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Nancy Reagan, Actress Who Became Powerful First Lady, Dies at 94

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, who as an aspiring actress married affable leading man Ronald Reagan, and then offered her unfailing support and Hollywood style as his unlikely political career took them to the Sacramento’s governor’s mansion and then all the way to the White House, has died. She was 94.

A family spokesperson told CBS that Reagan died Sunday in her Los Angeles home of congestive heart failure.

Reagan had a reputation as her husband’s greatest protector, whether regarding publicity or public policy, but she won public admiration as she took on the role of caregiver as he faced the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the last 10 years of his life.

Nancy Davis was an actress under contract with MGM in 1949 when she first met Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, and asked for his help in clearing her name after it mistakenly appeared on a list of Communist sympathizers in Hollywood. Over dinner, they hit it off and started dating, but it was several years before Reagan, recently divorced from actress Jane Wyman, would be ready to tie the knot again.

They did in 1952, and the new Mrs. Reagan gave birth to a daughter, Patricia, or Patti, later that year and six years later to a son, Ron. Although she hadn’t intended to continue acting, her husband’s film career was on the wane and, as she later described it, “We needed the money.”

She reluctantly took a part in the low-budget “Donovan’s Brain,” “Crash Landing” and “Hellcats of the Navy,” the last of which was the only film in which she appeared with her husband.

By the time “Hellcats” was released in 1957, Ronald Reagan had taken on a lucrative gig as celebrity spokesman for General Electric and host of its weekly anthology “G.E. True Theater,” in which he occasionally acted with Nancy. This career turn would form the basis for his plunge into politics.

Although Reagan had initially resisted overtures to run for office, including an invite from a group of Democrats to run for a congressional seat in the early ’50s, he warmed to the idea after his GE experience required him to interact with the public as if on the campaign trail.

Having switched party affiliation in the early ’60s, Reagan campaigned for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid, and the actor made a mark with a nationally televised address for the candidate just days before the election. Though Goldwater was walloped, it set the stage for Reagan’s California gubernatorial bid in 1966, and although Nancy was initially shy about her own involvement in the statewide campaign, she agreed to trek across the state as a surrogate and grew accustomed to the idea of being a political spouse.

In Sacramento, facing criticism of her husband, especially during the tumultuous student protests of the late 1960s, proved jarring for Nancy. In one incident, two men tried to throw a Molotov cocktail through the bedroom window of their residence. Years later, she recalled that when a negative story was written, she would take a bath and hold imaginary conversations with his critics.

Though Nancy often said her influence was overblown, she did remark that she made “no apologies for telling Ronnie what I thought,” and the press began to see her as her husband’s “chief protector.”

That was apparent by the time that Reagan entered presidential politics, first waging a campaign in 1968 to snag the GOP nomination over Richard Nixon, and then in 1976, when he led a conservative revolt that fell just short of defeating incumbent President Gerald Ford. Initially reluctant about her husband’s White House ambitions, Nancy Reagan gave him her full support, serving as a check on the campaign staff as they put him on a rigorous schedule. Her influence grew by the time he ran again in 1980, and she helped arrange meetings to try to deal with staff infighting, including on the day of the New Hampshire primary when campaign manager John Sears was given his walking papers. Later, as her husband secured the nomination and was weighing vice presidential prospects, she told her husband that the idea of a “dream ticket” with Ford in the No. 2 spot “just won’t work,” and the idea fell apart at the convention.

The joy of her husband’s landslide victory in 1980, followed by the exuberance of the inauguration, didn’t translate into a smooth transition to first lady.

The press almost immediately focused on her move to restore pomp to the White House, and she even wrote later that on her first visit she found it “run-down and a bit shabby.” Before she even moved in, rumors flew that she wanted the Carters to move out early for renovations, something she steadfastly denied. But her efforts to restore the White House and buy hundreds of thousands of dollars in new White House china, plus her expensive clothes, earned her negative press as the nation slid into a deep recession. Although many of her efforts to upgrade the Executive Mansion were funded with private donations, the image stuck. She even tried to parody it at the 1982 Gridiron dinner, mimicking the song “Second Hand Rose” with “Second Hand Clothes.”

