The thirty-eighth First Lady of the United States, Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Bloomer Ford, was born on April 18, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the third child and only daughter of her parents, William Stephenson Bloomer and Hortense Neahr. Her father was a traveling salesman for the Royal Rubber Company, and her mother was a homemaker. After Betty’s birth, her family moved to Denver, Colorado, and then to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she spent the remainder of her childhood, graduating therefrom Central High School.
The Great Depression began when Betty was eleven years old, and she helped her family earn extra money during this time by modeling clothes and teaching dance to younger kids. She was a dance student herself at the Calla Travis Dance Studio, from which she graduated in 1935.
She was sixteen years old when her father died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning while working on his car in his garage, even though the garage doors were open; him being under the car seems to have been the contributing factor. When he died, he was one day shy of turning sixty years old.
Two years after her father died, Betty graduated from high school and wanted to continue to study dance in New York City. However, her mother was against it and refused to allow it. So, Betty went to the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vermont for two summers, where she studied with some famous choreographers of the time. Eventually, one of these choreographers, Martha Graham, accepted Betty as a personal student, and Betty did move to New York City, where she lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and worked as a fashion model to finance her dance instruction under Graham. Eventually, Betty performed with Graham’s dance company at Carnegie Hall.
During this time, Betty’s mother still disapproved of Betty’s career choice and demanded she move home, but Betty refused. The two eventually compromised with each other, with Betty agreeing to move home to Michigan for six months, and if, after that time, she still wanted to move back to NYC to study dance, she could do that. As it happened, Betty became involved in community life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and did not return to NYC. Instead, she got a job as an assistant to the fashion coordinator at a local department store, and created and taught her own dance troupe, as well as taught other dance classes in the Grand Rapids area.
Betty got married in 1942 to William G. Warren, an insurance salesman she had known since she was twelve. The marriage did not last long. Warren was an alcoholic and went into a coma from drinking just after Betty decided to file for divorce. She nursed him until he recovered, and divorced him in 1947 on the grounds of “excessive, repeated cruelty.”
Betty remarried the next year to Gerald Ford, a lawyer and WWII veteran she knew from Grand Rapids. At the time of their marriage, Gerald was campaigning for his first term in the US House of Representatives. He asked Betty to delay their wedding until just before the election, as he did not know how the voters would respond to him marrying a divorced ex-dancer.
After they were married, Betty and Gerald were happy together, and often described as the most openly affectionate presidential couple in history, once Gerald became President. They had three sons and a daughter together.
Betty was by Gerald’s side as he eventually became the highest-ranking Republican in the House, then was appointed Vice-President after Spiro Agnew resigned as Nixon’s VP, then became President after the resignation of Richard Nixon. During her tenure as First Lady, Betty was an outspoken advocate for feminist causes, such as women’s rights, abortion rights (she was openly pro-choice), and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Time Magazine named her as Woman of the Year in 1975, because of her advocacy for the rights of women and support of feminist issues.
Betty also became an advocate for breast cancer awareness after she underwent a mastectomy for the condition during her first year as First Lady. She fully recovered and was forever cancer-free after that, but decided to be open with the public about the whole thing because of the secrecy of the previous Nixon administration. Her openness about her experience with the disease and her treatment for it raised the number of women doing self-screenings, which lead to an increase in the number of cases that were diagnosed. Betty always hoped her openness about it helped save at least one life, and hopefully many more of them.
Betty is the only First Lady to have given the concession speech for her husband after he lost his bid for election in his own right because Gerald had lost his voice while campaigning.
Two years after leaving the White House, Betty’s family held an intervention for her, because she had become addicted to alcohol and opioid pain medications, which she originally received a prescription for in the 1960’s after a pinched nerve. She went into treatment for substance abuse and recovered. In 1982, after recovering, she established the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, where people could go to get treatment for substance dependency. The center also treated the children of alcoholics. She served as the chair of the board of directors of the center from its founding until 2005, when she turned it over to her daughter.
Betty died of old age on July 8, 2011, just a few months after turning ninety-three. Gerald had also died at age ninety-three several years before her. She was at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California when she died. Her funeral was held in Palm Desert, California, with more than eight hundred people attending a former President, three former First Ladies, and a current First Lady.
A second funeral was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and another former President, a former Vice-President, and another former First Lady attended that one. She was buried next to Gerald on the grounds of the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.