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Former first lady Betty Ford very well may be remembered for her actions more than her personal style. But those who her knew her said she always left an impression.
Ford, who championed women’s rights, equal rights, substance abuse treatment, breast cancer and a myriad of other taboo subjects in the Seventies, died Friday at the age of 93.
A former model and accomplished dancer with a sharp mind and wicked sense of humor, Ford ushered in an unprecedented sense of openness to the White House, by welcoming an array of personalities to American-themed state dinners and giving the media all-access coverage. The Michigan native was also unguarded about her own personal strife whether that be against alcoholism or prescription pain killers.
The daughter of a U.S. Rubber salesman who sold conveyer belts to factories, Ford grew up in the furniture capital of the world, Grand Rapids, Mich. In an exclusive interview with WWD in 1974, she said, “I’m just a plain normal gal who was happy that she married someone she thought was going to be a lawyer.”
So at ease with the media as she was, Ford was known as just plain “Betty” by the press corps. And her press secretary, Nancy Howe, was beyond being on a first-name basis, preferring to call the sunny and diminutive first lady “Petunia.”
Ford said, “I don’t see why you have to call the wife of the vice president Mrs. Ford. I mean the wife of the president. Oh Dear, I’m having trouble going from vice president to president. There’s hardly been time to get used to either one. It’s been an instant 24-hour transition. Like falling into a river.”
But friends noted how the keenly intelligent and size 8 ex-model and former Martha Graham dancer took to her new station in life with “Pat Nixon-perfect poise and posture” and the advantage of being a good hand-shaker. The artist Andrew Wyeth’s son Jamie described her as “quite beautiful in a regal way.” But apparently she never lost her bearings. One longtime pal said of Ford in 1974, “I like her modesty, the fact that none of this has changed her one bit. She’s plain as an old shoe, but sharp as a tack.”
Former social secretary Maria Downs said Sunday, “I told her, ‘In your position now, you’re probably one of the most influential nonelected people in not only Washington but also in America. And she said to me, ‘Well, don’t tell anyone.’ She did realize what she could accomplish and influence by using the White House for entertaining and how that played into all that was being done with the administration and the presidential dealings.”
Self-deprecating as that sounds, Ford was shrewd about advancing women and U.S.-made goods. State dinners called for round tables so that women did not feel as though their designated seating was determined by their husband’s profession. Ford made a point of giving each state dinner an Americana theme to draw attention to the country’s finery by customizing centerpieces with Steuben glass or the candlesticks made from spools used in New England textile mills.
At the first lady’s request, Downs was always on the alert to make any guests who appeared in awe — as was once the case with Clint Eastwood — feel more at home in the White House. Heavily involved with every last detail that fell under her watch, Ford gave great consideration to guest lists, ensuring that Willie Mays met Queen Elizabeth at the white-tie dinner that was held in honor of Her Royal Highness. Halston, Martha Graham and Andy Warhol were among the numerous visitors who dined and danced the night away with the Fords, who liked nothing better than tearing up the rug. (She even did the disco move “The Bump” with the comedian Marty Allen at a White House dinner-dance.)
A former department store model and fashion coordinator, Ford saw to it that her gatherings called for long white gloves. Downs, who works in the White House archives, said, “Now the dress at the White House is so relaxed. In those days, there was a very good line about how one dressed when they came to the White House, whether it was for a social event or work. It’s not a criticism. It’s just the way it is.”
As for Ford, she was “extremely interested in fashion” and liked such designers as Halston, Bill Blass, Albert Capraro, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, Geoffrey Beene, Pierre Cardin, Kasper and Jim Baldwin. Ford once told WWD, “I always try to wear something outstanding and as becoming a dress as I can find. I don’t believe in the dumb dress.”
Arnold Scaasi, who met Ford a few times in Washington, described her Sunday as someone with “enormous charm who always handled herself very well.” As for her fashion sense, the designer said, “She dressed very well but was quite conservative. She always looked like the head of an office and I guess she was. She didn’t ever wear anything outlandish. She never wore anything to shock the public.”