Fashionable First Ladies


Nancy Davis Reagan

“My life really began when I married my husband,” says Nancy Reagan, who in the 1950’s happily gave up an acting career for a permanent role as the wife of Ronald Reagan and mother to their children. Her story actually begins in New York City, her birthplace. She was born on July 6, 1921.

When the future First Lady was six, her mother, Edith–a stage actress–married Dr. Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon. Dr. Davis adopted Nancy, and she grew up in Chicago. It was a happy time: summer camp, tennis, swimming, dancing. She received her formal education at Girls’ Latin School and at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in theater.

Soon after graduation she became a professional actress. She toured with a road company, then landed a role on Broadway in the hit musical Lute Song. More parts followed. One performance drew an offer from Hollywood. Billed as Nancy Davis, she performed in 11 films from 1949 to 1956. Her first screen role was in Shadow on the Wall. Other releases included The Next Voice Your Hear and East Side, West Side. In her last movie, Hellcats of the Navy, she played opposite her husband.

Lived: 1921-
Mrs. Ronald Reagan. She had met Ronald Reagan in 1951, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. The following year they were married in a simple ceremony in Los Angeles in the Little Brown Church in the Valley. Mrs. Reagan soon retired from making movies so she “could be the wife I wanted to be…A woman’s real happiness and real fulfillment come from within the home with her husband and children,” she says. President and Mrs. Reagan have a daughter, Patricia Ann, and a son, Ronald Prescott.

While her husband was Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, she worked with numerous charitable groups. She spent many hours visiting veterans, the elderly, and the emotionally and physically handicapped. These people continued to interest her as First Lady. She gave her support to the Foster Grandparent Program, the subject of her 1982 book, To Love A Child. Increasingly, she has concentrated on the fight against drug and alcohol abuse among young people. She visited prevention and rehabilitation centers, and in 1985 she held a conference at the White House for First Ladies of 17 countries to focus international attention on this problem.

Mrs. Reagan shared her lifelong interest in the arts with the nation by using the Executive Mansion as a showcase for talented young performers in the PBS television series “In Performance at the White House.” In her first year in the mansion she directed a major renovation of the second- and third-floor quarters.

Now living in retirement in California, she continues to work on her campaign to teach children to “just say no” to drugs. In her book My Turn, published in 1989, she gives her own account of her life in the White House. Through the joys and sorrows of those days, including the assassination attempt on her husband, Nancy Reagan held fast to her belief in love, honesty, and selflessness. “The ideals have endured because they are right and are no less right today than yesterday.”

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy

The inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 brought to the White House and to the heart of the nation a beautiful young wife and the first young children of a President in half a century.

She was born Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, daughter of John Vernon Bouvier III and his wife, Janet Lee. Her early years were divided between New York City and East Hampton, Long Island, where she learned to ride almost as soon as she could walk. She was educated at the best of private schools; she wrote poems and stories, drew illustrations for them, and studied ballet. Her mother, who had obtained a divorce, married Hugh D. Auchincloss in 1942 and brought her two girls to “Merrywood,” his home near Washington, D.C., with summers spent at his estate in Newport, Rhode Island. Jacqueline was dubbed “the Debutante of the Year” for the 1947-1948 season, but her social success did not keep her from continuing her education. As a Vassar student she traveled extensively, and she spent her junior year in France before graduating from George Washington University. These experiences left her with a great empathy for people of foreign countries, especially the French.

In Washington she took a job as “inquiring photographer” for a local newspaper. Her path soon crossed that of Senator Kennedy, who had the reputation of being the most eligible bachelor in the capital. Their romance progressed slowly and privately, but their wedding at Newport in 1953 attracted nationwide publicity.

Lived: 1929-1994
Mrs. John F. Kennedy. With marriage “Jackie” had to adapt herself to the new role of wife to one of the country’s most energetic political figures. Her own public appearances were highly successful, but limited in number. After the sadness of a miscarriage and the stillbirth of a daughter, Caroline Bouvier was born in 1957; John Jr. was born between the election of 1960 and Inauguration Day. Patrick Bouvier, born prematurely on August 7, 1963, died two days later.

To the role of First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy brought beauty, intelligence, and cultivated taste. Her interest in the arts, publicized by press and television, inspired an attention to culture never before evident at a national level. She devoted much time and study to making the White House a museum of American history and decorative arts as well as a family residence of elegance and charm. But she defined her major role as “to take care of the President” and added that “if you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”

Mrs. Kennedy’s gallant courage during the tragedy of her husband’s assassination won her the admiration of the world. Thereafter it seemed the public would never allow her the privacy she desired for herself and her children. She moved to New York City; and in 1968 she married the wealthy Greek businessman, Aristotle Onassis, 23 years her senior, who died in March 1975. From 1978 until her death in 1994, Mrs. Onassis worked in New York City as an editor for Doubleday. At her funeral her son described three of her attributes: “love of words, the bonds of home and family, and her spirit of adventure.”

Dolley Payne Todd Madison

For half a century she was the most important woman in the social circles of America. To this day she remains one of the best known and best loved ladies of the White House–though often referred to, mistakenly, as Dorothy or Dorothea.

She always called herself Dolley, and by that name the New Garden Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, in Piedmont, North Carolina, recorded her birth to John and Mary Coles Payne, settlers from Virginia. In 1769 John Payne took his family back to his home colony, and in 1783 he moved them to Philadelphia, city of the Quakers. Dolley grew up in the strict discipline of the Society, but nothing muted her happy personality and her warm heart.

John Todd, Jr., a lawyer, exchanged marriage vows with Dolley in 1790. Just three years later he died in a yellow-fever epidemic, leaving his wife with a small son.

Lived: 1768-1849
Mrs. James Madison. By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. With her charm and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin, and black curls, the young widow attracted distinguished attention. Before long Dolley was reporting to her best friend that “the great little Madison has asked…to see me this evening.”

Although Representative James Madison of Virginia was 17 years her senior, and Episcopalian in background, they were married in September 1794. The marriage, though childless, was notably happy; “our hearts understand each other,” she assured him. He could even be patient with Dolley’s son, Payne, who mishandled his own affairs–and, eventually, mismanaged Madison’s estate.

Discarding the somber Quaker dress after her second marriage, Dolley chose the finest of fashions. Margaret Bayard Smith, chronicler of early Washington social life, wrote: “She looked a Queen…It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did.”

Blessed with a desire to please and a willingness to be pleased, Dolley made her home the center of society when Madison began, in 1801, his eight years as Jefferson’s Secretary of State. She assisted at the White House when the President asked her help in receiving ladies, and presided at the first inaugural ball in Washington when her husband became Chief Executive in 1809.

Dolley’s social graces made her famous. Her political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia, warrior chiefs from the west, flustered youngsters–she always welcomed everyone. Forced to flee from the White House by a British army during the War of 1812, she returned to find the mansion in ruins. Undaunted by temporary quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.

At their plantation Montpelier in Virginia, the Madisons lived in pleasant retirement until he died in 1836. She returned to the capital in the autumn of 1837, and friends found tactful ways to supplement her diminished income. She remained in Washington until her death in 1849, honored and loved by all. The delightful personality of this unusual woman is a cherished part of her country’s history.

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