At least they paid their taxes

Linda Colley

  • Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorised Biography by Kitty Kelley
    Bantam, 532 pp, £16.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 593 02450 8

On the dust-jacket of this book is a photograph of its author. Kitty Kelley, formerly of Spokane, one-time Lilac Princess at school, millionaire biographer of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra, looks not all that different from her current subject. There is the same bright, taut face which a good surgical lift always ensures, the same immaculately-dyed and coiffeured hair, the same fixed smile exhibiting the kind of teeth that only an American orthodontist can fix, the same chunky gold jewellery and expensive clothes overlaying a diet-starved body, and the same clawed, no longer young hands about which nothing can be done whatsoever. Here, however, she is able to hide them behind the thousands of document files that surround her, a solid wall of research material on which someone has plopped a clearly reluctant cat.

As those who have ploughed through its five-hundred-plus pages, full of this kind of upfront bitchiness, will already know, this is an indictment of Nancy Reagan composed by the vacuum-cleaner method. Five years of ‘meticulous’ research and over a thousand interviews have been sucked into the Kitty machine so as to give us the accumulated dirt. The book has been enormously successful, justifying its author’s 3.5 million dollar advance by selling almost a million copies in its first week of publication. The popular American press has quoted its more salacious anecdotes in lip-smacking fashion. Up-market dailies and weeklies have shaken their collective heads censoriously, before regaling their readers with the same prurient stories. And Barbara Bush has done her bit for the sales by describing the book as Kitty-Litter. Even now, when the initial publicity surge is well over, it can still be seen in almost every airport lounge and railway bookstore on both sides of the Atlantic. It is still a best-seller. It is even reasonably well written. But is it true, and does it matter?

These questions need to be asked because, as the document files are intended to demonstrate, this is purportedly a serious work. The acknowledgments extend for over nine pages, and there are more than forty pages of notes setting out the author’s debt to ‘Presidential documents, FBI files, financial disclosures, IRS returns, letters, diaries, memoirs, oral histories, film archives, personal recollections, calendars and correspondence’. Relays of research assistants have been employed, and Kelley assures us that knowing ‘how it feels to be depicted unfairly and inaccurately’, she has striven throughout to be ‘fair, accurate and thorough’. She has certainly dug far more deeply into her subject than any relatively impoverished professional historian is likely to be able to do, and until all the personal papers become available in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, those interested in postwar American politics and history will have little choice but to consult this book.

And this is where the vacuum-cleaner method becomes a problem. Kelley has sucked up so much, so indiscriminately, that what is important and true gets lost in the mass of rubbish that is neither. She has treated all of her sources, snubbed manicurists, or cast-off lovers, or disappointed Presidential aides, or dismissed cabinet ministers, as if they were of equal worth, and has made no allowances for the axes that were clearly being ground or for ordinary human error. It also appears that not all the people she claims to have interviewed had been approached; and those who were are not always quoted correctly or in full. The end-result is an entertaining, over-detailed and less than reliable mish-mash of a biography which cruelly exposes Nancy Reagan without ever really understanding her, or the power she and her husband were able to exercise.

Yet the basic story line seems clear enough. She was born in 1921 in one of the poorer New York boroughs, the only child of an ambitious but unsuccessful actress and an ineffectual but apparently genial salesman. Her parents separated when she was a toddler, and she was farmed out with an aunt. Only when her mother married again, this time to a rightwing Chicago surgeon called Loyal Davis, was Nancy able to begin the climb out of her unsatisfactory origins. She dropped her real father and got Davis to adopt her. She began to lose her puppy fat. And she enrolled in Smith College – like all the so-called Seven Sisters, something of a finishing school for young ladies from the East Coast’s upper middle class. At this point, though, Kelley’s thesis (and it is her only one) that Nancy, like her mother, was an all-out social climber begins to falter. For she did not, as might have been expected, use Smith as a gateway to a nice fresh-faced Yalie called, say, Charles (‘Chip’) Staunton Webster III, with a law opening in Daddy’s firm in Boston and a summer place in New Hampshire. Instead, she took up acting, still very much a déclassé occupation, and decided to go to Hollywood.

She got there, Kelley claims, by sleeping with Benjamin Thau, head of casting for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There followed 11 films, including one that sounds a real gem about God broadcasting by radio to the whole of planet Earth barring the Communist bloc. Nancy was always well-groomed, thoroughly professional and unfailingly hard-working. But she was too short, her legs were too thick, and she was perhaps too brittle and self-conscious to lose herself in a role. Then, on 15 November 1949, bitterly aware that she would never be anything more than ‘a crumb on the banquet table of MGM’, Nancy Davis wangled a date with Ronald Wilson Reagan.

