The Inspirational Life Of First Lady Betty Ford – And Why Her Legacy May Just Trump Her Husband’s

Gerald Ford served as both Vice President and President of the United States, and, interestingly, he was the only person to hold both offices without an election. Yet some believe that his wife, Betty Ford, may have created an even longer-lasting legacy than her presidential husband. The life she led was inspirational, to say the least.

In April of 1918, in the Illinois city of Chicago, Hortense and William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr., welcomed their third child, a girl named Elizabeth Ann. She joined two older brothers – William, Jr. and Robert. Soon enough, all of her family referred to the little girl by her nickname, Betty.

Although Betty was born in Chicago, she spent most of her youth in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, she weathered the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the following Great Depression in a clever way. How? She taught other children dances including the waltz, foxtrot and big apple in order to make some money.

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Betty’s love of dance carried all the way through to her high school graduation. She even planned to move to New York and continue studying her art. However, her mother, Hortense, refused to allow that. She enrolled at her daughter Vermont’s Bennington School of Dance for a couple of summers instead. There, though, the future First Lady met choreographer Martha Graham, who would later accept her as a student in the Big Apple.

In order to fund the dance training, Betty got a job with the John Robert Powers modeling agency. Eventually, all of her studying and hard work paid off. She finally joined Graham’s company and even performed with them at New York’s Carnegie Hall. And yet, her mother still disapproved of her career choice.

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Hortense wanted Betty to come home so badly, in fact, that the pair came up with a compromise. And it was this: Betty would come home for half a year. Then, at the end of those six months, she could go back to New York if she still wanted to. The worried mom would then no longer protest her daughter’s career path.

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When Betty returned to Grand Rapids, though, she found herself building a life there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the six months was over, she didn’t return to New York after all. She instead got a job at Herpolsheimer’s, a department store in her hometown, where she served as the fashion coordinator’s assistant. And she kept on dancing, too – she formed a troupe and taught all over the city.

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Returning home re-introduced Betty to William G. Warren, whom she had first met as a 12-year-old. The pair married in 1942, but their story didn’t read quite like a fairy-tale. Warren was not only unhealthy, but he was also an alcoholic. A few years into the marriage, the future First Lady wanted to file for divorce, but, then, tragedy struck.

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Just after Betty filed the papers to officially break it off with Warren, he fell into a coma. She spent the next two years living with him as he recovered, staying upstairs while nurses cared for him downstairs. When her husband got better, though, she wasted no time – their divorce was finalized in September of 1947.

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Just over a year later, Betty found love again with her new husband, Gerald Ford. A veteran of World War II and a lawyer, he neglected to mention that he was also running in a Congressional race. Little did she know that he’d win, not only that election, but a dozen more terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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In fact, Betty and Gerald had to wait until a couple of weeks prior to the election to get married because, according to the The New York Times, “[Gerald] was running for Congress and wasn’t sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer.” Still, he won, which meant that he and his new wife had to move from Michigan to the nation’s capital.

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The newlyweds then settled into a home in Alexandria, Virginia, where they would eventually raise their brood. The Fords welcomed four children between 1950 and 1957 – sons John Gardner, Michael Gerald and Steven Meigs, along with daughter, Susan. And, during that time, Gerald sought to improve his standing within Congress and the Republican party.

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Meanwhile, the Congressman received offers to run for governor of Michigan and the Senate. He had his mind set on an altogether different prize, however. Within a few years of winning his first election, Gerald started dreaming of building a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. That way, he could serve as Speaker of the House. “I thought, as a member of Congress, that would be the ultimate achievement,” Gerald said in his retirement.

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That dream never quite came to fruition, however. The closest Gerald got to a majority during his tenure was 192 of the House of Representatives’ 435 seats. That made him the long-term minority leader. By 1973, 25 years after he won his first election, he promised Betty he’d give it one more shot to try and win the job he so coveted. He even vowed to retire from politics after that term expired.

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But a single phone call would change that plan completely. In October of 1973, then-vice president Spiro Agnew stood in court after facing tax evasion charges. He accepted a conviction and went on to resign his position serving alongside then-president Richard Nixon. A seasoned Congressional Republican should take over from Agnew, some White House staffers believed, so they gave Gerald a call.

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Gerald apparently thought that a vice presidency would make “a nice conclusion” to his career. As a result, he accepted the position after President Nixon phoned about the job. In August of 1974, though, the Watergate scandal erupted. The subsequent investigation revealed that the President and his team had been involved in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s office in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex.

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During that time, the Fords were still living in their Alexandria home. They were, however, waiting to move into the vice president’s residence in the nation’s capital. According to Phillip Kunhardt Jr.’s book, Gerald R. Ford: Healing the Nation, when he found out about President Nixon’s wrongdoings, Gerald said, “Betty, I don’t think we’re ever going to live in the vice president’s house.”

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It was August 9, 1974 when Nixon stepped down from the presidency. This act made Gerald the de facto leader of the American people. By his side stood his wife, who had become the First Lady of the United States. Betty’s open, friendly nature quickly endeared her to White House Staff, who had grown used to the serious nature of the Nixons. The American people’s affections soon followed.

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Betty’s success as First Lady boiled down to her outlook on the position. She knew that other women in her shoes had found it to be a constricting role. As she told Time magazine in 1975, “It could be considered a goldfish bowl or a gilded cage. But I made up my mind that I wouldn’t let it be that way. I would go ahead and live my life the way I normally would.”

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As such, life went on for Betty in spite of her new position. Just a few weeks after her husband’s inauguration, however, she found herself in the midst of a health crisis. She had breast cancer, and, in September of 1974, she underwent a mastectomy to remove the growth. The First Lady boldly decided to share her diagnosis and treatment plan with the American people.

