Photography: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation
Photography: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation

The former first lady was an inspiration to the great love of her life, Ronald Reagan.

As often has been remarked by their many friends, associates, and admirers, Ronald and Nancy Reagan lived a real-life love story. But their first encounter had more to do with politics than passion.

She was Nancy Davis, an up-and-coming MGM contract player, when she met with Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, in 1950 to discuss a pressing problem: Her name had been erroneously included in a published list of suspected communist sympathizers, and she feared, with ample cause, that her promising career might be cut short by blacklisting.

They discussed the matter over dinner. And during the meal, she wrote years later, she realized “he was everything that I wanted.”

Nancy Davis Reagan — who passed away Sunday at age 94 — married Ronald Reagan two years later, on March 4, 1952. As actors, they made only one movie together: Hellcats of the Navy (1957), a 1957 drama about World War II submarine warfare. But their affectionate and enduring partnership helped propel Ronald Reagan to a superstardom that had nothing to do with Hollywood make-believe. “Without Nancy,” the late Michael K. Deaver, a close friend of the Reagans, once observed, “there would have been no Governor Reagan, no President Reagan.”

(C&I readers, take note: Before ending her acting career in the early 1960s, Nancy Reagan appeared as a guest star in a handful of TV westerns, including Wagon Train, The Tall Man, and, in an episode directed by Budd Boetticher that cast her opposite her husband, Zane Grey Theater.)

At the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in January 1989, the couple hoped to continue their storybook romance by living happily ever after in Los Angeles. But in 1994, The New York Times reported, “the former president learned he had Alzheimer’s disease and announced the diagnosis to the American people in a poignant letter, which Mrs. Reagan had helped him write.

“For the next decade, Mrs. Reagan conducted what she described in Newsweek as ‘10 years of exacting caregiving, hurried lunches with friends,’ and ‘hours spent with old love letters and powerful advocacy for new research into cures for the disease that was taking Ronnie from her.’”

After her husband’s death in June 2004, Nancy Reagan devoted herself to preserving his legacy — especially at the Ronald Reagan Library and Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California. She also was a tireless spokesperson and champion for Alzheimer’s patients, raising millions of dollars for research and risking controversy by advocating stem cell studies.

In an official joint statement released Sunday, President Barack Obama and Michele Obama praised Nancy Reagan as an American original — and a personal inspiration. “Nancy Reagan once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House," the Obamas said. “She was right, of course.  But we had a head start, because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice.

“Our former first lady redefined the role in her time here. Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives. ... [W]e remain grateful for Nancy Reagan's life, thankful for her guidance, and prayerful that she and her beloved husband are together again.”