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Her Role With Reagans Left Her Bitter

November 05, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

One Nancy Davis is married to the most influential man in the country, jets around the world in Air Force One and decks herself in the latest haute couture.

Another Nancy Davis runs a snack bar at the Ventura harbor, wears a full-length apron and serves a tuna sandwich, named after her and garnished with onions and provolone cheese.

Although their lives are pictures of disparity, their paths once crossed 35 years ago in an odd and fateful case of mistaken identity.

For Nancy Davis Reagan, it meant an introduction to the man who would eventually make her this country's First Lady.

For Nancy Davis Hunt, owner of First Mate's Deli, it left the lingering feeling that she had been falsely branded a communist.

"I've never met her, but I'd like to now," Hunt said of the First Lady. "I'd poke her in the nose."

The story of their mix-up comes from the early 1950s, when the two Nancy Davises were young actresses in the politically volatile world of Cold War Hollywood.

The future Mrs. Reagan had somehow ended up on the mailing lists of several communist organizations and was being flooded with notices of their meetings, she says in her autobiography, "Nancy."

Concerned that she might be blacklisted, she turned for help to Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan found that there were two Nancy Davises working in Hollywood and assured the distressed actress over dinner that he would clear her name.

"I don't know if it was love at first sight," writes the First Lady, "but it was something close to it."

The other Nancy Davis, who says she was not a communist or even politically active, was then instructed by Reagan to change her name to avoid any confusion with the future Mrs. Reagan.

Records at the Screen Actors Guild show that they were the only two Nancy Davises with membership in the organization at the time.

"I told him it was my true name," recalled Nancy Davis Hunt, who lives on a 50-foot trawler in the Channel Islands Harbor. "But jobs were scarce and I wanted to keep on working, so I changed it to 'Nancy Lee Davis.' "

Although they continued to be confused occasionally--paychecks were sometimes mixed up and Nancy Lee once received a party invitation that said "Bring Mr. Reagan"--the former horsewoman and ice skater says she was never investigated for communist ties.

Still, she is angered to hear that the Reagans frequently say that they met 35 years ago thanks to a communist sympathizer named Nancy Davis whom some people had confused with the future First Lady.

"It irks me," Hunt said. "For a while, I thought it was kind of funny. But a lot of people look at you differently."

The story of their mix-up is made more peculiar by Anne Edwards' 1987 biography, "Early Reagan," in which she contends that the Reagans' account of their meeting could not have happened.

According to Edwards, the Reagans met at a dinner party in 1949 on purely social terms, and it was not until 1953 that Nancy Reagan--who already was married at the time--encountered trouble over alleged connections to communist organizations.

Besides, Edwards writes that Nancy Lee Davis did not work in Hollywood from 1945 to 1952, and thus could not have been taken either for a communist or for the other Nancy Davis.

The Reagans, however, both write in their autobiographies that they met as a result of the mix-up, and the First Lady recalls the year as 1951. Hunt, meanwhile, insisted that she worked in the film industry during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"I'd like to find out just what happened," she said.

Now 60, with sparkling eyes and a quick, husky laugh, the blond deli owner is far removed from her days in Hollywood.

Her Spinnaker Drive snack bar, at the water's edge, offers the stuff of a more ordinary world: unbreakable combs, egg salad sandwiches and Dramamine pills for the novice seaman.

Instead of doing figure eights in Sonja Henie movies or stunt work in Cary Grant's "To Catch a Thief," her work now concerns deciding whether the potato salad should have Bermuda onions or asking a customer if he wants barbecue sauce on his six-ounce Bounty Burger.

"There is no comparison," she said. "I had so much fun down there. I was always into mischief. Good mischief. This is the quiet life up here."

Still, Hunt makes sure the signs of the past are never far away.

Named 'Soldiers' Sweetheart'

She keeps a large glass frame filled with black and white photos and yellowed newspaper clippings from her Hollywood days by the delicatessen entrance .

In 1943, according to one tattered article, she was named the "Soldiers' Sweetheart" when the Hollywood Ice Review entertained servicemen in California.

Another clipping tells how her "healthy, American" looks earned her the title of the "Life Girl," so-named for the soft drink she was to promote.

An autographed picture from Clark Gable is signed simply, "Thanks for everything."

"I had a ball," she said of those years.

Hunt was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Beverly Hills High School. Hunt said she left Hollywood in the early 1960s after a family friend offered her a job working at an Oxnard gift shop and restaurant.

She later started her own delicatessen at the Channel Islands Harbor, but sold it after she and her daughter, Nanci, 31, opened the First Mate's Deli in Ventura eight years ago.

A swimmer and boating enthusiast, Hunt won the women's fishing derby at the Channel Islands Yacht Club in 1985 when she landed a 159-pound marlin off the east coast of Anacapa Island.

"I'm the type who has to be busy all the time," she said. "Otherwise, I'd be bored to death."

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