Burden of Reagan's Illness Weighs Heavily on Nancy

Article excerpt

As Ronald and Nancy Reagan face the final chapter in one of the great love stories in American politics, the emotional burden of the former president's Alzheimer's disease has fallen heavily on his wife's shoulders. For the first time in nearly 50 years, she is faced with going on without her leading man.

"It's not like in the movies," says Merv Griffin, an old friend. "It's not the happy ending she was counting on."

At home in the Bel-Air district of Los Angeles, she curls up with a book in a corner of the sofa as her husband sits in his oversized wing chair, slowly fading away. However well she bears up to the task, Nancy Reagan has been changed by it. Even some onetime critics concede that the "Dragon Lady" of the Reagan White House seems to have lost her fire. The preoccupations of the past - haute couture, astrology, even Ronald Wilson Reagan's place in the history of the world - matter less. Friends - including a few prominent Democrats - and family - including the oft-estranged children - matter more. The woman who once "borrowed" more than $1 million in designer suits, dresses and gowns might now be seen wearing the same dress twice. Although she still has someone else do the cooking, she swaps recipes with friends, thumps the melons at the market and chats with the butcher. "Here is a woman who has made her husband's life her career," says Fred Ryan, a former presidential aide. "She has devoted herself to making Ronald Reagan's life perfect, but no matter what she does now, his life w ill never be perfect again." Their 7,000-square-foot house has five bedrooms, six baths and a heated pool on more than an acre of land, but even that can be a prison. Two years ago an old friend Charles Z. Wick wanted to lure Nancy out of the house and used author Dominick Dunne to do it. Though flattered, Dunne was astonished by Wick's invitation to dine with Nancy. Although he had known the Reagans socially since the 1950s when he was a screenwriter, they had never been close. "No. 1, I'm a Democ rat, and then I wrote that novel that everybody in her crowd got so down on me about, so it was quite a shock when I got this call," Dunne says. The novel, "An Inconvenient Woman," was a thinly disguised retelling of the story of the late Alfred Bloomingdale, millionaire and Reagan confidant, and his sexpot mistress. Until the trial of O.J. Simpson, her favorite television show had been "Murder, She Wrote." Nancy was so taken with Dunne's hot scoops from the courtroom that she arranged to be briefed by him for the remainder of the trial. Every week for the next 10 months, Dunne held court from noon to 1:30 at the home of Nancy's friend and neighbor, former racetrack owner Marje Everett. "It was just the three of us," Dunne recalls. "And as soon as I ar rived, we went directly to the table out on the lanai and talked about nothing but the trial. Really, it was quite extraordinary. I saw Nancy in a way I'd never seen her before - as a woman of extraordinary intelligence and depth who's gone through terrible adversity." Another Democrat who has been pulled into Nancy's inner circle is Casey Ribicoff, wife of the former liberal senator from Connecticut. The women, who had been friends for years, are now "like sisters." Abraham Ribicoff, 87, also suffers from Alzheimer's disease. As often as three times a day, Nancy and Casey are on the phone, comparing notes, sharing memories their husbands have long since forgotten. "We nourish each other. We speak the same language," says Casey Ribicoff. …