I do not ‘vacation’ well. In fact, for the seven years of our marriage, my wife and I have not had a bona fide relaxing vacation since our honeymoon in Maine. This was the year that would change, as we looked forward to the first real vacation since those peaceful days riding bikes and kayaking around Bar Harbor.
We made plans to spend the middle of July in Annapolis, Maryland for two reasons. Number one, it wasn’t too far away from home that we would exhaust ourselves driving to and from. And number two, it was close enough to Washington D.C. that if I did become restless and need some ‘presidential exploration’ in excess, I was not too far away to partake.
The thermometer changed our plans at the last minute, as Annapolis promised temperatures in the mid-90’s. Mom suggested we head North. My wife decided on Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. I love the water and there was much of it. But to get to Wisconsin you have to travel through Illinois, the Land of Lincoln and the Mecca of The Lincoln Traveler. I am not sure if my wife rolled her eyes or not as I shifted Google Maps around on my phone looking for relevant towns to Lincoln in Northern Illinois.
And it didn’t take me long to find some. I was particularly excited about one town out in the middle of the upper part of the state. Dixon. I don’t like to throw around cliches but the fact was we could kill at least two birds with one stone. Dixon was the landing spot for Lincoln during his stints in the Black Hawk War, but it is also the Childhood home of Ronald Reagan.
Since this is quickly becoming a Lincoln Traveler piece and not a book review, I shall close in on the point.
Ronald Reagan died twelve years ago, fifteen years after his presidency ended. He is still familiar enough in our memories he is often invoked by both sides of the political aisle, either in jest or in praise depending on the seat. Scholarly work on Reagan is still hitting the book shelves, much of it from right-leaning former colleagues and associates fondly longing for a president, and a man who at the very least, stuck to his convictions.
When Reagan took office, I was just shy of four years old and almost twelve when he left. I grew up, much like Reagan, in a small town in the middle of the northern section of Ohio. I walked to school for two years, I romped in the woods and fields around my house. And I got to know the neighbors and members of our church. If there is any joy in learning about presidents, much of it stems from the fact that at one point they were just like us- regular folk. I looked forward to experiencing Dixon and a Ronald Reagan, the boy, who lived there.
The rest of the story of the visit I will save for another post. At the gift shop, I found titles on Reagan I had never seen before, including the topic for this review: Reagan, The Hollywood Years, by Marc Eliot. He is the same author who wrote books on Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Walt Disney, so I considered he knew his business and probably had details others did not. And if you, the reader, are anything like me, the reader, you like those details others do not.
The topic was intriguing. I am quite familiar with Reagan from the time he favored Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 (as a Democrat) and his rise through the Republican Party as spokesman, Governor, “Should have been,” and President. And of course, his long painful struggle with Alzheimers touched me as it did the entire nation until he passed away in 2004.
So the book was tucked under my arm. And despite the fact we had three Lincoln Traveler stops to make, I started reading immediately.
Ronald Reagan lived a long time. But he also lived a long time before he was president. Considering John Kennedy served fourteen years in the Congress before becoming President- Rutherford Hayes served less than ten in the Governor’s office and Congress before he became President. Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York for four years before his White House tenure started. But consider this: Ronald Reagan had a career in Hollywood that lasted from about 1937 until his last movie in 1964. That is almost thirty years and THEN he went on to be governor of California for eight years and THEN president for another eight.
His Hollywood years are generally reduced to a few simple facts, B-Movies, Jane Wyman, and the Screen Actors Guild. If presidents like Fillmore and Harding fail to raise the temperature of history buffs, Reagan’s Hollywood years can be added to the ice bucket.
But Marc Eliot has written a marvelous book. It is jam-packed with details, anecdotes and forgotten moments of Reagan’s life in movies. Sure, the movies Reagan starred in are not trending on Netflix, but Eliot serves tantalizing morsels like this one: Reagan was up for the role Humphrey Bogart eventually played in Casablanca. But Reagan was (technically) enlisted in the Army and could not perform in a movie meant for commercial profit.
Never mind the political landscape for a moment- but how would Hollywood have been different had Reagan told Sam to play it, play it again! rather than Humphrey Bogart?
After reading the book, one has the sense the Hollywood movie making machines bet their fortunes on the box office receipts of their stars previous movie. It’s almost like someone considering their net worth by the number of ‘likes’ on their last Facebook post. A career can rise and fall on the whims of the people paying attention, or not paying attention as in the case of Ronald Reagan.
Another captivating string in the life of Reagan during this period is his love life. There was… a lot of love. Since the private lives of our presidents are in such demand, it is fascinating that this period in Reagan’s life is not explored. His marriage to Jane Wyman is a fascinating tale. (All the while I kept thinking- she was the star of Falcon Crest on television the entire time he was president, a very strange ironic twist. I like to think of our presidents as regular folk, and I chuckle when I think of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan sitting down to watch television and they turn it on and Nancy says, “There’s that damn Jane Wyman again.”)
I should like these book reviews to encourage the reader to seek out and read the book, too, so I do not want to give away too much. But the book is worth the read alone for the description of the courtship of Nancy Reagan, or perhaps better phrased, the courtship of Ronald Reagan.
This book is a must-read for history enthusiasts whether Reagan, presidential, Hollywood or the blacklists. For the Reagan enthusiasts, this book will not raise or lower your admiration of our 40th president. It will, however, reinforce just how slippery the slope can be between stardom and us regular folk. The thing I happen to like most about Ronald Reagan is that he walked those slopes with grace, whether he was in Hollywood, Washington D.C., or Dixon Illinois, he was always just like ‘regular folk.’
Reagan, The Hollywood Years is copyrighted 2008 by Rebel Road, Inc. It is published by Three Rivers Press, New York.
To read my post detailing our trip to the Reagan home in Dixon, visit here. [Coming September 4, 2016]