Make-Believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan
I first saw Ronnie and Nancy Reagan at the Republican convention of 1964 in San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Ronnie and Nancy (they are called by these names throughout the book under review) were seated in a box to one side of the central area where the cows—the delegates, that is—were whooping it up. Barry Goldwater was about to be nominated for president. Nelson Rockefeller was being booed not only for his communism but for his indecently uncloseted heterosexuality. Who present that famous day can ever forget those women with blue-rinsed hair and leathery faces and large costume jewelry and pastel-tinted dresses with tasteful matching accessories as they screamed “Lover!” at Nelson? It was like a TV rerun of the Bacchae, with Nelson as Pentheus.
I felt sorry for Nelson. I felt sorry for David Brinkley when a number of seriously overweight Sunbelt Goldwaterites chased him through the kitchens of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. I felt sorry for myself when I, too, had to ward off their righteous wrath: I was there as a television commentator for Westinghouse. I felt sorry for the entire “media” that day as fists were actually shaken at the anchorpersons high up in the eaves of the hall. I felt particularly sorry for the “media” when a former president named Eisenhower, reading a speech with his usual sense of discovery, attacked the press, and the convention hall went mad. At last Ike was giving it to those Commie-wierdo-Jew-fags who did not believe in the real America of humming electric chairs, well-packed prisons, and kitchens filled with every electrical device that a small brown person of extranational provenance might successfully operate at a fraction of the legal minimum wage.
As luck would have it, I stood leaning on the metal railing that enclosed the boxed-in open place where, side by side, Ronnie and Nancy were seated watching Ike. Suddenly, I was fascinated by them. First, there was her furious glare when someone created a diversion during Ike’s aria. She turned, lip curled with Bacchantish rage, huge unblinking eyes afire with a passion to kill the enemy so palpably at hand—or so it looked to me. For all I know she might have been trying out new contact lenses. In any case, I had barely heard of Nancy then. Even so, I said to myself: There is a lot of rage in this little lady. I turned then to Ronnie. I had seen him in the flesh for a decade or so as each of us earned his mite in the Hollyjungle. Ronnie was already notorious for his speeches for General Electric, excoriating communists who were, apparently, everywhere. I had never actually spoken to him at a party because I knew—as who did not?—that although he was the soul of amiability when not excoriating the international monolithic menace of atheistic godless communism, he was, far and away, Hollywood’s most grinding bore—Chester Chatterbox, in fact. Ronnie never stopped talking, even though he never had anything to say except what he had just read in the Reader’s Digest, which he studied the way that Jefferson did Montesquieu. He also told show-biz stories of the sort that overexcites civilians in awe of old movie stars, but causes other toilers in the Industry to stampede.
I had heard that Reagan might be involved in the coming campaign. So I studied him with some care. He was slumped in a folding chair, one hand holding up his chins; he was totally concentrated on Eisenhower. I remember thinking that I had made the right choice in 1959 when we were casting The Best Man, a play that I had written about a presidential convention. An agent had suggested Ronald Reagan for the lead. We all had a good laugh. He is by no means a bad actor, but he would hardly be convincing, I said with that eerie prescience which has earned me the title The American Nostradamus, as a presidential candidate. So I cast Melvyn Douglas, who could have made a splendid president in real life had his career not been rejuvenated by the play’s success, while the actor whom I had rejected had no choice but to get himself elected president. I do remember being struck by the intensity with which Reagan studied Eisenhower. I had seen that sort of concentration a thousand times in half-darkened theaters during rehearsals or Saturday matinees: the understudy examines the star’s performance, and tries to figure how it is done. An actor prepares, I said to myself: Mr. Reagan is planning to go into politics. With his crude charm, I was reasonably certain that he could be elected mayor of Beverly Hills.
