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An association for alumni and supporters of The Daily Texan

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Tumulty on Nancy Reagan: More than a love story; a partnership that made Reagan President

Editor’s note: Below is information about Daily Texan and UT graduate Karen Tumulty’s critically-acclaimed biography of Nancy Reagan. In addition, here is a link to an except in The Washington Post about Mrs. Reagan’s critical role in the White House, and Tumulty’s new book.


With this definitive biography of the fiercely vigilant and politically astute First Lady, Washington Post political columnist Karen Tumulty shows how Nancy Reagan shaped one of the most consequential presidencies of the 20th century, and made herself a place in history. Tumulty spent four years interviewing the people who knew this couple best and draws on overlooked archives, letters, memoirs, White House records–going as far back as a composition that Nancy wrote as a kindergartener. Seamlessly blending history and new reporting, THE TRIUMPH OF NANCY REAGAN (on sale April 13, 2020; Simon & Schuster) is the most extensive biography of Nancy Reagan yet.

Tumulty, a University of Texas graduate, former staffer at The Daily Texan and an inductee into The Daily Texan Hall of Fame, argues that the made-in-Hollywood marriage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan is more than a love story—it is the partnership that made him president. Wielding the “power of intimacy,” Tumulty shows how Nancy exercised an influence unlike any first lady before or since. She was a fearless, designer-clad “street fighter,” in the words of biographer Edmund Morris, willing to do the “nasty business,” including dispensing with anyone who stood in the way of her husband’s success. Of the pair, Nancy was the one with the sharper instincts about people and the superior radar for trouble. The public perception of Nancy during Reagan’s presidency was that she was either a socialite whose priority at the White House was picking the china, or a power-hungry witch who delighted in firing the people who defied her.

But Nancy Reagan was far more complicated, and far more influential than history has so frequently written her. The only person in the world to whom Ronald Reagan felt truly close, Nancy understood how to foster his strengths and compensate for his weaknesses. Without her, Ronnie, a washed-up movie actor, could never have become governor of California, much less the president who would shape politics for a generation.

A painful childhood

Nancy Davis suffered lifelong scars due to her early abandonment by her mother, Edith Luckett. As Nancy’s son, Ron, told Tumulty: “It was a crucial moment in my mother’s life, and one that she never really got over.… She suffered from a kind of separation anxiety ever since and was very concerned about being left—being abandoned—her whole life.”

Karen Tumulty

Born in New York City in 1921, Nancy was the product of a broken marriage. After her parents separated, she lived in Maryland with her aunt and uncle while her mother pursued her acting career. When her mother remarried in 1929, Nancy moved to Chicago and it was there that she spent most of her youth. Nancy worshipped her stepfather, the stern and demanding neurosurgeon, Dr. Loyal Davis, and she strove to win his approval, even going so far as to arrange her own adoption by him when she was a teenager.

In the union of her mother and stepfather, a pattern for the Reagans’ own marriage emerges. It was Edith who engineered the couple’s rise into the most rarefied circles of Chicago society. As such, Nancy grew up around some of the most famous figures of the 1920s and 1930s: her godmother Alla Nazimova, the most highly paid silent-screen actress in the world; Spencer Tracy; Walter Huston; Colleen Moore, the flapper who according to F. Scott Fitzgerald was the torch that lit the “flaming youth” of the 1920s.

Nancy in Hollywood

Following her graduation from Smith College and with the help of her mother’s powerful friends, Nancy moved west to Hollywood, signing with the legendary star-making factory, MGM. (MGM’s commitment to Nancy Davis was one reason the studio passed on offering a contract to a young actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe.) Seventy years before the #MeToo movement, we see a glimpse of the reality for women in film: Nancy’s career is advanced by her relationship with the studio’s casting director, who is known for running the hottest “casting couch” in Tinseltown.

But her trove of breathless studio-engineered press clippings notwithstanding, Nancy’s career never takes off, and she begins to focus on what she really wants in life: a newly and unhappily divorced actor named Ronald Reagan.  Tumulty shows how Nancy senses the dark forces that shape his solitary and remote nature, but sets her sights on him nonetheless. They have what Nancy considered to be a frustrating on-again, off-again courtship, and by the time he finally commits to her, she is already pregnant.

