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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan dead at 94

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Updated: Sunday, March 6, 2016, 11:43 AM

Ronald and Nancy Reagan.Getty Images

Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Nancy Reagan — the obscure Hollywood starlet who became First Lady of the United States and implored a generation of young Americans to “Just Say No” to drugs — died Sunday morning at 94.

She died in Bel Air of congestive heart failure, according to the Reagan Foundation, and had been fighting failing health for years.

One of the most hands-on First Ladies the nation has ever known, she controlled the schedule of her husband, President Ronald Reagan, and influenced White House staff appointments and firings. She even consulted an astrologer for divine guidance.

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“For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does!” she once famously said.

Rarely was she not by the side of her “Ronnie” as he morphed from actor to California governor and two-term commander-in-chief.

“I more than love you, I’m not whole without you,” Ronald Reagan wrote in a letter to his wife on their 31st wedding anniversary. “When you’re are gone I’m waiting for you to return so I can start living again.”

During their nearly 52 years of marriage, Nancy Reagan endured a battle with breast cancer, high-profile estrangements from their children, an assassination attempt on her husband’s life and the Alzheimer’s disease that robbed him of his mind.

“My life really began when I married my husband,” she once said.

Born Nancy Robbins on July 6, 1921, at Sloane Hospital, in Flushing, Queens, her mother, Edith, was a socialite and actress while her father, Kenneth Robbins, was a used car salesman.

She was only 6 years old when her parents divorced. Her mother, busy pursuing a theatrical career in New York City, sent her to live with an aunt and uncle, Virginia and Audley Galbraith, in Bethesda, Maryland.

When her mother married neurosurgeon Loyal Davis, he legally adopted young Nancy, who took his last name and considered him her true father.

Nancy Reagan is the only First Lady to be legally adopted.

As a girl, she attended the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and the Girl’s Latin School in Chicago.

In 1943, she graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., earning a bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts.

Nancy Davis briefly worked as a sales clerk at the Marshall Fields Department store in Chicago and as a nurse’s aid. But she seized the opportunity to act when, through the help of her mother’s connections, she won a non-speaking part in the play “Ramshackle Inn,” which eventually landed on Broadway.

She moved to New York City to chase her theatrical dreams, scoring a minor role in the musical “Lute Song,” starring Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.

In 1949, Hollywood came calling and she inked a seven year contract with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio. The first of her 11 feature films was titled “The Doctor and the Girl.”

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan.GUS RUELAS/REUTERS

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Distressed at seeing her name on a list of suspected Communist sympathizers published in the Hollywood Reporter, the then 26-year-old Nancy requested a meeting with Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan, then 38, in hopes he would help clear her name.

Reagan, who had just divorced actress Jane Wyman, took the young actress out to a dinner that lasted until 3 a.m.

“I don’t know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close,” Nancy would later say.

When they where married on March 6, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in North Hollywood, Nancy Reagan was already pregnant with their first child, Patti.

She struggled to maintain her acting career, filming “Hellcats of the Navy” in 1956, the only movie she and her husband would star in together. It would be Nancy’s last movie.

In May 1958, she gave birth to a son, Ron Jr. She was also busy being stepmother to Reagan and Wyman’s daughter, Maureen, and their adopted son, Michael.

Ronald Reagan made the leap to Republican politics, winning the California gubernatorial race in 1967 over two-term Democratic incumbent Edmund G. Pat Brown.

As First Lady of the Golden State, Nancy Reagan tackled causes, such as welfare and the care of wounded Vietnam veterans. She also penned a syndicated newspaper column and donated her salary to the National League of POW/MIA Families.

She helped Ronald Reagan win reelection in 1971.

With the country reeling from a recession and the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan, who left the Governor’s office in 1975, accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States.

With Nancy by his side, Reagan won a landslide election and made Democrat Jimmy Carter a one-term president. At the age of 59, Nancy Reagan became the First Lady of the United States and the most fashionable since Jacqueline Kennedy.

Dressed by famed designers, including Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, Nancy Reagan rubbed the public, still smarting from economic woes, the wrong way.

She was widely denounced for ordering $ 209,508 worth of China and embarking on private fund-raising campaign to redecorate and renovate the White House.

By the end of 1981, she had the lowest approval rating of any modern First Lady and was depicted by critics as “Queen Nancy.”

But on March 30, 1981, the public rallied around her when President Reagan was shot and wounded by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.

While her husband recovered in a hospital, Nancy Reagan slept with one of his shirts, saying she was comforted by the scent.

She admitted consulting astrologer Joan Quigley, asking if she could have foreseen and prevented the assassination attempt, and getting her to consult on setting the President’s schedule.

“Very few people can understand what it’s like to have your husband shot at and almost die, and then have him exposed all the time to enormous crowds, tens of thousands of people, any one of whom might be a lunatic with a gun…. I was doing everything I could think of to protect my husband and keep him alive,” Nancy Reagan said of seeking Quigley’s advice.

She further turned her uppity image around 1982, when she donned a mismatched outfit, yellow rubber rain boots and a straw hat to sing “Secondhand Clothes” at The Gridiron Club gala. The following day, a headline in the Daily News read, “First Lady Floors ‘Em With Song AND Dance.”

She parlayed her warmer image into a crusade against drug abuse and addiction, imploring young Americans to “Just Say No.”

“Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare, and it’s time we in America stand up and replace those dreams,” she said at the time.

By 1988, more than 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs were formed across the nation and the use of cocaine by high school seniors had dropped to the lowest rate in a decade.

During President Reagan’s second term, Nancy Reagan injected herself in world policy, persuading her husband to apologize for secretly approving arms sales to Iran. She also prompted the president to begin dialogue with the Soviet Union — which he had referred to as the “evil empire.”

In the middle of Reagan’s second term, Nancy Reagan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose to have a mastectomy in 1987.

When she recovered, she encouraged women to undergo mammograms.

“People should be afraid of cancer, not the mammogram,” she said at the time.

After the Reagans left the White House, Nancy penned a 2989 memoir simply titled, “My Turn.”

“I don’t think I was as bad as I was depicted,” she wrote. “Although there is a certain dignity in silence, which I find appealing, I have decided that for me, for our children and for the historical record, I want to tell my side of the story.”

In 1994, Ronald Reagan disclosed that he had Alzheimer’s disease. He disappeared from the public eye, but his wife often stood in for him to accept honors on his behalf.

“Ronnie’s spirit, his optimism, his never-failing belief in the strength and goodness of America is still very strong,” she said in a speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention. “I can tell you with certainty that he still sees the shining city on the hill.”

Following President Reagan’s death in 2004, Nancy Reagan continued to be a Republican powerbroker, courted for endorsements by GOP presidential candidates George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney.

She also kept fighting for causes that were dear to her and even butted heads with conservatives over such controversial issues as stem cell research.

Nancy Reagan last returned to the White House in 2009, wearing a bright red pant suit, walking with a cane and clinging to the arm of President Obama as he signed a proclamation establishing the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission.

“There are few who are not moved by the love that Mrs. Reagan felt for her husband,” Obama said at the ceremony.

jsilverstein@nydailynews.com

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