In time all things converge. The campaign biography and the movie star’s biography are now interchangeable. The carefully packaged persona of the old-time movie star resembles nothing so much as the carefully packaged persona of today’s politician. Was it not inevitable that the two would at last coincide in one person? That that person should have been Ronald Reagan is a curiosity of more than minor interest. George Murphy had broken the ice, as it were, by getting elected to the Senate from California. Years earlier Orson Welles had been approached about a race for the Senate. Welles is highly political; he is also uncommonly intelligent. “I was tempted, but then I was talked out of it,” he said over lunch—cups of hot butter with marrow cubes at Pat’s Fish House in Hollywood. “Everyone agreed I could never win because I was an actor and divorced.” He boomed his delight.
A journalist named Laurence Leamer has now written a book about Ronnie and Nancy called, nicely, Make-Believe. Since Mr. Leamer is as little interested in politics and history as his two subjects, he is in some ways an ideal chronicler. He loves the kind of gossip that ordinary folks—his subjects and their friends—love. He takes an O’Haran delight in brand names while the “proper” names that are most often seen in syndicated columns ravish him. On the other hand, he is not very interested in the actual way politics, even as practiced by Ronnie, works. Although Reagan’s eight years as governor of California are of some interest, Leamer gets through the-time-in-Sacramento as quickly as possible, with only one reference to Bob Moretti, the Democratic speaker of the assembly who, in effect, ran the state while Ronnie made his speeches around state, country, world on the dangers of communism; and played with his electric trains (something omitted by Mr. Leamer) when he was in town. On the other hand, there are twenty-four references to “wardrobe” in the index. So, perhaps, Mr. Leamer has got his priorities right after all. In any case, he never promised us a Rosebud.
Leamer begins with the inaugural of the fortieth president. First sentence: “On a gilded California day, Ronald and Nancy Reagan left their home for the last time.” That is echt Photoplay and there is much, much more to come. Such lines as: “She had begun dating him when he thought he would never love again.” You know, I think I will have some of those Hydrox cookies after all. “Unlike many of his backers, Ronnie was no snob. He believed that everybody should have his shot at this great golden honeypot of American free enterprise.” The Golden Horde now arrives in Washington for the inaugural. “Ostentatious,” growled that old meanie Barry Goldwater, nose out of joint because the man who got started in politics by giving The Speech for him in 1964 kept on giving The Speech for himself, and so, sixteen years and four wonderful presidents later, got elected Numero Uno.
Leamer tells us about their wardrobes for the great day. Also, “as a teen-ager and a young woman, [Nancy] had had her weight problems, but now at fifty-nine [Leamer finks on Nancy: long ago she sliced two years off her age] she was a perfect size six. Her high cheekbones, huge eyes, delicate features and extraordinary attention to appearance made her lovelier than she had ever been.” According to the testimony of the numerous ill-reproduced photographs in the book, this is quite true. The adventures simply of Nancy’s nose down the years is an odyssey that we Photoplay fans would like to know a lot more about. At first there is a bulb on the tip; then the bulb vanishes but there is a certain thickness around the bridge; then, suddenly, retroussé triumph!
The inaugural turns out to be a long and beautiful commercial to Adolfo, Blass, Saint Laurent, Galanos, de la Renta, and Halston. At one point, Ronnie reads a poem his mother had written; there were “tears in his eyes.” During the ceremonies, Ronnie said later, “It was so hard not to cry during the whole thing.” But then Ronnie had been discovered, groomed, and coiffed, by the brothers Warner who knew how to produce tears on cue with Max Steiner’s ineffable musical scores. So overwhelming was Maestro Steiner that at one point, halfway up the stairs to die nobly in Dark Victory, Bette Davis suddenly stopped and looked down at the weeping director and crew and said, “Tell me now. Just who is going up these Goddamned stairs to die? Me or Max Steiner?”1 She thought the teary music a bit hard on her thespian talents. No, I don’t like the Oreos as much as the Hydrox but if that’s all there is….
