Nancy Reagan: Leading Lady to First Lady

…an excerpt from Under This Roof, from Paul Brandus of the award-winning West Wing Reports — pre-orders available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

…Ronald Reagan’s wife of three decades, Nancy, was once a leading lady in her own right, of course. As young actors, some of their roles provided hints of bigger things to come: in high school, she performed in a play called First Lady; two of his films were Going Places and Code of the Secret Service. Some friends even claimed that a third movie, Murder in the Air (1940), in which Reagan’s character Brass Bancroft kept saboteurs away from a secret weapon that could shoot down enemy rockets, influenced his later presidential embrace of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which aimed to destroy Soviet nuclear missiles fired at the United States.

The Reagan White House was the most glamorous since the Kennedy era. Longtime friends and fellow-actors like Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jimmy Stewart visited on a regular basis, and the mansion, if not Washington as a whole, soon became known as Hollywood-on-the-Potomac. After the austerity of the Carter years — like James Polk and Rutherford Hayes, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter refused to serve hard liquor — it was a welcome change to some. However, the overt display of ostentatiousness struck many as tone deaf and insensitive, particularly during the first two years of the Reagan presidency when the country was gripped by a severe recession.

Like other first ladies, Nancy Reagan devoted a chunk of her time to refurbishing the mansion. Refusing $50,000 given by Congress, she tapped her wealthy friends for an estimated $1 million in contributions14 to redo the family quarters in the second floor and parts of the State Floor below. While her efforts would not match those of Pat Nixon or Jacqueline Kennedy, she did oversee the conservation of more than 150 White House objects, including marble walls, wood doors, and floors in public rooms. Among the treasures: two of the twenty-four chairs made for James Monroe’s East Room in 1818 were acquired, as was a rare glass decanter made for James Madison in 1816. Various pieces of furniture that had been on loan in the Red and Green Rooms and the Library were converted to permanent acquisitions.

Nancy Reagan in her beloved Red Room. The most glamorous First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, she was dubbed “Fancy Nancy” by critics who attacked her spendthrift ways, such as spending $209,000 on new White House china. Lost on them was the fact that the money was privately donated. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

But Mrs. Reagan’s public image was dented by accusations that she lived and dressed extravagantly and, during a time of government spending cuts, ordered a new set of china at a cost of $209,508. In fairness to the first lady, the funds were donated by a private foundation, but this fact was lost on the public. Nevertheless, as she acknowledged in her autobiography: “The timing was unfortunate. The new White House china was announced on the same day that the Department of Agriculture mistakenly declared ketchup to be a vegetable for school lunches. As you can imagine, the columnists and cartoonists had a field day with that one.”

Mrs. Reagan pointed out that Eleanor Roosevelt was criticized when she, too, ordered a new set of china in 1933 (Mrs. Roosevelt even felt compelled to hold a news conference to defend herself). “People want the White House to look great,” Mrs. Reagan continued, “but they don’t want it to cost anything.” She would turn her “Fancy Nancy” reputation around with a smashing self-deprecating appearance at the 1982 Gridiron Club dinner (an annual gathering of Washington’s journalistic elite), when she suddenly appeared on stage in a hideous outfit and sang a reworked version of “Second Hand Rose.”

21 Presidents, 21 rooms, 21 insider stories. That’s “Under This Roof,” by Paul Brandus of the award-winning White House-based news service West Wing Reports. Pre-order your copy now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and follow Paul on Twitter: @WestWingReport

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