Nancy Reagan: Straight Outta Dreiser

by Corey Robin on March 7, 2016

A thousand years ago, back when I was writing book reviews for Newsday, Laurie Muchnick and Emily Gordon asked their stable of regular reviewers to make a summer reading recommendation. Mine was Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. Before I retire, I still plan to teach a course on American Politics where Kelly’s biography is the only text on the syllabus. In the meantime, here’s what I said back in 2000, about Kelley’s biography.

A friend of mine in graduate school, a member of the Communist Party even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liked to brag that when he taught American politics he would assign only Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. I thought he was crazy. Until I read the book.

Authored by a reporter dubbed “the Saddam Hussein of privacy invasion,” Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography (Pocket Books, out of print) was more than a nasty assault on a nasty woman. It was also a poignant chronicle of America’s hidden history: the obsessive quest for privilege in a country that denies its existence. Through Reagan’s persona, Kelley profiled those Americans who reinvent their pasts, invoking imagined genealogies of gentility as cover for working-class backgrounds. Not since Alexis de Tocqueville had anyone produced such a devastating cultural biography of a nation committed in theory to equality but in practice to elitism.

“Two entries on Nancy Reagan’s birth certificate are still accurate—her sex and her color. Almost every other item was invented then or later reinvented.” So begins this merciless epic, straight out of Dreiser, of a poor, unhappy girl who lies her way to the top. The detritus along the way is extensive: the hushed-up suicide of an uncle broken by a miserable marriage; a birth father spurned and an adopted father embraced, all for the sake of money; a desperately engineered marriage to a second-rate actor with a wandering eye, wayward heart and shared penchant for ambitious fantasy.

“Nancy Reagan” suggests that the cost of social climbing in America goes beyond personal unhappiness. Because of our ache for aristocracy, we’ve suffered a terminal case of collective self-deception in this country, refusing to acknowledge that the poor are one of us, that a society built as a monument to personal success means that only a few can achieve it, that wealth is not a measure of merit but luck, power and personal connection.

As the Greek tragedians understood so well, an act of deception—particularly about one’s family—can wreak havoc upon the body politic. In this regard, Kelley’s biography remains a work of unfulfilled prophecy, anticipating not the Clinton impeachment scandals but the conflict that is to come when America wakes up and realizes the inequalities created in the name of Nancy.

Having said that, I found “Nancy Reagan” to be an exceedingly funny book—maybe because it was a pleasant distraction from a summer of lethal reading in preparation for my PhD qualifying exams, or because I was amused at the thought of my friend’s forcing rich kids to read it. Whatever the case, I giggled my way through a hot July. Who says Communists don’t have a sense of humor?

Actually, if you’re interested in the wider cultural ramifications of Nancy Reagan (and would like a little historical perspective to avoid the canonization that has already begun; live long enough, and you really do see everything), I’d also recommend another book: Deborah Silverman’s Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America.



Cry Shop 03.07.16 at 2:21 am

Ronald Reagan and his hag really did chow down on selling access to the governorship and then presidency. While Nixon put his toes in the water, they were the ones who really championed privatization of the a physical White House, by turning Sunnyland into the Western White House, and thus giving the privileged even more direct access, without the logs and paper trail, to the wonks who control power in Washington.

Ever president (except Jimmy Carter, as far as I know) has continued this abuse. Just recently Obama used again Sunnyland as a Western White House for summit with ASEAN leaders, this after he stopped of (for half a day) with two 747 jets the weekend before for a game of golf with unnamed industrialist at the same estate.

Just to show how incestuous this has all become, and how long term the planning is to get this blurring of lines, Barack Obama was the founding Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Anneberg Challenge (CAC) “philanthropic” organization. CAC help gentrify a few areas of Chicago, driving out low income families. The Anneberg Foundation, which provided 49.2 million dollars to the Chicago Machine to create CAC, is the “non-profit” tax shelter owner of “Sunnyland”.

Walter Annenberg (and his wife, and then children who still run the trusts) was an interesting mix of neo-con and neo-liberal with, among many other investments, large property interests in Chicago. Barack and Michelle would have been quite comfortable with Annenberg’s ideas of patronage and paternalism making pretty cover of abuse of power for profit. Particularly with Michelle’s job as a Chicago Machine Lawyer was mostly finding legal ways to use machine power in return for financial support to feed the need of machine for money outside the oversight of comptrollers and the FBI.

