America’s First Ladies, #40: Nancy Robbins Davis Reagan

America’s First Ladies, #40 – Nancy Robbins Davis Reagan

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Nancy Reagan, our fortieth First Lady, was born Anne Frances Robbins (Nancy is a common nickname for Anne) on July 6, 1921, in Manhattan, New York. The only child of Kenneth Robbins and Edith Luckett, she spent the first two years of her life in New York City. Her father was a farmer and car salesman, whose family had once been prosperous. Her mother was an actress. Her godmother was a famous silent film star named Alla Nazimova.

Soon after Nancy’s birth (her parents called her Nancy from the time she was born), her parents separated and divorced when she was seven. After the separation, Nancy’s mother traveled a lot to find acting jobs, and Nancy spent six years living with and being raised by her aunt and uncle, Virginia Luckett and Audley Gailbraith, in Bethesda, Maryland. Nancy missed her mother and said that her favorite times in her childhood were when her mother would get a job in New York City and her aunt would take her by train to stay with her mother there.

Nancy’s mother remarried when Nancy was eight, to Loyal Edward Davis. Davis was a prominent neurosurgeon who moved the family to Chicago. He and Nancy got along very well, and Davis later adopted her, changing her last name from Robbins to Davis. At the time of the surname change, her first name was also legally changed, to Nancy.

Nancy graduated from the Girls’ Latin School of Chicago in 1939 and attended Smith College in Massachusetts, where she graduated with a degree in English and Drama in 1943.

After graduating from college, she held jobs as a nurse’s aide and sales clerk in Chicago, before her mother’s acting colleagues helped her find work as an actress. Nancy appeared in Broadway plays and musicals, even playing a Chinese character once when a director told her she looked Chinese.

Eventually, those Broadway roles lead to a screen test, which she passed, and she moved to California with a seven-year contract with MGM Studios. She ultimately appeared in eleven feature films, usually playing a “loyal housewife” and/or “responsible young mother.” Her attractiveness, along with her distant and understated demeanor, made her perfect for these roles, and she became typecast as them.

After her last movie in 1958, she appeared as guest stars on television shows for a while, finally retiring as an actress in 1962. Nancy dated several famous actors during her own acting career, including Clark Gable, Peter Lawford, and Robert Stack. She met her future husband, fellow actor Ronald Reagan, in November of 19491, when she noticed her name was on a Hollywood blacklist. Since Ronald was then president of the screen actors guild, she sought his help to get her name removed. Ronald discovered she had been mistaken for another actress with the same name, and Nancy was removed from the blacklist.

Nancy and Ronald began dating after this, and the press followed their relationship closely. It was noted they did not go out to nightclubs on their dates, and the press thus dubbed them the “vice-free couple.” Ronald had been divorced from actor Jane Wyman and was dating other women in addition to Nancy, as the divorce had made him wary of remarriage.

The couple dated for three years, and eventually decided to get married. The wedding was on March 4, 1952, in Los Angeles; the wedding was small and arranged quickly to avoid the press. Their daughter Patricia was born eight months later, followed six years later by their son, Ronald, Jr. Ronald already had two other children by his marriage to Jane, Maureen, and Michael Reagan.

Ronald and Nancy were always known to be intimate with each other and displayed their affection openly and often. Those who knew them said they never stopped courting each other. Ronald called Nancy “Mommy,” and Nancy called Ronald “Ronnie.” Nancy told Vanity Fair in an interview once that her life really began with “Ronnie,” and that she couldn’t imagine life without him. When Ronald died in 2004, Charlton Heston said it was the end of the greatest love affair in the history of the American presidency.

By the time Nancy became First Lady, the White House had, once again, fallen into disrepair, as it had so many times over the previous two centuries. Nancy wanted to renovate it, as other First Ladies had done, to make it into a suitable “first home.” Rather than use government funds as her predecessors had done, however, she used private donations. She redecorated several rooms in the White House, and the entire second and third floors, as well as the press briefing room. She brought out some White House antiques that had been in storage for ages, and also displayed some of her and Ronald’s own collectibles. She said she wanted the White House to be a national home that the entire country could be proud of.

Nancy also enjoyed entertaining, much more than her immediate predecessors, Pat Nixon and Rosalynn Carter. Nancy hosted fifty-six state dinners during her time in the White House, and always said hosting was easy, that all you had to do was have a good time and do a little business. She was known among the White House staff as being difficult to work for during state dinners because she was such a perfectionist when it came to them.

Nancy remained politically active after leaving the White House, though spent much of her time personally caring for Ronald, who announced in 1994 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She insisted on caring for him personally as much as she was able to, and was always his fiercest protector, beginning with the assassination attempt on him in 1981.

Nancy herself died of congestive heart failure on March 6, 2016, at the age of 94. Representatives from ten former and current First Families attended her funeral at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. There were a goodly number of Hollywood celebrities there, as well. Approximately one thousand guests attended. Nancy was buried next to Ronald, as she would have wanted it.