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Written by Ed Lengel

Ronald Reagan’s Children

by Ed Lengel

President Ronald Reagan

Reagan, Hollywood Years

Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004), the fortieth president of the United States, had one of the most unusual life stories of any American chief executive. Born to a middle-class family in Tampico, Illinois, he was an average student in high school and at Eureka College, but a good athlete who swam, played football, and enjoyed the theater. In the 1930s he dabbled in radio, worked as an announcer for the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and then left for California; he got his first movie-acting role in 1937, but his career was interrupted by stateside service in film and propaganda for the Army Air Forces in World War II. Afterwards, Reagan ascended to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild.

1966 Gubernatorial Campaign

Politically, Reagan transitioned from a Democrat to a Republican between the 1930s and the 1950s; as his acting career declined, he became a spokesperson for the Republican Party and General Electric. Elected governor of California in 1966, and again in 1970, Reagan challenged–and almost defeated–President Gerald R. Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries. He returned in 1980, secured the nomination, and won the presidential election; in 1984 he was re-elected by a landslide. Although his later years were burdened by a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, he was considered one of the outstanding presidents of the Twentieth Century.

1952 wedding to Nancy Davis

With first wife, Jane Wyman

Ronald Reagan was married—first–in 1940 to actress Jane Wyman (1917-2007). They had two daughters: Maureen, in 1941, Christine–in 1947; she did not survive infancy; and Michael, an adopted son, who was born in 1945. Reagan and Wyman divorced in 1949, but that same year Reagan met another actress, Nancy Davis (1921-2016), and the two quickly fell in love. They married in 1952 and had two children, Patti in 1952, and Ron in 1958. Ronald and Nancy’s enduringly close relationship would unfold as a great American love story.

 

 

Maureen Elizabeth Reagan

Maureen Elizabeth Reagan: Born in Los Angeles, Maureen—nicknamed “Mermie”—lived her first few years like a child of a famous Hollywood acting couple. Movie reporters followed her activities even as a toddler, reporting how she would have “vigorous sessions at the piano,” singing and playing “for hours.” After her parents’ marriage collapsed, she stayed with her mother, and although her formal education was at a boarding school, Maureen aspired to become an actress. She was a guest star in the movies with her mother. Observers said that by age fourteen, Maureen was “pretty, taller than her mother, and has the brain of a grown woman.” “If Maureen insists on being an actress,” Jane Wyman remarked, “it’s better for her to start with me. Meanwhile, I want her to continue going to school, which has been good for her.”[1]

Raised a Catholic, the faith in which her mother had converted, Maureen graduated from Marymount Secondary School in 1958, but attended college at Marymount University for only a year before dropping out to take secretarial courses. On a dare from her friends, she entered the Miss Washington beauty contest in 1959, attempting–and failing–to conceal her identity. Through the early 1960s she tried to piece together an acting career, but without much success. At the same time, she struggled to establish a stable personal life, marrying, and divorcing in 1961-1962; then marrying again in 1964, only to divorce a second time in 1967. A third marriage in 1981 to Dennis C. Revell of Revell Communications, lasted until her death; they had one adopted daughter.[2]

Like her father, Maureen Reagan became a Republican spokesperson, and served on the Republican National Committee, although her social views were considerably more liberal. She tried to gain election to the Senate and the House in 1982 and 1992, but each run was unsuccessful.

In 1989 she published a memoir about her father and their sometimes distant relationship, but after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s she became a passionate advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association, neglecting her own health in order to work for the cause. She died from melanoma on August 8, 2001.[3]

Michael Edward Reagan

Michael Edward Reagan: Born on March 18, 1945, in Los Angeles, Mike Reagan was the biological son of unmarried parents, U.S. Army soldier John Bourgholtzer and Essie Irene Flaugher. His birth name was John Charles Flaugher, but it was changed by the Reagan’s. Like Maureen, Mike was sent off to boarding school after his parents divorced; but his experiences there were considerably more difficult than hers. Later in life he would remember the loneliness and bullying he suffered because of his illegitimacy; he would also reveal that at age eight he was sexually abused in an after-school program by a photographer.[4]

The emotional devastation caused by the abuse made it difficult for Mike Reagan to focus on school, or develop normally as a teenager. Seeking acceptance and stability, he left his mother’s house in 1959, and moved in with his father and Nancy Reagan in Pacific Palisades, California. They did their best to care for him, but they had children of their own, and little space; he was forced to sleep on a sofa and use a guest bathroom. And, he still had to attend boarding school. “I thought I had left my problems and my rage behind when I left my mother’s house,” he later wrote. “I hadn’t. They were still with me. I still carried the burden of my illegitimacy and the molestation. I was full of adolescent rage, and my anger would continue to tie my family relationships in knots for years to come.”[5]

After short stints at Arizona State University and Los Angeles Valley College, Mike Reagan worked a succession of minor jobs, married in 1971, and divorced in 1972. A short time later, he found renewed purpose and meaning in Christianity; he re-married in 1975 and had two children. In 1988, he wrote a memoir, Michael Reagan: On the Outside Looking In, which revealed the tragic secrets of his childhood. His relationship with his adoptive family had been difficult, and at first he intended the book as a sharp criticism of their parentage, but he toned it down. He was still terrified to confront his father and Nancy Reagan with the truth. Surprisingly, they were supportive, and in the process, Mike rediscovered his biological family.[6]

Mike Reagan’s early attempts to become an actor were unsuccessful. Later, he developed a successful career in broadcasting, eventually creating a syndicated radio talk show. Unlike his siblings, he stood for a strongly Christian conservative viewpoint on social policy, speaking against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. He has also been an outspoken advocate for his father’s legacy.

