Betty Ford was a sometimes outspoken and often endearing first lady in the post-Watergate years, championing such issues as the Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice and gun control even against the wishes of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
But Ford, who died Friday at 93, left a far different legacy from her years in the White House. After battling her own addiction, she launched an eponymous treatment center that has gone on to become one of the most prominent recovery centers in the world. By coming forward with her battle with alcoholism in the late 1970s, she helped remove the stigma from the disease in a way that few other public figures had up to that point and perhaps even since.
In a docu on her life, “Betty Ford: The Real Deal,” some historians said she had more of an impact on culture than her husband.
She didn’t shy away from sharing her candor and humor with the public. One of the most well known shots of Ford was taken by White House photographer David Hume Kennerly in 1977, just as the Fords were preparing to leave office. The shot was of Ford posing on the top of the cabinet room table. Kennerly later told Smithsonian magazine, “She said, ‘I just think I’m going to do this.’ Then she’s on the table.
“Very few women have had a seat at that table,” he said. “I bet you could count them on one hand at that point, and knowing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, she was tap-dancing in the middle of this male bastion. She was storming the walls of the gray suits and gray-haired eminences.”
“It was a wonderful and whimsical ending to that magical time I spent as the first lady,” Ford said.
The Betty Ford Center, which published a tribute on its website, was the first licensed addiction hospital in the world and has treated 97,000 men, women and their families.
Its association with entertainment industry came from its reputation as a place where addicts — famous or not — could get topnotch care. The center distinguished itself from later iterations of rehab that cater to the wealthy and resemble spas more than an environment to honestly confront one’s demons. Clients included Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, but the center keeps its rates relatively affordable.
Cash became a patient after he broke five ribs and relapsed into abuse of painkillers. “I ended up in the Betty Ford Center for 43 days.” Cash told the Associated Press in 1986. “I’ve had no drugs since then. It has been the best three years of my life, the most productive and the happiest.”
Kelsey Grammer credited his stay there with saving his life. Actors Marlee Matlin, Rob Lowe, Mackenzie Phillips and Ali McGraw all gratefully paid tribute to Ford over the weekend.
In 1996, Grammer described to Jay Leno how his treatment at Betty Ford helped restore his joy of living. The comedian also quipped about the center’s stature and its famous patients. “When I was on my way to the Betty Ford Center, I turned to one of my friends and said, ‘You know, I’ve finally made it. I’m going to the Betty Ford Center,'” he said.
When a judge sent Lindsay Lohan to the center for three months late last year, many experts said it would be her best shot at recovery.
Betty Ford began life as Elizabeth Bloomer, who fell in love with dance as a girl and decided it would be her life. But her mother eventually coaxed her back from Greenwich Village to Grand Rapids, where Betty worked as a dance teacher and store fashion coordinator.
Gerald Ford was her second husband.
The public outpouring of support in the wake of her breast cancer surgery helped her embrace the power of her position as first lady.
Later, after a family intervention, Ford entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and, alongside alcoholic young sailors and officers, underwent a grim detoxification that became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. In her book “A Glad Awakening,” she described her recovery as a second chance at life.
And in that second chance, she found a new purpose.
She will be memorialized Tuesday in California’s Coachella Valley, which includes Rancho Mirage, before her casket travels by motorcade and military transport for a private burial Thursday alongside her husband in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)