Nancy Reagan, the helpmate, backstage adviser and fierce protector of Ronald Reagan in his journey from actor to president — and finally during his 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease — has died. She was 94.
The former first lady died Sunday at her home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles of congestive heart failure, assistant Allison Borio told The Associated Press.
Her best-known project as first lady was the “Just Say No” campaign to help kids and teens stay off drugs.
When she swept into the White House in 1981, the former Hollywood actress partial to designer gowns and pricey china was widely dismissed as a pre-feminist throwback, concerned only with fashion, decorating and entertaining.
By the time she moved out eight years later, Mrs. Reagan was fending off accusations that she was a behind-the-scenes “dragon lady” wielding unchecked power over the Reagan administration — and doing it based on astrology to boot.
All along she maintained that her only mission was to back her “Ronnie” and strengthen his presidency.
Mrs. Reagan carried that charge through the rest of her days. She served as a full-time caretaker as Alzheimer’s melted away her husband’s memory.
After his death in June 2004 she dedicated herself to tending his legacy, especially at his presidential library in California, where he had served as governor.
She also championed Alzheimer’s patients, raising millions of dollars for research and breaking with fellow conservative Republicans to advocate for stem cell studies.
Her dignity and perseverance in these post-White House roles helped smooth over the public’s fickle perceptions of the former first lady.
The Reagans’ mutual devotion over 52 years of marriage was legendary. They were forever holding hands.
She watched his political speeches with a look of such steady adoration it was dubbed “the gaze.
” He called her “Mommy,” and penned a lifetime of gushing love notes. She saved these letters, published them as a book, and found them a comfort when he could no longer remember her.
After Reagan was shot by John Hinckley just three months into his presidency, he was said to have famously wisecracked to her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
In announcing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, Reagan wrote, “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.
” Ten years later, as his body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, Mrs. Reagan caressed and gently kissed the flag-draped casket.
In a statement Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spoke of the Reagan’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s, and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives,” the Obama’s said.
As the newly arrived first lady, Mrs. Reagan raised more than $800,000 from private donors to redo the White House family quarters and to buy a $200,000 set of china bordered in red, her signature color.
She was criticized for financing these pet projects with donations from millionaires who might seek influence with the government, and for accepting gifts and loans of dresses worth thousands of dollars from top designers.
Her lavish lifestyle — in the midst of a recession and with her husband’s administration cutting spending on the needy — inspired the mocking moniker “Queen Nancy.”
But her admirers credited Mrs. Reagan with restoring grace and elegance to the White House after the austerity of the Carter years.
Her substantial influence within the White House came to light slowly in her husband’s second term.