Patricia Ann Reagan

Patricia Ann Reagan: Born on October 21, 1952, in Los Angeles, Patti Reagan had a successful show business career, but has also been critical of her parents. Her rebelliousness was evident early on–even when she campaigned for her father in preparation of the 1966 gubernatorial election. As she prepared to appear on a television political spot, Patti, “12 going on 19,” insisted on having her hair done in the modern style: “thick bangs that brush the face at mid-eyeball and the rest of the hair shoulder length and mostly straight.” Her parents wanted a more conservative appearance, but lost. “We have been having a heck of a battle,” Ronald Reagan admitted. “The entire household revolved around Patti’s hairdo, and I finally gave in and let her have that long hair. But I think her bangs should be above the eyebrows.” The defiance continued, because she preferred to dress in miniskirts even though her mother “fretted” about the length.[7]

Studying the dramatic arts and creative writing at Northwestern University and University of Southern California, Patti became a model, and adopted a free and easy lifestyle, famously cohabiting with guitarist Bernie Leadon of the Eagles. Asked if Patti had “gone hippie,” and if her parents had “gone daffy” as a result, the Reagans had to admit they were not “overwhelmingly happy” with her conduct. She nevertheless refused to step back; she became an anti-nuclear activist, appeared on television, and posed for Playboy in the 1990s. She also changed her last name from Reagan to Davis to, as she put it, establish her own identity.[8]

Patti Davis not only refused to support the Republican Party, or campaign for her father in the 1980s, but openly said that she wished he would leave politics and “go live on the ranch.” “My parents obviously have a very different life from me,” she said. “I’m sure I’ve made choices and will make choices that my parents don’t approve of, but every kid makes choices that his parents don’t approve of and every parent makes choices that their kids don’t approve of. The bottom line is how you feel about things in your own judgment.” Patti’s first book, the 1986 novel, Deadfall, carried a barely disguised critique of her parents, one that was expressed more openly in her 1992 memoir, The Way I See It. She has continued her career as a journalist, and a television screenwriter.[9]

Ronald Prescott Reagan

Ronald Prescott Reagan: Born on May 20, 1958 in Los Angeles, Ron Reagan has been more disapproving of his parents’ political legacy than any of the Reagan children. His independent mind became evident early on, when he declared at age twelve he was an atheist, and would no longer go to church; long dinner-table arguments with his parents followed. Still, although he wished his father had spent more time with his children, Ron Reagan’s family memories were affectionate. “He was a great dad for little kids,” he remembered. “He would always go out and throw the football around, ride horses, swim in the pool. Invariably he’d see us through the window and have to come out. His only rule was that he’d be the quarterback for both teams. He was scrupulously fair about distributing the ball.”[10]

Like his sister Patti, Ron Reagan was disobedient in school, and although he secured entry to prestigious Yale University, he left after one semester. Subsequently, he expressed himself artistically as a ballet dancer. Although the press claimed that Ronald Reagan rejected his son’s choice, Ron recalled that his father was more “intrigued” than anything else; he even contacted the legendary Gene Kelly for advice about where Ron should train. Nor did Ron criticize his father in public during his two terms as president.[11]

Since the 1980s, Ron Reagan has become an active liberal commentator on television and radio. Although less acerbic of his parents than Patti, he has fiercely condemned their politics generally, and the Republican Party–in particular–on radio, television, and elsewhere. Most notably, he has advocated for the “Freedom from Religion Foundation,” declaring himself a “lifelong atheist”–rejecting his father’s–and his brother’s–Christian views. Ron Reagan’s memoir, My Father at 100, was published in 2011.[12]

[1] Albuquerque Journal, Nov. 23, 1941; International News Service, Nov. 1, 1954.
[2] Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1959.
[3] Chicago Tribune, Aug. 9, 2001.
[4] https://www1.cbn.com/700club/truth-set-michael-reagan-free
[5] Michael Reagan with Jim Denney, Twice Adopted (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 176.
[6] https://people.com/archive/cover-story-binding-up-the-wounds-vol-29-no-11/
[7] San Antonio Express, May 23, 1965; Arizona Republic, Sept. 2, 1966.
[8] Salt Lake City Tribune, Aug. 10, 1975.
[9] Copley News Service, March 3, 1984.
[10] https://thehill.com/capital-living/20-questions/20867-20-questions-ron-reagan
[11] https://thehill.com/capital-living/20-questions/20867-20-questions-ron-reagan
[12] Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2020.