Behind ‘the Collateral Heartbreak’ and Intense Devotion of the Reagans’ Decades-Long Romance

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Virginia Chamlee
·9 min read
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Snap/Shutterstock From left: Ronald Reagan with daughter Patti, son Ron and wife Nancy Reagan in 1963

The love story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan is sweeping, swooning and familiar to many, having been documented in letters from the former president and quotes from some of their most famous friends.

A new biography, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, by Washington Post writer Karen Tumulty, digs in anew to the Reagan romance — and sheds light on how the couple's passionate relationship often interfered with their connections to their own children.

Their dysfunctional family life, Tumulty writes, "was the collateral heartbreak that accompanied the Reagans' epic love."

As Tumulty writes, the future first lady's upbringing might explain why she clung so closely to her husband. Born Anne Frances Robbins, she was all but abandoned as a child by her mother, stage actress Edith Luckett Davis, who left her for long stretches of time with a live-in nanny or an aunt before getting remarried and moving her to Chicago.

There, the young Nancy Davis (who took her adopted father's name after her mom's marriage) worked to follow in her mom's footsteps, attending college at Smith to study theater and moving to New York to pursue her dream.

Nancy was cast in bit parts in a handful of plays (thanks largely, according to Tumulty, to strings pulled by her mother) and went on to work in low-budget television projects.

In early 1949, her agent called with the news that someone at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to fly her to California for a screen test.

Thanks to a favor called in by one of her mother's talented friends, the actor Spencer Tracy, "Nancy did well enough" at the test, writes Tumulty, and she signed a seven-year, $250 per week contract with the studio that same year.

By October, Nancy was being pitched by MGM as an up-an-comer, albeit one who soon found herself faced with a problem: That month, while reading The Hollywood Reporter, she found her own name among a list of 208 supposed Communist sympathizers.

As Tumulty writes, Nancy then got in touch with the president of the Screen Actors Guild, a film star by the name of Ronald Reagan, who would eventually become a two-term governor of California and, later, president of the United States.

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Bettmann/Getty From left: Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan in 1988

The two hit it off but didn't date exclusively immediately, instead playing the field before finally settling down with one another. But once they were committed, they were all in — getting married in 1952 and eventually uprooting from Hollywood for the world of politics (and from sunny Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.)

The Reagans had two kids: daughter Patti, born 1952, and youngest son Ron, born 1958, along with his three children from a previous marriage to the actress Jane Wyman: Maureen, Christine and Michael.

While family life was of integral importance, the Reagan's allegiances to one another as a couple — and to his legacy as a politician — often overshadowed their responsibilities to their kids, according to Tumulty.

In the introduction to her biography, Tumulty paints a portrait of Mrs. Reagan as someone who knew her husband better than anyone — someone whose presence was "felt by everyone who worked" in the West Wing.

"When she was displeased about something, they all knew it, and those who were not in her good graces tended not to last for long," Tumulty writes.

Tumulty quotes Stu Spencer, President Reagan's chief political strategist from early on in his political career, describing the couple as "an inseparable team politically and personally. He would never have been governor without her. He would never have been president without her."

Bettmann/Getty From left: Ronald Reagan with daughter Patti and wife Nancy Reagan

Theirs was a relationship true to its showbusiness roots.

Prone to "cinematic displays of affection," Tumulty writes, the couples' behavior around one another could be off-putting to others. She recounts one instance described by Spencer, who once accompanied the couple to Union Station so that Reagan could catch a train to film a television show.

"As the conductor shouted, 'All aboard!' Ronnie and Nancy fell into each other's arms and started making out for what seemed like an interminable amount of time," Tumulty writes. "Spencer grew deeply embarrassed. 'Jesus, this is like a scene out of a damn movie,' he thought to himself. 'What the hell is going on?' "

Recounting how the couple would ride horses together at Rancho del Cielo before he would gather her in his arms as he helped her dismount, John Hutton — who served as White House physician during President Reagan's second term — told Tumulty: "Good Christopher Columbus, how does anybody keep a romance going for this many years with that intensity?"

That love was so strong, however — and burned so bright — that the relationship with their own children often fell into its shadow.

One of President Reagan's many love letters to his wife, surfaced by Tumulty in the biobraphy, serves as an illustration of that strained family dynamic.

