Born Anne Frances Robbins in 1921, she changed her last name to Davis after she was adopted by her mother’s second husband, a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon.
Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and she referred to her step-father Loyal Davis as her father. Before her mother married him in 1929, Nancy lived with an aunt in Bethesda, Maryland.
She graduated from the prestigious Smith College, known as one of the “Seven Sisters” to Ivy League colleges, in 1943. Through her mother’s connections, which included Zasu Pitts, Walter Huston and Spencer Tracy, she began he acting career.
Pitts lined up a small part for her in a 1945 road tour of “Ramshackle Inn,” which took her to New York City. She segued to Broadway with a part in the 1946 musical Lute Song.
But her big break came when she signed a seven-year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM) in 1949.
Her contract opened up film roles for her in two 1949 films, “The Doctor and the Girl” starring Glenn Ford and “East Side, West Side,” starring Barbara Stanwyck.
She met Ronald Reagan the same year. She had been blacklisted in Hollywood as part of the Hollywood Red Scare. Reagan, then a leftish Democrat, was president of the Screen Actors Guild and she appealed to him to help her keep her Guild card.
At the time, Reagan was recently divorced from actress Jane Wyman and determined to play the field. They began dating, and he proposed to her three years later. They married on March 4, 1952.
Reagan was drawn into politics after the Red Scare swept Hollywood. For a time, he served as an FBI informant, pointing out actors and writers he thought were Communists. Initially registered as a Democrat, he supported Harry Truman for re-election in 1948.
But Nancy, influenced by her conservative step-father, played a large role in moving him to the right. He switched parties in 1962 and backed arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. He also lobbied against Medicare, calling it the road to Socialism.
With Ronald’s movie career on the wane, he was hired in 1954 to host TV drama series, “General Electric Theater.” As part of his job, he traveled the country given motivational speeches to GE employees. Republican party leaders were impressed and recruited him to run for office.
He campaigned for California governor in 1966 on an anti-welfare platform that included a promise to put an end to anti-war demonstrations roiling California college campuses. He defeated two-term governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and served two terms as the state’s chief executive.
Nancy was an activist First Lady. She served on the California Arts Commission and fostered the Foster Grandparents Program. She caused controversy when she refused to live in the governor’s mansion, claiming it was a firetrap.
Under her auspices a new mansion was built, but every subsequent governor refused to live in it. The house was eventually sold.
Following the end of his second term in 1967, Ronald Reagan launched his first campaign for president. He lost the GOP nomination to Gerald Ford, who had assumed the White House following President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter, and Reagan ran again in 1980. He handily defeated Carter who was mired in the Iran Hostage Crisis and was considered an ineffectual leader. Reagan went to serve two terms, ending with the election of Bill Clinton in 1990.
Nancy had reservations about her husband’s presidential ambitions, but eventually agreed to support his 1976 and 1980 bids, She took a back seat during the campaigns, basically holding coffees, luncheons, and talking with senior citizens groups.
She brought a California flare to the White House and oversaw a major renovation funded largely by private donors, who received hefty tax deductions, causing controversy. She was often criticized for being out of touch with average Americans.
She was praised for her sense of style and for bringing glamour back to the White House unseen since the Kennedy administration. But critics also called her “Queen Nancy” for her extravagant tastes and fawning over England’s royals.
Nancy Reagan’s biggest initiative in the White House was her “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign, which she launched in 1982 and later expanded.
In the latter years of her husband’s second term, critics accused her of being the “power behind the throne.” She influenced her husband on several policy issues, including his overtures to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
After leaving office, the Reagan’s returned to California. In 1989, the Reagans were hit with a tax bill for more than $3 million in gifts they had received while in office. They included gifts of jewelry and expensive dresses given to Nancy.
When her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she took up the cause and become a vocal advocate for stem-cell research, contrary to Republican opposition. Ronald Reagan died in June, 2004.
Nancy continued her anti-drug activities through the Nancy Reagan Foundation and also attended many state functions as a representative of her husband’s presidency. Her health began to deteriorate in 2008, and she fell and broke three ribs in 2012.
No cause of death was immediately provided. She is survived by her children Patti Davis and Ron Reagan.
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