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Hearts on Fire: The Reagans' Long Romance

September 11, 2000|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Shakespeare through soap operas, we have all heard various views of True Love as it exists in fiction. A passion so deep, so transporting, so simultaneously physical and mental that it shuts out all else. Love that can waft a couple through time and space, alone together, on a cloud of intimacy and ecstasy.

The new book, "I Love You, Ronnie" (Random House), proves that Ronald and Nancy Reagan have shared such a love in real life. Small segments of the correspondence from Reagan to his wife cannot deliver the high-intensity emotion that these dozens of notes, letters and squiggles convey when they are heaped page upon page, spanning 50 years.

In a small, chickeny scrawl, often addressing his beloved as Nancy Pants or Mommie Poo Pants, Ronald Reagan conveyed his deepening love as the years disappear and the romance doesn't. He could not bear to be away from her, could not wait to be alone with her, was suffused with warmth (read: desire) just thinking about her, just looking at her bedroom window from his desk in the Oval Office.

Through his early years as an actor, then as governor and president, Reagan was often forced to travel without his wife. And whenever that happened, she writes, he would mail descriptions to her of the world he was viewing, letters "filled with emotion, which deepened as we fell more and more in love."

The psycho-biographers will undoubtedly pore over these letters, theorizing about the Reagans' childhoods, their unfulfilled needs, and the overwhelming passion that beset them when they met on a blind date in Hollywood in 1949. He was a hunky divorced actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild. She was a petite actress, who had been left to live with a relative as a child while her mother pursued an acting career. (Her mother reclaimed her when she married Chicago physician Loyal Davis, who by all accounts became a loving but stern father to the young girl.)

Nancy realized well before Ronald did that they were destined to be a matched pair, that he was everything she wanted and would ever need. He had a great sense of humor, she writes. He didn't talk about himself, his movies or even the film world in general. He talked about the Civil War, horses, good wine, "and had a broad knowledge of many different things."

"How come you moved in on me like this?" he wrote to her in a plaintive note early in the relationship. It clearly was not meant as a scold but was a kind of uncomprehending wonderment at the unpredictable nature of love and life itself.

He was grateful to her from the start, acknowledging that he was "no Browning" but often attempting poetry anyway. "Without you, there would be no sun, no moon, no stars. With you, they are all out at the same time." On one Valentine's Day, he thanked her for giving him a Valentine's life.

As an actor, working for General Electric, he wrote from a lonely New York hotel room about "this pigeon-encrusted city," the unexpectedly smarmy types he encountered while dining at the elegant 21 Club, and about a need so great for her that he began to fantasize she was with him. "We walked back in the twilight, and I guess I hadn't ought to put us on paper from there on. Let's just say I didn't know my lines this morning."

In other letters, he discussed his "heart transplant" (her heart into his)--and his constant feeling that they were conjoined, that he could not physically survive without her. The amazing thing is that he found so many creative ways in which to say it. There is hardly a repetitive letter in the lot.

It was a Sunday when he wrote from the Atlanta Biltmore: "Here it is, our day . . . if we were home we'd have a fire and 'funnies,' and we'd hate anyone who called or dropped in." Throughout the correspondence, Reagan seems to make clear that his need for his wife surmounted all else, that even his children must come second. Not by his choice, but as if by some higher mandate.

In 1983, three years into his presidency and more than a decade before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Reagan whipped off a typical anniversary note to his wife from aboard Air Force One. In it, he described "31 years of such happiness as comes to few men . . . like an adolescent's dream of what marriage should be. . . . When you aren't there, I'm no place, just lost in time and space. . . . I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me."

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