Nancy Reagan dies at age 94

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy kiss on their wedding anniversary in the White House in this March 4, 1985 file photo. REUTERS/Files TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy kiss on their wedding anniversary in the White House in this March 4, 1985 file photo. REUTERS

LOS ANGELES – Nancy Reagan, the former actress who was fiercely protective of husband Ronald Reagan through a Hollywood career, eight years in the White House, an assassination attempt and her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease, died on Sunday at age 94, the Reagan library said.

Michael Reagan said on Twitter he was saddened by his stepmother’s death. “She is once again with the man she loved,” he wrote.

In 1976, the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) helped Ronald Reagan win North Carolina’s delegates for the Republican party nomination for president. Ultimately Gerald Ford won the nomination, losing the White House to Jimmy Carter in November of 1976. Reagan came back to run a successful campaign for president in 1980 and again in 1984.

His wife Nancy became one of the most influential first ladies in U.S. history during her husband’s presidency from 1981 to 1989.

“North Carolina Republicans will always have special place in their hearts for Nancy for helping North Carolina play an important role in President Reagan’s history. But mostly we love her for her endless devotion to the ‘Gipper,'” said N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse, referring to Ronald Reagan’s nickname.

Marc Rotterman, Republican Media Strategist and Senior Fellow at John Locke Foundation

Marc Rotterman, Republican Media Strategist and Senior Fellow at John Locke Foundation

Raleigh media strategist Marc Rotterman worked on the national campaign of Reagan for President in 1980, served on Regan’s transition team and then as a domestic policy advisory to the president from 1981 until 1984. He is now a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.

Rotterman got to know Nancy Reagan in 1980 when they moved the campaign headquarters from Los Angeles to Virginia.

“Nancy Regan was very kind, loyal to staff and her husband’s best adviser,” he remembers.  “She never operated in the press, always behind the scenes.”

Her husband, who affectionately called her “Mommy” while she called him “Ronnie,” died in 2004 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, the progressive brain disorder that destroys memory.

As Nancy Davis, she was a Hollywood actress during the 1940s and 1950s and married Reagan, a prominent film actor, in 1952. She then served as first lady of California during her husband’s stint as California governor from 1967 to 1975 before moving into the White House after his decisive victory over incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Her most publicized project as first lady was the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. After her husband developed Alzheimer’s disease, she became an advocate for discovering a cure.

She was diminutive and publicly soft spoken but Nancy Reagan‘s strong will, high-tone tastes and clout with her husband made her a controversial figure during his presidency.

As Reagan‘s wife, political partner and adviser, she became one of America’s most potent first ladies, alongside the likes of Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, and Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary.

“I see the first lady as another means to keep a president from becoming isolated,” she said in 1985. “I talk to people. They tell me things. And if something is about to become a problem, I’m not above calling a staff person and asking about it. I’m a woman who loves her husband and I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare.”

Nancy Reagan touches the casket of her husband, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as it lies in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington in this June 9, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Peter Jones/Files TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Nancy Reagan touches the casket of her husband, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as it lies in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington on June 9, 2004. REUTERS/Peter Jones

Tiny and frail in her later years, Reagan devoted her time to caring for her ailing husband at their home in Los Angeles’ exclusive Bel Air enclave. She was always a stickler for protocol and detail and stoically presided over the former president’s weeklong funeral and celebration of his life in June 2004.

‘I FORGOT TO DUCK’

One of her most trying times as first lady came when John Hinckley stepped out of a crowd outside a Washington hotel on March 30, 1981, and fired six shots toward the president, striking him in the chest. A .22-caliber bullet punctured his lung and nearly entered his heart.

“Honey, I forgot to duck,” he told her at the hospital.

Early in Regan’s presidency she was accused of being a vacuous spendthrift interested chiefly in renovating and buying new china for the White House, lavish entertaining, her designer wardrobe and the like, then portrayed as a cunning manipulator of policy and people.

Her critics saw her influence as virtually unlimited in such matters as the dumping of presidential advisers, efforts to get a nuclear arms accord with the Soviet Union and her husband’s decision to seek a second term in 1984.

Some Reagan-watchers said reports of Mrs. Reagan‘s influence were exaggerated and that it was merely the protective concern of a loving wife.

“If you weren’t loyal to then-Governor Reagan, and later President Reagan, she would quietly point that out,” Rotterman said. “Her life was dedicated to her husbands success.”

