Former first lady Betty Ford dies at 93

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California, died at age 93, a family friend said last night.

Her death yesterday was confirmed by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said later that the former first lady died at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Other details of her death were not immediately available.



Ford's husband, Gerald, died in December 2006.



"She was a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous First Lady," former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement. "No one confronted life's struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced."



Betty Ford had undergone surgery for an undisclosed ailment in April 2007. During and after her years in the White House, 1974 to 1977, Mrs. Ford won acclaim for her candor, wit and courage as she fought breast cancer, severe arthritis and the twin addictions of drugs and alcohol. She also pressed for abortion rights and women's rights.



While her husband served as president, Ford's comments weren't the kind of genteel, innocuous talk expected from a first lady, and a Republican one no less. Her unscripted comments sparked tempests in the press and dismayed President Gerald Ford's advisers, who were trying to soothe the national psyche after Watergate. But to the scandal-scarred, Vietnam-wearied, hippie-rattled nation, Mrs. Ford's openness was refreshing.



And 1970s America loved her for it.



But it was her Betty Ford Center, which rescued celebrities and ordinary people from addiction, that made her famous in her own right.



"People who get well often say, 'You saved my life,' and 'You've turned my life around,"' she recalled. "They don't realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves and that's all."



The former president died December 26, 2006, at age 93. They had been married in 1948, the same year Gerald Ford was elected to Congress.



The Betty Ford Center — although most famous for celebrity patients like Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and Lindsay Lohan — keeps its rates relatively affordable and has served more than 90,000 people.



In a statement yesterday, President Barack Obama said the Betty Ford Center would honor Mrs. Ford's legacy "by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."



"As our nation's First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights," the president said. "After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment."



Candor worked for Betty Ford, again and again. She would build an enduring legacy by opening up the toughest times of her life as public example.



In an era when cancer was discussed in hushed tones and mastectomy was still a taboo subject, the first lady shared the specifics of her breast cancer surgery. The publicity helped bring the disease into the open and inspired countless women to seek breast examinations.



Her most painful revelation came 15 months after leaving the White House, when Mrs. Ford announced that she was entering treatment for a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol. It turned out the famously forthcoming first lady had been keeping a secret, even from herself.



She and her husband had retired to Rancho Mirage, California, after he lost a bruising presidential race to Jimmy Carter in 1976. She went to work on her memoirs, "The Times of My Life," which came out in 1979. But the social whirlwind that engulfed them in Washington was over, and Betty Ford confessed that she missed it.



"We had gone into the campaign to win and it was a great disappointment losing, particularly by such a small margin," she said. "It meant changing my whole lifestyle after 30 years in Washington, and it was quite a traumatic experience."



By 1978, she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. She would later describe herself during that period as "this nice, dopey pill-pusher sitting around and nodding."



"As I got sicker," she recalled, "I gradually stopped going to lunch. I wouldn't see friends. I was putting everyone out of my life." Her children recalled her living in a stupor, shuffling around in her bathrobe, refusing meals in favor of a drink.



Her family finally confronted her in April 1978 and insisted she seek treatment. She credited their "intervention" with saving her life.



"I was stunned at what they were trying to tell me about how I disappointed them and let them down," Ford told The Associated Press in 1994.



"I was terribly hurt — after I had spent all those years trying to be the best mother, wife I could be. ... Luckily, I was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on," she said.



She entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and underwent a grim detoxification, which became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. She saw her recovery as a second chance at life.



"When you come back from something that was as disagreeable and unsettling as my alcoholism, when you come back to health from that, everything is so much more valuable," she said in her book, "A Glad Awakening."



Her own experience, and that of a businessman friend whom she helped save from alcoholism, were the inspiration for the center, located on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center. She helped raise $3 million, lobbied in the state capital for its approval, and reluctantly agreed to let it be named for her.



"The center's name has been burden, as well as honor," she wrote. "Because even if nobody else holds me responsible, I hold myself responsible."



She liked to tell patients, "I'm just one more woman who has had this problem."



Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from the first President Bush in 1991. In 1999 Gerald and Betty Ford both were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.



She continued to be outspoken on public issues, pressing for fellow Republicans to be moderate on social questions. She spoke out in favor of gays in the military in a 1993 Washington Post interview, saying they had been serving for many years.



During the Clinton presidency, Mrs. Ford praised first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying she had been with her at a meeting on health care and found her "courteous, charming, able, attractive. ... She asks good questions. She picked out one of the most demanding roles she possibly could."



In 2005, she was presented with the Gerald R. Ford Medal of Distinguished Public Service from her husband's foundation, telling the gathering that it was "very, very special." She added in her typical candor: "It's kind of all in the family, and I feel a little guilty about it."



Mrs. Ford's first public appearance after her husband's death was in August 2007, when she attended a ceremony near Rancho Mirage as a postage stamp honoring the late president was issued. She did not speak. She had not traveled to Texas for the funeral of Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the previous month.



Mrs. Ford was a free spirit from the start. Elizabeth Bloomer, born April 8, 1918, fell in love with dance as a girl in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and decided it would be her life. At 20, despite her mother's misgivings, she moved to New York City to learn from her idol Martha Graham. She lived in bohemian Greenwich Village, worked as a model, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Graham's modern dance ensemble.



With her gray-green eyes, chestnut hair and stately bearing, she was often described as regal.



After returning to Michigan, where an early marriage to a furniture company representative ended in divorce, she met Gerald Ford, a lawyer just out of the Navy. When he proposed in 1948, she said later, she had no idea he planned a political career.



"I really thought I was marrying a lawyer, and we'd be living in Grand Rapids," she recalled. Then he announced his plan to run for Congress and even made a campaign appearance during their honeymoon.



At the White House, in contrast to the stilted Nixon years, the Fords were known for rollicking parties with popular performers and dancing late into the night. Betty Ford became the first first lady to appear on a TV sitcom, doing a cameo on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." (Moore would later check into the Betty Ford Center for alcohol treatment.)



The Fords' children were in their late teens and early 20s by the time the Fords moved into the White House and only a daughter, Susan, lived there. But they were a close family, gathering at Vail, Colorado, for Christmas skiing vacations.



"When I came to Washington, I saw my job as a supporting wife and mother," Mrs. Ford said. "But I came to feel an emptiness in spite of the fact I was happy. The old term housewife just didn't seem right. That's when I looked for support in my thinking that there must be something more than that. And indeed there is."



Family spokeswoman Lewandrowski the family expects to organize a service in Palm Springs over the next couple days. Ford's body will be sent to Michigan for burial alongside former President Gerald Ford, who is buried at his namesake museum in Grand Rapids.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvSpoiler alert: It has been talked about for months
Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Embedded Linux Engineer - C / C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A well funded smart home compan...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Engineer - Python / Node / C / Go

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: *Flexible working in a relaxed ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Bookkeeper

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This accountancy firm have an e...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Developer / Mobile Apps / Java / C# / HTML 5 / JS

£17000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Junior Mobile Application Devel...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?