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Originally a Broadway actress, Nancy Davis Reagan served as First Lady from 1981 to 1989. She served alongside her husband, President Ronald Reagan, and is remembered for her passionate advocacy for decreasing drug and alcohol abuse.
“My life really began when I married my husband,” says Nancy Reagan, who in the 1950’s happily gave up an acting career for a permanent role as the wife of Ronald Reagan and mother to their children. Her story actually begins in New York City, her birthplace. She was born on July 6, 1921.
When the future First Lady was six, her mother, Edith–a stage actress–married Dr. Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon. Dr. Davis adopted Nancy, and she grew up in Chicago. It was a happy time: summer camp, tennis, swimming, dancing. She received her formal education at Girls’ Latin School and at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in theater.
Soon after graduation she became a professional actress. She toured with a road company, then landed a role on Broadway in the hit musical Lute Song. More parts followed. One performance drew an offer from Hollywood. Billed as Nancy Davis, she performed in 11 films from 1949 to 1956. Her first screen role was in Shadow on the Wall. Other releases included The Next Voice Your Hear and East Side, West Side. In her last movie, Hellcats of the Navy, she played opposite her husband.
She had met Ronald Reagan in 1951, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. The following year they were married in a simple ceremony in Los Angeles in the Little Brown Church in the Valley. Mrs. Reagan soon retired from making movies so she “could be the wife I wanted to be…A woman’s real happiness and real fulfillment come from within the home with her husband and children,” she says. President and Mrs. Reagan have a daughter, Patricia Ann, and a son, Ronald Prescott.
While her husband was Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, she worked with numerous charitable groups. She spent many hours visiting veterans, the elderly, and the emotionally and physically handicapped. These people continued to interest her as First Lady. She gave her support to the Foster Grandparent Program, the subject of her 1982 book, To Love A Child. Increasingly, she concentrated on the fight against drug and alcohol abuse among young people. She visited prevention and rehabilitation centers, and in 1985 she held a conference at the White House for First Ladies of 17 countries to focus international attention on this problem.
Mrs. Reagan shared her lifelong interest in the arts with the nation by using the Executive Mansion as a showcase for talented young performers in the PBS television series “In Performance at the White House.” In her first year in the mansion she directed a major renovation of the second- and third-floor quarters.
While living in retirement in California, Nancy continued to work on her campaign to teach children to “just say no” to drugs. In her book My Turn, published in 1989, she gave her own account of her life in the White House. Through the joys and sorrows of those days, including the assassination attempt on her husband, Nancy Reagan held fast to her belief in love, honesty, and selflessness. “The ideals have endured because they are right and are no less right today than yesterday.”
Nancy Reagan died at home in Los Angeles on March 6, 2016. She is buried alongside her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Nancy Davis Reagan’s spouse, Ronald Reagan.