It’s all legal (as far as we can tell), but by the founding fathers standard, abuse of public power for private gain, IE it’s still corruption.


Donald A. Coffin 03.07.16 at 2:50 am


otpup 03.07.16 at 3:56 am

It is just possible that NR saved civilization from nuclear war (not to detract from your characterization of her or the KK book). Someone reported (perhaps even Kelley?) that it was Nancy who was shocked to find out that the Soviets sincerely believed RR was a war monger bent on a nuclear confrontation (a reasonable conclusion given his strategic initiatives) and then to took the news to Ronnie who subsequently approached Gorbachev to set up the Reykjavik summit. I can’t remember who it was that originally raised Nancy’s consciousness in this telling.


John Holbo 03.07.16 at 4:02 am

Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge” (I almost just wrote “Reaganland”!) does a quite good job of producing this general impression of Nancy. Not that one should therefore disdain communists bearing unauthorized biographies!


Ed 03.07.16 at 4:19 am

A balanced and thorough appreciation of Nancy Reagan can be found here:


Melancholy 03.07.16 at 4:22 am

Otpup, I kid u not, it was her astrologer, Joan Quigley! She did Gorby’s horoscope & offered NR this nugget. Which may have prevented major confrontation!


steven johnson 03.07.16 at 4:37 am

It seems to me the interesting question is whether she should be buried with Presidential honors?

It seems an appropriate time to wonder how much we really know about who really runs this country, and how.


Barry Freed 03.07.16 at 5:15 am

I knew someone who grew up dirt poor and became a model and Vanna White type in the 50s and that description fits her to a T. For all her flaws she was one of the most charming women I’ve ever met.


RNB 03.07.16 at 5:31 am

Aren’t we supposed to be competing for the best caption for this
This was the Christmas celebration that led Ron Reagan Jr. to atheism?
This is what prolonged the crack decade by half a decade?
Mr. T granted her Christmas wish as long as she did product placement for the Mr. T line of toys?
“Make it one more for the Gipper” whom neither she nor her husband could distinguish from the President.


RNB 03.07.16 at 5:33 am

the crack epidemic by half a decade? Oops blew my line.


otpup 03.07.16 at 12:25 pm

Melancholy @6: Priceless! (And maybe I’ve been wrong about astrology…)


jake the antisoshul soshulist 03.07.16 at 2:59 pm

My top two personal peeves with Saint Ronnie are (a) him wanting to shoot the hippies.
and (b)forgetting that he was not born on third base.
From the OP, it appears that b was intentional.
I have plenty of political and policy issues with him. But I see a and b reflecting on a lack of character.


Lyle 03.07.16 at 3:01 pm

Ed @5, Robert Lindsay says Nancy came from a wealthy background; how does that square with Corey R’s characterization, “straight out of Dreiser”? I was assuming a rags-to-riches reference in the latter to Sister Carrie.

And btw Corey, I saw what you did here: “a poor, unhappy girl who lies her way to the top.” Reminds me of what I used to hear, that she was known in earlier days as the Blowjob Queen of Hollywood.


MPAVictoria 03.07.16 at 3:15 pm

Probably the best thing I saw on Nancy Reagan’s death was this tweet:

“I wish Nancy Reagan everything she wished me.”

About sums it up.


Z 03.07.16 at 3:42 pm

“I wish Nancy Reagan everything she wished me.” That is a great line!


Suzanne 03.07.16 at 5:39 pm

It’s Vreeland, not Vreerland, BTW.

The trouble with Kelley, or one of them, is that she tends to treat all sources equally, no matter how dubious or whether or not they are grinding obvious axes. The Nancy book is a blatant hatchet job, salacious, unreliable, and snotty. Enjoy.

Kelley does quote a number of angry conservative menfolk from the Reagan administration, resentful of petticoat influence, complaining that Nancy was really a closet liberal trying to steer Ronnie away from the true way.


Oxbird 03.07.16 at 6:22 pm

@16. You are correct about Kelley. “Unreliable” captures her. In a different life I consulted with someone who had the misfortune of having agreed to provide her with substantial services. Not to speak ill, etc., unreliable does the job nicely.


