Tag Archives: Nancy Reagan

Rawhide Down

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber tells the story of President Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt in what is very nearly “real time.”   Wilber, a reporter for The Washington Post and one-time finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, takes the title from the Secret Service’s code name for Reagan.

With the election nearing, it is interesting to reflect back on the man, the president, who was generally well-liked by the public, even those who disagreed with his politics.   In fact, his likability and fine sense of humor permeate the account of the time leading up to his shooting and subsequent surgery, hospital stay, and recovery.

Also prevalent in the account is the now-famous mutual adoration between the former president and his wife, Nancy.

The reader is led to believe that the story will be about the details of the day of the assassination attempt, so when the author initially deviates and shares select anecdotes, characteristics of White House (WH) staff members, details of WH meetings, and personal interactions with various constituent groups, etc., the reader is pulled off track.   However, the story quickly recovers, and nuances that color and deepen the events surrounding the assassination attempt and the people involved are shared effectively throughout the remainder of the book.   The writing style is direct, entertaining, and of high quality.

Other interesting elements of the book include: the questioning of shooter John Hinckley, Jr., an unstable person who was apparently driven crazy by his infatuation with actress Jodie Foster; the accounts of the actions, decisions and occasional gaffes of Reagan’s Cabinet and those entrusted to protected him; and, perhaps, above all, information about the actions of the medical professionals who had to make quick, high-pressure decisions on how to save Reagan from a very nearly fatal gunshot wound.

Certainly much has been written about Reagan, but this book provides a unique perspective on the man,  with unique facts that most readers will no doubt find enjoyable and quite informative.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the Midwest and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Hollywood Nights

Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, $17.00, 375 pages)

“(The Hollywood social scene) was…  made up of Republicans.   The Powells, the Murphys, the Steins, the Bergens, the Taylors, all were conservative-leaning Republicans; Reagan was the only die-hard registered Democrat among them.”

It’s hard to associate the following words with our mental perception of President Ronald Reagan:  hardy Democrat, union leader and uber-supporter, heavy drinker and womanizer…  And yet, this is the picture of a young Reagan – the man before he met and married Nancy, painted by Marc Eliot, who specializes in writing biographies of famous actors.   It’s the shock attached to this portrait of an untamed young man who later became a stabilizing leader that will make the prospective reader of this account choose sides.

Some will refuse to read or even consider Reagan: The Hollywood Years since it does not mesh with the majority view of Ronald Reagan, the man.   This is a person’s right, just as it’s fair for some of us to refuse to read (or believe) the worst stories about the Kennedys.   Some will love that the account casts a disparaging view of an early Reagan; although, Eliot does not deny that Reagan experienced tremendous personal growth after marrying Nancy, settling down in every sense of the word, and entering politics.   And some, as I did, will find it to be a very engaging read, a quick read except for the fact that so many of the actors mentioned will be unknown to anyone not alive in the 1940s.   (You’ll need to have ready access to Wikipedia to continually look up the facts about actors and actresses; very few of whom are now living.)

Is Eliot’s biographical account credible?   Well, there are arguments to be found on both sides of the issue.   On the side of plausibility, Eliot’s not a hack writer.   He earned his MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts, and then studied for a PhD in film history.   It’s not clear if he actually earned the PhD at Columbia, but he knows his films and he’s written some generally praised biographies, including American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant: A Biography and Jimmy Stewart: A Biography.   Eliot’s also packed Reagan: The Hollywood Years with an immense number of source notes, specific references and a detailed index.

In addition, at least one of the then young actresses who was said to have had a sexual fling with Reagan back in the day confirmed Eliot’s account after the book’s publication.   On the flip side, a number of individuals have challenged the “facts” in this unique account, and Eliot more recently published a biography of Steve McQueen that many have found to be a bit implausible, to say the least.   (There are better biographies of Steve McQueen.)

In Eliot’s version of his early life, Reagan was a minimally talented actor who became extremely well-known even though he was not even in the Top 40 actors of his time – one poll listing him as the 82nd favorite actor in 1939-40, when Clark Gable was number 1.   But Reagan was always a lucky young man, always getting the right break at the right time, which brings to mind what Paul Newman was to call “Newman’s luck.”   Mr. Reagan had Reagan’s luck.

“…he chose to spend most evening with young, willing and always beautiful starlets.”

This Reagan had a very contentious marriage to Jane Wyman.   He once said to  her, “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing:  Don’t think.”   But his divorce from her almost destroyed him and led him to become a man who went through young starlets like a hot knife through butter.   He also was at one time, allegedly, a man who loved his drink.   In Eliot’s telling, Reagan sometimes met William Holden in the early evening at Ciro’s Nightclub on the Strip in West Hollywood where they would drink until the place closed.

Whether this all sounds plausible or not, it is one of Eliot’s most interesting accounts and it’s highlighted by some details that will not be found anywhere else.   For example, Eliot writes about the run-ins that Reagan had with the Kennedy brothers going back several decades; information that I’ve never come across before.

In the end, this is what Newsweek termed “A fascinating portrait.”   It may or may not be an accurate one; that’s not my decision to make.   One of the fascinating tales told in Eliot’s version of events in the life of the young Ronald Reagan came about when Reagan blasted Motion Picture magazine for violating his privacy – something that had not bothered him previously – once he began dating one Nancy Davis.   The magazine returned fire by printing an open letter to Mr. Reagan which sternly reminded him that, “Yours is a business, Mr. Reagan, which is built on publicity.   In this sense, actors are like politicians…”

Recommended, with the caveat that for some reading this book will require a suspension of disbelief.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Here is a link to our review of Marc Eliot’s bio of Clint Eastwood:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/american-rebel-the-life-of-clint-eastwood/

The best biographies of Steve McQueen are Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill, and Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill and Peter O. Whitmer PhD.

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The Mighty Quinn

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt and Company; $27.00; 296 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento – when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The new president of the U.S., and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub to watch the 19-inch RCA televisions broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day, I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened that day.   Years and decades passed by and it did not appear…  This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President. It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose secret service code name was Rawhide), his secret service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood actress.   The language and mood become more intense as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.  

Wilber properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in relating these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged just one inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period passed, the president was advised to convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and a mere month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to conclude too soon.   The courage of the secret service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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