“As her husband spoke…her eyes gleamed with tears,” while “the Mormon Tabernacle choir brought tears to his eyes.” Tears, size sixes, Edwards-Lowell furs, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, new noses and old ideas, with charity toward none…then a final phone call to one of Nancy’s oldest friends who says: “Oh, Nancy, you aren’t a movie star now, not the biggest movie star. You’re the star of the whole world. The biggest star of all.” To which Nancy answers, “Yes, I know, and it scares me to death.” To which, halfway around the world, at Windsor Castle, an erect small woman of a certain age somewhat less than that of Nancy is heard to mutter, “What is all this shit?”
Mr. Leamer’s book is nicely organized. After “A Gilded Dawn,” he flashes back to tell us Nancy’s story up until she meets Ronnie (who thought he would never love again); then Mr. Leamer flashes back and tells us Ronnie’s story up until that momentous meeting. Then it is side by side into history. Curiously enough Nancy’s story is more interesting than Ronnie’s because she is more explicable and Mr. Leamer can get a grip on her. Ronnie is as mysterious a figure as ever appeared on the American political stage.
Nancy’s mother was Edith Luckett, an actress from Washington, DC. She worked in films and on the stage: “Edith’s just been divorced from a rich playboy who’s not worth the powder to blow him up.” There is a lot of fine period dialogue in Make-Believe. Edith’s father was a Virginian who worked for the old Adams Express Company where, thirty-one years earlier, John Surratt had worked; as you will recall, Surratt was one of the conspirators in the Abraham Lincoln murder case. Mr. Leamer tactfully omits this ominous detail.
Edith’s marriage to Ken Robbins, “a handsome stage-door johnny…from a far better family than Edith’s,” is skimpily, even mysteriously, described by Mr. Leamer. Where did they meet? When and where were they married? Where did they live? All we are told is that “When Ken entered the service in 1917, he and Edith were newlyweds. But he had his duties and she had her career…. Ken had been released from the army in January 1919. Edith had tried to keep the marriage going with her twenty-three-year-old husband [with her career? his duties?], but all she had to show for it was a baby, born on July 6, 1921, in New York City. Ken hadn’t even been there.” After two years of dragging Nancy around with her (“using trunks as cradles,” what else?) Edith parked baby with her older sister, Virginia, in Maryland, while Ken went to live with his mother in New Jersey. So when were Edith and Ken divorced? It does not help that Mr. Leamer constantly refers to Ken as Nancy’s “natural father.”
Nancy was well looked after by her aunt; she was sent to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, some four years before I went there. Mr. Sidwell was an ancient Quaker whose elephantine ears were filled with hair while numerous liver spots made piebald his kindly bald head. I used to talk to him occasionally: never once did he mention Nancy Robbins.
Meanwhile, Edith had found Mr. Right, Loyal Davis, MD, FACS, a brain surgeon of pronounced reactionary politics and a loathing of the lesser breeds, particularly those of a dusky hue. The marriage of Edith and Loyal (I feel I know them, thanks to Mr. Leamer) seems to have been happy and, at fourteen, Nancy got herself adopted by Mr. Davis, and took his name. Nancy Davis now “traveled at the top of Chicago’s social world.” She was a school leader. Yearbook: “Nancy’s social perfection is a constant source of amazement. She is invariably becomingly and suitably dressed. She can talk, and even better listen intelligently….” Thus, was child begetter of the woman and First Lady-to-be. Destiny was to unite her with a man who has not stopped talking, according to his associates and relatives, for threescore years at least.
Nancy went to Smith and to deb parties. She herself had a tea-dance debut in Chicago. She had beaus. She was a bit overweight, while her nose was still a Platonic essence waiting to happen. A friend of her mother’s, ZaSu Pitts, gave Nancy a small part in a play that she was bringing to Broadway. From an early age, Nancy had greasepaint in her eyes. The play opened on Broadway unsuccessfully but Nancy stayed on. She modeled, looked for work (found it in Lute Song), dated famous family friends, among them Clark Gable who after a few drinks would loosen his false teeth which were on some sort of peg and then shake his head until they rattled like dice. I wonder if he ever did that for Nancy. Can we ever really and truly know anyone? The Oreos are stale.
