The Reagans: Portrait of a Marriage [NOOK Book]


He was an actor, newly divorced, whose controversial tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild was drawing more attention than his film career. She was a contract player at MGM, unmarried and rapidly growing too old to play the starlet. It was time, she decided, to settle down and become Mrs. Somebody Important. So Nancy Davis contrived an introduction to Ronald Reagan, and the Reagans’ march into history began.

The Reagans is their ...
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The Reagans: Portrait of a Marriage

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He was an actor, newly divorced, whose controversial tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild was drawing more attention than his film career. She was a contract player at MGM, unmarried and rapidly growing too old to play the starlet. It was time, she decided, to settle down and become Mrs. Somebody Important. So Nancy Davis contrived an introduction to Ronald Reagan, and the Reagans’ march into history began.

The Reagans is their story, a penetrating portrayal of one of the most powerful couples of the twentieth century. Distinguished biographer Anne Edwards, who wrote the seminal book on Ronald Reagan's budding years, Early Reagan: The Rise to Power, now paints the first in-depth, intimate portrait of the man who became our fortieth president and the woman without whom he might never have reached such heights.

It was a dramatic love story from the start: Nancy was always first in Reagan’s thoughts, and he was paramount in Nancy’s actions. This obsessional love, however, had a darker side for the four Reagan children. Anne Edwards brings the Reagans’ dysfunctional family life into sharp focus, along with a fascinating array of supporting players---from Reagan’s evangelistic mother, Nelle, to Nancy’s adoptive father, Dr. Loyal Davis (said to be “right of Atilla the Hun”), as well as Frank Sinatra, Lew Wasserman, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, and other key figures in government and entertainment.

Few women in the twentieth century had as much power as did Nancy Reagan, and few were so widely mistrusted and disliked. Anne Edwards shows you a side of Nancy that has never before been revealed. As Reagan rose to power, Nancy defended her husband’s interests with both opponents and supporters---and then took on the even more difficult battle to maintain her husband’s dignity through his descent into Alzheimer’s disease.

The Reagans is an original and mesmerizing look at a presidential marriage that is every bit as interesting and important as that of John and Abigail Adams or Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A tactfully revealing profile from a biographical master."

- Kirkus Reviews

"[Edwards] does not shy away from presenting the darker, grimmer side of their life and does a wonderful job of fully fleshing out the convoluted and tortured emotions that define this famous family."

- Publishers Weekly

"Don't make the mistake of dismissing this book . . . Anne Edwards is a solid historian."