In the letter, dated May 24, 1963, he discusses an issue the couple's been having with two of the children: Michael, his adopted son from his first marriage, and Patti, his daughter with Mrs. Reagan

"Whether Mike helps buy his first car or spends the money on sports coats isn't really important. We both want for him to get started on a road that will lead to his being able to provide or himself ... (Patti is another kind of problem, and we'll do all we can to make that one right, too)," Reagan wrote. "But what is really important is that having fulfilled our responsibilities to our offspring we haven't been careless with the measure that is ours—namely what we are to each other."

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The tenuous relationship between the Reagans and both Michael and Patti would only worsen in the decades after that letter.

Patti, who declined to be interviewed for Tumulty's book, has since claimed her mother beat her and abused prescription drugs — claims her brother Ron told the author were "hyperbole."

Still, he agreed that his mom wasn't the most easygoing person and not always a nurturing presence.

"She was an anxious personality, and her anxieties, particularly when my father was away, were visited upon her children," Ron tells Tumulty in the book. "You didn't know quite who you're going to be dealing with today, so you had to be wary of her."

Patti has been more forgiving of her mom in recent years, but she has still spoken openly about the fraught relationship. She once told NBC News' Maria Shriver of her parents: "Their lives wouldn't be destroyed if we weren't there. They were complete unto each other. And that can be a complicated thing for children."

The distance didn't go unnoticed by those close to the couple. The late Larry King, a longtime friend, told PEOPLE in 2016: "Their love affair was probably more important than their love for their children. The children were secondary to them."

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With Michael, tensions came to a head a few years before his father died of Alzheimer's in 2004.

Tumulty writes: "Things between Michael and Nancy eventually became so bitter that she feared being alone with him. The Secret Service stationed an agent nearby when he visited to keep an eye on how he behaved, according to more than a half dozen people that I talked to on and off the record."

Ron, Michael's half-brother, confirmed this story, telling Tumulty: "The Secret Service were concerned enough about Mike that after an incident where he sort of loomed over my mother, who was frail at the time, and screamed at her that we'd all be better off if she just died, or was dead — something to that effect — the Secret Service would no longer leave him alone in the house wither her. They would always put somebody outside the door on the rare occasions when he visited."

A message sent to the Reagan Legacy Foundation, of which Michael is president, was not immediately returned to PEOPLE.

Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images From left: Ron Reagan with parents Ronald and Nancy Reagan in a swimming pool at home on their California ranch

The Reagans' decades-long marriage, while strong, wasn't without its own challenges as well.

Tumulty writes that, after the president suffered a nearly fatal gunshot wound during an assassination attempt in March 1981, the first lady became obsessed with taking precautions to ensure her husband's safety.

That meant forcing him to wear the bulletproof vest he hated, advising his aides that he would not be holding outdoor events and turning to an astrologer to advise her on the most and least dangerous times for him to travel.

The shooting took its toll on Mrs. Reagan, whom Tumulty writes "cried constantly when Ronnie wasn't around" in the months after the incident.

"Sometimes she cried when he was, though she tried to do it in the bedroom or the bathroom, so he wouldn't see," Tumulty writes.

Ronald Reagan Presidental Library/Getty Images From left: Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan

At the end of his life, his mind clouded by Alzheimer's, Reagan's relationship with his wife suffered as well, with Tumulty describing a heartbreaking scene as told by Dr. Hutton, the former White House physician.

While visiting the two, Hutton said, Mrs. Reagan turned on the song "Unforgettable" and held up her hands, beckoning her husband to dance.

"It was a scene that Hutton had witnessed many times in the past," Tumulty writes. "In the old days, the Reagans would fall together and cling to each other as they moved as one to the music. But this time, Ronnie brushed her away."

His June 2004 death was agonizing for Nancy, who lived until March 2016. Still, he was never far from his widow, who kept a photo of the two on her bedside table.

That photo, Tumulty writes in her new book, depicts President Reagan "taken in profile, when he was deep in the throes of Alzheimer's. He was lying down ... she was hovering above him, their two faces nose to nose. The intimacy was still there, even through the fog of his illness."

The former first lady, ever proud of her relationship with her husband, had picked up the photo during a meeting with Stuart Kenworthy, an Episcopal priest approached about delivering her eventual eulogy.

After he asked Mrs. Reagan to describe the photo, Tumulty writes, she looked at Kenworthy after a few moments to say, simply: "This one is my favorite."

The Triumph of Nancy Reagan is available now.