She was the face of the ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign in the 1980s, but Nancy Reagan had a secret addiction to prescription pills, according to a bombshell new biography.
The former first lady had been taking so many ‘uppers and downers’ during her term that the White House physician had to inform President Ronald Reagan that his wife had a ‘problem.’
And her own brother, Dr. Richard Davis, could not rule out the ‘possibility she had grown addicted to medication,’ the book claims.
When Presidential Physician Dr. John Hutton tried to wean her off sleeping pill Dalmane, Nancy had such a ‘violent reaction’ he had to put her back on it.
She even offered the pills to the president to ensure he slept properly on foreign trips, but they left him feeling so groggy he stumbled on the stairs in the Kremlin during a 1988 visit to Moscow.
First Lady Nancy Reagan (pictured during a Just Say No rally in 1986) became the face of the national campaign against drugs in the 1980s, but little did the public know she had an addiction of her own
The late first lady launched the drug awareness campaign in 1982 as a counterpart to her husband’s ‘War on Drugs.’ The project became her most high-profile initiative as first lady
According to a new biography, Nancy (pictured during her husband’s inaugural parade in 1981) was secretly dealing with a pill popping habit and had become so hooked, White House doctors had to warn the president
The claims in the new book, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, by Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty, published Tuesday, sheds new light on Nancy’s anti-drugs crusade that became her most high profile mission as First Lady of the United States.
During the 1980s, as her husband began the ‘War on Drugs’ to crack down on narcotics trafficking in America, Nancy’s role in the campaign was designed as a public service announcement to target young people.
Just Say No clubs sprang up in all 50 states with almost 460,000 members, but the campaign was criticized for being preachy, simplistic and demonizing drug users.
According to the book, Nancy’s commitment to the cause was ‘genuine and deeply felt’ and she believed the nation’s health could be shaped through example.
But going back to the 1950s, Nancy herself had been ‘dependent on prescription medications’ to get her through stressful times.
The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, by Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty, was published on April 13, 2021, by Simon & Schuster
Tumulty cites notes taken by Reagan biographer Edmund Morris during his interview with the president’s Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver in 1989 in which he said that ‘anxiety-ridden Nancy subsisted on ‘uppers and downers.’
‘She took a pill to fall asleep, Deaver said, and then woke up in the middle of the night to take another,’ Tumulty writes.
‘Her use of these drugs was serious enough to become a worry to at least two White House physicians who served under (Reagan).’
One of the doctors, Daniel Ruge became so ‘nervous and concerned about Nancy’s heavy use of medication that he warned the president that his wife had ‘a problem.’
Richard Davis, himself a doctor, ‘did not dismiss the possibility that Nancy had grown addicted to medication or that (Ruge) would have taken action to put a stop to it,’ the book states.
‘Whether this accounts for some of the fluctuations in her mood over the years, I can’t say, but I’m sure Dr. Ruge would use the best possible judgement if he felt she was taking too much in the way of diet pills or sleeping pills,’ Davis said.
‘He certainly would have given her good advice and perhaps that was the reason she didn’t care for him at all.’
Dr. John Hutton, who was one of Dr. Ruge’s successors, ‘attempted to wean her off the sleeping pill Dalmane however she had been taking so much and for so long that she had a violent reaction to withdrawal,’ the book claims.
The Just Say No campaign appeared to be a success, with clubs popping up in all 50 states with almost 460,000 members, but it was criticized for being preachy, simplistic and for demonizing drug users. It also failed to include the dangers of prescription drug abuse
Nancy had heavily depended on sleeping pill Dalmane, Presidential Physician Dr. John Hutton tried to wean her off the medication but was forced to put her back on it after she suffered a ‘violent reaction’
According to a former White House aide, Dr. Hutton had ‘no choice but to put her back on the drug.’
On overseas trips, Nancy wanted to make sure her husband was well rested so she would sometimes share her Dalmane with him.
But Reagan was not used to the drug and the effects showed the next day.
‘He couldn’t handle it very well. One wasn’t enough because he was a pretty good-sized guy so he would take two and he would wake up the next morning and he was really kind of hung over, kind of groggy and his balance was off. It happened two or three times,’ the former aide said.
One instance was the Moscow summit in 1988 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when Reagan was ‘woozy’ and stumbled on some steps – a gaffe which the press did not happen to catch, therefore no photos were taken.
Tumulty writes that Nancy’s anti-drug messaging failed to include prescription drug abuse which would become a national crisis decades later.
Nancy’s pill popping habit was mentioned in daughter Patti Davis’s 1992 memoir, in which she said her mother was ‘dependent’ on prescription drugs, but stopped short of calling her an addict.
Patti herself admitted that she stole the tranquilizers Miltown, Librium, Valium and Quaaludes from her mother’s bathroom which she traded for amphetamines with friends to fuel her own drug addiction.