- Star-Telegram

Publishers Weekly
Even in his 70s, Ronald Reagan would leave sentimental love notes for his wife, Nancy: "For My Mommy Poo... Love Poppa." In her latest book, prolific biographer Edwards (Ever After: Diana and the Life She Led) paints a portrait of the Reagans as completely in love. From the day they married, Nancy devoted her every moment to ensuring her husband's happiness. He, in turn, relied completely on Nancy and trusted her wholly. Those close to the couple admit that Reagan's success in politics would not have occurred without Nancy's constant devotion and involvement. Throughout his governorship of California, his presidency, the assassination attempt, his meetings with Gorbachev-Nancy's sentiments, advice and complaints figured prominently, to the extent that the president of the United States rearranged his schedule according to the advice of Nancy's favorite astrologer. But according to Edwards, this romantic picture came at a price. The Reagans' children yearned for their parents' love and acceptance, but found that the couple's all-encompassing relationship did not include them. While Edwards celebrates the Reagans' achievements, she does not shy away from presenting the darker, grimmer side of their life and does a wonderful job of fully fleshing out the convoluted and tortured emotions that define this famous family. In all, she offers an engaging yet honest look at the human experience played out on the public stage. 32 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Mitch Douglas. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"They are absolutely a team. You do not get one without the other-ever," said Maureen Reagan, late daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Edwards (Early Reagan: The Rise to Power) here offers an engaging account of how the Reagan marriage resulted in one of the most distinctive political partnerships in American history. Nancy Reagan was Ronald's most trusted adviser from his years as California governor through his two-term presidency. However, the author pulls no punches when portraying Nancy's ruthlessness toward anyone she saw as a threat to Ronald and when showing how their devotion to each other did not extend to their children or to Ron's children with actress Jane Wyman. For most of their lives, the presidential couple who espoused family values could not connect emotionally with these four children. The book concludes with the tragic irony of Reagan's Alzheimer's, diagnosed in 1994. Nancy's greatest devotion is as caregiver for a husband of more than 40 years who no longer knows who she is. This excellent, appealing book is strongly recommended for all public libraries.-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tactfully revealing profile from a biographical master. One thing is evident from the outset: Edwards (Ever After, 2000, etc.) is a pro at the biography game—without agenda or axe to grind, she forms an opinion from the material at hand. She’s done her spadework and seems to have had a virtual hotline to Nancy Reagan’s diary and occultist, for Nancy receives the lion’s share of attention. Edwards’s conclusion: The Reagan union was one of great affection and protectiveness, not without its share of miscues and emotional blunders, but strong and steady as they go. The author steers clear of politics, keeping, in the best tradition of reporting, an unbiased hand: She’s more interested in the impact of the rumor, for example, that Reagan was an FBI informer while president of the Screen Actors Guild than she is in casting aspersions. The writing is tasteful without being dodgy ("Nancy was not a deep thinker"). Nancy is allowed to speak to her own lame efforts as a mother, while close friends of the couple discuss any drug use, vindictiveness, frenetic behavior, manipulativeness, or untoward preening as first lady. Edwards writes with equal competence about Edward Meese and Michael Deaver as she does about the importance of the White House’s chief usher, reserving her most dramatic storytelling for the day Reagan was shot. Throughout, she is quick and sure in her judgments on loose talk—Nancy had an affair with Frank Sinatra while married to Ronald? Pshaw!—while remaining comfortable also with the politics of Bitburg or Berkeley. A portrait with the ring of truth. (16 pp. b&w photographs, not seen) Agent: Mitch Douglas
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466863262
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 188,011
  • File size: 552 KB

Meet the Author

Anne Edwards's biographies include Vivien Leigh: A Biography, the New York Times bestseller that has become a classic in the field. Other acclaimed titles include Early Reagan: The Rise to Power; Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor; and Katharine Hepburn: A Biography. Anne Edwards is a former president of the Authors Guild and a sought-after speaker. Currently, she and her husband, musical theater historian Stephen Citron, live in Beverly Hills, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

One evening in mid-February 1952 Edith Luckett Davis and Dr. Loyal Davis, parents of thirty-year-old Hollywood contract player Nancy Davis, were sitting down to eat dinner at their Scottsdale, Arizona, home when the telephone rang. Edith answered it. Ronald Reagan, a forty-one-year-old divorced movie star of waning celebrity, and father of two, was on the line.

"He asked me for Dr. Loyal Davis and I said who wants to speak to him and he said Ronald Reagan," Edith, a onetime touring road actress known for her out-front responses, recalled. "I thought what the hell's he doing calling Loyal? I didn't know what it was for. I said, 'Just a minute.' I went in and said to Loyal, 'Ronald Reagan wants to speak to you.' And he said, "Me?" And I said, 'Get to that phone 'cause I want to know what in hell he wants.' Anyway, Loyal went to the phone. He said, 'That's interesting [in answer to Reagan's admission that he wanted to marry Nancy]. Are you sure you can [support her]? Yes [when Reagan asked if he approved].' And they talked and after [they hung up] Loyal said to me, 'He wants to marry Nancy.' And I said, 'Oh, go on!' He said, 'No, I'm not kidding. He wants to marry Nancy.' And I said, 'That's very exciting, very exciting.'

"Then she called and I said, 'Why in hell is that man calling your father for this?' And she said. 'We want to get married but don't want to marry unless you and Daddy want me to.' And I said, 'Of course. If he's a nice guy and you like him, then I'm sure it's all right.' And she said, 'He is, you'll love him.' I said, 'Find out what you want for a wedding present. It can't be extravagant, but I want you to have what you want.' She called back [in a little while] and said, 'I'll tell you what we want. We want a camera that can take moving pictures and a screen that we can show them on, and that's all we want.' And I said, 'Sold.'"