The tumultuous early years of the Reagan’s marriage

The early years of their marriage see the Reagans hit bottom, professionally and financially, and Ronnie is finally forced to take a humiliating gig as the emcee of a Las Vegas floor show. But the Reagans become bound together emotionally, a story that is told most powerfully in Ronnie’s passionate letters to his wife. He finds a lucrative new role as a TV pitchman, and the Reagans are portrayed as the ideal mid-century family. The reality is anything but. Nancy is on her own with her small children during Ronnie’s long absences. Her insecurities turn the “dream house” that General Electric builds them into a battle zone. She physically abuses her chief nemesis, her headstrong daughter Patti, and develops a prescription drug habit that continues through her White House years and beyond.

Tumulty’s research reveals new details about the deep dysfunction of the Reagan family, including Nancy’s relationship with her neglected stepchildren, Maureen and Michael. By the end of her life, her relationship with Michael is so fraught that she fears for her safety, and the Secret Service stations an agent nearby when he visits her home in California.

Nancy’s rough entry into politics:

Tumulty traces Nancy’s path from young housewife to First Lady of California—and then of the country, detailing how Nancy built the scaffolding for her husband’s rise. As Ronnie became the voice of a new conservative movement, Nancy was the one who cultivated a social network of benefactors, who ultimately pressed him to run for governor.

But Nancy’s entry into the political world could hardly have been rougher. She was ill-equipped for a new kind of spotlight, one that accentuated every flaw. Her husband’s advisers tired of her constant phone calls (at one point, a switchboard operator in his California campaign headquarters neglected to put her on hold before announcing “the bitch in on the line”). But she also developed from a disruptive presence into a shrewd political strategist, willing to do the tough things that her amiable husband was not.

The White House years:

When Reagan won the 1980 presidential election, it was Nancy who was crucial in shaping his White House team. Nancy’s presence was keenly felt in the West Wing, and she developed alliances with the more moderate of her husband’s top advisers. She engineered the firing and banishment of a string of Ronnie’s right-wing lieutenants and worked to soften the edge of his rhetoric. Tumulty recounts many of these internal battles, including one in which presidential adviser Stu Spencer has to referee an argument over her hatred of his use of the phrase “evil empire” to describe the Soviet Union.

Tumulty also explores key policy areas that Nancy influenced during Reagan’s presidency, most importantly, the warming of relations with the Soviet Union. Tumulty uncovers new details about the internal workings of the Reagan White House in dealing with (or, more accurately, failing to deal with) the AIDS epidemic, and reveals how Nancy almost single-handedly ran the rescue operation during her husband’s most serious crisis, the Iran-contra scandal.

Nancy’s private demons:

If the Reagan White House years were tumultuous politically, they were equally so personally for Nancy. Going as far back as the stressful early years of their marriage in the 1950s, Nancy was dependent on prescription medications, an addiction that persisted while she was in the White House. Her use of these drugs was serious enough to worry at least two of the White House physicians who served under Ronnie. Presidential physician Daniel Ruge became so “nervous and concerned” about her heavy use of medication that he went to the president with a warning that his wife had a problem. It was all the more ironic given her campaign to convince a nation of young people to “just say no” to drugs.

Tumulty also recounts how Nancy suffered from lasting trauma following the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, which led her to put an astrologer in charge of key presidential scheduling decisions. When her use of an astrologer was reported in the press, it would become the most mortifying chapter of Nancy’s years as first lady. Tumulty also explores Nancy’s political and personal feuds, in particular her dislike of the Bushes (especially Barbara).

