Ronald Reagan: The Divorced U.S. President

As surprising as it seemed to some that a former Hollywood actor was elected U.S. President, Ronald Reagan also held another distinction: he is the only divorced person to become president. Divorce did not define him, or prevent him for going after and getting the things he most wanted. Being divorced did not keep him from later meeting and marrying the woman who would stay by his side for the rest of his life.

In 1938, Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor playing a part in the film “Brother Rat” when he fell in love with his co-star Jane Wyman. Wyman was married to her second husband at the time and it wasn’t until January 1940 that she and Reagan married. They had one daughter, Maureen, born in 1941, and a son, Michael, they adopted in 1945. A third child born prematurely, a daughter, died at birth in 1946.

Prior to her marriage to Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman was reportedly married to two men: Eugene Wyman and Myron Futterman. The marriage to Eugene Wyman remains a mystery although it reportedly occurred when she was in her teens and lasted less than a month. Regardless of the circumstances of the marriage to Eugene Wyman, Sarah Jane Fulks became “Jane Wyman” on stage. In 1937 she married New Orleans dress manufacturer Myron Futterman who she divorced in 1938 or 1939 depending upon whose version of her life you read.

The marriage between Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman was probably a difficult one because both were working on their acting careers and from their individual accomplishments during that period of time it would seem they didn’t have a lot of time to devote to their marriage or each other.

Ronald Reagan was heading toward major stardom when he was inducted into the Army Air Force in 1942 as a Lieutenant and assigned to a production studio in Culver City, California. He assisted in the production of over 400 training films and was promoted to Captain in 1943. After his discharge in 1945 he resumed his acting career but his wife’s career was on an upswing while his was declining. He got involved in the Screen Actors Guide, was elected their president, and did battle to keep the union free of communist influence. Later he would write: “Perhaps I should have let someone else save the world and saved my own home.”

Jane Wyman starred in several movies during their marriage, getting a “Best Actress” Academy Award nomination for “The Yearling” in 1947, the same year that production on “Johnny Belinda”, for which she would receive an Oscar, was completed. At the end of 1947 she announced her separation from her husband to the press. Speculation about the break-up of her marriage included rumors of an affair with Lew Ayres, her “Johnny Belinda” co-star.

Jane Wyman filed for divorce in 1948. The beginning of the end reportedly came with grief over the death two years before of their premature child after which she threw herself into her work. It was during that period that she reportedly turned to Lew Ayres for support. She did not request alimony but she was granted $500 a month in child support for their two children. She would marry twice more, to pianist and composer Freddie Karger in 1952, divorcing him in 1954, and remarrying him in 1961, then divorcing him once more in 1965.

As public as Ronald Reagan’s life has been over the years, his private life has been mostly that — private. Even his 1990 autobiography, An American Life, gives few details about his first marriage or its ending causing a Washington Post critic to write: “Why, for example, are Reagan’s eight-year marriage to Jane Wyman and their eventual divorce dismissed in a single paragraph containing precisely 48 carefully innocuous words?” The answer is perhaps because Ronald Reagan could see no good coming from giving details of a marriage that ended in a divorce he did not want.

An interesting glimpse into that private life comes from correspondence documenting a friendship between Ronald Reagan and a female fan that began in 1943 and continued for over half a century. The fan’s name was Lorraine Makler Wagner and over the years she received 276 personal notes, visited Reagan’s homes, and once met with him in the Oval Office when he was President.

When Wagner asked him about rumors of divorce in 1948, he wrote: “Janie is still a pretty sick girl in the mind, but I’m still hoping that things will be different when she gets over this nervousness. . . . I know she loves me, even though she thinks she doesn’t.” From the book Reagan: A Life in Letters, published by Free Press, September 2003.

During an interview actress Patricia Neal was quoted regarding the divorce: “It was, you know, just terrible because he was very unhappy. He was in an apartment by himself. … He was heartbroken. He really was, because he didn’t want a divorce from her. But Jane wanted it.” One report indicates Wyman felt her husband was “indifferent” to her acting work, focusing his attention on his involvement with the Screen Actors Guide.

Regardless of what caused the marriage to end, who was responsible, who wanted out or who wanted to stay, the marriage between Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan ended.

In 1951, Ronald Reagan gave some surprising advice to a friend from his Illinois hometown. When Florence Yerly wrote to say she was giving up men because of the bitter ending of her marriage, he wrote and said she was making a mistake, that it was important for her to have a man in her life. An excerpt from that letter reads:

“My personal belief is that God couldn’t create evil so the desires he planted in us are good and the physical relationship between a man and a woman is the highest form of companionship. If I can, I want to say all this to my daughter. I want her to know that nothing between her and the man she loves can be wrong or obscene, that desire in itself is normal and right… The world is full of lonely people ? people capable of giving happiness and love is not a magic touch of cosmic dust that preordains two people and two people only for each other. Love can grow slowly out of warmth and companionship and none of us should be afraid to seek it.” — From the book Reagan: A Life in Letters, published by Free Press, September 2003.

Quite remarkable words from a man whose own marriage ended a few short years before.

He continued to become more involved in politics after his divorce, supporting Harry Truman for president in 1948 and then campaigning (as a Democrat) for Eisenhower in 1952. Aside from his political campaigning, 1952 was the year he and actress Nancy Davis were married.

The similaries between Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis are that they were both actresses who met their husband during filming. They are both strong women, probably stronger-willed personalities than Ronald Reagan. The significant difference between the two is that Nancy Davis Reagan gave up her acting career to devote herself to her marriage, her husband and his career, and their two children, Ron and Patti. The life he wanted became the life she wanted and that devotion never waivered over the years.

In a secure marriage, Ronald Reagan went on to become the first actor to become the Governor of California and then the first actor to become President of the United States. While governor he signed the first no-fault divorce law, a law that might have had more significance to him because of his own divorce.

There was more to Ronald Reagan than just a pretty face. He was a quiet man of unusual depth and understanding, a romantic man whose written words were extremely eloquent. Was it luck or fate that brought he and Nancy together to make them an inspiring love story even when his health turned “to worse”?