When Nancy Reagan Ruled New York

William Norwich, who chronicled the rise of nouvelle society in ’80’s New York, reminisces about the late first lady and the days when she ruled the city.

Nancy Reagan

On Sunday when the news alert flashed on my phone that Nancy Reagan had died, age 94, I remembered with great sentiment a night at Covent Garden in London many years ago.

It was my sixteenth birthday. I was a student at the Choate School’s Summer Program in Britain and I read that Mahler’s symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, was to be performed at the Royal Ballet. A friend found the last ticket on sale for the evening, a 99-pence seat in the ethers of the opera house, and off I went in a blue blazer, school tie, and long hair. You picture it.

It was three ballets that evening, the first performance an excerpt from Raymonda danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Extraordinary. Also extraordinary was the empty seat I saw in the first balcony. I left my seat, climbed down the stairs and exited the theater—the poor seats had their own entrance and still do, I imagine, unless political correctness has amended that—and held my breath as I re-entered the theater through the grand, expensive entrance, found the box where all the seats were empty, and waited for the curtain to rise. The fearlessness of youth…

Moments before the curtain went up, these very elegant grownups entered the box. The woman seated to my right turned to me, and said: “That’s not your seat, is it?”

“No, ma’am,” I answered.

But she smiled, and did not ask me to leave or call an usher to have me removed. How did she know I was American? I told her how much I loved Mahler.

“At the last minute my husband couldn’t come to the ballet with our group. Stay and enjoy the performance,” she told me.

That lady was Nancy Reagan. Many years later on an evening at the White House, I was able to thank her for her kindness. Politics aside, the memory still touched me. When I recounted the anecdote on Sunday on my Instagram account, the angry, frankly understandable, comments, came pouring in: “She was a murderer probably responsible for the AIDS death of some of those dancers you enjoyed. Wearing her Galanos. Shame,” someone wrote.

With this, the whole decade of the 1980s came back to me. I entered the society beat in 1985 when I began writing a daily social column for the New York Daily News. Before that, I had assisted the fashion writer Eugenia Sheppard, a Reagan friend, with her column in the New York Post. There was also Women’s Wear Daily and W, Liz Smith, also in the Daily News, and Aileen Mehle, better known as Suzy, in the New York Post—all friends and confidants of the first lady. We were the social media of the day.

Although her official home was the White House in Washington, the ‘80s were also the decade when Mrs. Reagan was, so to speak, the honorary chairman of everything and everyone social in New York. Invitations to dinners and luncheons at the White House were coveted. The Reagans hosted 56 state dinners in eight years, compared to George W. and Laura Bush’s six. It was grand entertaining, for sure. In Washington, Reagan was ostracized for liking, really loving, her clothes and doting on the world of fashion. Her style was a cheery chic, color, and a lot of it red – “Nancy Red,” as it came to be known.

The exuberance with which fashion is unapologetically celebrated today, an age where #obsessed is an encouraged hashtag, can be traced to Reagan and her friends from California. They saw no purpose, and certainly experienced no guilt, in enjoying fashion, regardless of the deep recession in the United States when the Reagans were in office. Seventh Avenue designers were thriving, weren’t they? They were. The takeaway? Fashion was good for the economy. Wear it, flaunt it, buy it, talk about it and all will be well.

New York offered a reprieve from Washington where the first lady suffered the most criticism. In New York, Reagan could be herself – a great partner to her husband, a very good friend to her friends, and a woman you didn’t want as your enemy. She enjoyed social life and gossip, and she also knew that social life offered great access to information, reconnaissance that would help the president.