For more than two years, however, the rest was not history, but still more anxious striving on her part. Reagan had just been dropped by his wife, Jane Wyman, and was doing the rounds of B-movie starlets. It was only when Nancy got pregnant that he married her in 1952, and only after their first child was born that he became a faithful husband (with just one brief lapse thereafter, Kelley assures us). But the transformation that followed was an extraordinary one. They became a devoted and massively successful couple, climbing to the top with the sort of relentless ease which had utterly eluded them both before their marriage. The immaculate grooming, taut ambition and relentless perfectionism that had killed her performances stone-dead before the camera were channelled into Reagan’s political career. And his crooked smile, small-town anti-Communism, and ‘gee whiz, golly shucks crap’ as Sinatra styled it, which had been such a bore to Hollywood’s predominantly liberal aristocracy, made him a highly attractive candidate to rich Californian popularists. By 1966 he was the Republican governor, and ‘Mommy’, as he always called her, was cleaning up the gubernatorial mansion in Sacramento.

There is, understandably, a great deal of interior and body decor detail in this book. We learn how Nancy revamped her husband’s office, getting rid of the old burnished leather walls, laying miles of bright red carpet, and installing plenty of beige burlap (‘modern, classy’). And we learn what Nancy admired in her best friend and fashion mentor Betsy Bloomingdale: ‘Betsy wore cashmere trench-coats with mink collars and cuffs; her 18-carat-gold belt was decorated with 50 carved emeralds from David Webb, one of the finest jewellers in America; her three-acre garden brimmed with the rarest orchids in Southern California, and her kitchen produced cuisine worthy of connoisseurs. In addition to a Los Angeles mansion in affluent Holmby Hills, the Bloomingdales owned an apartment in New York City and a pied-à-terre in Paris.’

And so it goes on ... To the new three million dollar mansion the Reagans extracted from their Californian friends before leaving it empty and unused when they moved to Washington. To Nancy’s pet hairdresser, Julian, who always had to be given a seat on the Presidential jet together with her personal maid. To the 220 sets of china she ordered for the White House at $1000 a set, just when Reagan was cutting welfare. To the $46,000 wardrobe she wore for the Inauguration in 1980, accepted as a gift from couturiers who wanted the cachet of dressing her. Here is a guide to arriviste style and greed: and we are clearly intended to deplore the vulgarity of it all.

Yet to do so would be to miss the real point. Reagan was the Governor of America’s richest state, before becoming President of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Even so, what he and his wife begged, borrowed and spent was mere pin money in comparison with our own Royal Family’s rate of expenditure – and at least the Reagans paid their taxes, albeit, as Kelley shows, with considerable reluctance. It was not their extravagance, as such, but rather the nature of their extravagance, which was striking, revealing as it did their parvenu origins and ignorance of the customary rules of patrician life. Never rich enough to come close to the Trumps of this world, they were not grand or secure enough not to care. Nancy, in particular, was always worried about money and doing the correct thing. So on one occasion she and her girlfriends spent hours desperately practicing how to curtsey to the Queen, not knowing – as any Daughter of the Revolution would certainly have known – that by tradition Americans never genuflect to monarchs. And then there was the Hollywood entertainment with which Nancy once again hoped to impress the Queen on her state visit in 1983. Kelley mocks the bad taste and invites us to join her. But the wider and historically important point – that the Reagan phenomenon can only be understood in the light of the post-war decline of the old Wasp ruling class, and the shift in power and wealth from the declining industrial East Coast of America to the booming silicon-chip West Coast – is never acknowledged.

This lack of a political, social and above all historical context for her subject means that Kelley never comes to grips with what must be the essential question a biographer of Nancy Reagan has to ask: how much influence was she, as the wife of supposedly the most powerful man on earth, able to exert? It is, admittedly, a difficult question to answer satisfactorily, in part because this kind of indirect female influence has rarely been adequately examined in the past. The majority of political historians have always been male, and as such only occasionally interested in the female contribution to successful masculine careers, while that new generation of historians that concentrates on the experience of women prefers its subjects to be oppressed, or powerful in their own right. And there is a still more intractable problem. Women who manipulate powerful men rarely boast about it or leave written evidence of their influence behind them. To do so would be to abandon that discretion and subterfuge which are their main weapons. The men on whom they practise their persuasion are naturally unlikely to confess their tractability either. In the absence of hard proof, how can we reach an estimate of Nancy’s political role?

One answer is by looking at previous 20th-century First Ladies. The record suggests that their potential for interference has been growing alongside the increased visibility of their husbands’ office and the changing status and expectations of women. In the 19th century, with some exceptions, Presidential wives stayed in the background, sometimes even handing over their duties as White House hostess to a younger, female relation. But since the American Constitution does not prescribe what a First Lady can or cannot do, there was nothing to stop Woodrow Wilson’s wife from moving in on his office when he was incapacitated by a stroke from 1919 to 1921. ‘I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,’ Mrs Wilson, the former Edith Bolling Galt, would write later, ‘and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.’ In other words, without being elected or liable to dismissal or impeachment, Edith Wilson was able to take advantage of her husband’s frailty and the Constitution’s silence to influence the agenda of American government. Subsequent First Ladies have demanded still more autonomy. By the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt was holding her own press conferences. Forty years later, Rosalynn Carter was sitting in on Cabinet meetings, carrying out her own missions to foreign governments, and making suggestions that she should be given her own salary and staff.

