The Death and Funeral of Nancy Reagan

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | March 6, 2016

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She was called Evita, No More Wire Hangers, and the Hairdo with Anxiety: and those were just her White House nicknames. Outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the wife of the most popular president in decades fared even worse. No First Lady in modern times has been so criticized, and disliked, as Nancy Reagan – and, as it turns out, so unfairly. Her contribution to Reagan’s presidency, now known, is saluted for its moderating influence; and her advocacy, post-presidentially, of the controversial use of stem cells in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease – which took, essentially, the last decade of Ronald Reagan’s life – has made her a hero to many. That last campaign, however, was not exactly fought on terra incognita: she was, after all, the daughter of one of the most prominent neurosurgeons in America. But if America ever embraced her, it was during the first months of Reagan’s presidency when, on March 30, 1981, he was shot by an assassin, almost fatally, and she, ever-vigilant, not only oversaw his almost miraculous recuperation, but strove to protect him, as much as possible, from any and all harm.

“When you aren’t there I’m no place, just lost in time & space. I more than love you. I’m not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I’m waiting for you to return so I can start living again.” – Ronald Reagan, March 4, 1983, in a letter to Nancy Reagan, on the occasion of their 31st anniversary.

“Remember, I’m a doctor’s daughter. So obviously I’m interested in all medical things… Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. 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.” – Nancy Reagan

On the 69th day of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, leaving a Washington hotel after an afternoon speaking engagement, a deranged young man, hoping to impress a popular actress, opened fire on the 70-year old president. It only took three seconds between the first pop of gunfire to the door of the presidential limo slamming shut, and from there, just three minutes to the hospital, when it became apparent that Reagan hadn’t, as he thought, broken a rib being pushed to safety. He was, instead, bleeding to death from a gunshot wound.

A mile and a half away, in the third-floor solarium of the White House, Nancy Reagan was talking with her interior decorator and the White House Chef Usher when the head of her Secret Service detail appeared unexpectedly. “There’s been a shooting at the hotel,” he said calmly. “Some people were wounded, but your husband wasn’t hit. Everybody’s at the hospital.” Only the first four words of his message, however, were delivered to her face; the rest were spoken to her back as she rushed for the elevator. “I’m going to the hospital,” she announced. “If you don’t get me a car, I’m going to walk.”

In the trauma bay of the George Washington University Hospital, the president, his skin gray and his lips caked with blood, lay on a gurney, with one lung collapsed and his chest cavity filling with blood. As surgeons frantically prepped him for surgery, Reagan caught the eye of one his secret service agents. “I hope they’re all Republicans,” he joked.

Arriving at the hospital, Nancy Reagan was told the bad news: her husband had been hit, and was about to go into surgery. “I’ve got to see him,” she said, “They don’t know how it is with us. He has to know I’m here!” Waiting in the chaos, she thought about how she had been driving down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles on November 22, 1963, and heard on the car radio that John F. Kennedy had been shot. Now she replayed scenes of Parkland Hospital that day in Dallas – and prayed that this time, history would not repeat itself.

Allowed into the trauma bay, Mrs. Reagan was shocked by her husband’s pallor; the IV-lines stretching from his arms; the oxygen mask over his face – even the shredded new blue suit he’d been wearing, now crumpled in a corner of the room. But Reagan, seeing her, lifted his mask and, reprising a famous remark made by boxer Jack Dempsey when he lost the 1926 heavyweight  championship said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

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Ronald and Nancy Reagan leaving the hospital. Bethesda Hospital. WENN.

The president’s emergency surgery lasted three hours; he’d lost almost half his blood – and the very next day, he was up, signing legislation. Here, five weeks later, he tells his old Hollywood friend, actor Glenn Ford

“I’m feeling fine and even surprising the Dr’s. which makes me feel even better. Nancy sends her love…”

But Reagan’s recovery, while extraordinary, wasn’t that easy, or that fast. It took months and months before he was really himself. And something had changed. He’d faced his mortality, he said, and resolved to do those things that he believed in doing, for whatever time he had left.

Something had changed for Nancy Reagan, too. Always a worrier, now she really had something to worry about:  an attempt on her husband might happen again. She was aware, too, that the world around her was filled with violence. Six weeks after her Ronnie was almost killed, the Pope was also shot and wounded – in St. Peter’s Square! Four months after that, in Cairo, Egyptian president Sadat was assassinated at a military parade. Within nine months of her husband’s inauguration, 3 world leaders had been shot. And that got her thinking…

There was the Zero Factor to consider. No president elected in a year ending in zero had, since 1840, left the presidency alive. William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died in office; Lincoln, elected in 1860, had been assassinated – as were Garfield (1880) and McKinley (1900). Harding too, elected in 1920, died in office; and in Nancy’s own lifetime, Franklin D. Roosevelt (elected 4 times, once in 1940) died in his 4th term, and John F. Kennedy, elected in ’60, was murdered in Dallas. Now her husband, elected in 1980, had almost been killed and – with all these numbers, all these coincidences, all these fears, she turned to astrology for comfort.

Joan Quigley, a San Francisco astrologer with a Hollywood clientele, secretly began to advise Mrs. Reagan on the president’s schedule – what days, astrologically, were good or bad, especially with regard to travel outside of Washington. Somehow, Mrs. Reagan admitted, these prognostications lessened her anxiety about her husband’s Zero Factor fate.  As for Reagan himself, when Nancy finally told him about it, his reply was exactly what she needed to hear. “If it makes you feel better, go ahead and do it.” It did. And Reagan, though having come three minutes away from bleeding to death before doctors could save him, broke the Zero Factor curse…

What Reagan could not be saved from, however, was a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in November 1994. “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience,” he wrote. “When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.” And she did. In fact, her tireless work on behalf of curing Alzheimer’s  Disease – sometimes pitting her against, even, those in her own party – won her, finally, the acclaim of a nation. Her death, 11 years after that of her beloved husband, came two days after what would have been the 64th anniversary of one of the most consequential marriages in American history. Without her influence and support, it is generally ceded, Reagan never would have run for office, or lasted in it.

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“Of all the ways God had blessed me,” Reagan once declared, “giving her to me was the greatest – beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve.” His friends, and his foes, agreed: without Nancy, they said, he never would have been Governor, or President – or even Conservative.  He just said that, without her, he would never have been whole.

They met when he was down, his career failing, his first marriage ended; she, then an actress, was trying to clear up a frustrating clerical matter and he, as the Screen Actor’s Guild President, was approached to help; their first date lasted the rest of their lives. Those are the facts. All the other words, by all the other people, are mere eloquence.

RONALD REAGAN.  1911-2004. The 40th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, no date [May 4, 1981] To the American actor and longtime leading man, Glenn Ford.