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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
Nancy Reagan emerges as public icon
Nancy Reagan holds the family's King Charles spaniel Rex, as she and President Ronald Reagan stroll along the White House South Lawn, December 1986
Nancy was seen by many as the power behind the presidency
Nancy Reagan, who quietly cared for former President Ronald Reagan during his last decade, has been transformed in the eyes of the American public.

Now praised for her unwavering support and fierce protection of her ailing husband's privacy, the former first lady is being lauded as a national heroine and praised for her quiet dignity following Reagan's death.

But it was not always like that. During eight years in the White House, Mrs Reagan was often criticised for being domineering and wielding too much influence over the president.

While she was known for her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, she was ridiculed for accepting glamorous outfits from big-name designers and for spending extravagant sums redecorating the White House.

She was renowned for strictly controlling access to the president, especially after the assassination attempt only months after Reagan took office in 1981.


Mrs Reagan was also criticised for trying to influence her husband's decision-making, sometimes by lobbying people the president trusted.

It was said that Mrs Reagan even engineered the sacking of Reagan's chief of staff Donald Regan.

Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him
Nancy Reagan
May 2004
In a tell-all book, the bruised aide famously revealed how Mrs Reagan would consult astrologers to guide the scheduling of the president's public appearances.

Even before the White House years, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California (1967-75), there were whispers that Nancy was the real power in the relationship.

Mrs Reagan refused to move into the governor's mansion, saying it was a firetrap, and they bought a house in the wealthy suburbs instead.


The former first lady always denied the harsh image she was given during the White House years, and Reagan himself had to deny that his wife was "some kind of dragon lady".

Nancy Reagan listens during a private service for her late husband in California, 7 June 2004

"I often cried during those eight years," Mrs Reagan wrote in her 1989 memoirs, My Turn.

"There were times when I just didn't know what to do, or how I would survive."

Mrs Reagan's public rehabilitation probably started in November 1994, when Reagan announced to the American people that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, degenerative brain disorder characterised by memory loss and disorientation.

After that, the same qualities that Mrs Reagan had been criticised for came to the fore as she nursed her husband and kept him away from prying eyes. As his memory weakened and he no longer recognised even his wife, she barely left his side.

She allowed very few visitors to see her husband, wanting to preserve the memory of how he used to be.

Nancy Reagan received a standing ovation at the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996.

"I can tell you with certainty he still sees the shining city on the hill," she told the tearful delegates.

"We have learned, as too many other families have learned, of the terrible pain and loneliness that must be endured as each day brings another reminder of this very long goodbye."

In recent years, Mrs Reagan has become a leading campaigner for stem cell research into Alzheimer's, publicly criticising President George W Bush for blocking public funding.

"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him," Mrs Reagan said a fundraising dinner about a month before her husband's death.

"Because of this, I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this."

Hollywood career

Nancy was born in New York on 6 July 1921. When she was six, her mother Edith - a stage actress - married Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon. Dr Davis adopted Nancy, and she grew up in Chicago.

Like her future husband, Nancy Davis pursued a career in Hollywood, where she acted in B-moves.

She met Ronald following his divorce from his first wife, actress Jane Wyman. They married in 1952 and had two children together, Patti and Ron. Reagan also had two children from his first marriage - Maureen, who died in 2001, and Michael.

Before the Reagans left acting to pursue politics, husband and wife starred in the 1957 film Hellcats of the Navy.

Their marriage has been described as the greatest love affair in the history of the American presidency.

With Reagan's death, the American public has lauded Nancy for her love and dedication, and expressed sympathy for the sadness of what she termed "Ronnie's long goodbye".

"The golden years are when you can sit back, hopefully, and exchange memories, and that's the worst part about this disease," Mrs Reagan said in a 2000 interview on CBS television.

"There's nobody to exchange memories with... and we had a lot of memories."

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