Nancy Reagan, the actress-turned-first lady who led the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 1980s and kept working to prevent drug abuse after leaving the White House, has died of congestive heart failure. She was 94 years old.
Born Anne Frances Robbins, the wife of President Ronald Reagan starred in films such as “Night Into Morning” (1951) and “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), in which she appeared with her husband.
According to a statement from a Reagan Foundation spokesperson, Mrs. Reagan will be interred beside the president at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Reagan was born in Queens, New York, in 1921, and was nicknamed “Nancy” by her mother at an early age. After her parents split, she was cared for by her aunt and their family while her mother, acclaimed stage actress Edith, traveled with the theater.
Anne Frances Robbins became Nancy Davis when her mother remarried. After having pursued her own acting career, she moved to Hollywood in 1949 when she was invited by MGM for a screen test after appearing in a television production of “Ramshackle Inn.” She signed a seven-year contract with the studio shortly thereafter.
Nancy Davis’ first big screen role came in the B movie “Death in the Doll’s House,” the first of 11 films in which she appeared from 1949 to 1957. Others included “The Next Voice You Hear…” (1950), “Night Into Morning” (1951), and “Donovan’s Brain” (1953).
During the Red Scare of the post-WWII era, a Hollywood trade released a list of suspected communist sympathizers that included Davis. Director Mervyn LeRoy suggested enlisting the help of Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan in the quest to clear her name. After meeting to discuss the matter, the two were engaged within two years.
When Ronald Reagan’s acting career began to fade, he turned to the public speaking circuit, traveling the country for various business groups and — thanks to his increasingly political speeches — conservative organizations. After delivering a now-famous speech on national television in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, a group of wealthy Republicans prevailed upon Ronald Reagan to run for governor of California in 1966. He won, with Nancy often campaigning on his behalf.
After Reagan’s second term as governor, the two returned to private life in Los Angeles. Reagan sought the presidency in 1976, but lost to incumbent Gerald Ford. In 1980, he beat Democratic incumbent Jimmy
Nancy made one of her first priorities as First Lady the restoration of the White House, seeking private funding given the nation’s economic woes. She came under criticism for the expense of the Reagans’ White House china which, while paid for by private donors, cost more than twice as much as the previous service.
Reagan was a style icon as First Lady, routinely wearing fashions by James Galanos, Oscar de la Renta, Adolfo, Bill Blass and David Hayes, most often in red, which became her signature color. She again was subject to criticism for accepting thousands of dollars in clothing, which a spokesperson at the time claimed was simply loaned in an effort to promote the American fashion industry. Reagan eventually abandoned the practice amid the scrutiny.
In 1982, Nancy Reagan undertook her best-known initiative. She said the “Just Say No” campaign got its name when a young girl asked, “What do you do if somebody offers you drugs?”
The campaign spread from PSAs to bumper stickers to sitcoms aimed at young Americans.
The simplicity of the message led to criticism that it ignored the role of factors like poverty and lack of opportunity in the proliferation of drugs. As a result, some critics upbraided the first lady as out of touch and unaware of harsh realities.
In 1987, Reagan was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a mastectomy. Analysis revealed that the tumor, while malignant, had not spread.
Following the completion of her husband’s second term in office and Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, Nancy Reagan remained selectively involved in public life. She founded the Nancy Reagan Foundation, dedicated to the issue of substance abuse, in 1989.
Later, she broke with GOP orthodoxy following her husband’s death in 2004 on funding for embryonic stem cell research, for which she unsuccessfully sought support from President George W. Bush.
Nancy Reagan is survived by her daughter, Patti, and son, Ronald Jr.