Nancy Reagan, the former US first lady most famous for her “Just Say No” anti-drugs campaign, has died at her home in Los Angeles, aged 94.
Formerly an actress, she married the late Ronald Reagan in 1952 and went on to be the first lady of California and later the US. After leaving the White House in 1989, the couple settled in the Bel Air neighbourhood of LA, where Mrs Reagan died of congestive heart failure on Sunday.
Born Anne Robbins in 1921 in Queens, New York – to Kenneth, a car salesman, and Edith, an actress – Mrs Reagan spent six years of her childhood living with an aunt in Maryland after her parents divorced. Her mother’s second husband, Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, adopted Nancy in 1938.
As Nancy Davis, she too became an actress, first on Broadway and then in Hollywood, where she landed a contract with MGM Studios in 1949. Yet two years later, to her horror, her name appeared in a newspaper on a list of alleged Communist sympathisers.
She requested a meeting with Ronald Reagan, then the president of the Screen Actors Guild, who said she had been mistaken for another actress of the same name. Mr Reagan, recently divorced from the actress Jane Wyman, fell in love, and he and Nancy were married the following year.
The couple had two children, Patricia and Ronald, Jr, and appeared together in Mrs Reagan’s eleventh and final film, the 1956 World War II submarine movie Hellcats of the Navy.
Mrs Reagan was soon swept up in her husband’s political ambitions, and during his tenure as the Republican Governor of California, from 1967 to 1975, she threw herself into causes including the welfare of Vietnam veterans.
When Mr Reagan was elected President in 1980, she turned her attentions to drug abuse prevention and education, particularly among young people. By the end of his two terms, her “Just Say No” campaign had created 12,000 anti-drug youth clubs across the US and beyond.
The campaign became global, and in October 1988, just three months before leaving the White House, Mrs Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the issue, calling on the international community to enforce drug laws.
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Known as one of the most involved of first ladies, Mrs Reagan is credited with persuading her husband to begin the negotiations with the Soviet Union that would lead to the end of the Cold War. “For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does,” she said later.
Though she topped an annual Gallup poll of the world’s most admired women several times, Mrs Reagan suffered plenty of criticism as first lady. In the midst of a recession, she spent lavishly on redecorating the White House interiors, famously ordering more than $200,000 (£140,500) of china.
She was also mocked for consulting an astrologer after her husband was shot during a 1981 assassination attempt. She explained the decision in her 1989 memoir My Turn, writing: “Astrology was simply one of the ways I coped with the fear I felt after my husband almost died.”
At the end of President Reagan’s second term, the couple returned to Los Angeles, taking up residence in Bel Air, where their neighbours included several other Hollywood stars of their generation, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Stack.
Mr Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, and the fiercely loyal Mrs Reagan spent much of her time caring for him until his death in 2004. She was a staunch advocate for stem cell research, which promised a cure for the disease and put her in opposition to Republican party orthodoxy.
A devoted wife for 52 years, and a devoted widow thereafter, Mrs Reagan once said: “My life really began when I married my husband.” She is survived by her two children and a stepson, Michael.
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