07.10.11

My Time With Betty Ford

The former first lady, who died this week at 93, was charming and spunky. Sandra McElwaine recalls the week she spent wandering the White House with a consummate Washington hostess.

Charming, a word that is seldom used today, is the best way to describe the late Betty Ford.

Candid, open and spunky are equally descriptive—and add on just plain fun.

When I interviewed her for the first time, it was at her comfortable home in Alexandria, Va. Her husband, Gerald Ford, was vice president—there was no vice presidential mansion at the time—and she was chatting animatedly with neighbors as pulled I up to the door. There was nothing remarkable about the house. It was a typical suburban dwelling with a verdant lawn and lots of flowering shrubs.

She greeted me warmly and quickly took me on a tour. What stand out in my mind are the mirrored closets in her bedroom filled with shimmering, floaty evening gowns and caftans. The lithe former Betty Bloomer loved clothes and a good party.

There were plenty of them in Washington during those days, and black tie was de rigueur.

Photos: Betty Ford's Life
betty-ford-obituary-tease
Dave Tracy / Getty Images

Republicans and Democrats actually got along after dark. The leading hostesses Katherine Graham, Evangeline Bruce and Lorraine Cooper lured members from both sides of the aisle to their well appointed tables. And two outstanding hosts, Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi and Argentine Ambassador Alejandro Orfila threw extravagant soirees which everyone in the city clamored to attend. (Zahedi offered champagne and caviar; Orfila tango lessons.) The Fords occasionally dropped in at some these events and could be seen gliding across the dance floor.

While we talked, Betty Ford told me about her dedication to her career as a modern dancer. She supported herself as a model in New York while studying with the noted Martha Graham and appeared with the group at Carnegie Hall before heading back to her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to create her own dance troupe.

After an unhappy first marriage, she met the most eligible man in town through a friend: Michigan football star Gerald Ford. Smitten, she began campaigning with him for what would be the first of his 13 terms in the U.S. Congress. They waited to marry until shortly before his election because Ford worried voters might not cotton to a divorced ex-dancer.

She also discussed the vicissitudes of playing “wife of” in a town where congressional spouses were relegated to the shadows, to be seen and not heard; the loneliness of being a stay-at-home mom raising four children on her own (her husband was frequently away); and her commitment to social advocacy, women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.

When I left, I kept thinking that, although my interview was substantive and interesting, there was a spacey feeling to her conversation, as if she was somehow detached from it all and slightly off the mark. We would all later learn that this slight speech impediment was due to alcohol and pills she had used over the years in an effort to ward off pain and depression.

Our next meeting the following year was far grander. It was in the White House in mid-May 1975. Betty Ford had become first lady, but was exactly the same—warm, welcoming, with that no-nonsense down-to-earth Midwestern manner. She had undergone a mastectomy within weeks of assuming her new role, and though she had gone public immediately to warn women and heighten awareness, we never spoke about her operation or anything truly personal.

This time it was strictly business. I was there to do a story for Vogue, “Upstairs Downstairs,” on the preparations for an elaborate state dinner for the Shah and Shahbanu of Iran.

In contrast to the troubled Nixon years, Betty Ford instantly changed the atmosphere of the executive mansion and thoroughly enjoyed giving glamorous dinners—with dancing, of course, that lasted well into the wee hours. (One time, when the president became extremely flirtatious with an attractive young guest, she was overheard to mutter, “That woman will never be invited to the White House again!”)

Betty Ford had becomefirst lady, butwas exactly the same—warm, welcoming, with that no-nonsensedown-to-earth Midwestern manner.

But this particular night was to be the piece de resistance.

Betty Ford carefully laid out her plans, and for the better part of week I ricocheted around, in and out and up and down the corridors of the White House. From the sunny family sitting room at the top to the kitchens in the basement (they were actually quite small), with constant stops at the social office, the calligrapher, the florist, the pastry chef’s bailiwick, the head butler’s station, through hidden passage ways and elevators.

In those days access to the White House was very simple. Your name was on a list at the Northwest gate and you simply checked in. There was none of today’s tedious security. So I was free to come and go and became so omnipresent that at one point Mrs. Ford suggested perhaps I should temporarily move in.

She was meticulous about every detail of the evening. The toasts went off without a hitch. After dinner, members of the press were allowed to mix and mingle with the guests in the green and blue rooms over coffee, and one could sense that the Fords genuinely seemed to like the Shah and his elegant wife, Farah Diba.

Although we were occasionally in touch after that, I never saw Betty Ford again. 

But I was not surprised when she stepped up to the microphone to give her husband’s concession speech after a hard-fought battle with Jimmy Carter on Nov. 3rd 1976. (He ostensibly had lost his voice.)

She was a terrific partner and stand-in and a very gallant woman.