A first lady beloved by her country, Nancy Reagan died on Sunday at age 94, according to multiple media but first reported by TMZ.
She is being remembered today as the creator of the “Just Say No” to drugs advertising campaign, but most importantly as a powerful ally for her husband, not shy about speaking her mind on political matters affecting Ronald Reagan throughout his career, including as governor of California.
Her husband, though, is notorious among LGBT activists who survived the Reagan presidency, when the AIDS crisis raged, and when the president largely ignored the problem. Reagan didn’t give a formal speech about the epidemic until 1987, after thousands had died. In 1985, he was named The Advocate’s Homophobe of the Year and repeatedly made that annual list.
Nancy Reagan is sometimes credited with pushing her husband to do something about AIDS, and he eventually supported some funding for research. The death of their friend, actor Rock Hudson, is often referred to as a pivotal moment.
In February 2015, BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner reported on a previously overlooked moment in history when Hudson, dying of AIDS in a hospital in France, had sent a telegram to the White House looking for help. He wanted to be admitted to a French military hospital that was believed to have special treatment, but he needed the Reagans to intervene on his behalf to be admitted because he wasn’t a French citizen.
Nancy Reagan responded to the telegram in July 1985 and denied the request, reportedly because helping a Hollywood friend was seen as unfair. But she requested the press be notified that President Reagan had called Rock Hudson.
Hudson had been a guest of the Reagans at the White House, and former social secretary Gahl Hodges Burt recalled the story on MSNBC today of the actor learning of his diagnosis because he'd seen a spot on the back of his neck when looking at a photo of himself at a White House dinner. Burt said Nancy Reagan called her friend Elizabeth Taylor about it and urged her to get involved.
That isn't exactly how a 1992 Vanity Fair profile recalled the timeline, saying it was Taylor who had "kept after the Reagans until finally Reagan agreed to speak at the 1987 AmFAR Awards Dinner in Washington." Here's how Mathilde Krim, AmFAR’s founding co-chair, described it in the story:
"'One of Taylor’s first letters went to Nancy Reagan, suggesting she might want to get involved with AIDS. The First Lady’s response was frosty. President Reagan had yet to publicly utter the word 'AIDS'—“not even when he spoke to Rock Hudson on the telephone,' says Krim. 'Before Hudson admitted he had AIDS, he’d said he had hepatitis, so when Reagan called Hudson before he died, Reagan referred to his hepatitis.'"
Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan had two children together — Patti Davis and Ron Reagan — and she was step-mother to Michael Reagan. In 2013, their daughter Davis claimed in interviews that Nancy Reagan supported marriage equality.
“She does,” Davis said during a radio interview with Michelangelo Signorile. “I’m hesitant to speak for anyone else, and she’s not comfortable going out in the public eye and getting in the firing line of anything. So, you know, I want to be cautious about speaking on someone else’s behalf. But let me put it this way: I think if she had disagreed with what I said publicly about my father she would have said something publicly. … Let’s just put it that way. That’s the most sort of politically correct way I can answer that question.”
The first same-sex couple to room together at the White House might also be due to Nancy Reagan. According to a 1984 column reportedly published in the Washington Post, interior decorator Ted Graber spent the night with Archie Case while celebrating Nancy Reagan's 60th birthday.
Watch two clips from a PBS documentary about Nancy Reagan that focus on her role in the AIDS crisis, with discussion by historian Allida Black and her son Ron Reagan: