My heartiest congratulations to Nancy Reagan today as she celebrates her 90th birthday. You might think I would be (or should be) the last person to offer such a salute to the former First Lady. After all, I never voted for her husband, or supported any of his policies. To the contrary, I incensed him no end a few years ago when I wrote Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.
Still, I salute longevity, and I applaud the fortitude of Mrs. Reagan to soldier on, despite her battles with breast cancer, a broken pelvis, and painful arthritis, plus the death of her beloved husband after a wrenching slide into Alzheimer’s. My father, who voted for Ronald Reagan every chance he got, lived to be 98 years old and showed me the tensile it takes to reach a venerable age. It’s no small accomplishment. Bette Davis was right: Old age is not for sissies.
Momentum is difficult without the buoyancy of youth; high hopes diminish with sickness and disease, and the optimism to forge ahead wilts with the loss of loved ones. Few people have the guts, the good luck and the genes to live long and productive lives. Since most of us won’t reach the age of 90 I think such a birthday is an occasion to celebrate. So I commend Nancy Reagan, and fully expect her to break the tape at 100 as Willard Scott hoists a Smuckers jar in her honor.
At the time I wrote Mrs. Reagan’s biography in 1991, she was still shaving her age by a couple of years — a harmless vanity for a former starlet. When she turned 69, reporters asked how old she was, and she coyly replied: “I still haven’t made up my mind.” They had to ask because they did not have access to her birth certificate. The document had been placed under court seal years ago in Chicago following Nancy’s adoption by her stepfather, Loyal Davis.
Once I was able to obtain a copy of that birth certificate I saw the formidable force that was to become Nancy Reagan. By then only two entries remained accurate: her sex and her color. Everything else had been rewritten like a Hollywood script. Born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, she changed her name, revised her date of birth, concealed her roots (Amity Street in Flushing, New York near the railroad tracks) and replaced her father, Kenneth S. Robbins, a salesman from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with the prominent surgeon, Loyal Davis, her mother’s second husband.
Nancy was thirty years old when she married Ronald Reagan, and, as she said, “That’s when my life started.” Few historians would disagree that “Mommy,” as her husband called her, was the moving force behind his success. Without her, he would never have become President. During the White House years she soldiered him through everything from the assassination attempt to the scandal of Iran Contra. Behind the scenes she hired and fired his advisers, dictated to his staff and his cabinet, even tempered his foreign policy. Yes, she consulted astrologers, “borrowed” designer clothes, and was besotted by Hollywood glitz and glamour. But something splendid happened after she left the White House and her husband received his tragic diagnosis. She came out of the shadows to become an activist.
Performing her best public service, Nancy Reagan began campaigning for expanded stem cell research. In 2004 she put herself at odds with her party by opposing President George W. Bush’s restrictive policies, which limited federal funding to stem cell colonies created before August 2001. She then joined Michael J. Fox and helped raise $2 million for stem cell research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In 2006 she lobbied members of congress to revive a bill to expand federal funding. In 2007, at the age of 86, looking frail but sounding firm, she continued speaking out. “There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped,” she said. “We have lost so much time already and I just really can’t bear to lose anymore.” In 2009 she praised President Obama for overturning the Bush policy. “We owe it to ourselves and our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases.”
So I raise a glass to Nancy Reagan as she celebrates her 90th birthday and salute her for showing us how to play the last inning with style.
Kitty Kelley is an internationally acclaimed writer, whose bestselling biographies focus on some of the most influential and powerful personalities of the last 50 years. Kelley’s last five books have been number one on the New York Times best seller list, including her latest, Oprah: A Biography.