Nancy, Loyal Davis, Charlotte Gailbraith. 1928

Nancy Reagan (July 6, 1921-March 6, 2016) was a film and television actress, mother, second wife of President Ronald Reagan, First Lady of California and the United States, and involved in multiple charities

Nancy Davis Reagan (Anne Frances “Nancy” Robbins) was born on July 6, 1921 in New York City, the only child of Kenneth Seymour Robbins and Edith Prescott Luckett.  Her parents separated shortly after her birth. After the separation, Edith continued pursuing her acting career, and eventually placed two- year-old Nancy in the care of her sister and brother-in-law Virginia and Audley Gailbraith in Bethesda, Maryland.  Nancy lived with the Gailbraiths for the next six years.

Edith Luckett remarried in 1929 to Loyal Edward Davis, a prominent neurosurgeon from Chicago, Illinois. Mother and daughter reunited in Chicago where Nancy attended school and grew into a young woman. Dr. Davis, who died August 19, 1982 was Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University after serving as Professor of Surgery there for more than 30 years. Edith Luckett Davis went on to serve with many charitable organizations. She died October 26, 1987 at the Davis's retirement home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Nancy Reagan enjoyed a close relationship with her stepfather, and always considered him her father.  Loyal Davis formally adopted Nancy when she was a teenager. Anne Francis Robbins legally became Nancy Davis at this time. 

Nancy Davis graduated from Chicago's Girls' Latin School. After graduation she attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she majored in English and Drama.  She graduated in 1943 and then pursued a professional acting career. 

Nancy Davis publicity shot

In her acting career, Nancy Davis worked in stage, film, and television productions.  Her stage performances ranged from summer stock to road tours to Broadway.  In 1949 she signed a seven-year contract with MGM.  She made eleven films in all, including three after her marriage and many television appearances up to her retirement in 1962.  She and her husband, actor Ronald Reagan, appeared together in her last film, Hellcats of the Navy, 1956. 

Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagan were "set up" on a dinner date to discuss some problems she was having with another Screen Actors Guild (SAG) actress with the same name. The other Nancy Davis was associated with Communist front groups and was in danger of being blacklisted in the 1950s. Nancy asked for help with this problem from Ronald Reagan, SAG Board member. They began dating and after a nearly two year courtship were married on March 4, 1952 at The Little Brown Church in the San Fernando Valley, California. It was her first and only marriage and Reagan's second marriage. He had previously been married to actress Jane Wyman and they had two children, Maureen and Michael. Together the Reagans had two children, Patricia Ann Reagan (Patti Davis) born on October 21, 1952 and Ronald Prescott Reagan (Ron Reagan) born on May 20, 1958.

Ronald Reagan ran successfully for Governor of California in 1966 and Mrs. Reagan became the First Lady of California when he was sworn-in in January 1967. Nancy Reagan began some of her more public charitable work at this time starting with regular visits to wounded Vietnam War veterans, hospitals and homes for the elderly, and schools for physically and emotionally handicapped children. She became active in projects concerning prisoners of war (POWs) and servicemen missing in action.  She wrote a syndicated column, often commenting on this issue and donating her salary to the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. 

Nancy Reagan at a Foster Grandparents event. 1976

During one of her visits to the elderly in 1967, Mrs. Reagan observed participants in the Foster Grandparent Program.  This program brings together senior citizens and handicapped children, and she soon became its champion.  Later, as First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Reagan continued to help expand the program on a national level and promote private funding in local communities.  With Jane Wilkie, she co-authored a book, To Love a Child, about the Foster Grandparent program. Songwriters Hal David and Joe Raposo wrote and dedicated a song to Mrs. Reagan entitled, "To Love a Child." 

The Reagans entered the White House in January 1981 and First Lady Nancy Reagan's special project was fighting drug and alcohol abuse among youth.  To spotlight the problem, she traveled nearly 250,000 miles throughout the United States and several countries in conjunction with her campaign to fight substance abuse.  She appeared on television talk shows, taped public service announcements, wrote guest articles and visited prevention programs and rehabilitation centers across the country to talk with young people and their parents. 