It seems probable, due to her emotional attachment to Reagan at this point, that Nancy would have married him despite any objections Dr. Davis might have raised. But for Reagan at his age to make a call to Nancy's elderly parents seeking permission for him to marry their mature daughter exhibits Nancy's early influence over him and the strength of his feelings for her. She had urged him to do so despite his initial reluctance. For her entire life Nancy had sought approval from her parents-the mother who left her with relatives as a small child to go on the road with a theater troupe, and the father who made her wait years before he adopted her so that she could legally bear his name.

Nancy Davis was born Anne Frances Robbins in New York City on July 6, 1921. Edith was fond of saying that Nancy was supposed to be born on the Fourth of July, but the Yankees were playing a doubleheader that day, and being a die-hard fan, she delayed the birth for two days. Edith was a plainspoken woman who peppered her Southern-inflected speaking voice (she came from Petersburg, Virginia) with gritty phrases, and very often four-letter words. She had been on the stage from the age of three, then quit school in the tenth grade and joined a stock company. Her chief assets were a pretty face and a well-turned ankle, but Edith quickly picked up the tools of her trade, an ability to learn her lines and speak them clearly and to move on stage with confidence. She developed into a creditable actress and for the next decade traveled up and down the East Coast with various companies, playing supporting roles in plays that starred better-known performers: Walter Huston, Louis Calhern, and Alla Nazimova, a highly stylized actress of the stage and silent screen who had been trained in Russia by the great theater producer (and originator of the Stanislavsky method of acting), Konstantin Stanislavsky, and became known by the use of only her last name. Edith and Nazimova were friends, and when Edith gave birth to her daughter, she asked the ofttimes bizarre older woman to be the child's godmother.

Nancy's father, Kenneth Robbins, was a shoe salesman from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with claims of attending Princeton and of being the scion of a rich family who had come upon hard times but were still well-off. It seems this was mostly untrue. The Robbins family had never had great wealth and were just scraping along; moreover, the Princeton archives do not list Kenneth Robbins as either a graduate or former student. Nonetheless, his parents, Anna and John Robbins, did not approve of their son consorting with an actress who was five years his senior, and who-at the advanced age of twenty-seven and still unmarried-had no doubt led a less than prim, virginal life. Robbins possessed a certain charm and a persuasive manner; he also boasted that he would be heir to a comfortable estate upon the death of his terminally ill father. Edith was determined to marry him, and marry him she did, and quit the stage. A year later John Robbins died, and the inheritance his son had promised Edith turned out to be a pittance.

It was a miserable marriage, filled with resentment, and a hardscrabble life. Ken tried his hand as a theatrical booking agent but was unable to find any clients. While he later joked that he represented "a one-legged tap dancer and a cross-eyed knife thrower," that seems to have been an example of his style of humor. When America entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted in the army and left Edith to cope for herself in New York. Edith managed by returning to the stage, appearing in supporting roles in several Broadway shows. When Ken returned in January 1919, they set up housekeeping together again in New York City. Ken hated the city and the theater, and in the next two years had a succession of jobs that did not pay enough to cover their rent. He insisted that Edith return with him to Pittsfield where he thought he could find gainful employment working on cars, something he enjoyed doing. Edith refused to go. She was three months pregnant with Nancy, but he left her anyway.

Nazimova and other friends came to Edith's financial rescue, and as soon as she was able, she joined a touring company carrying the daughter she now called Nancy in a cradle fashioned from a wicker laundry basket. When Edith was giving a performance, Nancy was left in the care of other players, stage managers, and people at the rooming houses where they stayed. In two years Edith had performed in forty-two plays in almost as many cities, playing everything from the mother in Little Lord Fauntleroy to Michaela in a nonmusical version of Carmen.

