooks. (She is proud of her menu, which some would say borders on the gourmet.) The two anchors weigh 30 tons each and she is the first carrier designed to accommodate women. She will sail the seas for 50 years and will refuel just once during that period before her lifetime is over. Her home port will be San Diego.

After a buffet breakfast aboard the carrier given by Captain J.W. Goodwin, the ship’s commanding officer, the commissioning ceremony began. It was magnificent. Nancy arrived aboard a helicopter with Vice President Dick Cheney, the principal speaker of the afternoon, and Mrs. Cheney. Her personal guests and closest friends were assigned special seats, as were distinguished guests, VIPs and ranking admirals in full white dress, the hot sun shining off their golden shoulder boards and on the sunglasses almost everyone wore. Overhead, fluttering from the ship’s bridge were hundreds of pennants and in the background maybe the biggest American flag in the world. The pride and awe were palpable.

After the vice president spoke his glowing words, Sen. John Warner spoke his glowing ones and Captain Goodwin spoke his. As the vice president and the commanding officer’s pennants were broken (still another Navy tradition at a ship’s commissioning) and Nancy said her heartfelt words, “I bring this ship to life,” fighter planes flew overhead and the crowd, awed and proud, cheered like the patriots they are.

Everywhere you looked, there were cabinet officers from the Reagan administration, power figures and distinguished guests. The honorable James Baker was there with Mrs. Baker. So were Ed Meese; the Paul Laxalts; former California governor Pete Wilson; Mary Jane and Charles Wick; Louise and Ambassador Henry Grunwald (Reagan’s ambassador to Austria); Jeanne Kirkpatrick (Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations); James Billington of the Library of Congress and Mrs. Billington; Ardeshir Zahedy (Iran’s ambassador in Reagan times); Freddie Melhado and his sons, Chris and Peter; Casey Ribicoff, wife of the late senator and Connecticut governor, Abe Ribicoff; Nancy’s California friends, Betsy Bloomingdale, Marion Jorgensen and Erlenne Sprague; Cécile and Ezra Zilkha; Colette and Roger Mehle, whose late father and my late husband, Admiral Roger W. Mehle, was the captain of the aircraft carrier, Saratoga, and as an admiral commanded the aircraft carrier, Enterprise; Robert Higdon; Buffy and Bill Cafritz; Oatsie Charles of Washington and Newport; Bob Colacello, who is writing a book on Nancy Reagan, there with Claudia Cohen; Janice Abbott with Jim Mitchell; Genny and Fred Ryan; Barby and Joe Allbritton, and — oh yes, a very pink-cheeked Bo Derek.

The Wicks gave a private dinner the night before the ceremony for all the Reagan pals. The Grunwalds and Casey Ribicoff flew from Southampton for the festivities after being fog bound for hours, but managed to make it just as dinner was being served. It was all for Nancy, you see. You might say her friends would walk on fire for her, being just as loyal to her as she is to them.

In another part of the forest, Julia and David Koch opened their Long Island residence, it’s called Aspen East, for a party to support Southampton Hospital’s 45th annual gala, to be held on Aug. 2. David said that after his five-year-old son, David Jr., was knocked unconscious while playing at the Meadow Club and was rescued by the emergency department at the hospital, he would do everything he could to help it. So, the Kochs will serve as the ball’s anniversary chairmen. Among those at the party were Vera Wang; Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia; Anne Hearst and her daughter, Amanda; Betty and Virgil Sherrill; Patty Raynes; Lisa Jackson; Laura and Harry Slatkin; Pamela Gross and Jimmy Finkelstein; Bettina Zilkha, and Jill Roosevelt. Julia wore a pale green goddess dress and earrings from jeweler Sieman Schepps, which is the hospital gala’s key sponsor. The whole resort is expected to be there.

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