The door has closed forever, said a friend, on a particular part of the past. Or to be more precise, first-person access to the Reagan era through one of its two most important figures has now, with the death of Nancy Reagan, ended. The era itself will never end—it is part of the history of our nation and yielded up its last unambiguously successful president. The spirit of that age: exuberant, expansive. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Here we could do comparisons to the current moment, but let’s not. Instead, a mere and affectionate remembrance of the lady we lost.
Stipulated: There was no him without her. He couldn’t have launched or sustained his great project if she hadn’t made him her project. He was thinking about the failure of the latest Soviet five-year plan, and making note of the new statistics on HUD spending. She was thinking about people and their agendas. If you served him well you were in; if not don’t let the door hit you. She was protective. Or, as she would put it, she was looking after her man. Her protectiveness was a patriotic act.
As first lady she was glamorous, meticulous. Everything had to be just so. There was a touching, old-fashioned sense that she wanted whichever visiting king or potentate to see America knows how to do it up right. She believed in fun, too. In the Reagan White House you could smoke, drink and dance, after the more subdued, abstemious Carter years. It was no place for puritans.
Her personality was wry, teasing, loyal, warm and fun. She was my darling friend.
In her last five or so years I visited her at the house on St. Cloud Road, in Bel Air, with her beloved longtime friend Robert Higdon. We would sit with her in her sunny bedroom with the peach-colored headboard and the exercise bicycle and the bed tables full of silver framed pictures—she and Ronnie dancing at the state dinner, Ronnie in his last years kissing her on the cheek.
We’d talk about nothing, everything. She had a big laugh, a soft chuckle and a gift for listening. She really heard you, picked up nuance, noted what was unsaid. She took a great and protective interest in the lives of her friends and family, noticed when things seemed off, didn’t avoid troublesome areas but brought them up. That was part of how she showed her care, “bringing it up.”
Gore Vidal said of John F. Kennedy that when he died a whole world of gossip went with him. Nancy loved gossip too, though we didn’t call it gossip but History of Humans. I would save up things going on in New York—who was seeing whom, who was on top of the world, who looked great, who needed a call. Half the time, she’d nod and say, “I heard that”—she had some network—and tell me more than I knew. The other half she’d say: “Really? I think we need to hear more.”
She wasn’t judging or prissy but amused and fascinated. She thought personal disasters a part of life, triumphs welcome good news, human mischief to be expected. She had come of age in a Hollywood where everyone was kind of a big colorful mess. They were rich and famous, sure, but at the end of the day everyone was making it through on a smile and a shoeshine. She liked the comedy of it all.
In her later years she spent a lot of time remembering the past, and sharing it. She watched cable news and was nothing if not current, and her observations of political figures were acute and occasionally piercing. But she took increasing enjoyment in thinking back to the time so-and-so came to the White House, the time they went to Geneva . . .
Afterward I thought: She’s telling herself that it really happened.
No one is the same size as history, no one’s that big. For a half-century history washed over her, and I think when it was over she looked back, or saw the pictures on the bedside—“There we were, dancing at the state dinner”—and thought of those days, “My God. A king was on line one. Ronnie was meeting with the Soviet premier down the hall. . . . That all happened. It couldn’t have happened, it is too big. But it happened.” I think she was, as she looked back, awed by her own life. And of course she had reason to be awed.
Here are two stories, one of steely Nancy and one of Nancy the somewhat mystical.
Steely Nancy: Some years ago we were talking about a Washington friend who was going through a crisis. Some of her struggles had become public, which only compounded her woes. Nancy Reagan got a steely look. You can’t be embarrassed, she said. Everyone in Washington has lost something, everyone’s been embarrassed by a story in the press or humiliated by a public firing or loss of stature. “It is a city of the humiliated,” she said. And she told me to give our friend some advice that was also an order: Get up off the mat.
Nancy the mystic, if that is the right word: In the house on St. Cloud Road you could feel Ronald Reagan all around you. The knickknacks, the pictures, the big Norman Rockwell portrait as you came in—it was a house about him. His office still had his desk and his things on it.
She wanted it that way. The love affair that became the great marriage that became the great partnership was never far from her thoughts. She missed him till the day she died.
One day at dusk in November 2013 we were talking quietly as I held her hand at her bedside. She began to talk about Ronnie and how even now he was ever-present to her. Then: “I didn’t believe in the afterlife. I never believed in it, but things have happened since Ronnie died. He visits me.”
“You mean you dream of him,” I said.
She got a quizzical look.
“I don’t know if it is dreams or what. It sounds funny or crazy, sometimes I wake up at night and he’s in bed next to me and I see him.” Once, she said, she woke in the middle of the night and looked over at the big beige stuffed chair at the bottom of the bed to the left. “You look cold,” she said to him, and went to the closet for a blanket. She draped it over him and went back to bed. The next morning she awoke and looked over at the chair. The blanket, she said, was still there, but moved to the side as if someone had pushed it when he left.
She could not, she said, explain this. Whatever it was, love, she felt, did not just disappear.
“I now believe in the afterlife,” she said.
Rest in peace Nancy Davis Reagan, darling girl, elegant lady, tough little patriot.