Hollywood came Nancy’s way in the form of Benny Thau, a vice-president of M-G-M. Nancy had a “blind date” with him. In 1949 Thau was a great power at the greatest studio. He got Nancy a screen test, and a contract. By now Nancy was, as Mr. Leamer puts it,
dating Benny Thau. Barbara, the pretty teen-age receptionist, saw Nancy frequently. Many years later she remembered that she had orders that on Saturday morning Nancy was to be sent directly into Benny Thau’s suite. Barbara nodded to Miss Davis as she walked into the vice-president’s office; nodded again when she left later.
No wonder Nancy thinks ERA is just plain silly.
Now Mr. Leamer cuts to the career of Ronnie (Dutch) Reagan. This story has been told so much that it now makes no sense at all. Dixon, Illinois. Father drank (Irish Catholic). Mother stern (Protestant Scots-Irish). Brother Neil is Catholic. Ronnie is Protestant. Life-guard. Eureka College. Drama department. Debating society. Lousy grades. Lousy football player but eager to be a successful jock (like Nixon and Ike et al…. What would happen if someone who could really play football got elected president?). Imitates radio sportscasters. Incessantly. Told to stop. Gets on everyone’s nerves. Has the last laugh. Gets a job as…sportscaster. At twenty-two. Midst of depression. Gets better job. Goes west. Meets agent. Gets hired by Warner Brothers as an actor. Becomes, in his own words, “the Errol Flynn of the B’s.”
Mr. Leamer bats out this stuff rather the way the studio press departments used to do. He seems to have done no firsthand research. Dutch is a dreamer, quiet (except that he talks all the time, from puberty on), unread and incurious about the world beyond the road ahead, which was in his case a thrilling one for a boy at that time: sportscaster at twenty-two and then film actor and movie star.
Mr. Leamer might have done well to talk to some of the California journalists who covered Reagan as governor. I was chatting with one last year, back-stage in an Orange County auditorium, when I said something to the effect how odd it was that a klutz like Reagan should ever have been elected president. He then proceeded to give an analysis of Reagan that was far more interesting than Mr. Leamer’s mosaic of Photoplay tidbits. “He’s not stupid at all. He’s ignorant, which is another thing. He’s also lazy, so what he doesn’t know by now, which is a lot, he’ll never know. That’s the way he is. But he’s a perfect politician. He knows exactly how to make the thing work for him.”
I made some objections, pointed to errors along the way, not to mention the storms now gathering over the republic. “You can’t look at it like that. You see, he’s not interested in politics as such. He’s only interested in himself. Consider this. Here is a fairly handsome ordinary young man with a pleasant speaking voice who first gets to be what he wants to be and everybody else then wanted to be, a radio announcer [equivalent to an anchorperson nowadays]. Then he gets to be a movie star in the Golden Age of the movies. Then he gets credit for being in the Second World War while never leaving LA. Then he gets in at the start of television as an actor and host. Then he picks up a lot of rich friends who underwrite him politically and personally and get him elected governor twice of the biggest state in the union and then they get him elected president, and if he survives he’ll be reelected. The point is that here is the only man I’ve ever heard of who got everything that he ever wanted. That’s no accident.”
I must say that as I stepped out onto the stage to make my speech, I could not help but think that though there may not be a God there is quite possibly a devil, and we are now trapped in the era of the Dixon, Illinois, Faust.
