Patricia Ryan Nixon, the poised, gracious, model political wife through the roller-coaster rises and disgraceful fall of former President Richard Nixon's turbulent career, died Tuesday at their home in Park Ridge, N.J. She was 81.
Mrs. Nixon, a heavy smoker although she never permitted herself to be seen smoking in public, died of lung cancer. She had suffered from lung disease for several years and was hospitalized last February for emphysema when the cancer was discovered.
Nixon and their daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, were at her bedside when she died at 5:45 a.m. EDT, according to a statement from Nixon's New Jersey office.
For three decades Pat Nixon was always there, the loyal and sometimes obviously suffering wife standing stoically behind her husband as he pursued a career that took him to the unprecedented heights--and depths--of public life.
The former First Lady cried only twice in public--when her husband lost his 1960 bid for the presidency to John F. Kennedy, and when he made his farewell speech on Aug. 9, 1974, after the Watergate scandal forced him to resign.
She once said her "only goal" was to "go down in history as the wife of a President."
Her reclusive years after leaving the White House have been described as "Garboesque," with her resorting to wigs and disguises to go shopping. She suffered a major stroke in 1976, which her husband attributed to her reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's "The Final Days" about Watergate. She had another stroke in 1983 and had been in frail health for years.
"She cherishes the privacy of her retirement years," daughter Julie wrote in her loving 1986 biography, "Pat Nixon: The Untold Story," which strove to establish her mother's accomplishments as the most widely traveled First Lady in history with trips to 80 nations, her laudable addition of antiques to the White House and her promotion of volunteerism.
One of Mrs. Nixon's last public appearances was in Yorba Linda on July 19, 1990, for the dedication of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, and at a dinner that night for 1,600 friends at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. The library, where her memorial services will be conducted Saturday, includes a Pat Nixon room and grounds planted with the red-black Pat Nixon Rose developed by a French firm in 1972 when she was First Lady.
"She is a true, unsung hero of the Nixon Administration and our country owes her a great debt of gratitude," former President Ronald Reagan said at the dedication. He echoed that appraisal in a statement Tuesday.
California Gov. Pete Wilson said, "She was a woman of great strength and generous spirit. In time of trial and turmoil, she shared that strength and spirit not just with her family, but with the nation." Wilson will deliver one of her eulogies Saturday. "She never sought public life, but she met its obligations with dignity and unfaltering good cheer."
President Clinton saluted Mrs. Nixon on Tuesday as "a quiet pioneer whose concern for family and country will leave a lasting mark on history."
Former President George Bush, noting that Mrs. Nixon's Secret Service code name was "Starlight," has called her "a gracious First Lady who ranks among the most admired women of postwar America."
In addition to her considerable presence at the Nixon Library and Birthplace, Mrs. Nixon's childhood home in Cerritos has been made into the four-acre Pat Nixon Park.
Thelma Catherine Ryan was born March 16, 1912, in the mining town of Ely, Nev.
Her father, William Ryan, was, in Mrs. Nixon's words, "100% Irish"; he nicknamed her "Pat" because she was born on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. The nickname stuck so well that, disliking Thelma, she later had her name changed to Patricia.
Ryan had been a miner in Nevada, but when their baby girl was a year old, the family moved to Artesia, a small town about 18 miles from Los Angeles, where they ran a 10 1/2-acre truck farm.
Pat was only 13 when her mother died, leaving her to cook and care for her father and two half-brothers. Five years later, her father died.
Pat Ryan had just graduated from Excelsior Union High School and knew she would have to finance her own further education.
She began by attending Fullerton Junior College, paying her way by working at the National Bank of Artesia. A year later, she drove an elderly couple in their "huge and ancient" Packard across country to New York City, where she worked as a secretary, X-ray technician and store clerk.
Savings in hand, she returned to enroll at USC, where she specialized in merchandising, and worked in the cafeteria and library and as a model and movie extra. She was graduated in 1937, with honors. Because of the Depression, she abandoned plans to become a department store buyer, and settled for a job teaching commercial subjects at Whittier High School at $190 a month.