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The Best Years of Our Lives

Make-Believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan

by Laurence Leamer
Harper and Row, 395 pp., $14.95

1.

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.

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    Miss Davis knew that later, as always, Max Steiner’s score would be added and all her careful acting effects would be overwhelmed by his thundering sentimental scores.

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