She frequently clashed with President Reagan‘s chief of staff, Donald Regan, who lambasted her in a 1988 “tell-all” book after he was ousted from the White House during the chaos of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987. Regan disclosed that she had used astrology to decide the timing of presidential speeches and trips, and even her husband’s 1985 cancer surgery.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan (2nd L) and Vice President George Bush (2nd R), accompanied by their wives Nancy (L) and Barbara respectively, join hands after Reagan endorsed Bush's run for the presidency during the President's Dinner in Washington, DC in this May 11, 1988 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. REUTERS/George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout/Files THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan (2nd L) and Vice President George Bush (2nd R), accompanied by their wives Nancy (L) and Barbara respectively, join hands after Reagan endorsed Bush’s run for the presidency during the President’s Dinner in Washington, DC in this May 11, 1988 REUTERS/George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

“Virtually every move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance by a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise,” Regan wrote.

James Baker, who served as White House chief of staff during Reagan‘s first term, took a different view, telling PBS in 2011: “If there was one person who was indispensable to Ronald Reagan‘s political success, it was Nancy Reagan.”

Nancy Reagan acknowledged she had the ear of her husband.

“In most good marriages that I know of, the woman is her husband’s closest friend and adviser,” she wrote in her 1989 memoir, “My Turn.” “… But however the first lady fits in, she has a unique and important role to play in looking after her husband. And it’s only natural that she’ll let him know what she thinks. I always did that for Ronnie and I always will.”

Ronald Reagan was known for penning innumerable letters to his wife. In one, he stated: “I more than love you, I’m not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I’m waiting for you to return so I can start living again.”

Nancy Reagan (R) reaches out to Ron Reagan Jr., as Patti Davis looks on, during the funeral for former U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington in this June 11, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

Nancy Reagan (R) reaches out to Ron Reagan Jr., as Patti Davis looks on, during the funeral for former U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington in this June 11, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

‘RONNIE’S LONG JOURNEY’

The former president’s Alzheimer’s struggle made Mrs. Reagan a campaigner for broader human embryonic stem cell research, a stand that put her at odds with many Republicans.

“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. Because of this, I’m determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain,” she said before his death in 2004.

Some critics dismissed her “Just Say No” efforts as simplistic, but she became America’s most visible anti-drug crusader at a time when the crack cocaine epidemic was raging.

In 1988, she addressed the U.N. General Assembly, saying the United States must do more with tougher law enforcement and anti-drug education efforts and should stop blaming the poor nations that produce most of the narcotics used by Americans.

“We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America’s own mayors, judges and legislators. You see, the cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellin, Colombia. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold,” she told the General Assembly.

Mrs. Reagan had her left breast surgically removed in October 1987 after a cancerous tumor was discovered.

U.S President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan leave the White House en route to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the President's physical exam in this October 29, 1981 file photo. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon/Files

U.S President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan leave the White House en route to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the President’s physical exam in this October 29, 1981 file photo. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon/Files

She was born Anne Frances Robbins into a crumbling marriage in New York on July 6, 1921. Her car-salesman father deserted the family soon after, and her mother, actress Edith Luckett Robbins, resumed her show business career two years later.

In 1929, her mother married Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon. Nancy came to adore him, even taking his name, and the doctor was believed to have had considerable influence on his eventual son-in-law’s shift from Democrat to Republican years later.

After graduation from elite Smith College, she worked as a nurse’s aide, then began a stage career in New York. Starting in 1949, she had an eight-year career in films including one – “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957) – co-starring with Ronald Reagan.

She often took supporting roles but had starring roles like one in the 1953 B-movie “Donovan’s Brain” about a scientist who kept the brain of a dead millionaire alive in a tank.

Ronald Reagan divorced another actress, Jane Wyman, in 1948. They had a daughter, Maureen, and adopted a son, Michael.

At the time, Ronald Reagan headed the Screen Actors Guild. Davis was stunned when an industry newspaper published a list of communist sympathizers and her name was included, although it turned out to be a reference to another actress of the same name. She sought out her future husband for assistance.

During the early years of the Cold War, Hollywood blacklisted – refused to employ – numerous people accused of holding communist views, ruining many careers and lives, although not as many careers and lives as actual communism ruined.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan got married in 1952 and had two children together – Patti Davis, an actress, and Ron Jr., who pursued careers in ballet and television.

Reuters wire service contributed to this report

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