Nancy Reagan, wife of President Ronald Reagan, died today at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
The cause was congestive heart failure, her office announced.
As first lady from 1981 to 1989, Mrs. Reagan appointed herself the primary guardian of her husband’s interests and legacy, a bad cop to his good cop, which often put her at odds with his senior staff. After the 1981 assassination attempt on her husband by John W. Hinckley Jr., Mrs. Reagan famously kept his senior aides at bay while he convalesced. She argued vociferously against him running for reelection in 1984, in part because of fears about his safety.
“She defined her role as being a shield for the emotional and physical well-being of the president,’’ said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, National First Ladies Library historian. “I believe she would see her legacy as having helped forge her husband’s legacy.”
Always working behind the scenes, she interposed herself in the hiring and firing of senior staff at the most pivotal junctures; she insisted over the objections of some senior advisers that he publicly apologize for the government’s secret arms sales to Iran, a scandal that rocked his presidency; and she bucked the right-leaning ideologues in the administration in pushing for improved relations with the Soviet Union, conspiring with the secretary of state to make it happen.
Not six years out of the White House, she was tested in ways she could not have imagined. She spent a decade as primary caregiver for her husband as he succumbed to the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease, eventually not recognizing the woman he called “Mommy.” His illness prompted Mrs. Reagan to openly challenge the George W. Bush administration and other conservatives who sought to limit embryonic stem cell research, which scientists believe could hold the cure for Alzheimer’s.
Just before his death in 2004, she made a plea for more research funding, saying, “Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him.” She expressed public gratitude when Barack Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research early in his presidency, noting that “time is short, and life is precious.”
Her most prominent initiative as first lady was the “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign, aimed at preventing and reducing recreational drug use among young people. But time after time, her efforts at developing a substantive role for herself were overshadowed by parallel revelations about her pricey clothes and rich friends and her meddling in her husband’s official business.
In a stunning parting shot at her husband’s advisers in November 1988, as Reagan prepared to leave office, she told the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t feel this staff served him well in general. I’m more aware if someone is trying to end-run him and have their own agenda.”
Nancy Reagan saw herself caught in the cross hairs of the feminist movement, one of the last of the stay-at-home generation who represented everything the women’s movement was rebelling against. She was ridiculed for what became known as “the gaze” — a doe-eyed, unflinching stare at her husband when he spoke publicly.
During his campaigns, she vastly preferred traveling with him rather than on her own, but by the 1980 presidential race, agreed to keep a separate schedule to reach more voters. She made it her business to watch out for her husband’s interests; when she saw Ronald Reagan perform poorly during the debates in 1984, she intervened to instruct the staff to stop feeding him endless statistics to memorize — but to let him rely on his own instincts. It proved effective.
Nancy Reagan took Washington by storm in 1981. Even before her husband — a former movie star and governor of California — was sworn in, she swept into town with a larger-than-life cadre of wealthy California friends. At first, the public seemed to embrace what was billed as the return of style and glamour after four years of the more modest style of peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.
But the glamour soon was seen as ostentation during a steep recession. After complaining that the White House residential quarters were in disrepair, and noting that she could find no set of matching china in the place, Mrs. Reagan turned to affluent friends to raise funds for $800,000 in renovations and $200,000 of new china.
Although no public money was spent, these two expenditures became symbols of her excesses and attitudes. A flamboyant trip to England for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana six months into the administration, during which she attended 15 glossy events in five days, gave her detractors added fuel.
Her critics took to calling her “Queen Nancy,” which eventually became a popular postcard. By December 1981, a Newsweek poll reported that 61 percent of the public considered her less sympathetic than previous first ladies to the needs of the disadvantaged.
Born Anne Frances “Nancy” Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York, she was the only child of car salesman Kenneth Seymour Robbins and Edith Luckett.
To find work, Nancy’s mother left her for a half-dozen years to be raised in Bethesda by her aunt Virginia and uncle Audley Gailbraith. She attended Sidwell Friends School briefly.
The future first lady spoke of longing for her mother in those lonely years, and in 1929 they were reunited when Edith married Loyal Davis, a prominent, wealthy, politically conservative neurosurgeon who moved the family to Chicago. Nancy adored her stepfather, who eventually adopted her, and her name was legally changed to Nancy Davis.
She described herself an average student. She attended the Girls’ Latin School of Chicago, graduated in 1939 and went on to Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in English and drama, graduating in 1943. She said she always had a love for theater because of her mother’s influence, and moved to New York City to pursue acting after college.
She met Ronald Reagan when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
On March 4, 1952, they were married in a small ceremony near Los Angeles. Their first child, Patricia Ann, was born seven months later. Their second child, Ron, came along in 1958.
After the Reagans left the White House, they started the Nancy Reagan Foundation to support educational and drug prevention after-school programs. Following Ronald Reagan’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the couple created and funded the Ronald & Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago to research the illness.
In her final years, Nancy Reagan lived quietly in Bel Air, Calif., lunching with old friends, and spending her time advocating for stem cell research. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.
“We’ve had an extraordinary life . . . but the other side of the coin is that it makes it harder,” she wrote of her husband’s illness.
“There are so many memories that I can no longer share, which makes it very difficult. When it comes right down to it, you’re in it alone. Each day is different, and you get up, put one foot in front of the other, and go…”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.