At one level, then, modern Presidential wives pose the same kind of problem as the wives of Masters of Colleges or the wives of diplomats or the wives of royalty do in this country. With the rise of female expectations, all arrangements of this kind have come under strain, since intelligent women are no longer so content to stay in the background or to lose themselves in their husbands’ careers.

On the one hand, traditional Americans still expect the First Lady to play a visible role as helpmate, hostess and cultural icon, to be the model for decent and supportive womankind which her title suggests. On the other, feminist voters now expect that the First Lady will have her own identity and her own cause, and they, too, have to be catered to. So Ladybird Johnson pushed environmental issues. Betty Ford backed the Equal Rights Amendment in defiance of her husband. Mrs Carter took up the cause of the mentally ill, and Mrs Bush seems to have associated herself with the literacy campaign. Even if they wanted to, therefore, it would be difficult for these women to hug seclusion to themselves to the degree that their predecessors were able to do in the last century, or that Mrs Major still does today. And of course even if they were able to insist on a strictly private role their position would still allow them extraordinary opportunities. Assuming that they occupy the same beds as their husbands, Presidential wives are guaranteed time alone every day with the most important man in the world, something which no male politician can necessarily expect. Like it or not, they are married to power and have the opportunity of exerting power in their own right. And within the limits of her tense disposition. Nancy Reagan seems to have liked it a great deal.

Even before they made it to Washington, some of her contribution to her husband’s success was already clear. No more ambitious and probably no shrewder than he was, she was infinitely more hard-working. She pushed her man when necessary, but she also knew him well enough to acknowledge his weaknesses and work around them. She ensured that his campaign managers knew that he performed better later in the day. She made sure that they allowed him a nap every afternoon, as well as time by the pool to maintain the glowing suntan cherished as part of his outdoor macho image. She rehearsed his speeches with him, and prompted him when necessary – which by the end of his second term as President it frequently was. She also played tough girl to his nice guy. Reagan desperately needed to be liked both by the voters and by those around him – a formidable weakness for a politician. I suspect that at least some of Nancy’s rudeness, bullying and nagging campaigns to get rid of people was a case of her doing what Reagan himself could not bear to do, or bother to do. By acting the scheming virago, she allowed him to emerge with clean hands, folksy candour and that bemused, fresh-as-the-prairie smile.

Kelley quotes only one statement by Nancy on her position and it is nicely ambiguous: ‘A woman, I would hope, would be a help to her husband no matter what he does. Of course, the more successful he is, the more important her role becomes.’ But important in what ways exactly? Until the archives are open, we shall never know. And since so much of what Nancy did must have been conducted over the phone, or in private conversations with her husband, we will never know it all. Former members of the Reagan Administration who have published memoirs have certainly testified to her influence over questions of political personnel. Michael Deaver, the former Deputy Chief of Staff, has claimed that she influenced the sacking of Reagan’s campaign chairman, John Sears, in 1980; Larry Speakes has argued that she kept Lynn Nofzinger from becoming Press Secretary: while Donald Regan, the former Secretary of the Treasury, has accused her of a host of similar sins, including campaigning for the resignation of William Casey, the CIA Director, when he was terminally ill with cancer. There seems little doubt that she hastened the departure of Donald Regan himself. ‘I don’t think most people associate me with leeches or how to get them off,’ she would say in a speech delivered four days after his exit. ‘But I know how to get them off. I’m an expert at it’

Much more surprising, however, than these accusations (which are, after all, made by bitter and disappointed men) are the suggestions that Nancy was a closet liberal who attempted to guide the direction of domestic and foreign policy as well as patronage decisions. Following Deaver and Regan and others, Kelley tells us that Nancy worked to sabotage the Far Right’s influence over her husband on the Star Wars project, on abortion, on aid to the Contras, and on a pardon for Oliver North. Little evidence is given for these claims, and Kelley rather spoils her case by describing Nancy on another page as ‘uncommitted to a core of political principles herself’. But was she perhaps not so much a liberal as an instinctively pragmatic and unillusioned woman determined to safeguard her husband from extremists of all sorts? Did she seize on the opportunity afforded by Reagan’s mental slippage in his second term as President to deepen her already very strong influence over him? And did she use her astrologers to reinforce that influence, passing on messages from the stars to Reagan which conveniently endorsed her own far more down-to-earth opinions? It all seems quite probable.

What is abundantly clear is that a biography showing that Nancy Reagan isn’t a very nice woman is besides the point. She may have been and probably was a bad mother to her children. She may have indulged in lesbian practices at Smith, and been an expert at oral sex in Hollywood. Perhaps she did have a long-running affair with Frank Sinatra. Almost everyone else did. And she almost certainly never was deeply serious about her anti-drug campaign as First Lady. Why should she have been when it was essentially a publicity stunt, just one more example of the kind of soft-edged, human interest cause which a woman in her position is obliged to espouse? What matters in the end is what she did in the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento, in the East Wing of the White House, and in her husband’s mind. Finding that out will be difficult, but it will be more interesting than Kelley’s breathless disclosures.