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The flawed father figure

Though reconciled in his later years, Reagan's children conflicted often with a man they described as distant.

June 07, 2004|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Ronald Reagan idealized the close-knit American family but was himself an untraditional patriarch who headed a famously splintered brood.

During his years in public office, his children conducted family feuds in public, at times openly defied his values and rarely gathered for public or private functions. Before reconciling in Reagan's twilight years, they sometimes used press interviews or books to communicate with one another.

His daughter Patti Davis, notorious for her colorful life and tell-all memoirs, remarked in 1991, "The mark of this family is that everybody is distanced from everybody else.... There was no glue in this family."

Divorced and remarried, Reagan is survived by three children: Michael, adopted by Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman; and Davis and Ronald Prescott Reagan, his children with second wife Nancy Reagan (nee Davis), the former actress and future first lady. Daughter Maureen, born to Reagan and Wyman, died in 2001of malignant melanoma.

Children of Hollywood before their father entered politics, they struggled for attention like many celebrity offspring. They also treasured private moments spent with him -- especially on the family ranch near Malibu, where he taught them to swim and ride. They have described him as genuinely kind and an exceptional storyteller. Maureen, who enjoyed the closest relationship with their father, said she always remembered him as the hero of her childhood -- "this gorgeous, bronze Adonis." Michael called him "damn near perfect."

At the same time, Reagan displayed an emotional detachment so severe that the children later said they felt invisible or diminished even when he was around. Once Reagan failed to recognize Michael after giving the commencement speech at his graduation from an Arizona boarding school. "My name is Ronald Reagan," he said to his son. "What's yours?"

In 1998, Ron, known as the favored child, told a PBS interviewer he had never had a real conversation with his father. In some respects, he said, the frustration felt by each of the children to their father's increasing obliviousness after the 1994 onset of Alzheimer's disease was nothing new. "[We] banged our head against the wall -- you know, 'Why can't we get any closer? Why can't there be more of a rapport?' But after you accept that there just isn't going to be [one], then you make your peace with that...."

Some have attributed Reagan's remoteness to his father's alcoholism or to his seemingly exclusive relationship with his wife Nancy.

Michael, in a 1988 memoir, wrote that he spent his childhood seeking affection. He complained that he and Maureen were raised by nannies and maids; after their parents divorced, they were sent to boarding school -- Maureen at age 7, Michael at age 5.

It was only when Michael was 14 and returned to live with his father that the children from his second marriage learned they had half-siblings from his first. "Patti was introduced to us siblings on a need-to-know basis," Maureen wrote in her memoir. Because their parents had only gotten as far as to tell Patti about Michael, Maureen had to break the news that they were sisters. Maureen recalled that Patti, then 7, ran crying from the room.

A New York Times article in 1980 noted that while the parents were inseparable, the family seldom gathered and the children were left to go their own ways "except when called upon to make a formal public appearance."

Sometimes, outsiders reportedly informed the Reagans about major events in their children's lives. In 1980, reporters told them, for instance, that Ron had married his live-in girlfriend, Doria Palmieri; a friend and a Secret Service agent served as witnesses. They learned about their daughter Patti's 1986 thinly veiled novel based on their lives through an item in Time magazine.

Though many of their troubles, resentments and disappointments may have been no different from those of any family who has struggled through modern issues, their stories played out on a larger stage to a national audience. Considering her movie star parents and access to the White House, Maureen harbored no illusions they were like other families. "What's normal for me," she told an audience in 1981, "isn't the same as what's normal for you."

As the children fought to establish their own identities, family secrets spilled into the public spotlight.

In his 1988 autobiography, Michael disclosed that he had been sexually abused in 1953 by a camp counselor he had regarded as a father figure. He informed his father just before the book was published. "Dad went pale and put his arm around me," he said later.

Missteps along the way

When he was grown, Michael floundered as he sought work in acting, speedboat racing and sales. In 1981, Michael used his father's name in a letter soliciting potential customers from an Air Force contractor for his airplane parts company. Reagan told him, "Don't write any more letters like that." Later, Michael resigned his position.

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