One thing that Mr. Leamer quickly picks up on is Ronnie’s freedom with facts. Apparently this began quite early. “Dutch had been brought up to tell the truth; but to him, facts had become flat little balloons that had to be blown up if they were to be seen and sufficiently appreciated.” In Hollywood he began a lifelong habit of exaggerating not only his own past but those stories that he read in the Reader’s Digest and other right-wing publications. No wonder his aides worry every time he opens his mouth without a script on the teleprompter to be read through those contact lenses that he used, idly, to take out at dinner parties and suck on.
By 1938 Ronnie was a featured player in Brother Rat. He was and still is an excellent film actor. The notion that he was just another Jon Hall is nonsense. For a time he was, in popularity with the fans, one of the top five actors in the country. If his range is limited that is because what he was called on to do was limited. You were a type in those days, and you didn’t change your type if you wanted to be a star. But he did marry an actress who was an exception to the rule. Jane Wyman did graduate from brash blonde wisecracker to “dramatic” actress (as Mr. Leamer would say). After the war, she was the bigger star. The marriage fell apart. Natural daughter Maureen and adopted son Michael could not hold them together. Plainly, Jane could not follow Ronnie’s sage advice. “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing: Don’t think.” Never has there been such a perfect prescription for success in late-twentieth-century American political life.
But war clouds were now gathering over the Hollywood Hills. Five months after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Ronnie, though extremely nearsighted, was available for “limited service.” To much weeping and gorge-rising, Ronnie went not overseas but over to Culver City where he made training films for the rest of the war. Modern Screen headline: “But when Ronnie went riding off to battle, he left his heart behind him!” Photoplay: “I won’t be doing these pictures. Uncle Sam has called me…and I’m off to the war.”
Ronnie was now known for two important roles, one as the doomed “Gipper” in Knute Rockne and the other as the playboy whose legs are sawed off (“Where’s the rest of me?”) in King’s Row. As Ronnie’s films moved once again B-ward, he moved toward politics. Originally, he had been a New Deal liberal, or something. Actually his real political activity was with the Screen Actors Guild where, by and large, in those days at least, first-rate working actors were seldom to be found giving much time to meetings, much less to becoming its president, as Reagan did.
When the McCarthy era broke upon America, Ronnie took a stern anti-Commie line within his own union. In 1951 in Fortnight, he wrote that “several members of Congress are known Communists” and as one whose reviews had not been so good lately, he went on to add that though good American newspapers were attacking “dirty Reds” their publishers didn’t know that they were employing “drama and book critics who…were praising the creative efforts of their little ‘Red Brothers’ while panning the work of all non-Communists.”
Ronnie then went to work vetting (or, as it was called then, “clearing”) people in the movies who might be tainted with communism. This was done through the Motion Picture Industry Council. The witch hunt was on, and many careers were duly ruined. Ronnie believed that no Commie should be allowed to work in the movies and that anyone who did not cooperate with his council or the House Committee on Un-American Activities (in other words, refuse to allow the committee to ask impertinent questions about political beliefs) should walk the plank. To this day, he takes the line that there was never a blacklist in Hollywood except for the one that Commies within the Industry drew up in order to exclude good Americans from jobs. Ronnie has always been a very sincere sort of liar.
As luck would have it, Nancy Davis cropped up on one of the nonexistent blacklists. Apparently there were other possibly pinker actresses named Nancy Davis in lotusland. She asked a producer what to do; he said that Reagan could clear her. Thus, they met…not so cute, as the Wise Hack would say. It was the end of 1949. They “dated” for two years. Plainly, she loved this bona fide movie star who never stopped talking just as she could never stop appearing to listen (what her stepfather Dr. Davis must have been like at the breakfast table can only be imagined). But the woman who had launched the marriage of Ronnie and Janie, Louella Parsons, the Saint Simon of San Simeon as well as of all movieland, could not understand why that idyllic couple had split up. She described in her column how “one of the lovely girls Ronnie seemed interested in for awhile told me he recently said to her, ‘Sure, I like you. I like you fine. But I think I’ve forgotten how to fall in love.’ I wonder—do those embers of the once perfect love they shared still burn deep with haunting memories that won’t let them forget?” If the popcorn isn’t too cold, we can pop it. But no salt and use oleo-margarine.
