Days after a bullet pierced the body of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, his distraught wife Nancy got a call from longtime Hollywood friend Merv Griffin.
The TV host told the first lady that star charts drawn by San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley, a mutual acquaintance, had pinpointed March 30 as a dangerous day for her husband.
“Oh, my God,” Nancy gasped. “I could have stopped it!”
“Nancy was thunderstruck,” writes Karen Tumulty in “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” (Simon & Schuster), out Tuesday. “She hung up on him and immediately dialed Quigley.
“ ‘I’m so scared … somebody is going to shoot at him again,’ ” she told the astrologer tearfully.
And so began the most closely guarded secret of the Reagan White House — the soothsayer and her seven-year grip on the president’s public activities, until a vengeful ex-aide revealed it.
When a gunman attacked Reagan just 10 weeks into his presidency, the public was told he had escaped serious harm. The shooting nearly killed press secretary James Brady and badly wounded a local police officer and a Secret Service agent, but reports from the hospital focused resolutely on Reagan’s high spirits and good humor.
“Honey, I forgot to duck,” he quipped when Nancy arrived at his side at George Washington University Hospital. He joked with his emergency room doctors, too — “I hope you are all Republicans,” he said.
But Nancy knew the truth.
“Doctors believe bleeding to death,” read deputy press secretary Larry Speakes’ notes, scribbled frantically in the trauma bay.
“Can’t find a wound. ‘Think we’re going to lose him.’ Rapid loss of blood pressure. Touch and go.”
“Not until they cut off his clothes … did they notice a tiny, jagged slit in [Reagan’s] side,” Tumulty writes. “An intern who had been in Vietnam recognized it as a bullet hole. There was no exit wound.”
After three hours of surgery, doctors found the slug — lodged in Reagan’s left lung, one inch from his heart.
Throughout, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver sat vigil with the first lady. A loyal aide since Reagan’s first term as governor of California 15 years before, Deaver “was the closest of friends to both Ronnie and me and … like a son to Ronnie,” Nancy once said.
As he finally emerged from anesthesia, there were no quips from the president.
“I am alive, aren’t I?” Reagan asked White House physician Daniel Ruge in a feebly handwritten note.
The gunman, John Hinckley Jr., was caught immediately, and 12 days after he was shot, Reagan returned to the White House. At the end of April, he addressed a joint session of Congress and was interrupted by bipartisan ovations 14 times.
But the near-death experience changed him.
“He saw a divine hand in the fact that he had been spared, which made him more convinced than ever that there was a purpose at work in his presidency,” Tumulty wr ites.
But it had the opposite effect on Nancy, who “could not escape her darkness.” The fear of another attack on her husband was paralyzing.
“I thought for a while it was something that in time would fade away,” she told Parade magazine in late 1981. “It hasn’t. It’s a particular kind of trauma that never leaves you once you’ve known it.”
Nancy’s anxiety left her open to Quigley’s influence. And Reagan’s besotted bond with his wife forced him to play along.
They were “two halves of a circle, closed tight around a world in which their love for each other was the only sustenance they needed,” their daughter Patti said in 2016.
“No one truly crossed the boundary.”
Theirs was literally a Hollywood romance. Nancy, daughter of a footloose stage actress, had won a movie-studio contract on the strength of her mother’s connections. Reagan, the star of movies like “Kings Row” and “Knute Rockne, All American” whose career as a leading man was fading, had discovered a passion for politics as president of the Screen Actors Guild. But his new interest helped end his marriage to actress Jane Wyman, who hated politics so much it drove her to file for divorce in 1948.
Nancy Davis, 28 when she met the 38-year-old Reagan in 1949, always insisted that they came together by happenstance in his capacity as SAG president — but Tumulty uncovers evidence that she had been scheming for months to snag him.
Both craved stability. They found it in each other.
They called one another “Mommie” and “Daddy” almost from the start of their marriage in 1952 — when she was, as she admitted many years later, already two months pregnant with their daughter Patti — and maintained dozens of shared rituals. Reagan never boarded an airplane without his “lucky cuff links” — miniature gold calendar pages that marked their wedding date with purple stones. When they rode horses at their California ranch, Nancy remained in the saddle until Reagan dismounted, then leaped into his waiting arms.
“I felt like I was a kid watching a sister necking on the couch with her boyfriend,” White House doctor John Hutton admitted to Tumulty as he described the frequent display.
But perceptive aides knew she was also her husband’s most potent weapon. Campaign consultant Stu Spencer saw that the serenely aloof Reagan was “allergic to interpersonal conflict” — and that Nancy “was going to be the bad guy” who kept the troops loyal to his agenda as he was elected governor of California in 1966 and then president in 1980.
Deaver’s first job with Reagan in 1967 was on what fellow aides called “Mommie Watch” — fielding Nancy’s constant questions and commands.
“Soon we were huddling over [Reagan’s] scheduling, politics, the press, speeches,” he later recalled. “Nancy proved to be a shrewd political player in her own right.”
“I’m a woman who loves her husband,” she once said simply in a speech. “And I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare.”
By 1981, Nancy was convinced, Joan Quigley held the key to both.
After their phone call, Quigley agreed to give the first lady regular readings on her husband’s future — for a price.
