Chapter 3

Out Run Politics

This essay is a review of:

Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography

by Kitty Kelley

A Deception Worthy of Hollywood
by Lia Tian

            In business, the saying often goes that you fake it until you make it. Some degree embellishment is expected in the competitive modern job market, but self-promotion to the extent that Nancy Reagan manipulated her own image is nearly unheard of. In her book Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, Kitty Kelley makes it clear that in Nancy’s case, the manipulation came at the cost of ethical values. By Kelley’s account, “Nancy Reagan spent so many years redesigning the facts of her life that she came to accept her masquerade as reality.”1 Beneath the glimmering facade of Nancy’s Hollywood romance and path to the White House lies a tangle of secrets and lies. America may attribute the “longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity without recession or depression” to Reagan, but the power behind the 40th president belonged to Nancy Reagan.2

            Nancy’s habitual fabrication of the truth was deeply influenced by her youth and her mother, Edith Prescott Luckett. Like Nancy, Edith once aspired to be a movie star in Hollywood, but failed and chose to devote her entire life to the success of Loy Davis, her second husband. Some attribute Nancy’s coldness towards her own children as a result of the separation between Edith and her first husband, Kenneth Seymour Robbins. While Edith waltzed off to Hollywood to pursue a career in Hollywood and Robbins returned to his mother, Nancy, at this time named Anne Frances Robbins, was left with her aunt. Her parents maintained positive relationships with young Nancy, but she would later deny this in life, claiming that her father was abusive and showing no sympathy towards the financial misfortune that befell him. Meanwhile, Edith’s failing career as an actress forced her onto a different path to prosperity—she married neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, “determined to make him the most prestigious physician in the city.”3 Through her charisma and wits, Edith succeeded, paving the way for Nancy in society. Nancy’s impressive resume- Girls Latin School, Smith College, and a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) - owed as much to her mother’s connections as they did to her own.

            Since her childhood, Nancy was transfixed by her mother’s role in Hollywood, and aspired to be the famous actress that her mother never was. Her first two years in the girls only Smith College, one of seven sister schools to the Ivy League universities, were an academic struggle. After switching to a drama major her junior year, however, she soon excelled in her classes and earned the favor of key professors using “the gaze, which was when she would look up at you adoringly…Nancy was a totally ingratiating human being at Smith.”4 To satisfy her parents, Nancy completed her schooling at Smith before pursuing a career in Hollywood. While she did gain a contract through her mother’s connections, Nancy lacked the special qualities of a star. As fellow actor Dore Schary evaluated, “She never sparkled and seemed quite as young as, say June Allyson. …She was more like a very nice, honest, thoroughly smart teacher.”5 Despite pursuing her failed acting career with every tool in her arsenal, Nancy later dismissed this time as merely a phase, and her life did not truly begin until she married Reagan.

            When Nancy first met Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, he showed little interest in the B rank actor about a decade his junior; however, Nancy’s determination would not only lead to a successful marriage, but also spur his career as a politician. After marrying and having children, both realized that their days in Hollywood were numbered. Neither actor had any standout roles, nor were companies interested in established stars and young talent, not middle-aged mediocrity. While Nancy was always strong willed and political, Reagan’s conservatism was molded by Nancy’s adoptive father, Loyal Davis. When Reagan first met Davis, he had already deviated from his father’s Democratic political ideals and aligned himself with conservatism by “rail[ing] against communism, high taxes, and government intervention.” 6 As the Reagans moved from the big screen, to Las Vegas show hosting, to television, Nancy began to search for more options to support her family. After Reagan received a job to promote General Electric (GE), Nancy gained a taste of power and privilege. GE outfitted their house with the latest electrical technology for free, and they could voice their opinions throughout the country. When Nancy persuaded her husband to run for governor, Reagan’s natural charms secured him a smooth victory. In office, Nancy Reagan’s controlling demeanor quickly became clear to those around her. She selfishly insisted that a new governor’s mansion be built from taxpayer money, attempted to emulate Jacqueline Kennedy by issuing a request for donated antique furniture, and took advantage of her political status in securing bargains with clothing. Nancy’s insistence on having the best for herself, preferably free of charge, made her appear out of touch with the struggles of average citizens. Much to the dismay of those around her, she was unable to fathom the controversy her actions caused.

