Nancy Reagan — the obscure Hollywood starlet who became First Lady of the United States and implored a generation of young Americans to “Just Say No” to drugs — died Sunday morning at 94.
She died in Bel Air of congestive heart failure, according to the Reagan Foundation, and had been fighting failing health for years. She will be buried next to her husband, President Ronald Reagan, at his Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Her death drew an immediate outpour from politicians and admirers online.
“Nancy Reagan was one of my heroes. She served as First Lady with unbelievable power, class and grace and left her mark on the world,” Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted.
“She’s with her Ronnie now, but those of us she left behind will miss her dearly.”
One of the most hands-on First Ladies the nation has ever known, she controlled the schedule of her husband, President Ronald Reagan, and influenced White House staff appointments and firings. She even consulted an astrologer for divine guidance.
“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 once famously said.
Rarely was she not by the side of her “Ronnie” as he morphed from actor to California governor and two-term commander-in-chief.
“I more than love you, I’m not whole without you,” Ronald Reagan wrote in a letter to his wife on their 31st wedding anniversary. “When you’re are gone I’m waiting for you to return so I can start living again.”
During their nearly 52 years of marriage, Nancy Reagan endured a battle with breast cancer, high-profile estrangements from their children, an assassination attempt on her husband’s life and the Alzheimer’s disease that robbed him of his mind.
“My life really began when I married my husband,” she once said.
Born Nancy Robbins on July 6, 1921, at Sloane Hospital, in Flushing, Queens, her mother, Edith, was a socialite and actress while her father, Kenneth Robbins, was a used car salesman.
She was only 6 years old when her parents divorced. Her mother, busy pursuing a theatrical career in New York City, sent her to live with an aunt and uncle, Virginia and Audley Galbraith, in Bethesda, Maryland.
When her mother married neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, he legally adopted young Nancy, who took his last name and considered him her true father.
Nancy Reagan is the only First Lady to be legally adopted.
As a girl, she attended the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and the Girl’s Latin School in Chicago.
In 1943, she graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., earning a bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts.
Nancy Davis briefly worked as a sales clerk at the Marshall Fields Department store in Chicago and as a nurse’s aid. But she seized the opportunity to act when, through the help of her mother’s connections, she won a non-speaking part in the play “Ramshackle Inn,” which eventually landed on Broadway.
She moved to New York City to chase her theatrical dreams, scoring a minor role in the musical “Lute Song,” starring Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.
In 1949, Hollywood came calling and she inked a seven year contract with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio. The first of her 11 feature films was titled “The Doctor and the Girl.”
Distressed at seeing her name on a list of suspected Communist sympathizers published in the Hollywood Reporter, the then 26-year-old Nancy requested a meeting with Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan, then 38, in hopes he would help clear her name.
Reagan, who had just divorced actress Jane Wyman, took the young actress out to a dinner that lasted until 3 a.m.
“I don’t know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close,” Nancy would later say.
When they where married on March 6, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in North Hollywood, Nancy Reagan was already pregnant with their first child, Patti.
She struggled to maintain her acting career, filming “Hellcats of the Navy” in 1956, the only movie she and her husband would star in together. It would be Nancy’s last movie.
In May 1958, she gave birth to a son, Ron Jr. She was also busy being stepmother to Reagan and Wyman’s daughter, Maureen, and their adopted son, Michael.
Ronald Reagan made the leap to Republican politics, winning the California gubernatorial race in 1967 over two-term Democratic incumbent Edmund G. Pat Brown.
As First Lady of the Golden State, Nancy Reagan tackled causes, such as welfare and the care of wounded Vietnam veterans. She also penned a syndicated newspaper column and donated her salary to the National League of POW/MIA Families.
She helped Ronald Reagan win reelection in 1971.
With the country reeling from a recession and the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan, who left the Governor’s office in 1975, accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States.
With Nancy by his side, Reagan won a landslide election and made Democrat Jimmy Carter a one-term president. At the age of 59, Nancy Reagan became the First Lady of the United States and the most fashionable since Jacqueline Kennedy.
Dressed by famed designers, including Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, Nancy Reagan rubbed the public, still smarting from economic woes, the wrong way.
She was widely denounced for ordering $209,508 worth of China and embarking on private fund-raising campaign to redecorate and renovate the White House.
By the end of 1981, she had the lowest approval rating of any modern First Lady and was depicted by critics as “Queen Nancy.”