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Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan

Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan

by Sheila Tate
Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan

Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan

by Sheila Tate


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Lady in Red is the long-awaited collection of behind-the-scenes stories and iconic images of one of the most influential First Lady in modern history — Nancy Reagan. Lovingly compiled by long-time close confidante and aide, Sheila Tate, the book provides a rare and much-anticipated look into the personal life of the president's wife, from her daily routines and travels as First Lady to her friendships and deep influence in the Reagan White House.

Lady in Red depicts a nuanced portrait of this graceful yet strong woman who felt it was her mission to restore a sense of grandeur, mystique, and excitement to the presidency, showcasing the various roles that Mrs. Reagan played during her years in the White House, that of Wife, Mother, Protector, Host, Diplomat, and Advisor, among others.

The book also features twenty-four pages of gorgeous color photographs, including "Nancy's Album," a collection of Mrs. Reagan's favorite photographs, which she entrusted to Sheila to share with the world after she and her beloved Ronnie had passed.

To complete the portrait, Lady in Red includes interviews with the friends and politicians who knew Mrs. Reagan best: President George H. W. Bush, Chris Wallace, James Baker, Ed Meese, Maureen Dowd, and Marlin Fitzwater share their most cherished memories of the First Lady.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524762209
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/09/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,120,163
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

SHEILA TATE served as press secretary to First Lady Nancy Reagan from 1981 to 1985. After leaving the White House staff, she co-founded the Washington D.C. public relations firm Powell Tate. Sheila served as press secretary to George H. W. Bush during his successful campaign for the presidency in 1988, and for his transition. Sheila remained in close touch with Nancy Reagan after the Reagans returned to California, speaking with her often until Mrs. Reagan's passing in 2016.

Read an Excerpt


Elegance and Style

My first assignment in December 1980, as the newly named press secretary for Nancy Reagan, was to entrust one of the Reagan advance men with the highly confidential assignment of driving to New York City to pick up the final glossy sketches of Nancy’s inaugural wardrobe. Now, thirty-eight years later, I am free to unmask my accomplice. Mark Hatfield, son of Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, took on the assignment. Mark Jr., my hero, did not disappoint.

When he returned to our nation’s capital, he met me in the parking lot of transition headquarters where we transferred the contraband from his trunk to mine. Sounds a bit like Deep Throat, doesn’t it?

It really was important to keep those designs secret until Nancy wore those outfits. There had been instances in past presidencies where this kind of information was leaked in advance. It puts a real damper on the excitement of the day. I believe the worst example was when Lynda Bird Johnson was marrying Chuck Robb; drawings of her wedding dress designed by Geoffrey Beene were leaked to Women’s Wear Daily before Lynda’s special, historic White House wedding took place.

Nancy’s outfit on Inauguration Day—a red crepe day dress with a red twill coat and hat—was created by American designer Adolfo. Its brilliant red hue quickly became known as Reagan red. She favored that color for the rest of her life. It became an essential part of her style.

I thought it was the perfect color for her. Not that she consulted me on that subject! After all, less than ten days earlier I had been working at a large public relations firm’s Washington office, directing national publicity efforts in favor of continued regulation of the trucking industry. I’d never even heard of Adolfo before.

Shortly before the January 20, 1981, swearing‑in and at some time during the luncheon in the Capitol, our new president, Ronald Reagan, was able to announce that our American heroes—held hostage for 444 days in Iran—had been released and had just cleared Iranian airspace on their way home. As an added grace note, he dispatched former president Jimmy Carter, who worked tirelessly to bring them home, to meet the hostages as they reached safety.

All of America celebrated. The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument was lit that night in celebration for the first time since they had been taken hostage. That evening the Reagans danced at eight inaugural balls, Nancy in a glittering white gown and gorgeous satin coat designed by James Galanos, another top American designer. The president, by the way, wore a tuxedo. I do not know who designed it. It was black.

Those balls were packed with ecstatic Republicans from across the country. I was present at the ball held at the Capital Hilton where the coat check line snaked around the block. In truth, it was no more glamorous than a high school prom, except we did have alcohol. In paper cups. Funny the things one remembers. I also remember that it was so overcrowded that every foray onto the dance floor ended up with some man stepping on my feet.

The ballroom came alive when the new president and First Lady arrived. Everyone knew they were witnessing the beginning of an exciting new presidential term. I was thrilled to be even a small part of it. It was one of the few presidential events that I would not have to work; the West Wing presidential advance people took charge. I got to be a witness to history.

Nancy’s inaugural gown, in keeping with long-standing tradition, was eventually donated to the Smithsonian. I grew up in the DC suburbs and for as long as I can remember, the wing of the American History Museum that houses its gown collection has always been the most popular exhibit at the Smithsonian. Folks at the Smithsonian confirmed that fact when I was working on the details of Nancy’s donation. The oldest inaugural gown in the museum’s collection dates from 1829 and belonged to Andrew Johnson’s niece. The oldest First Lady’s gown in the Smithsonian collection—not part of an inauguration—belonged to none other than Martha Washington.