Ed 03.07.16 at 6:31 pm

Lyle, I have no idea if Nancy Reagan came from a privileged background. This is from the entry, as of 1:28 on March 7th, from her Wikipedia page:

Anne Frances Robbins was born on July 6, 1921, at Sloane Hospital for Women in the Washington Heights section of New York City.[1][2] When Nancy Davis signed with MGM, she gave her birth date as July 6, 1923, shaving two years off her age, a common practice in Hollywood (see Cannon, Governor Reagan, p. 75). This caused subsequent confusion as some sources would continue to use the incorrect birth year.[3][4] She was the only child of Kenneth Seymour Robbins (1894–1972), the son of a once-well-to-do family who worked as a car salesman,[1][5][6] and his actress wife, radio actress Edith Prescott Luckett (1888–1987).[7][8][9][10][11] Her godmother was silent-film-star Alla Nazimova.[12] From birth, she was commonly called Nancy.[13]

“She lived her first two years in Flushing, Queens, in New York City, in a two-story house on Roosevelt Avenue between 149th and 150th Streets.[14] Her parents separated soon after her birth and were divorced in 1928.[1][15][11] After their separation, her mother traveled the country to pursue acting jobs and Nancy was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, for six years by her aunt, Virginia Luckett and uncle, Audley Gailbraith.[1][15] Nancy described longing for her mother during those years: “My favorite times were when Mother had a job in New York, and Aunt Virgie would take me by train to stay with her.”[16]”

My guess is that she was privileged until her parents’ divorce. Her first husband was a neurosurgeon. I think Lindsay is closer to the truth than Robin.


Corey Robin 03.07.16 at 7:08 pm

Ed and Lyle:

You’ve both got it wrong.

Nancy Reagan’s birth father was a car salesman, and he abandoned the family (didn’t just separate or divorce) right at or just after Nancy’s birth (don’t have the Kelley book here but it was right around then). They were pretty hard-up (that’s why Nancy got sent off to her mother’s sister’s family, so her mother could work) until, eight years later, Nancy’s mother married the neurosurgeon. Then Nancy’s life took off and she took her step-father’s name.

In other words, her life was impoverished and unstable until her mother remarried.


Corey Robin 03.07.16 at 7:10 pm

Suzanne at 16: Thanks, I’ve now fixed the Vreeland.


Lyle 03.07.16 at 7:17 pm

Thanks Corey.

So, not Sister Carrie? If An American Tragedy instead, I’m not seeing the tragedy — she lived a full and fancy life, until the age of 94.


Map Maker 03.07.16 at 7:19 pm

what a steaming pile of misogyny this thread turned into. thanks Lyle.


The Temporary Name 03.07.16 at 7:28 pm

I enjoyed reading Kelley’s assault on Frank Sinatra, so I apologize.


Suzanne 03.07.16 at 8:17 pm

@22: Thank you. I was going to say something about the “hag” and the bitch link, but decided against.

Nancy doesn’t seem to have been a very nice person, but a lot of what’s been written about her is informed by political resentments and misogyny and in addition Nancy took on a lot of unpleasant jobs on her husband’s behalf. She was the meanie so Ronnie could be his affable self and she paid a price for that. On the other hand, she’s also received a lot of largely undeserved praise, so maybe it balances out.

@23: No need to apologize. “His Way” is a good book, although not without some of the issues mentioned. I would also characterize it more as muckraking than hatchet work. Before Kelley, most of what was written about Sinatra was worshipful stuff from Sinatra’s flacks and groupies about Frank the Artiste and Humanitarian. Kelley blew the lid off that, a job that needed doing. I generally find her worth reading, with salt shaker at hand.

It’s useful to know, for example, that the bread and butter of Dr. Loyal Davis’ practice was lobotomies. In her Bush book, there’s a priceless story involving Barbara Bush, a golf cart, and a hapless Guatemalan…………….


aspergum 03.08.16 at 2:07 pm

Sure would like to see a CT post about the neoliberal effort to privatize public education, especially the painful debacles in IL and PA. A post on Crispin Sartwell would be great too.

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