COVER

The grooming of a First Lady

Jane O’Hara January 25 1982
COVER

The grooming of a First Lady

Jane O’Hara January 25 1982

The grooming of a First Lady

Jane O’Hara

Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, Nancy Reagan chose her husband’s neckties, cancelled whistle stops that might tire out her “Ronnie” and always, always, sat perfectly poised. Her glassy eyes were firmly fixed on the firmament of Ronald Reagan. Her glazed smile was permanently configured for the photographers. Except for one blooper at a Republican fund raiser in Chicago where she looked up and said how nice it was to see all those “beautiful white faces,” Nancy Reagan stuck to the script. With her Monsieur Marc hairdos and her $900 hard-to-crease Adolfo travelling suits, she was the compleat campaigner—a career actress turned career political wife. With control her companion, there was neither a hair nor a handshake out of place.

But in the past 12 months, the polished mahogany tables have turned on the First Lady. Lately, Nancy Reagan’s coiffures and haute couture have caused as much controversy in the White House as the sale of American AWACS to the Saudis. Democrats on Capitol Hill, hounds on the scent of any political blood, are planning to use Nancy’s spendthrift style to woo blue-collar voters in this year’s congressional elections. And the American public has been quick to register its criticism. In a recent Gallup poll, Nancy Reagan was revealed to be the least loved of the past six American First Ladies, with 19 per cent of those surveyed voicing disapproval. In the same survey, 62 per cent said that she placed too much emphasis on style and elegance during a time of federal budget cuts and economic hardship.

Although it is true that Jackie Kennedy was lionized for doing the same things in the ’60s—that is, bringing white-tie glamor and money to the White House—Americans in the ’80s are cynical about another Camelot. They are fed up with the notion of an Imperial Presidency. Even a country such as Britain, renowned for giving imperialism its due respect, was irked by Nancy’s personal style. During her trip to London last July for the wedding of Prince Charles, she was booed by British crowds and got the Bronx cheer from the press. The Times of London took offence at Nancy Reagan’s designer diplomacy, saying she had “squeezed more engagements into the week before the royal wedding than Alice’s white rabbit.”

On the other hand, Nancy has not been short of gallant defenders. When the sniping started, President Reagan complained his wife was taking a “bum rap” from the press. Her son Ron added, “I don’t know anyone who can be more charming than she is.” Her friends—a close coterie of California matrons themselves married to wealthy Republicans—speak of her as warm, vulnerable, sensitive and outrageously sentimental. Nancy herself says simply: “I am just being myself. Anything else would be phoney.”

Nonetheless, a different image has calcified. It started taking shape during the inaugural last January when she rolled into town with a $25,000 wardrobe for that day’s events. Her first public act, announcing the $700,000 refurbishing of the White House private quarters—complete with Persian rug in the newly constructed beauty salon—raised eyebrows even though the money came from private donations. Then, at the same time that the administration was talking about cutting school lunches, Nancy was out buying $208,000 worth of china for the presidential dinner table.

Call it bad timing, or blithe insensitivity to American hard times, but Nancy Reagan’s let-them-eat-jelly-beans attitude has been hard to sell in Middle America. American feminists are not in her court either, viewing her as a toadying wife, a startling anachronism in the face of the advances of the women’s movement. Her autobiography, Nancy, is sprinkled with revelations such as the one that her real life “began when I married my husband.” American feminist Betty Friedan merely shakes her head: “Nancy and I went to Smith College together and she was a career woman before all of us. She’s done nothing so far for women, but I’m still hopeful she will use the office in some meaningful way.”