Apparently, the embers had turned to ash. After two years, thirty-year-old Nancy married the forty-one-year-old Ronnie in the company of glamorous Mr. and Mrs. William Holden who posed, beaming, beside their new best friends at a time when they were their own new worst friends for, according to Mr. Leamer, as they posed side by side with the Reagans, “The Holdens weren’t even talking to one another.”
Nancy’s career is now one of wifedom and motherhood and, of course, listening. Also, in due course, social climbing. She was born with a silver ladder in her hand, just like the rest of us who went to Sidwell Friends School. Naturally, there were problems with Ronnie’s first set of children. Ronnie seems not to have been a particularly attentive father, while Nancy was an overattentive mother to her own two children. But she took a dim view of Ronnie’s first litter. The Reagans settled on Pacific Palisades. Ronnie’s movie career was grinding to an end; he was obliged to go to Las Vegas to be a gambling casino “emcee.” As there were no Commies working for the trade papers by then, the reviews were good.
The year 1952 is crucial in Reagan’s life. The Hollywood unions had always taken the position that no talent agency could go into production on a regular basis since the resulting conflict of interest would screw agency clients. Eventually, federal law forbade this anomaly. But thirty years ago there was a tacit agreement between agencies and unions that, on a case by case basis, an occasional movie might be produced by an agency. The Music Corporation of America represented actor Ronald Reagan. Within that vast agency, one Taft Schreiber looked after Ronald Reagan’s declining career. At the end of Reagan’s term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he did something unprecedented.
On July 3, 1952, after a series of meetings, Ronnie sent a letter to MCA granting the agency the blanket right to produce films.
Within a few years, MCA was a dominant force in show business. In television, the forty or so shows that Revue Productions produced each week far surpassed the output of other programming suppliers.
Now for the payoff:
Later that year , Taft Schreiber…told Ronnie about a possible role introducing a new weekly television anthology series, “The GE Theater.” …Schreiber owed his position as head of MCA’s new Revue Productions to a SAG decision in which Ronnie played an instrumental role,
and so on.
For eight years, Ronnie was GE’s host and occasional actor; he also became the corporate voice for General Electric’s conservative viewpoint. During Reagan’s tours of the country, he gave The Speech in the name of General Electric in particular and free enterprise in general. Gradually, Reagan became more and more right wing. But then if his principal reading matter told him that the Russians were not only coming but that their little Red brothers were entrenched in Congress and the school libraries and the reservoirs (fluoride at the ready), he must speak out. Finally, all this nonsense began to alarm even GE. When he started to attack socialism’s masterpiece, the TVA (a GE client worth 50 million a year to the firm), he was told to start cooling it, which he did. Then, “In 1962, pleading bad ratings, GE canceled the program.”
During this period, Reagan was not only getting deeper and deeper into the politics of the far right, but he and Nancy were getting to know some of the new-rich Hollywood folk outside showbiz. Car dealers such as Holmes Tuttle and other wheeler-dealers became friends. The wives were into conspicuous consumption while the husbands were into money and, marginally, conservative politics which would enable them to make more money, pay less tax, and punish the poor. Thanks to Ronnie’s brother Neil, then with an advertising agency that peddled Borax, the future leader of Righteous Christendom became host to Borax’s television series, “Death Valley Days.” That same year Ronnie attended the Cow Palace investiture of Barry Goldwater.
