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Not Necessarily the First Lady | The Nation

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Not Necessarily the First Lady

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Nancy and Ronald Reagan met, they have repeatedly said, when she was blacklisted by mistake in the early 1950s after having been confused with another actress who had the same name, Nancy Davis. The other Nancy Davis, they said, really was a Communist. Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG), helped the first Nancy prove she wasn't the Communist Nancy Davis, and she was able to work again. Along the way they fell in love, and the rest is history.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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Today the other Nancy Davis works at a snack bar in Ventura, California. "She's been lying about me for years," she says of the First Lady. "I never was a Communist. I told Reagan back in the fifties that if she didn't stop saying I was a Communist, I'd sue her."

Ronald Reagan wrote in his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, that because his wife-to-be was assumed to be the other Nancy Davis, "her name kept showing up on rosters of Communist front organizations, affixed to petitions of the same coloration, and her mail frequently included notices of meetings she had no desire to attend, and accounts of these meetings as covered by the Daily Worker." The events he described took place in 1953, according to Anne Edwards's recently published Early Reagan, based in part on SAG archives. Nancy Davis Reagan was asked by Columbia Pictures to explain why her maiden name appeared on the amicus curiae brief supporting the Hollywood Ten. Ron, who was by then her husband, contacted B.B. Kahane, Columbia vice president in charge of security, indignantly explaining that there were two Nancy Davises and that the other one was the Communist.

Nancy herself demanded an apology, and got one from Kahane: "Of course, we could have taken it for granted that the wife of Ronald Reagan could not possibly be of questionable loyalty and could have disregarded that report." You could call that innocence by association. Kahane continued: "But as the citation was merely the signing of the amicus curiae brief and many persons signed this brief who we have been convinced are not now and never were Communists or sympathizers, we informed you of the citation believing that a satisfactory explanation would be forthcoming."

That was a lot nicer than the letter Kahane had written to Rita Hayworth's attorney, Martin Gang, the previous year, when Kahane sought to clear her name from the blacklist. Hayworth, unlike Nancy Reagan, was asked to submit a sworn statement that "should set forth the fact (if, as I assume, it is a fact) that she is not now and never has been a member of the Communist Party. It should also contain a positive, forthright affirmation of her loyalty to the United States and I hope, a strong condemnation of Communistic subversive groups and ideologies."

Kahane's letter to Nancy contained one striking admission: The studio recognized that not all supporters of the Hollywood Ten were Communists or "sympathizers." Obviously, this included the Nancy Davis who had signed the brief. Nevertheless, Nancy Davis Reagan has repeatedly described the other Nancy Davis as a Communist. "It's not true," says the other Nancy Davis, who skated in several Sonia Henie movies. "I didn't have anything to do with the Communists. I never signed anything about the Hollywood Ten. After I threatened to sue her, she stopped saying those things for a while. Then in the eighties it's begun again.

"It is true that we were confused with each other. I'd get her paychecks and she'd get mine. Hers were bigger. We'd exchange them. And once I got an invitation to a fancy event at the Beverly Hills Hotel; it said, 'Bring Mr. Reagan.' I brought Tony Reagan; he was a casting director at Paramount."

The other Nancy recalls that she was summoned to a meeting with SAG president Reagan to discuss the "two Nancys" problem. "He told me I had to change my name," she recalled. "He suggested I use 'Nancy Lee Davis.' I told him I wouldn't; I was the first Nancy Davis in the guild, so under the rules she had to change her name. But he was the boss, and he insisted. I realized he could cause me a lot of trouble. So I changed my name."

After Nancy Davis Reagan was cleared to work in 1953, she appeared in a supporting role in Donovan's Brain. In the film, an evil tycoon dies and his brain is kept alive by a scientist, played by Lew Ayres; the brain takes the scientist over and makes him do terrible things. (The film was recently brought to life with William Casey as the dead tycoon and Reagan himself in the Lew Ayres role.)

What about Nancy and Ronald Reagan's story that they met and fell in love when he cleared Nancy of charges that she was associated with Communists? It couldn't have happened the way they said it did because, according to Anne Edwards, Nancy Davis Reagan was not linked to the Hollywood Ten by Columbia Pictures until 1953, when she was already married to the future President. In fact they had met in 1949, when, according to Edwards, Nancy had told producer Dore Schary's wife, Miriam, she wanted to meet Reagan, and the Scharys invited both to a small dinner party. The Scharys' daughter, author Jill Robinson, recalled the evening: Reagan described the evils of Communism and Nancy "kept smiling at him in agreement." Soon after, Reagan's brother Neil told a friend, "It looks as if this one has her hooks in him."

Thus there were two Nancy Davises in Hollywood in the early 1950s. One called the other a Communist. That was not true. The first one ended up in the White House, and the other one ended up in Ventura, California, flipping burgers in a snack bar. That's show business in America.

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