Betty Ford, 93, first lady widely admired for her candor, fight to beat addiction

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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Betty Ford, whose frankness as wife of the 38th president of the United States about her struggles with breast cancer and substance abuse won her widespread admiration and brought heightened public awareness of those afflictions, died yesterday at 93 in Palm Springs, Calif., according to a family friend.

Mrs. Ford, who once called the day Gerald R. Ford Jr. was sworn in as president “the saddest day of my life,’’ later came to say “I flowered’’ while in the White House, relishing the fact that “When I spoke, people listened.’’

Speak she did, and Mrs. Ford’s forthright expression of her views on social, political, and personal matters made her one of the most esteemed - and controversial - presidential wives. “She’s far more popular than I,’’ her husband once said. “Many people think she could have been elected president of the United States in 1976.’’

After the Fords left the White House, Mrs. Ford’s name remained in the news, for reasons having nothing to do with politics. In April 1978 she entered Long Beach (Calif.) Naval Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service. Mrs. Ford’s frank declaration of her drug and alcohol problems won her widespread acclaim.

Aware of her public identification with the problem of substance abuse, Mrs. Ford helped found a treatment facility for drug and alcohol abuse, the Betty Ford Center, part of the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., which was dedicated on Oct. 3, 1982. It soon became one of the best-known facilities of its kind in the country.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, said yesterday that Mrs. Ford’s “courageous candor helped forge a new era of openness after the divisiveness of the Vietnam War and Watergate.’’

President Obama said the Betty Ford Center would honor Mrs. Ford’s legacy “by giving countless Americans a new lease on life.’’

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer was born in Chicago on April 8, 1918. When she was 2, her well-to-do parents moved with Mrs. Ford and her two brothers to Grand Rapids, Mich. At 8, she began taking dance lessons and in doing so found a ruling passion.

As a teenager, Mrs. Ford spent two summers studying at the Bennington School of Dance, at Bennington College, with such pioneers of modern dance as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Doris Humphrey. She moved to New York in 1939 to dance with Graham’s troupe, supporting herself with modeling assignments. Graham remained a lifetime hero of Mrs. Ford’s, who would later bring her husband to award Graham a Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. (Mrs. Ford would receive the medal herself, in 1991.)

At her mother’s urging, Mrs. Ford returned to Grand Rapids in 1941. She took a job at a department store, soon rising to the position of fashion coordinator. Her duties ranged from putting on fashion shows to consulting with the advertising department, to training models. A year later, she married William C. Warren, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1947.

Shortly before the divorce became final, Mrs. Ford began seeing a prominent Grand Rapids lawyer who was about to make his first run for Congress, Gerald Ford. A year later, they were married, on Oct. 15, 1948.

The stylish ex-model and large-framed former football star might have seemed mismatched, but they forged a highly successful union. Her husband began a steady rise in the House of Representatives that culminated in his election to the post of House minority leader in 1965, and Mrs. Ford often had to serve, as her husband ruefully admitted, as both father and mother to their four children: Mike, Jack, Steve, and Susan.

Her experience as homemaker, Sunday school teacher, and active participant in local charitable activities would seem to have little prepared Mrs. Ford for the intense public scrutiny that came with the naming of her husband as vice president on Oct. 12, 1973. But she demonstrated an easy poise and winning manner from the outset, and earned a reputation for candor almost as soon as she gained national prominence.

Asked by Barbara Walters her opinion of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, she replied “that it was time to bring abortion out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belonged.’’

Her forthrightness extended to the personal as well as the political. A few weeks after Ford’s swearing in as president on Aug. 9, 1974, she mentioned during an interview that she’d been asked everything “except how often I sleep with my husband.’’ The interviewer, Myra McPherson, proceeded to ask that very question. Mrs. Ford’s replay, “As often as possible!’’ shocked some Americans but endeared her to many more.

Mrs. Ford once said “I believe my reputation for outspokenness is partly due to my having come after Mrs. Nixon, who was very quiet and never thrust herself forward.’’ She expressed regret over only one interview she gave. On Aug. 10, 1975, she appeared on “60 Minutes’’ and was asked by Morley Safer what she would do if her daughter were having an affair and whether the Ford children had used drugs. Mrs. Ford’s generally liberal responses (she would be supportive of her daughter and assumed her children had tried drugs - something they later denied) raised conservative hackles. The Manchester Union Leader went so far as to declare that the interview “disgraces the nation itself.’’

That reaction was at utter variance with the universal concern and praise Mrs. Ford inspired when, on Sept. 28, 1974, she underwent a radical mastectomy. Soon after, Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Nelson Rockefeller, whom Ford had chosen to succeed him as vice president, was found to have cancer, and a radical mastectomy was performed. Her husband attributed the cancer being caught to Mrs. Ford’s candor about her own operation, which had moved Rockefeller wife - as it had many other women - to have her breasts examined.

Mrs. Ford’s response to the praise was characteristically unassuming: “I got a lot of credit for having gone public with my mastectomy, but if I hadn’t been the wife of the President of the United States, the press would not have come racing after my story, so in a way it was fate.’’

In her memoir, “The Times of My Life,’’ Mrs. Ford said of moving to the White House: “In the beginning, it was like going to a party you’re terrified of, and finding out to your amazement that you’re having a good time.’’ Her evident gusto in being there and consistent good humor further contributed to her popularity with the public.

His defeat in 1976 left Mrs. Ford feeling “bitter and depressed,’’ as she later described it. Compounding her despondency was the Fords’ having moved to Southern California after the election, leaving old friends and connections behind.

Also, none of their children now lived at home and her husband was frequently away. Mrs. Ford, who had always been an enthusiastic social drinker, began to drink more heavily. Making the problem far worse was her long history of taking pain killers, the result of a pinched nerve suffered in 1964 and her having developed spinal arthritis.

Mrs. Ford recounted her struggle with addiction and how it led to the founding of the Ford Center in a memoir, “Betty: A Glad Awakening’’ (1987).