“In late October, Goldwater was unable to speak at the big $1,000-a-plate fund raiser at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles…. Holmes Tuttle asked Ronnie to pinch-hit.” Tuttle sat next to wealthy Henry Salvatori, Goldwater’s finance chairman. Tuttle suggested that they run Ronnie for governor of California in 1966. Salvatori didn’t think you could run an actor against an old political pro like the Democratic incumbent Pat Brown. But when Ronnie went national with The Speech on television, Ronnie was in business as a politician, and his friends decided to finance a Reagan race. To these new-rich Sunbelters, “Politicians and candidates, even Ronnie, were an inferior breed. ‘Reagan doesn’t have great depth,’ Salvatori admits, ‘but I don’t know any politician who does. He’s not the most intelligent man who ever was, but I’ve never met a politician with great depth. I don’t know of any politician who would be smart enough to run my business, but Reagan just might.” There it all is in one nut’s shell.
The rest is beginning now to be history. “In the spring of 1965, forty-one rich businessmen formed ‘The Friends of Ronald Reagan.’ ” For $50,000 a year, they hired a public-relations firm that specialized in political campaigns to groom Ronnie. California politics were carefully explained to him and he was given a crash course in the state’s geography, which he may have flunked. He often had no idea where he was, or, as a supporter remarked to Leamer, “once, he didn’t know a goddamn canal and where it went. Another time, he was standing in the Eagle River and didn’t know where the hell he was,” etc. But he had his dream of the city on the hill and he had The Speech and he had such insights as: the graduated income tax was “spawned by Marx as the prime essential of the socialistic state.”
Alas, Mr. Leamer is not interested in Reagan’s two terms as governor. He is more interested in Nancy’s good grooming and circle of “best dressed” friends; also, in the way her past was falsified: “Nancy Davis Reagan was born in Chicago, the only daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Loyal Davis,” said a campaign biography. Although Nancy had denied seeing her “natural” father after her adoption, she had indeed kept in touch for a time; but when he was dying in 1972 and her natural cousin tried to get through to her, there was no response. Mr. Leamer goes on rather too much about Nancy’s wealthy girlfriends and their clothes as well as her wealthy cavalière servente Jerome Zipkin who has known everyone from my mother to W. Somerset Maugham. “Maugham’s biographer, Ted Morgan, thinks the British author may have patterned Elliot Templeton, a snobbish character in The Razor’s Edge, on his American friend.” Since The Razor’s Edge was published in 1944, when Mr. Zipkin was still under thirty, it is most unlikely that that exquisite Anglophile American snob (and anti-Semite) could have been based on the charming Mr. Zipkin. Actually, for those interested in such trivia, the character was based on Henry de Courcey May, a monocled figure of my youth, much visible at Bailey’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island; although this exquisite was adored by our mothers, we little lads were under orders never to be alone with nice Mr. May—or not-so-nice Mr. Maugham for that matter. But once, on the train from Providence, Mr. May…. But that is for Mr. Leamer’s next book.
In a bored way, Mr. Leamer rushes through the governorship, using familiar Reagan boilerplate: the highest taxes in the state’s history, and so on. He skirts around the most interesting caper of all, the ranch that Reagan was able to acquire through the good offices of MCA. When some details of this transaction were reported in the press, I was at a health spa near San Diego where Jules Stein and his wife (lifelong friends, as Mr. Leamer would say) were also taking the waters. When I asked Jules about the ranch caper, he got very nervous indeed. “What exactly did they print?” he asked. I told him. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t know anything about any of that. It was Schreiber who looked after Ronnie.” By then Schreiber was dead.
Mr. Leamer tells us more than we want to know about the Reagan children. There seems to be a good deal of bitterness in a family that is closer to that of the Louds than to Judge Hardy’s. But this is par for the course in the families of celebrities in general, and of politicians in particular. A ballet dancer son with his mother’s nose did not go down well. A daughter who decided to run for the Senate (and support ERA) did not go down well either. So in 1982 Ronnie and his brother Neil helped to defeat Maureen, which was a pity since she would have been a more honorable public servant than her father. Apparently he has now had second thoughts or something; he has appointed her consultant “to improve his image among women.”2 The family seems a lot creepier than it probably is simply because Reagan, a divorced man, has always put himself forward as the champion of prayer in the schools, and monogamy, and God, and a foe of abortion and smut and pot and the poor.