Nancy Reagan really was an American classic. Her style and grace has held up through the decades. It took care, thought, and planning to be the First Lady, and she understood that her image was important.

Imagine having to attend multiple public events nearly every day. Imagine at least twenty of those events every year are formal in nature. And imagine having the media documenting, photographing, and commenting on every outfit you wear.

Some First Ladies have been publicly adjudged to be frumpy; others to have poor taste. And lord help you if you wore something too frequently; the style press would not be kind to you.

Nancy organized her wardrobe to keep track of when each outfit was worn. Other First Ladies had also found this tactic helpful, but I’d never seen it before and found it amazing. A tag hung from each outfit listing the dates and events to which it had been worn.

Sometimes, her outfit made the news when we didn’t intend it. When Nancy wore her fur coat in public one cold winter evening, we received bags of critical mail. Almost all of it was generated by animal rights activists and it was pretty ugly.

And once, at a congressional wives’ reception on the Hill one rainy day, Susan Watters from Women’s Wear Daily insisted I find out from Nancy how to describe the vivid quilted purple outfit she was wearing. I slipped into the front of the receiving line and quietly asked Nancy how to describe it. She said, “It’s a purple rain outfit.” I returned to Susan with that information, but the press was not yet satisfied. Another reporter had a follow‑up: she asked me to interrupt Nancy once more and find out what kind of fur trim was on the collar. I lost my patience and said something to the effect of “It’s a dead animal.” I learned quickly that one did not make light references to expired furry creatures connected to First Ladies. My mail was highly negative to put it mildly. One said: “I have seen your type; your vacant stare; your empty eyes.” My personal favorite letter came addressed to “King Ronald, Queen Nancy and Princess Sheila.” I was royalty!

By far Nancy’s greatest volume of mail during my years of service dealt with fashion. Nancy generally looked great in whatever she wore and that was what a lot of Americans were interested in.

Nancy made only one major style misstep as First Lady that I can recall: the infamous knickers.

The Reagans were on a European trip in early June 1982, and while in Paris, they attended a party in honor of François Mitterrand at the American ambassador’s residence. We were all enjoying the evening when the press in attendance suddenly perked up. Helen Thomas of UPI pulled me aside and said, in her serious, authoritative, rather piercing Helen Thomas voice, “What the hell is she wearing?” I realized that I had failed to find out in advance the details of her outfit. There was such a stir among the press corps that I had to pull Nancy aside and ask for the details.

The knickers were a James Galanos creation—a black chiffon skirt over rhinestone-studded black satin knickers. Those knickers were publicized worldwide. I regret never asking Nancy why she chose to wear that outfit. I suspect she wanted to make a big fashion statement in Paris, the center of haute couture. The sensation, thankfully, was short-lived.

January 20 is the constitutionally required date for routine presidential inaugurations. In 1985, that happened to be on a Sunday that was also Super Bowl Sunday. So it was decided that to comply with the law, there would be a private swearing in at the White House on Sunday, January 20, and then a public/ceremonial swearing in at the Capitol on Monday, January 21, to be followed by the traditional parade and balls at hotels across town. Initially, Mike Deaver did not want press coverage of the private swearing in, because he did not want to detract from the next day’s extravaganza. He proposed that there be an official White House photo release of the actual swearing in, after which the Reagans and Bushes would briefly appear on the North Portico for a picture together. The press objected vigorously, and Mike wisely relented. There was a pool of reporters and photographers on the State Floor when Reagan was sworn in on the Grand Staircase before a small audience of family, Cabinet, bipartisan congressional leaders, friends, and senior staff. True to form, Mrs. Reagan wore red and beamed as she held the Bible while Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administered the oath of office to her husband.

That Sunday was the coldest anyone could remember in Washington history, and as the day went on, the temperatures dropped. Way down. So much so, the Reagans reluctantly accepted the Inaugural Committee’s recommendation to move all events indoors. Due to the extreme cold weather, an evening concert for Sunday and all of the next day’s outdoor inaugural events, specifically the swearing in ceremony at the Capitol and the parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, were moved inside. Mrs. Reagan was especially worried about the danger to the young people playing in bands during the parade because exposure to the cold—especially to those playing metal musical instruments—could cause injury. I remember standing on the North Portico of the White House and shivering during a brief TV interview to explain the decision to move that evening’s and the next day’s events inside. After less than a minute I had to end the interview because my eyelids had frozen shut!