            After conquering Sacramento, Nancy set her sights on the presidency. Despite her husband’s failed campaign in 1976, she was certain that he could succeed in the 1980 election. President Jimmy Carter’s embarrassment over the Iran Hostage Crisis was a stroke of luck for the Reagans, who pounced on him as indecisive and weak. Once again, the public chose Reagan, whose Hollywood persona embodied positivity, over his opponent, who seemed drab and negative. In the White House, the press attacked Nancy from left and right as she pursued an $822,640 renovation and a $209,508 custom designed china set, while Reagan cut funds to education and declared that ketchup would be considered a vegetable.7 During the first year of Reagan’s presidency, Nancy saw her true bid to power through an assassination attempt on the president, which rendered him unable to wield executive power during his eight month recuperation. Ever the actor, Reagan also used the situation to his favor, making sure that the news cameras captured a president, on the verge of death, staggering into the hospital but remaining strong. While Nancy was shocked by the tragedy, she exploited the political influence it gave her in the White House. Officials claimed that getting anything done under the Reagan administration required three plans of action: one for the President, one for the chiefs of staff, and one to deal with Nancy. Still, much of the public remained unaware of the power in Nancy’s hands and criticized her for frugality and exploitation of her position as First Lady. To repair her tarnished image, her staff arranged photo shoots with disabled children at hospitals, and launched a campaign against drug abuse, but this was all an unfortunate addition to the Nancy’s masquerade. Even until the end of Reagan’s presidency, her act never slipped, and she never exposed the truth behind her image.

            Throughout the book, Kitty Kelley works towards one goal- exposing the lies behind Nancy Reagan’s perfect veneer. From the first lines, her intent is clear: “Two entries on Nancy Reagan’s birth certificate are accurate—her sex and her color.”8 Using testimonies from friends, co-workers, and political employees, Kelley combines her own sarcastic and often humorous descriptions with a plethora of quotes to paint a picture of Nancy’s personality. By the end of the book, the mountains of evidence all point to the confirmation of Kelley’s thesis; as successful as Nancy Reagan may have been, her road was paved with manipulation.

            Kelley’s biography of Nancy Reagan provides insight into Nancy’s life, but is also colored with personal biases. While Kelley never aligned herself with any political ideology in her book, she seemed to personally find fault with Nancy, portraying her as unfathomably cold and calculating. Her attention to the opinions of White House staff and the press possibly stem from her own career. For a period of time, she worked as the receptionist and press secretary for Senator Eugene McCarthy, and had personal experience as the employee of a politician.9 Kelley would have been intimately familiar with the workings of the government, and thus would provide a professional opinion, but also one that reflected her own views.  

            Reagan’s successful presidency during a tension filled Cold War era may be largely attributed to his wife’s actions. A hard line conservative, Reagan had little motivation to compromise with the Soviets. In Kelly’s biography, Nancy recalls a conversation with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, “He turned to me and said, ‘Is you husband for peace or war?’ And I said, ‘Peace.”... He said, ‘Then why doesn’t he accept our proposals?’”10 Nancy, who was primarily interested in protecting Reagan’s image, believed that peace was optimal, and championed it in the White House. By then, Reagan’s mental faculties were greatly affected by his near death experience, and Nancy was the power behind the president. She was also instrumental in Reagan’s reelection following the Iran-Contra scandal. The scandal was centered on illicit efforts to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by supplying Iran with weapons.11 Having criticized Carter’s actions during the hostage crisis, Reagan had a duty to be more successful under similar situations. After the details of the scandal, including the illegal arms trade with Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, were revealed to the public, Reagan’s reelection seemed questionable. Nancy, with her strong faith in astrology, hired two star gazers, and ruled her campaign under an iron fist, all in a successful effort to get her husband reelected. When Kelley published the biography, the press had already ravaged Nancy on multiple occasions for her decisions, including the acceptance of millions worth of free merchandise and the withdrawal of her support for a campaign against drug abuse. Having spent years dedicated to research on Nancy, Kelley supported her claims with news evidence, and avoided damaging the reputation of an incumbent politician.