Ken Robbins did not have much interest in his daughter. Things had not gone well for him in Pittsfield, and in 1922 he and his mother, Anna, moved to Glen Ridge, New Jersey, where Ken went into the real estate business. With the small insurance money his father had left Anna, he purchased an old, many-bedroomed house on Fairway Avenue in nearby Verona, which he then rented to a Mrs. Mae Palmer for use as a sanitarium. This appears to have been Ken Robbins's main income for a great many years to follow. He and Edith were divorced, but he contributed nothing either to her support or Nancy's.

Shortly after her daughter's second birthday, Edith decided that there were too many difficulties in keeping the child with her on the road. One contributing factor was her need to establish a life of her own. Edith was still a young, attractive woman with natural desires and the hope of marrying again-next time with more security for herself and her daughter. Also, Nancy was an active child and could no longer be confined to a makeshift cradle or a room in a boardinghouse of strangers. Edith took her to live with her sister, Virginia Galbraith, in Bethesda, Maryland. Virginia's husband, Audley, worked as a shipping clerk for the railroad. They had a daughter, Charlotte, who was three years older than Nancy. The Galbraiths owned a modest, but comfortable three-bedroom house in Battery Park, an area near the Bethesda railroad station. Nancy was later to say that the Galbraiths "treated [her] with great love." But it was not the life or the love she was longing for. Her relatives were "darling people," she up0would admit, "but I wanted my mother."

For the next six years Edith would pop in and out for visits that lasted from a few hours to a day or two, a situation that went on for six years. The two sisters had very little in common. Virginia-"Virgie" as she was known in her family-was a homebody, modest, puritanical, and without much individuality. "Mother was not only outgoing and gregarious; she was also capable of uttering words that would shock a sailor, and was one of the few women I've ever known who could tell an off-color joke and have it come out funny," Nancy would recall. Edith also had an aura of glamour. She wore artfully applied makeup that emphasized the largeness and blueness of her eyes. Her lips were painted in "bee-stung" fashion, and her blond hair was lightened with peroxide. She smelled of sweet lavender and always carried items in her pocketbook to intrigue a little girl who wanted to be more like her mother than like her painfully plain aunt.

Nancy's favorite times were when her mother was appearing in a play in New York City and Aunt Virgie took her by train to visit. She would watch Edith perform from the wings and "quickly came to love the special feel and musty smell of backstage." On those visits she would "dress up in her stage clothes, put on makeup, and pretend she was playing her parts." Her most treasured possessions were a "curly blond Mary Pickford wig" given to her by Edith, and a small dollhouse built for her by the stagehands in one of Edith's plays.

Going back to Bethesda was the worst part. Sixty-five years later Nancy would write, "I always dreaded the end of my visits, when I had to leave Mother again. When she wasn't staying in a residential hotel, she would live in the brownstone apartment of a friend who was traveling with some other show. To this day, I still get a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever I'm in New York and pass one of those buildings."

In later life Nancy would rationalize her mother's having left her with relatives while she continued on the road. After all, Edith had to make a living to support the two of them, and touring seemed the only thing she knew how to do. During Nancy's childhood, however, there was resentment and deep pain accompanied by a need to defend her mother's actions. When she was five, she was struck down with a virulent case of double pneumonia, often fatal in those days. Aunt Virgie nursed her through, but Nancy could not contain her anger that she was sick and her mother "was thousands of miles away in a touring company. I remember crying and saying, 'If I had a little girl, I'd certainly be there if she was ever sick.' My aunt repeated this to my mother," a form of betrayal that turned Nancy against her aunt and did not bring Edith hurrying to her side.

Nancy's life took a new turn in the spring of 1929. President Herbert Hoover was promising a chicken in every pot, and the country was enjoying what appeared to be a secure prosperity. Edith arrived in Bethesda on a warm April day, beaming with evident happiness. She led Nancy by the hand out to the front porch, and they sat down together on the lumpy couch where, although there was not much of a view, you could watch the cars go past.

