If there was one trait that Nancy and Ronald Reagan shared, it was a tendency to airbrush reality when it didn’t fit the story they wanted to tell of their lives.
The failed and ill-considered campaign that he ran for the 1968 Republican nomination? Never happened, they both insisted—though at one point California’s new governor was traveling the country on a chartered 727 with 40 members of the press in tow, seeking backers and delegates. “Ronnie never sought the nomination in 1968,” Nancy wrote in her 1980 memoir, saying the episode was “more misrepresented than almost anything Ronnie has ever done.” For his part, Reagan claimed, preposterously, that running for president that year “was the last thing on my mind.”
Among the most crucial things to understand about Nancy in particular are her painful early years, and especially her abandonment by her actress mother, Edith Luckett. She and Kenneth Robbins, an unsuccessful car salesman, had eloped after a two-month courtship in 1916. By the time Nancy was born, in New York in 1921, the marriage was effectively over; Kenneth was not present for the arrival of Anne Frances Robbins at Manhattan’s Sloane Hospital. The child was nicknamed Nancy from the start, and as soon as she was out of diapers, Edith left her in the care of relatives in Maryland, so that she could pursue her career and her busy social life.
The next six years left a shadow on Nancy’s spirit that never lifted. They helped explain so much about her nature—her anxiety and insecurity, but also her acute radar about people and her fearlessness when she detected any threat to the happiness and wholeness that she and Ronald Reagan finally found in each other.
This is why she was willing to mow down anyone whose continued presence she viewed as an impediment to her husband, including at one point his White House chief of staff Don Regan. It also makes it easier to understand why she would do something as irrational as turning to an astrologer to determine the schedule of the president of the United States, after she almost lost him to a would-be assassin’s bullet. As her son Ron explained to me in describing his mother’s childhood trauma: “I’m not a psychologist, but I think she suffered from a kind of separation anxiety ever since and was very concerned about being left—being abandoned—her whole life.”
Still, as I was combing the records in the Reagan Library, I was startled to come across her official biography as California First Lady, which wiped her story entirely clean of its complicated beginnings. It began with two lies: “Nancy Davis Reagan was born in Chicago, the only daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Loyal Davis.” But maybe that was simply how she saw it.
Seven-year-old Nancy got a new beginning in the spring of 1929, when Edith arrived in Bethesda to deliver a big announcement. She sat on her daughter’s bed and told her she was getting married. They were moving to Chicago. Together.
So entered the second most important man in Nancy’s life, and the only one she would ever again think of as her father. Loyal Davis was a pioneer in neurosurgery, a field then in its infancy. Nancy once held up her hands during an interview with Reagan biographer Edmund Morris and declared: “I have his hands—surgeon’s hands.” Morris, confused, asked: “You mean your real father, not your stepfather’s?” Nancy became more insistent: “I have my father’s hands.”
Nancy would always say that her mother’s absence in her early years was one of financial necessity, not by Edith’s choice. But her real feelings came through in a speech she gave in 1986 at Boys Town, the famous orphanage in Omaha founded by Father Edward J. Flanagan. The nation’s First Lady was there to receive recognition for her anti-drug advocacy. But she had another message she wanted to deliver to the 430 children there.
“The reason I’m here today is not because of the award, but because of you. There was a time when I didn’t quite know where I belonged, either. What I wished for more than anything else in the world was a normal family,” Nancy said, her voice cracking and her eyes welling. “Do you know what happens when you hurt inside? You usually start closing your heart to people. Because that’s how you got hurt in the first place—you opened your heart. Another thing that happens is that you stop trusting people, because somewhere along the way, they probably didn’t live up to your trust.
“And there’s another thing that happens when you’ve been hurt. You start to think you’re not worth much. You think to yourself, ‘Well, how can I be worth anything, if someone would treat me in this terrible way?’ So I understand why you feel beaten down by it all.”
In that rare moment of candor, Nancy Reagan allowed an audience of children to learn something about her that she kept hidden from the world. It is a shame that she kept her vulnerability locked away. The country might have understood her better, and even come to love her for it.
Karen Tumulty is a political columnist for The Washington Post. Her book, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, is out now from Simon & Schuster