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
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
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
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
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
"We nourish each other. We speak the same language," says Casey