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Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.

Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography. Kitty Kelley. Simon & Schuster $24.95. Breathes there a soul inside the beltway who has not heard about this book? The 528-page tome, which spiraled instantly to the top of the best-seller list, has been trumpeted on the front page of The New York Times; satirized by Garry Trudeau; criticized on the covers of both Time and Newsweek; disputed by People; and rehashed on every major and minor talk show in the country.

What's caught the public's imagination is a lurid tale of conspicuous consumption and clandestine affairs-a portrait of a two-faced harridan who reigned at 1600 Pennsylvania like Marie Antoinette. Indeed, this unauthorized biography has got decadence to burn. But to Kelley's-and Nancy's-credit, it is also a study of a dealmaker of remarkable proportions: a master of manipulation who, once she paid her dues, made sure she'd never again have to pay her own way. Forget 01' Blue Eyes. The Nancy we see here is the antithesis of the nooner-inclined romantic-the relentlessly acquisitive bitch. Throughout her life, she chafed at paying for the smallest details, even toilet paper, yet when she decamped from the White House, it took nine U.S. Air Force transport planes to remove her worldly possessions. Through a series of canny business transactions, a woman born near the railroad tracks in Queens had parlayed a civil servant's salary into half a century of style. Nancy had an instinct for the deal early on: selling her personalized hand towels to another Nancy at Smith; scheming as a starlet to catch the preoccupied president of the Screen Actors Guild. But as she aged, she traded the small-time hustle for more elaborate moves. In 1956, while her husband was the spokesman for General Electric, the company agreed to electrify the couple's home in exchange for publicity. G.E. invested $100,000 worth of equipment-a retractable canopy roof, a small theater, a heated swimming pool with underwater lights, even electric drapes-in the house, making it a model of high-voltage living. This set in motion a lifelong pattern of trading promotion for possessions. In time, freebies would become her way of life. After Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, Nancy was appalled by the governor's mansion, particularly its tacky purple chairs. So Reagan's kitchen cabinet bought and lavishly furnished a Sacramento house for the pair-and then donated 1 acres to the state for the construction of a new, $1.4 million mansion (a structure more suited to Nancy's tastes). Years later, the same group ponied up megabucks to acquire a Bel Air estate for the Reagans' retirement. Not satisfied with the address-she claimed the number 666 signified Satan-Nancy had the offending numerals switched to 668. And then, of course, there were the clothes. Adolpho suits. Galanos gowns. Solid gold jewelry from Bulgari. Perfumes, watches, pocketbooks with $2,500 price tags-gifts or "borrowings" all. Nancy didn't even pay to dye her hair that trademark mousy brown. Clairol flew a hairdresser to the White House every three weeks to do the chemical treatments.

Nor was Nancy's dealmaking restricted to material goods. As Kelley tells it, Nancy was the eminence grise behind the president, convincing him to dump advisers from William Casey to Donald Regan to one hapless White House photographer. A moderate in a collegium of conservatives, she left her mark on policy, too: urging her husband to ditch the concept of the Soviet Union as "evil empire" and ensuring that his inner circle stayed loyal and deferential. Most of this she managed with the appropriate obliqueness-using threats and rumors to their maximum effect.

But what Nancy really wanted wasn't political power. She craved an entree into high society, which she went after with as much energy as she'd gone after Ronnie. She set her sights on the frivolous faces who adorned the pages of Women's Wear Daily-the rich, the well connected, and the royal-and eventually had them buying clothes for her. She studied and emulated Betsy Bloomingdale and Brooke Astor, and flirted with the omnipotent Katharine Graham. She assiduously courted Jackie Onassis, admiring her style. Barbara Bush, on the other hand, wasn't worth the effort.

At the end of her eight heady years, Nancy resented turning over the White House to the "whiny" George Bush and his dowdy wife. "If it hadn't been for us, they wouldn't even be here," she caviled to a friend. Of course, if it hadn't been for Nancy, the Reagans probably wouldn't have been there, either, in all their borrowed style.

The shrewd maneuvers, the bitchiness, the uncanny knack for turning publicity into personal windfalls-no wonder the similarly talented Kelley was so intrigued. If the Reagan era hadn't happened, Kelley's gossipy account wouldn't have stood a chance. But today, thanks in no small part to Nancy, designer-studded deep dish is the coin of the realm. Upon finishing this book one can only conclude that Nancy, no slouch in the dishing department herself, would have enjoyed every morsel had it been written about anyone but her.

-Sandra McElwaine
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Author:McElwaine, Sandra
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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