Edith told Nancy she had "fallen in love with a wonderful man." He was Dr. Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon who lived in Chicago. Edith had met him on shipboard when he was going to England to attend a medical convention and she was a guest of friends who had invited her for a holiday abroad. Davis wanted to marry her, but there would be a short wait as his divorce was not yet final. When it was, mother and daughter could be reunited in a fine home in Chicago. Nancy claims that Edith then asked for her permission to say "yes," for if she did, Edith would then retire from the stage and they could "live together as one happy family. It's up to you."

Surely Edith's question was as rhetorical as Nancy's was later to be. Here was a forty-year-old mother asking her eight-year-old child, who had been separated from her for nearly six years and who desperately wanted to be loved by her, whether she would agree to be part of one happy family. For a moment Nancy was too overcome with happiness to speak. Then she looked up at her mother with the large brown eyes she had inherited from her hated father and immediately agreed.

The wedding, to take place in Chicago, was scheduled in June to enable Nancy to finish out her school year in Bethesda. As Edith's sole bridesmaid, she stood gawky but radiant beside her mother wearing a pale blue taffeta dress and carrying a mixed bouquet of summer flowers. "I was happy for Mother, but I can remember, even then, feeling twinges of jealousy-a feeling I was to experience years later, from the other side after I married a man with children. Dr. Davis was taking part of her away from me, and after being separated from Mother for so long, I wanted her all to myself."

Whereas many young people had their lives torn apart during the Depression, Nancy's was made whole. Many of the occupants of the elegant apartments like the Davises' on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive had their share of bankruptcies and suicides. Nancy was able to block these things out. As a young woman she made only two visits to New Jersey to see her real father and grandmother, who were living in extremely reduced circumstances. She later claimed that her father had been abusive to her, locking her in the bathroom when she defended her mother against his allegations of her "impure past." Whether or not this incident occurred as she related, Ken Robbins denied it, and she never returned to see him.


The doctor had a son, Richard Davis (also to become a doctor), two years younger than Nancy, who lived with his mother, Dr. Davis's first wife, in California. He would visit his father during the summer. Richard's first memory of Nancy was when she was "in the third or fourth grades [eight or nine years old]. In those days she wore a school uniform: tunic, knee socks, and beret. At the beginning of the school year, my father and I would walk her to the corner of the drive [Lake Shore Drive]. With each step the tunic, which was too short, would sort of pop up in the air and we'd see her bloomers. Father would say, 'Richard, Nancy has on those dreadful navy-blue bloomers, doesn't she?' and I would dutifully agree. And then he'd say, with a big, broad smile, 'Isn't she just the most wonderful child,'" which could not have been good news for a little boy of six or seven whose father now had a second family, and a child who lived with him year round when he only spent a few months a year.

Copyright © 2003 by Anne Edwards

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Enter Nancy 1
Chapter 2 All She Ever Wanted 23
Chapter 3 A Home of Their Own 36
Chapter 4 Corporate Wife 49
Chapter 5 I Love You, Nancy 66
Chapter 6 On the Campaign Trail 84
Chapter 7 The Governor's Lady 102
Chapter 8 The Years Between 121
Chapter 9 On the Steps of the White House 140
Chapter 10 Marching into History 159
Chapter 11 Meet the Press 182
Chapter 12 "Oh, God! It's Happening Again!" 199
Chapter 13 Aftermath 220
Chapter 14 Just Say No 238
Chapter 15 A Death in the Family 255
Chapter 16 The Power and the Glitter 272
Chapter 17 Facing the Demons 294
Chapter 18 The Best of Times and the Worst of Times 313
Chapter 19 A Graceful Exit 330
Chapter 20 Life Continues, Memory Fades 345
Acknowledgements 361
Appendices 365
Notes 387
Bibliography 407
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2006

    Interesting Book

    I believe that I knew most of the information in the book, but I was impressed with the author's packaging of the material. It was written with an even hand----no sensationalism. There were so many highs in the Reagan family, but more than once, I found myself being sad for the Reagans, and again,for their children. There aren't any Reagan bad guys--just folks trying to live life with the tools that they were given. It's a good read.

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