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During an interview in 1984 with Gloria Steinem, Betty explained her transparency. “There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration. So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public,” she said.

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Betty blazed a trail for future breast cancer survivors and mastectomy patients to speak candidly as well by going public. She was, in fact, the first celebrity to speak about her operation in such a detailed fashion. It came at a cost to the First Lady in some ways, though. She later recalled feeling very self-conscious in the public eye post-op.

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“The first time I walked down those stairs for a formal reception and everyone was waiting for us to arrive. I knew they were saying, ‘Which breast did she say it was?’” Betty later recalled, according to Time magazine. However, sharing her diagnosis did come with a huge benefit to women across the country. As a result, they began doing their due diligence in order to detect potential tumors in their own bodies.

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Not long after Betty revealed the details her diagnosis, millions of women began scheduling breast cancer screenings and doing their own self-exams. After that, many credited the First Lady with helping them diagnose the disease early, thus saving their lives. And, because the number of cases of breast cancer ticked up after this, some scientists referred to the spike as the “Betty Ford blip.”

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As Betty’s time in the White House went on, she did emulate the behaviors of the First Ladies who preceded her. Those who stood by their presidential husbands at public events, tours and dinner parties. But she also continued to take her role a step further. How? By publically sharing her opinions on controversial topics, thus paving the way for future First Ladies to do the same.

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For starters, Betty made it known that she supported the Equal Rights Amendment. The bill would add anti-discrimination law to the U.S. Constitution. That, in turn, would ensure that all Americans received the same rights, regardless of their gender. She also freely discussed such topics as premarital sex and abortion. In fact, she supported legalizing the latter, although her husband’s political party opposed such a law.

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Betty’s candor inspired reporters to ask her more and more questions about her personal life and opinions. At one point, she even joked to a columnist that the only inquiry left to be made was the frequency with which she and her husband slept together. So, the columnist took the opportunity to ask, and the First Lady replied, “As often as possible!”

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Betty’s openness shocked the American people. She even received criticism for her candid conversations at first. Eventually, though, three-quarters of Americans said that they approved of the President’s wife speaking so frankly, according to polling data shared by the website of the Ford museum and library.

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Still, nothing Betty Ford said would make as big a mark on the American people as the revelation that came after her time as First Lady. Long before her husband entered the White House, it seems, she had fought a personal battle against addiction. She started to stumble in the 1960s, as her husband’s career made her a political wife. Which, most of the time, meant she was essentially a single mother.

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Betty then began to drink to cope with the pressure of her personal life. In 1964, she caught one of her nerves, potentially as she went to a window to open it. That, combined with the non-stop pain from a neck injury, left the future First Lady addicted to prescription drugs as she tried to dull the unending ache.

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During Gerald’s presidency, however, Betty told People magazine that she “kept things under control in the White House. It was such an extraordinary privilege. And it was exciting to think that I was sleeping with the President of the United States. That’s a pretty powerful position,” she said.

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But the 1976 election sent Betty on another spiral, as her husband lost the race to Democrat Jimmy Carter. “I was crushed by the defeat,” she admitted. Not only did they lose the White House, but the Fords then moved to the West Coast to start a new life, now that their children had grown up. “I felt very much alone, unwanted by my family and unnecessary,” she said.

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The Christmas season of 1977 saw the former First Lady “shuffling around the house in her bathrobe in a haze,” according to People magazine. Betty said she was taking around 25 pills every day. “In my own way, I was pulling down the shades and shutting everyone out of my life,” she said. But her family wouldn’t stand for it much longer.

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While Gerald said Betty’s addiction left him feeling “hopeless and helpless,” the couple’s daughter, Susan, started seeking professional help. She asked her mother’s doctor what the Fords should do to help her and they suggested staging an intervention. The Fords gathered to do just that on April 1, 1978. “It was a crucial moment in our family history,” the former president said.

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“It was a challenge for all of us to see if we could say the right things in order to convince Betty that she respond and take treatment. It wasn’t easy, but we were desperate,” Gerald went on. He and their children told the matriarch how her addictions had hurt them. She reportedly sobbed as she heard what her family had to say.

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Susan later revealed that, had Betty not agreed to seek help after the intervention, “We would have told her, ‘Mother, you won’t see us again.’” Fortunately, the Fords didn’t have to worry about that outcome. A week later, Betty sought treatment at the Naval Hospital in Long Beach, California. She then served a four-week rehabilitation stint there.

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When Betty checked out of treatment, she told her doctor that she wouldn’t become an advocate for rehab. However, “It seemed to come naturally. I realized how many people were hurting and needing help,” she said. Quickly, she became the driving force behind a $7.6 million fundraiser for a new recovery hospital that would be built in California as part of the Eisenhower Medical Center. Its name when it opened its doors in 1982? The Betty Ford Center.

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Since then, the Betty Ford Center has stood as one of the most recognizable and respected rehabilitation facilities in the United States. Celebrities including Lindsay Lohan, Elizabeth Taylor, Steven Tyler and Stevie Nicks have sought treatment there. “As far as I’m concerned, Betty Ford saved my life,” Nicks later said, according to CNN.

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And it would be Betty’s ability to share her story with the rest of the world – and the compassion it took to do so – that would define the legacy of the former First Lady after her death in 2011. Tyler said, “Betty Ford took a risk at one of the worst times of her life. [She] came forward to share a message of recovery in order to serve others.”

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“[Betty’s] vision, passion and amazing heart led to the Betty Ford Center, the gold standard of treatment facilities. She will be missed, but her work in recovery will live on,” Tyler concluded. And that legacy, just as her husband Gerald predicted, stood much longer than his. According to his former aide, James Cannon, President Ford once said, “When the final tally is taken, her contribution to our country will be bigger than mine.”

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