Mr. Leamer races through the political life: Ronnie sets out to replace Ford as president but instead is defeated in the primaries of 1976. Mr. Leamer finds Ronnie a pretty cold fish despite the professional appearance of warmth. When one of Ronnie’s aides, Mike Deaver, lost out in a power struggle within the Reagan campaign, he was banished; and Ronnie never even telephoned him to say, “how are tricks?”
As he did in his own family, Ronnie stood above the squabble. Indeed four years before, when Ronnie had been choking on a peanut, Deaver had saved his life.
For God’s sake, Leamer, dramatize! as Henry James always told us to do. When and how did that peanut get into his windpipe? Where were they? Was it the Heimlich maneuver Deaver used?
In 1980 Reagan took the nomination from Bush, whom he genuinely dislikes, if Mr. Leamer is correct. Reagan then wins the presidency though it might be more accurate to say that Carter lost it. Nancy woos Washington’s old guard, the Bright Old Things as they are dubbed, who were at first mildly charmed and then more and more bemused by this curious couple who have no interest at all in talking about what Washington’s BOT have always talked about: power and politics and history and even, shades of Henry Adams and John Hay, literature and art. Henry James was not entirely ironic when he called Washington “the city of conversation.” Ronnie simply bends their ears with stories about Jack Warner and Nancy discusses pretty things.
Mr. Leamer gets quickly through the politics to the drama: the shooting of Ronnie, who was more gravely injured than anyone admitted at the time. By now, Mr. Leamer is racing along: “Unknown to [Nancy’s] staff…she was accepting dresses and gowns from major designers as well as jewels from Bulgari and Harry Winston.” Seven pages later: “Unknown to Nancy’s staff, much of this jewelry didn’t belong to her; it had been ‘borrowed’ for an unspecified period from the exclusive jeweler to be part of a White House collection.” Nancy wriggled out of all this as best she could, proposing to give her dresses to a museum while suggesting a permanent White House collection of crown jewels for future first ladies. Conspicuous consumption at the White House has not been so visible since Mrs. Lincoln’s day. But at least old Abe paid out of his own pocket for his wife’s “flub dubs.”
The most disturbing aspect of Make-Believe is that Ronnie not only is still the president but could probably be reelected. Almost as an afterthought, Mr. Leamer suddenly reveals, in the last pages of his book, the true Reagan problem, which is now a world problem:
What was so extraordinary was Ronnie’s apparent psychic distance from the burden of the presidency. He sat in cabinet meetings doodling. Unless held to a rigid agenda, he would start telling Hollywood stories or talk about football in Dixon. Often in one-on-one conversations Ronnie seemed distracted or withdrawn. “He has a habit now,” his brother, Neil, said. “You might be talking to him, and it’s like he’s picking his fingernails, but he’s not. And you know then he’s talking to himself.”
“If people knew about him living in his own reality, they wouldn’t believe it,” said one White House aide. “There are only ten to fifteen people who know the extent, and until they leave and begin talking, no one will believe it.”
Of all our presidents, Reagan most resembles Warren Harding. He is handsome, amiable, ignorant; he has an ambitious wife (Mrs. Harding was known as the Duchess). But in the year 1983 who keeps what brooch from Bulgari is supremely unimportant. What is important is that in a dangerous world, the United States, thanks to a worn-out political system, has not a president but an indolent cue-card reader, whose writers seem eager for us to be, as soon as possible, at war. To the extent that Reagan is aware of what is happening, he probably concurs. But then what actor, no matter how old, could resist playing the part of a wartime president? even though war is now the last worst hope on earth; and hardly make-believe.
Mr. Leamer’s Make-Believe will be criticized because it is largely a compendium of trivia about personalities. Unfortunately, there is no other book for him to write—unless it be an updated version of Who Owns America?