In her own defence, Nancy Reagan says that controversy “seems to go with the job.” Lately, she has been reading the biographies of former First Ladies to compare notes. Eleanor Roosevelt was lambasted by the press for the activism that now appears laudable. Betty Ford was criticized for being outspoken. Rosalynn Carter, who was dubbed the “Iron Magnolia” for sitting in on her husband’s cabinet meetings, was denigrated for being so down-home and dowdy. Now, just when it seems the Reagans have banished the last Willie Nelson record from the White House, the press is getting picky again. The most recent attack on the First Lady came from Washington Post columnist Judy Mann, who ridiculed Nancy for being “far more interested in being socially chic than socially useful.” This tripped a flood of letters to the editor, including a lengthy apologia from Selwa Roosevelt, the wife of Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson and one of the blue-chip Washingtonians courted by Nancy in her mission to get to know Washington society. Wrote Roosevelt: “Let’s face it. Most First Ladies can’t win, whatever they do.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Nancy Reagan has attracted so much scorn is that she seems immune to slings and arrows. At 58, her perfect size six figure, bright hazel eyes and her mask of self-control make it appear that she has not weathered many personal storms. Such is not the case. By any standards Nancy Reagan had a traumatic childhood. Her father, a used-car salesman named Kenneth Robbins, left his wife shortly after Nancy was born. Nancy’s mother, Edith Luckett, an actress, went on tour from the time Nancy was 2 until she was 6, leaving her daughter with relatives. When the time came in 1929, however, her mother gave up her acting career to play full-time wife to a brilliant American neurosurgeon, Dr. Loyal Davis. In her autobiography, Nancy reveals that her mother “helped enhance [Davis’] career by improving his social contacts.”

In many ways, Nancy followed in her mother’s footsteps. After marrying Reagan in 1952 she gave up her acting career

Perhaps Nancy Reagan has a ttracted so much scorn because she seems immune to slings and arrows and the pinpricks of the press

which had begun on the Broadway stage and had ended after making 11 Hollywood “B” movies. Now, as their 30th anniversary approaches, the Reagans are undoubtedly still a love match. He calls her “mommy.” She calls him her “fella.” Although insiders note that Nancy does not hold the same political sway with her husband as did Rosalynn Carter with Jimmy, her influence on the president can not be underestimated. Nancy Reagan is her husband’s most loyal lieutenant and can be cutthroat when it comes to protecting his interests. While she has no fascination for the nuts and bolts of policy-making, it is said she has more political savvy and is a better judge of people than her husband. White House aides quiver more at the thought of losing her confidence than the president’s. “Her ambitions are tied to what he wants,” says Nancy Reynolds, a longtime friend and vice-president of the Bendix Corp. “If that means being First Lady then that’s fine with her.”

Is Nancy Reagan the vain Dragon Lady that some perceive? Or is she, as her husband says, a worrier, a sentimental fussbudget who “can cry over sending the laundry out”? Admittedly, the cost of Nancy Reagan’s Galanos gowns have been of more interest to the press than some of her loftier pursuits. She has made appearances on behalf of teenage drug abuse and has continued to sponsor the Foster Grandparent program which she started in California. Several of her 16-member staff in the west wing of the White House say that in the early days of the presidency almost 90 per cent of press inquiries dealt with her wardrobe. That came to a halt in October when the White House said that it would neither confirm nor deny further clothes questions after a story leaked out that the First Lady not only wore a bulletproof slip, but that she had also been fitted for a Kevlar coat lining.

To her own credit, Nancy has also tried to deflect the growing attacks. In November, borrowing Landon Parvin, one of her husband’s speech writers—who has also written one-liners for comedian Rich Little—Nancy tried poking fun at herself at a dinner in New York. Referring to hot-selling “Queen Nancy” postcards, which depicted her in ermine and tiara, she kidded: “I never wear a crown. It would mess up my hair.” She then made a fleeting reference to her new project, “The Nancy Reagan Home for Wayward China.”

It will take more than a few quips to change Nancy Reagan’s image. The possibility that she may one day become a serious political liability for her husband will probably alter things more quickly. For now, she is like the Fifth Avenue window displays where she so lovingly lingers—eminently presentable but equally untouchable. Then again, maybe she is just being herself.