            Few question the validity of Kelley’s assertion that Nancy was “More of a Marie Antoinette than a Mother Teresa,” but Kelley’s biography was met with criticisms regarding its accuracy. American investigative journalist Robert Glenn Sherrill commented in a New York Times review that he “question[ed] the genuineness of some of the information passed on to her.”12 Additionally, he claimed that the book disappointed him in its lack of new material. Between the hype before the book was published and other works on the subject, most of the information was not new. Instead, Kelley’s book seemed to merely present established information in an exposé format against Nancy Reagan. Sherrill’s overall view is that while Kelley certainly leaves the impression that Nancy Reagan was a despicable person, her book “isn't flashy enough to be great gossip, [but] it isn't thoughtful enough to be really spiffy biography, and it doesn't lighten enough corners to be impressive history.”13

            Nancy Reagan: the Unauthorized Biography makes for an interesting read at times, but it also leaves readers with a sense of having the same message bludgeoned into their mind. Rather than presenting the facts and allowing the readers to pass judgement over Nancy Reagan themselves, Kelley inserts so much criticism that she seems almost afraid that readers will misunderstand the central purpose of her book. For all the negativity towards Nancy that the quotes exhibited, the amount of criticism towards the book’s bias seems disproportional; everyone who knew Nancy seemed to despise her. Additionally, the quotes that focus on Nancy’s perfect act are initially shocking and thought provoking, but lose their impact as the same ideas of manipulation are recycled over and over. Kelley’s portrayal of adult Nancy is extremely negative, but she does include good insight into the reasons behind Nancy’s actions. Without overanalyzing Nancy’s childhood and background, Kelly acknowledges Nancy’s possible insecurities, creating a reminder that perhaps Nancy was human after all.

            Nancy’s achievement of her goal, Ronald Reagan’s election as president, undoubtedly showed a shift towards conservatism; Reagan, influenced by Loyal Davis’s political ideology, had been fully converted to a hardline conservative. Under his leadership, the Unites States moved away from social and economic progressivism, following his conservative school of thought. However, his conservatism may not be as absolute as it appears. Reagan’s father was a Democrat, and he himself was originally a Democrat. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he even organized a strike and negotiated the terms. In addition, Nancy Reagan invited liberal Hollywood guests to the White House even after Reagan had been elected as a conservative. Nancy Reagan maintained extremely conservative on abortion, and was allegedly bigoted when it came to race issues, but she was also not as conservative as she appeared; she was instrumental in the easing of tensions with the Soviet Union. Just as Nancy Regan operated beneath a mask of devoted wife, her actions carried some degree of liberal ideals masked by strict conservatism.

            Kitty Kelley’s book presents details on a commonly accepted image of Nancy Reagan, one that stays true to Nancy’s first career as an actress. The biography is a comprehensive view of the dubious path Nancy took to power, and reminds readers that all is never as it seems.

1. Kelley, Kitty. Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography. Simon and Schuster. 1991. 38

2. Kelley, Kitty. 54

3. Kelley, Kitty. 82

4. Kelley, Kitty. 116

5. Kelley, Kitty. 2

6. Kelley, Kitty. 15

7. Kelley, Kitty. 275

8. Kelley, Kitty. 65

9. Kelley, Kitty. 37

10. Kelley, Kitty. 456

11. Kelley, Kitty. 7

12. Sherrill, Robert. THE 2 OF THEM: NANCY REAGAN; The Unauthorized Biography By Kitty Kelley. New York Times 13. Sherrill, Robert