“The astrologer insisted she be paid by the hour, with a $3,000-a-month retainer,” Tumulty writes, nearly $9,000 in today’s dollars.
The Vassar-educated Quigley grew up in San Francisco’s exclusive Nob Hill neighborhood, the daughter of a local hotel owner. She had published two books on astrology and was a frequent guest on Griffin’s TV talk show. With her socialite’s sensibilities and a therapist’s ear, she quickly built a rapport with the first lady.
The two spoke on weekends, when the Reagans usually relaxed at Camp David. Nancy gave Quigley the president’s proposed schedules — a stunning security breach — and the astrologer designated good and bad days for travel and public events. Soon she was weighing in on political questions, too, like the most auspicious date for a State of the Union address.
The arrangement “began as a crutch,” Nancy wrote in her 1989 memoir. “Within a year or two, it had become a habit.”
One aide, William Henkel, said that Quigley’s advice sometimes ranged beyond the calendar.
In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union, Nancy had Quigley run his natal chart and compare it to her husband’s, Henkel said.
“She came back saying … these two have, by the stars, some good vibes,” he recalled.
Quigley tallied a monthly bill and sent it to the first lady via a little-known private ZIP code that, Tumulty reports, routes personal correspondence straight to the presidential residence.
A California confidante — Nancy never revealed who — paid the bills on the first lady’s behalf, which she later reimbursed.
“Checks to an astrologer signed by a first lady created an obvious potential for embarrassment,” Tumulty notes.
But the first lady could not enforce Quigley’s edicts on her own. For that, she needed an Oval Office accomplice: surrogate son Michael Deaver, one of the three close Reagan advisers who formed the president’s power-sharing “troika.”
Chief of staff James Baker just looked the other way.
“When we wanted to schedule a big thing like a press conference, he’d say, ‘Let me take a look at it,’ ” Baker told Tumulty.
“Then we figured [Deaver and Nancy] would talk about the date. Now it’s clear that they were clearing it all with her, with the astrologist.”
It was months before Nancy told her husband what she was up to. As in most things, he indulged her.
“If it makes you feel better, go ahead and do it,” he said. “But it might look a little odd if it ever came out.”
Deaver bore the brunt of Quigley’s sometimes bizarre instructions, giving him a reputation as an indecisive crank.
“Deaver would dither … and then insist, for example, that the president’s plane take off for a foreign trip at precisely 2:11 a.m.,” Tumulty writes. “He concocted stories to tell the traveling press … A predawn takeoff? It was deemed to have been dictated by medical advice on how to avoid jet lag.”
“Who was I to tell [Nancy] it was a bad idea when she was convinced the well-being of her husband was at stake?” Deaver asked in his autobiography.
When Deaver prepared to leave the administration after Reagan’s re-election in 1984, he finally had to share the secret. He invited Henkel, the White House chief of scheduling, to his office and poured him a stiff drink.
Henkel “was flabbergasted,” he told Tumulty years later.
“Holy sh-t, Mike!” he spluttered. “I thought you were a madman. I can’t believe you had to do this!”
Yet Nancy managed to convince Henkel, too, of her need for Quigley’s guidance.
“Bill, I want you to understand and feel what it was like,” she told him. “I saw six doctors with panic in their eyes. My naked husband … I knew he was dying.”
Reagan’s second term also brought a new chief of staff: Treasury Secretary Donald Regan.
Regan and the first lady took an instant dislike to one another.
“I’m not the chief of staff of the first lady,” he railed after getting one too many of her phone calls.
“Don thought he was the president,” Nancy later complained to Washington-based journalist James Mann in 2005.
Regan’s contempt grew when he learned the secret of the president’s schedule — “the single most potent tool in the White House,” he believed. He seethed as he marked his desk calendar with traffic-signal shades of red, green and yellow based on Quigley’s star charts.
After two years of tension, Nancy engineered Regan’s ouster amid the fallout of the Iran-Contra scandal. But in 1988, with only eight months to go in his old boss’ term, Regan took revenge with “For the Record,” a million-dollar tell-all that revealed Quigley’s hidden influence.
The shocking story sparked headlines around the globe and became “the most mortifying chapter of Nancy’s years as first lady — almost too wacky to be possible,” Tumulty writes.
Regan had not named Quigley in his book, but reporters soon sniffed her out, and she eagerly told her story. Later, she cashed in with a memoir, “What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan.”
The White House tried in vain to brush off the controversy. Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater made light of it as he opened his May 4 press briefing — joking, “I’ll take your first question at exactly 12:33 and a half,’’ The New York Times reported.
“It’s true that Mrs. Reagan has an interest in astrology,” Fitzwater said. “She has for some time, particularly following the assassination attempt in March of 1981. She was very concerned for her husband’s welfare.”
At a photo op that day, Reagan fended off the question. “No policy or decision in my mind has ever been influenced by astrology,” he said.
The president’s reputation didn’t suffer, but Nancy would never truly recover from the situation. Johnny Carson turned it into a regular “Tonight Show” gag, joking that “the house of Adolfo” was Nancy’s zodiac sign.
“Each person has his own ways of coping with trauma and grief,” the first lady confessed in her 1989 memoir.
“This helped me. Nobody was hurt by it — except, possibly, me.”