In her autobiography, published in 1989, she acknowledged that she “served as a lightning rod,” and that something about her “just seemed to rub them the wrong way.” She recounted meeting Robert Strauss, a Democratic party elder statesman, who told her, “When you first came to town, Nancy, I didn’t like you at all. But after I got to know you, I changed my mind and said, ‘She’s some broad!’” She replied, “Bob, based on the press reports I read then, I wouldn’t have liked me either.”

Eventually, the strength she showed during two traumatic points in her husband’s presidency, first when he survived an assassination attempt early in his term, and later after he had cancer surgery to remove a mass from his colon, softened her image. She had a health scare of her own in 1987, when doctors discovered that she had breast cancer and she opted to go through a mastectomy.

Far more than many other first ladies, Nancy had considerable success in getting one of her signature concerns into the cultural conversation. Her anti-drug campaign Just Say No was somewhat kitschy in a culture of cool, but the catchphrase stuck as she tapped into pop culture to promote her initiative and even did a cameo on the then-popular sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” and in a rock video. Although a causal connection was never proven, drug use among the young actually declined through the decade according to several studies. She became the first first lady invited to address the U.N. General Assembly when she addressed the body on drug trafficking in 1988.

Reagan defended her husband’s policies and, at times, became more than a mere advocate. Most famously, when Raisa Gorbachev visited the White House in 1987 and launched into lectures on Soviet policy, Nancy reportedly remarked, “Who does that dame think she is?”

As Soviet-American relations thawed toward the end of her husband’s term, with a type of diplomacy that Nancy encouraged, she was at the center of one last controversy. As the Iran-Contra scandal exploded in 1987, she sparred with White House chief of staff Donald Regan and encouraged her husband to fire him. Regan was eventually forced to resign but returned the favor by writing a 1988 memoir in which he revealed that Nancy relied on an astrologer even to determine the president’s schedule. As with other controversies, Nancy said that Regan’s account was overblown, but it was enough to create a sensation akin to a Hollywood tabloid headline.

Nancy Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins to an actress mother, Edith Luckett, who had been separated from her father, a car salesman. (For reasons not even she could explain, she was nicknamed Nancy from an early age). Show business was a big part of her childhood, as she lived with her aunt and uncle as her mother travelled the country. Even though she was separated from her mother, years later she wrote that her fondest memories were of seeing her mother perform, and she recounted meeting such figures as Spencer Tracy.

She followed in her mother’s footsteps by pursuing an acting career after college, landing parts in a tour of “Ramshackle Inn” and later a Broadway musical, “Lute Song.” A screen test led to a seven-year contract with MGM, and she started with a minor role in “The Doctor and the Girl” in 1949. Her parts soon expanded, including 1951’s “Night Into Morning,” in which she co-starred with Ray Milland. The studio eventually released her from her contract in 1952, and though she starred in a few more movies and did TV guest roles throughout the 1950s, she later said that her goal was her family. Her last role was on “Wagon Train” in 1962.

Ronald Reagan died in 2004, a decade after he revealed in a letter that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and by then Nancy earned respect for her role as caregiver and for her strength as she directed and led mourners at her husband’s funeral.

Nancy Reagan is survived by children Ron and Patti, and Michael Reagan, a stepchild from Ronald Reagan’s marriage to Wyman. Another stepchild, Maureen Reagan, died in 2001.

“I don’t think he would’ve gotten to where he got to (without her),” son Ron Reagan told an interviewer in 2008. “Because I think she has more ambition than he does. I think if left to his own devices, he might’ve ended up hosting ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ on TV or something … I think that she saw in him the stuff that could be president, and she kept pushing.”

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