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Betty Ford: First Lady whose frankness and humanity won the admiration of America

Jackie Kennedy might have walked into the White House from the pages of Vogue magazine.

Nancy Reagan ruled the place like a queen, while Barbara Bush was America's grandmother. But in terms of engaging and unvarnished humanity, no modern First Lady has come close to Betty Ford.

She was a divorcee, and a passionate advocate of causes that did not sit well with the Republican party of her husband Jerry Ford. Indeed, some of her sympathetic observations on such subjects as abortion, pre-marital sex and women's rights may have contributed to his defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.

While she lived at the White House she had a mastectomy, an ordeal which she was among the first public figures willing to discuss openly. Shortly after the Fords returned to private life in California, she acknowledged her addiction to painkillers and alcohol, after an emotional confrontation with her family. "I was dying," she said years later, "and everyone knew it but me."

But typically, she turned a ghastly personal experience into a support mechanism for others.

A few years later, she co-founded the Betty Ford Centre at Rancho Mirage, near her home at Palm Springs, which soon became one of most esteemed institutions for substance abuse treatment centres in the entire country.

Its patients included Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor (who met her seventh husband Larry Fortensky there). In 1987, she even recounted her experiences in a book, Betty: A Glad Awakening. Just as a decade earlier with breast cancer, she helped countless other addicts to acknowledge their illness and take responsibility for dealing with it.

From the start, the young Elizabeth Bloomer was her own person. Born the third child of a Chicago supply salesman, she studied dance at school, and later under the great Martha Graham. By the age of 20, she had moved to Manhattan to continue working with Graham. To pay for her ballet tuition, she worked as a model, despite opposition from her mother, who wanted her back home – by now in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The two struck a deal: Betty would go back, but for six months only. If she missed dance too much, however, she would return to New York. In the event she stayed, and got married – to a furniture salesman called Bill Warren (again, over the protests of her mother, who objected to the match).

The marriage lasted just five years. Hardly had she obtained a divorce than Betty met a college football star and aspiring congressman named Gerald Rudolph Ford. The couple were married on 15 October 1948. Barely a fortnight later, her new husband won the first of his 14 terms as Congressman representing the Grand Rapids district, and Betty began a new life in Washington.

There she was that era's equivalent of the modern "soccer mom". The Fords quickly began a family, and soon Betty was the typical suburban parent, ferrying her offspring to scouts meetings and little league baseball, dutifully taking part in cookie bakes and finding time to be a pillar of various Congressional wives' clubs.

By this time her husband had become minority leader in the House, a solid, trusted and well-liked performer, but one whom few tipped for further advancement. But then in 1973, just as the Fords were planning retirement, their world was turned upside down. In 1973, vice-president Spiro Agnew was forced to resign, and that 6 December,Richard Nixon picked the unthreatening Gerald Ford as his replacement. The family, however, continued to live at their old home, while the vice-president's official residence at Observatory Circle in north-west Washington was being extensively refurbished.

By this time, however, the Watergate scandal was coming to a climax. On 1 August, 1974, the "smoking gun" tape was published, and Nixon's fate was sealed.

The President's chief of staff, Al Haig, quietly warned Ford, that "You've got to be prepared – things might change dramatically and you could become president."

Ford took his wife aside: "Betty, I don't think we're ever going to live in the vice -president's house." On 9 August, Ford was sworn in as the 38th President. Far from retiring, the Fords were moving to the very top job of all, an accidental President accompanied by his equally accidental First Lady.

In the White House, Betty was very active, very popular and, as always, very outspoken – in complete contrast with the demure and retiring Pat Nixon.

Never short of self confidence, and born with a Midwestern forthrightness, she would speak out – often with humour – on whatever topic she was asked about. After her mastectomy in late 1974, she explained that "if I as First Lady could talk about it candidly and without embarrassment, maybe many other people would be able to as well."

Her frankness did not stop there. In her first interview after her husband became vice-president, she spoke of her "thrill" at the Supreme Court's historic Roe v Wade ruling, enshrining a woman's right to an abortion.

Later she told a TV interviewer that she "wouldn't be surprised" if her unmarried daughter Susan had affairs, and blithely declared that she assumed some of her children had smoked marijuana.

On another occasion, she complained to a well known Washington columnist that about the only question she hadn't been asked was how often she slept with her husband. "Well how often do you?," the columnist inquired. "As often as possible," came the enthusiastic answer. That was typical Betty Ford, the child that her mother once said "popped out of a bottle of champagne".

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer. Born Chicago April 18, 1918. Married 1942 William Warren (divorced 1947). Married Gerald Rudolph Ford 1948 (three sons, one daughter). First Lady of the United States 1974-1977; died 8 July, 2011.