A 1955 family portrait of Ronald Reagan wearing a polka-dot scarf and two tone shoes with his wife Nancy Davis, their daughter Patti Davis and their infant son Ron Jr
In her own 1992 memoir, Nancy’s daughter, Patti Davis (pictured together left in 1996) referred to her mother’s pill popping habit and admitted she used to steal the tranquilizers Miltown, Librium, Valium and Quaaludes from her her bathroom
Nancy Reagan (center) with son Ron Reagan Jr. and daughter Patti Davis are pictured arriving at Gates Kingsley and Gates Moeller Murphy funeral home in Santa Monica after President Reagan’s death in 2004
She wrote that she believed the Just Say No campaign was a ‘subconscious cry for help’ from her mother.
The new biography also lifts the lid on Nancy’s close friendship with Frank Sinatra.
According to Tumulty, nobody she spoke to suggested there was a sexual relationship between the two, but there was a clear ’emotional dependence that seems to have gone both ways.’
The singer had gotten to know the Reagans while Ronald was governor of California, and he was one of the first people who Nancy called after the attempted assassination of the president in 1981.
Sinatra canceled the rest of his shows at Caesars Palace and flew to Washington immediately to be by Nancy’s side.
Tumulty writes that Sinatra was ‘someone Sinatra turned to as well during difficult times.’
Sinatra’s daughter, Tina also called the former first lady a ‘close confidante’ of her father who turned to Nancy during rough patches in his marriage to his fourth wife and widow, Barbara.
Tina wrote in her memoir that during one point his father and the first lady were ‘speaking every night, at an appointed time and my father was pouring his heart out.’
In exchange, Sinatra got the ‘legitimacy he craved’ after the Kennedys threw him out of their circle in the 1960s due to his links to the mob.
The new book also sheds light on the Reagans close relationship to Frank Sinatra. The couple are pictured at an event with the crooner in 1980
Sinatra was so close to Nancy that White House counsel Fred Fielding got wind that they were discussing the possibility of giving him a formal role in the Reagan administration, perhaps overseeing the arts.
Fielding said Nancy told top level staffers that Sinatra should ‘come into the government in some way, shape or form.’
‘So I said: “Well bring him over” and he came walking in and we chatted for a bit,’ Fielding said.
‘I said: “Listen I think this is so great you’re willing to serve, and I’ll tell you what, I’m going to get you the forms and I’ll walk you through them and I’ll help expedite the FBI background investigation of you”.’
But at the mention of the FBI, Deaver, the deputy chief of staff, ‘found it hard to stop himself from breaking out in laughter’ – and the idea never came into fruition.
Among the blackest stains on the Reagan legacy is the president’s failure to handle the AIDS crisis in the US – which Tumulty reveals was partly due to homophobia.
It was not until 1985, about five years into the epidemic, that the Reagan administration even uttered the name of the disease and only the death of actor Rock Hudson, who had AIDS, appeared to have changed their minds.
White House press spokesman Larry Speakes recalled that in private Reagan trafficked in gay stereotypes.
Reagan’s conservative policies caused tension between him and his four children, some of whom ended up campaigning against him. His relationship with his eldest son Michael (pictured right during his funeral) were the most fraught and led stepmom Nancy to make an extraordinary offer when Reagan neared the end of his life
The Reagan family at Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, California, November 28, 1985. Standing (L-R): Bess Reagan, Patti Davis, Paul Grilley, Cameron Reagan, Nancy Reagan, the President, Colleen and Michael Reagan, and Neil Reagan. Foreground, (L-R): Ron, Doria, and Ashley Marie Reagan
After his weekly shampoo, Reagan would flick his wrists and adopt a lisping voice to say: ‘I washed my hair last night and I just can’t do a thing with it.’
‘He does a very good gay imitation. He would pretend to be annoyed at someone and say: “If those fellows don’t leave me alone, I’ll just slap them on the wrist!”,’ Speakes said.
Reagan’s conservative policies such as cutting welfare payments also caused severe tension with his four children, some of whom ended up campaigning against him.
Relations with his eldest son Michael were the most fraught and led stepmom Nancy to make an extraordinary offer when Reagan neared the end of his life.
She was so ‘fearful’ that one of their children might sue the estate after she and Reagan were dead that she offered the children a financial incentive, the book claims.
If the children agreed to waive all rights to challenge the will, they would get double their inheritance, or $200,000.
But Reagan’s son Ron said he was ‘offended his mother would even ask such a thing’, as it implied she didn’t trust him or thought she was after his money.
‘I reacted badly to that’ and refused, as did Michael,’ he said.
Nancy tried to change Ron’s mind by saying it was ‘really more to do with Michael than anybody else’, as Ron put it.
He said: ‘They were worried Mike was going to sue the estate which indeed turned out to be a well-founded concern.’
He declined to give further details because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement but sources said that Michael did threaten legal action at least twice, after his father’s death in 2004 and Nancy’s death in 2016.
The terms were renegotiated giving him a greater share than he would have otherwise received, the book claims.