A sad end to an epic romance:

Tumulty includes many new details of what private life was like for the couple as Ronnie descended deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s disease following his presidency, and which he publically announced in 1994, though his cognitive functioning had been in decline for years prior. Nancy was chief guardian of her husband’s legacy and for all of her vigilance at protecting Ronnie’s image and dignity, the battle against a degenerative disease with no cure was not one she could ultimately win. This was the final chapter of their love story. “They were very short—the golden years,” Nancy said later. “The golden years are when you can sit back, hopefully, and exchange memories. And that’s the worst part about this disease. There’s nobody to exchange memories with, and we had a lot of memories.”

Ronnie died in 2004, and his legacy was left in Nancy’s hands. As Tumulty writes, “Even her harshest critics would acknowledge the grace and determination she would show when her devotion was put to its greatest test. In seeing Nancy’s strength, the nation would gain a new appreciation of her character. Never again would anyone doubt that the adoring gaze she had fixed on her Ronnie for all those years was anything but genuine. She would become one of the most admired women in the country.”

Nancy devoted her remaining years to ensuring that the story history would tell about her husband would be true to his character and his ideals. She was relentless in making sure the Reagan Library and Foundation would have the money to sustain itself indefinitely, and she shepherded the publication of his letters, writings, and diaries.

Nancy died in her sleep of congestive heart failure in 2016. In attendance at her funeral were members of every presidential family of the previous half century. The tributes to Nancy were lovely and funny, each looking at a different facet of her remarkable life. James Baker noted that Nancy was the one who said: “You need to do this, Ronnie. You need to find a way to negotiate with Gorbachev.” Tom Brokaw described her as a woman who was not just the wife of a president “but his best political adviser.” And her once estranged daughter Patti said, “My parents were two halves of a circle, closed tight around a world in which their love for each other was the only sustenance they needed. While they might venture out and include others in their orbit, no one truly crossed the boundary into the space they held as theirs.”



“Luminous… The definitive biography of the woman who drove her husband’s presidential ambitions—a shoo-in for the silver screen.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Washington Post columnist Tumulty debuts with an astute reassessment of former first lady Nancy Reagan, a woman who ‘America never quite figured out.’ … The book’s greatest strength is the nuanced, in-depth portrayal of the Reagans’ relationship and Nancy’s fierce stewardship of her husband’s political goals. The result is a complex and engrossing portrait of one of the 20th century’s most quietly influential political figures.” 

— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Recounts every known detail of this driven, complicated woman’s life…. Expect high demand.”— Booklist (starred review)

“In this riveting, beautifully written portrait, Nancy Reagan assumes her rightful place as her husband’s most powerful and influential advisor. A masterful storyteller, Tumulty captures our interest and our emotions from beginning to end. This work will remain the gold standard of books on First Ladies for generations to come.— Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author of Leadership

“Nancy Reagan was the most influential and complex First Lady of our time. She was guided not by ideology or her own agenda but by one thing: what was best for her husband. With great reporting and insight, Tumulty shows how she shaped his image and his presidency.” — Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of The Code Breaker

“Tumulty has given us a compelling and illuminating portrait of the woman who never faltered in her love for—and protection of—Ronald Reagan. An engaging addition to the literature of the consequential Age of Reagan.” —Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Truth is Marching On

“A brilliant and incandescent biography of one of America’s most influential first ladies. Every chapter shines with fresh vignettes, historical insights, unabashed intimacy, and delightful storytelling. Nancy Reagan always exuded a fierce and clear-eyed pragmatism that got important things accomplished for American democracy. The love story between Ronnie and Nancy is pure magic.” —Douglas Brinkley, Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University and editor of The Reagan Diaries

“Tumulty manages to disclose so much that we didn’t know about her personal demons and her remarkable role as Ronald Reagan’s crucial partner. This is the definitive biography of a woman at the center of American politics for a generation.” —Susan Page, USA Today Washington bureau chief and author of The Matriarch

“The wonderful Karen Tumulty has brought us a shrewd and fascinating portrait, with new revelations and insights, of a glittering and complex figure who was one of the most consequential women in American history.—Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidents of War

 The Triumph of Nancy Reagan

 Karen Tumulty

On Sale 04/13/21

Hardcover ISBN-13: 9781501165191

Hardcover Price: $32.50

Ebook ISBN: 9781501165214