On Monday, January 21, Reagan was sworn in again, inside the Capitol, only this time Mrs. Reagan surprised everyone and wore a light blue suit, complete with a matching hat, to the ceremony. After this second swearing in, the president delivered his full inaugural address; he and Mrs. Reagan attended the traditional postceremony luncheon in the Capitol, and then they went out to the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland, for a makeup concert and parade with people who had been scheduled to perform outdoors. The Reagans wanted to tell the people how sorry they were that Mother Nature changed the carefully laid plans and how much they appreciated everyone’s flexibility, efforts, and support. Admittedly, the event was hastily arranged, which I think may have unsettled Mrs. Reagan a bit. She was supposed to say a few words and then introduce her husband to speak. She delivered her remarks perfectly and then sat down—without introducing him! After an awkward silence, she realized her mistake and rushed back to the podium where she introduced the man she called “my roommate.”

Later that evening they attended eleven inaugural balls.

When I was thinking about this chapter, Donald Trump was on his first overseas trip as president. Several times I found myself looking up at Melania on TV, beautiful and dignified. And then I heard repeated commentary on how Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Melania Trump were the most stylish First Ladies we’ve had. Each different but each representing us well. I agree. I think Nancy would have been so pleased to be in such good company.


The Boss

Nothing in this world is more important for a press secretary’s reputation and credibility than his or her access to the boss.

Nancy told me early in our working relationship that she didn’t want to be surprised by something I’d said to the media, and that she would always be available to me if I needed her reaction to or guidance about a question from the press. Sometimes I tested the limits. There were days when she got as many as eight or ten calls from me. She always gave me the time I needed. We were a good team. She made me look good. And I did my best to provide equal service.

Nancy never gossiped with staff. We had a professional relationship with her. We met together monthly—the chief of staff, social secretary, projects director, and press secretary—in her upstairs office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, to focus on the details of her next thirty- to sixty-day schedule and to finalize our plans. Those meetings often lasted several hours. She rarely made any adjustments to our recommended calendar. Which may be why we were so surprised years later to learn about her dependence on astrology to guide the development of the president’s schedule. She definitely was not relying on astrology to plan her own schedule.

In planning Nancy’s schedule, we quickly came to understand she always wanted to know if others were speaking at the same event. If so, she wanted staff coordination with the staff of other speakers to make sure everyone’s remarks were relevant and avoided duplication.

And, of course, she was equally desirous of knowing the weather forecast for any trip. She was always worried about the weather and being cold. A recurring theme!

Muffie Brandon, her social secretary, described Nancy as very thorough and sometimes a bit demanding but always with her concern focused on her husband’s success and well-being. “She held herself to very high standards and worked ceaselessly to achieve her goals. She expected nothing less from those of us who worked for her.”

Ann Wrobleski says she always thinks of Nancy as the “reluctant” boss or maybe “unlikely” boss.

Although she had a public life before the White House as a movie actress and as First Lady of California, she’d never had a staff. While she borrowed people like Nancy Reynolds and Carol McCain to help her on the campaign trail or for important events, for the most part, her team was herself and her housekeeper.

All that changed in Washington. Nancy Reynolds ran the First Lady’s office during the transition and did much of the hiring. But the day after the inaugural Nancy found herself with a chief of staff, social secretary, press secretary, project director, scheduler, personal assistant, and their attendant deputies and assistants. Suddenly she had a big team and we all wanted her time, attention, and, most importantly, direction.

We all had questions that needed answers so that we could get on with the work we were hired to do.

Ann Wrobleski had worked on Capitol Hill for two senators and a congressman and been a spokesman for two statewide candidates in Florida. “Like everyone else on her staff, I was used to both taking and giving instructions. Nancy seemed more comfortable making suggestions rather than giving directions.

“That said, I found Nancy to be more thoughtful than my previous bosses and also more likely to ask the next question. So, for example, ‘Can I sit with the children?’ was followed by ‘Where will their parents sit?’ Most political figures are happy with an answer to the first question as they usually are all about them.


Excerpted from "Lady in Red"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Sheila Tate.
Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword George H.W. Bush xi

Introduction 1

1 Elegance and Style 15

2 The Boss 23

3 The New First Lady 27

4 Always an Actress 41

5 Just Say No 53

6 Protector in Chief 61

7 The Perfectionist 70

8 Family Ties 77

9 Christmas at the White House 85

10 The Art Lover 95

11 Finding Her Voice 100

12 Press Contacts 112

18 Diplomat in Chief 124

14 Planes, Trips, and Weather Reports 133

15 Protecting Nancy 144

36 Up Close and Personal 150

17 Blame It on Nancy 157

18 No Better Friend 163

19 White House Humor 176

20 Searching for Privacy 182

21 Staff Memories 189

22 The Long Goodbye 224

23 No Words 233

Acknowledgments 235

Photograph Credits 237

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