Through her best friend in California, Betsy Bloomingdale, she bonded with Jerome “Jerry” Zipkin in New York, the man who inspired WWD to coin the term “social moth,” and a collector and trusted confidante of the great ladies of the day. With his assistance, the first lady’s circle included such prominent New Yorkers as Bill and Pat Buckley, Louise and Henry Grunwald, and Casey and Abe Ribicoff. Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper was another great friend. Reagan often stayed at Vanderbilt’s apartment at 10 Gracie Square when she was in New York. It is where she recuperated after a partial facelift performed by a Park Avenue plastic surgeon, and it is where she comforted Vanderbilt after the suicide of her son, Carter Cooper, in 1988.

Although her friendships with Blass and Oscar de la Renta blossomed during her sojourns in New York, Reagan dressed mostly in Adolfo for day—after the deaths of Mainbocher and Norell, he was the leading designer for ladylike clothing—and for evening in long dresses designed by her California friend James Galanos. Her clothing may have brought comparisons to Marie Antoinette but it never launched fashion revolutions. It was suitable and pretty and rich, which perfectly expressed the first lady. (In 1992, the IRS concluded an investigation and determined that the Reagans hadn’t included some $3 million worth of fashion gifts on their tax returns from 1983 through 1988. The Reagans later settled with the IRS and paid the money that they owed. )

The Reagan set was not one of high birth and aristocratic blood and family dynasties. They weren’t Rockefellers or Kennedys. Their set was made up of car salesmen who became incredibly rich, fashion designers who became conglomerates, owners of department stores who became presidential advisors, and publishers who became ambassadors. These were some of the professions of the Reagans’ closest friends, the “Kitchen Cabinet” as they were nicknamed. They were the American dream and they were happy. That’s what I remember. They were happy. And the grand entertaining of the era and the splendiferous clothing were emblems of the American Dream gone right. Their message was: You can have this too, if you do as we did.

Beyond the façade, Reagan sometimes allowed the cracks to be seen. She went public with her mastectomy in 1987, when there was still a great stigma attached to discussing breast cancer. She did her best to educate children on the dangers of addiction – through the oftentimes mocked “Just Say No” campaign – and tried to offer them the same brand of optimism and inner strength that she and the president, and their friends, practiced.

Washington eventually addressed the AIDS crisis. It could be argued that President Reagan’s failure was also the media’s and the government’s to move more swiftly through its fears and prejudices to take action. During the presidential debates of 1984, no one in the media even asked the candidates, either Republican or Democratic, about AIDS. The talk was mostly of the economy.

The Reagans’ son, Ron, Jr., meanwhile worked on his mother to get his father to understand the devastation AIDS was causing nationally and internationally. On the Upper East Side, Reagan’s New York friends, including Blass, the late AIDS crusader Judy Peabody, Casey Ribicoff and the restaurateur Glenn Bernbaum established the “Fete de Famille” in 1986, the first society event to raise money for AIDS research. In another part of town Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and other fashion leaders came together to initiate fundraising efforts that have earned millions of dollars for AIDS-HIV causes.

The efforts of the fashion and social worlds encouraged Reagan to help awaken her husband and the government to the AIDS crisis. The president finally uttered the word AIDS in 1987. It also paved the way, years later, for her to challenge the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, upsetting many Republicans who had once hailed the Reagans as paragons of the party.

The response to Reagan’s death has been touching and respectful. Almost every quality that she was faulted for back in the White House days is now chronicled as a virtue: loyalty to her husband, a stay-at-home spouse and mother, and her enthusiasm for clothes. She was remembered for using humor to soften her media critics and spare herself their full guillotine.

“I would say that anyone watching this under the age of 25 doesn’t really know an awful lot about your mom,” NBC’s Matt Lauer said to Ron Jr. during a conversation aired on the Today show on Monday morning. The former first lady’s funeral will be Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. “So for the people in that age group, and below, what’s the most important thing they should know about Nancy Reagan?”

Reagan didn’t hesitate. “That she knew how to love somebody, and you can do a lot worse than that in life,” he said.

Rest in peace Mrs. Reagan.

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William Norwich is an editor at Phaidon Press. His novel, My Mrs. Brown, will be published by Simon and Schuster on April 12.