Monday, March 07, 2016

A minor (but intriguing) Nancy Reagan-related mystery

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon did a obituary on Nancy Reagan for the New York Times, Nancy Reagan, an Influential and Protective First Lady, Dies at 94 03/06/2016.

It's an informative biographical sketch. But there are a couple of places where I did a double-take. Like this one, one how Nancy and "Ronnie" met:

In the late 1940s, Hollywood was in the grip of a “Red Scare,” prompted by government investigations into accusations of Communist influence in the film industry. In October 1949, the name Nancy Davis appeared in a Hollywood newspaper on a list of signers of a supporting brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the convictions of two screenwriters who had been blacklisted after being found guilty of contempt for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Such newspaper mentions could mean the end of a career, and Miss Davis sought help from her friend Mervyn LeRoy, who had directed her in “East Side, West Side.” LeRoy found it was a case of mistaken identity: another Nancy Davis had worked in what he called “leftist theater.” He offered to call Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, to make sure there would be no problems in the future. Instead, Miss Davis insisted that LeRoy set up a meeting with Mr. Reagan.

The meeting took place over dinner at LaRue’s, a fashionable Hollywood restaurant on Sunset Strip. Mr. Reagan, recovering from multiple leg fractures suffered in a charity baseball game, was on crutches. Miss Davis was immediately smitten.
Cannon's account is echoed by this one from the Reagan Foundation (Nancy Meets Ronald Reagan 1944-1966 2010):

On October 28, 1949, the Hollywood Reporter, an industry paper, published a list of suspected Communist sympathizers. Nancy Davis was shocked to see her name included. At that time, the political activities of many in Hollywood were being scrutinized, and those who were believed to be Communists were in danger of being blacklisted. Nancy was terrified that she would be placed on that list and her career would be over. She sought the help of Mervyn LeRoy, the director of East Side, West Side, the movie she was working on at the time, in order to clear her name. LeRoy suggested that the president of the Screen Actors Guild might be able to help. His name was Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan assured LeRoy that there were several actresses with the name Nancy Davis, and that she shouldn’t worry. Meanwhile, Louella Parsons, the gossip columnist, wrote that it was another Nancy Davis who was a leftist sympathizer, and the Hollywood Reporter issued a clarification. But Nancy wouldn’t be satisfied until she was sure she was above suspicion, and wanted personal reassurance from the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Mervyn LeRoy arranged for Ronald Reagan to call her, and they made plans to meet over dinner.

When Ronald and Nancy arranged their date, each wanted to give themselves the opportunity to end the evening early if it didn’t go well. Ronald told Nancy he had an “early call” to the set the next morning, and Nancy said she did, too. Of course, neither of them had an early call. They went to one of the trendiest restaurants on the Sunset Strip, and had a wonderful time. After dinner they went to a show at a nearby nightclub, and enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the second show. By the time the evening was over, they both confessed they didn’t have early calls after all.
Jon Wiener in Nancy Reagan and the Problem of the Two Nancys The Nation 03/06/2016 (adapted from his original article of 10/03/1987) gives an idea of the uncertainties around the story. For instance, the Cannon and Reagan Foundation accounts restrict themselves to call that other Nancy Davis a "leftist." Wiener:

Nancy Reagan, who died March 6, often explained that she and the future president met cute. She had been threatened with blacklisting in the early ’50s—by mistake, she said, after having been confused with another actress who had the same name—Nancy Davis. The other Nancy Davis, Nancy and Ronald Reagan said, really was a Communist. Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, helped the first Nancy prove she wasn’t the Communist Nancy Davis, and she was able to work again. Along the way, they fell in love, and the rest is history.

In 1987, I found the other Nancy Davis working at a snack bar in Ventura, California, and interviewed her for The Nation. When I asked about the first lady, she said, “She’s been lying about me for years.... I never was a Communist. I told Reagan back in the fifties that if she didn’t stop saying I was a Communist, I’d sue her.”
Wiener cites an account by St. Reagan himself suggesting that not only the names but the mailing addresses of the two Nancys were being confused by others:

Ronald Reagan wrote in his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, that because his wife-to-be was assumed to be the other Nancy Davis, “her name kept showing up on rosters of Communist front organizations, affixed to petitions of the same coloration, and her mail frequently included notices of meetings she had no desire to attend, and accounts of these meetings as covered by the Daily Worker.”
The Daily Worker was the name of the Communist Party's newspaper until 1958. I still see rightwingers today sneering at some comment that don't like by saying it sounds like it came out of the Daily Worker. Which is kind of strange, because if you do the math, someone who turned 18 in 1958 would turn 76 this year. In other words, if you have adult memories of the Daily Worker as a current newspaper, you're already deep in the FOX News prime market segment.

The other Nancy wasn't happy about the way the Reagans handled the two-Nancys problem:

Nancy Reagan repeatedly described the other Nancy Davis as a Communist.

“It’s not true,” the other Nancy Davis told me. (She had skated in several Sonja Henie movies.) “I didn’t have anything to do with the Communists. I never signed anything about the Hollywood Ten. After I threatened to sue her, she stopped saying those things for a while. Then in the eighties it’s begun again.”

“It is true that we were confused with each other,” the other Nancy said. “I’d get her paychecks, and she’d get mine. Hers were bigger. We’d exchange them. And once I got an invitation to a fancy event at the Beverly Hills hotel; it said ‘bring Mr. Reagan.’ I brought Tony Reagan; he was a casting director at Paramount.”

The other Nancy recalled that she was summoned to a meeting with SAG president Reagan in 1953 to discuss the two Nancys problem. “He told me I had to change my name,” she recalled. “He suggested I use ‘Nancy Lee Davis.’ I told him I wouldn’t; I was the first Nancy Davis in the Guild, so under the rules she had to change her name. But he was the boss, and he insisted. I realized he could cause me a lot of trouble. So I changed my name.”
But if that is so, just who was the supposedly Communist Nancy Davis out there?

Wiener also cites another biographer, Anne Edwards, who offered a somewhat different account of the Nancy-Ronnie first meeting:

[T]hey had met in 1949, when, according to Edwards, Nancy told producer Dore Schary’s wife, Miriam, that she wanted to meet Reagan, and the Scharys invited both to a small dinner party. The Scharys’ daughter, author Jill Robinson, recalled the evening: Reagan described the evils of communism, and Nancy “kept smiling at him in agreement.” Soon, brother Neil Reagan told a friend, “It looks as if this one has her hooks in him.”
The story of their first meeting, in other words, seems a bit dodgy. This Los Angeles Times article from 1987 (Jesse Katz, Her Role With Reagans Left Her Bitter 11/05/1987) makes it a bit more clear than Wiener's does why Anne Edwards' account makes the standard story sound a bit hinky (the "other" Nancy in 1987 was now named Nancy Davis Hunt):

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.