In April 1985 Mrs. Reagan expanded her drug awareness campaign to an international level by inviting First Ladies from around the world to attend a two-day briefing in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, on the subject of youth drug abuse.  During the 40th Anniversary of The United Nations in 1985, Mrs. Reagan hosted 30 First Ladies for a second international drug conference.  She was also the first American First Lady to address the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly whose meeting she attended in October 1988. 

Mrs. Reagan loved entertaining, home decoration and fashion. For years, she appeared in public in elegant and expensive clothing. This continued into the White House. The nation was suffering from a deep recession when the Reagan Administration began and the image of sophistication and wealth the First Lady exhibited seemed, at best, as insensitive to the sufferings of many Americans. This image, along with controversies over the cost of her White House redecoration and ordering of a very expensive set of china for the White House - all paid for with donated funds - created a difficult image for the First Lady in her first years. Then Mrs. Reagan acknowledged that designers were lending her designer clothing. After two years of criticism on these issues, the First Lady appeared at the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington, DC poking fun at her image in a mismatched wardrobe performing a musical parody of "Second Hand Rose" entitled "Second Hand Clothes." The moment was a huge hit with the press and public alike. While her image would remain a problem throughout the Reagan Administration, it became less of a controversy from this moment.

In spite of the controversies, she had many admirers. In each Annual Gallup Poll from 1981 to 1989, the American public voted Mrs. Reagan one of the ten most admired women in the world, and in 1981, 1985, and 1987, voted her number one.  

In October 1987, a mammogram detected a lesion in Nancy Reagan's left breast, and it was cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy on October 17, 1987. Mrs. Reagan chose to share her diagnosis and treatment with the public, and became an advocate for early detection.

After leaving the White House Mrs. Reagan established the Nancy Reagan Foundation to continue her campaign to educate people about the serious dangers of substance abuse.  In 1994, the Nancy Reagan Foundation joined forces with the BEST Foundation For A Drug-Free Tomorrow and developed the Nancy Reagan Afterschool Program, a drug prevention and life-skills program for youth.  Mrs. Reagan continued to travel domestically and internationally, speaking out on the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol. 

In October of 1989, Mrs. Reagan's memoir, My Turn, was published by Random House.  In 1994, Ronald Reagan announced his retirement from public life due to his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

In her remaining years, Mrs. Reagan devoted her time to projects related to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. She served on the Board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to developing and fostering President Reagan’s central beliefs: preserving individual liberty, promoting economic opportunity, advancing democracy around the world, and instilling pride in our national heritage.

Mrs. Reagan celebrated her great love affair with President Ronald Reagan by publishing, I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan,in 2000. The book was a light biography of their life together interspersed with the loving letters and other correspondence between the President and his First Lady.

While active in these areas, most of her time from 1994 until his death in 2004 was as the main caregiver to President Ronald Reagan and his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. The world watched this devoted couple deal courageously and honestly with Reagan’s decline and eventual death.

After the death of President Reagan, Mrs. Reagan actively worked with the national Alzheimer’s Association and its affiliate, the Ronald & Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago, Illinois. She became an outspoken proponent of stem cell research as a possible cure or treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. She lobbied President George W Bush directly about federal funding for stem cell research and was influential in Bush’s decision to do a limited ban on federal funding. Her son, Ron Reagan, later addressed the Democratic National Convention urging federal support for stem cell research.

Nancy Reagan continued to work to support the legacy of President Reagan, accepting awards on his behalf and working with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth on February 6, 2011. Her health declined with a series of falls at her home that resulted in broken bones. She died of consumptive heart failure at her Bel Air, California home on March 6, 2016. She was 94.

Nancy Davis Reagan is buried on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library grounds next to her husband, President Ronald Reagan.

From the Archives

Reagan's Governor's [California] Papers: Research Unit Biographies - Ronald Reagan & Nancy Reagan
1984 Presidential Campaign Papers Reagan, Mrs. [Nancy] - Bio
Correspondence, Office of White House: RecordsBiography - Nancy Reagan
Dolan, Anthony "Tony" R.: Files (Speechwriting)Nancy Reagan Biography - 05/28/1981