A Conversation with Bernard Dick

Bernard Dick is a prolific Hollywood biographer (he is the author Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell; Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty; Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young). His latest project, The President’s Ladies: Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis takes a unique look Ronald Reagan, a former actor and one of America's most popular presidents, who married not one but two Hollywood actresses. This book is actually three biographies in one and uncovers fascinating connections between Wyman, Reagan, and Davis. 

Below, Dick talks about his inspiration behind the book and surprising discoveries he made during his research. The President's Ladies is available in April. 

What was the inspiration behind such a unique, three-headed monster of a biography?

I had originally intended to write a biography of Jane Wyman. I know I must have seen her earlier than 1948, but that was my coming-of-age year.  I was in the seventh grade when I saw Johnny Belinda, for which she won an Oscar. I was amazed at her ability to play a hearing and speech impaired woman, who does not speak a single word in the entire film.  I cannot forget how shocked I saw by the rape scene, when Stephen McNally approaches Jane, whose pleading look indicates that she knew what will happen and cannot bear the thought of it.  Sexual violence was portrayed by suggestion then, but suggestion can leave a memory that time cannot erase.  I still cannot forget it. 

How did that memory morph into The President's Ladies?

I saw All About Eve on television, a film that I knew well and about which I had written.  In the
Ronald and Jane on their
wedding day
final scene, when Barbara Bates bows before a three-way mirror, I had an idea.  Jane's life is part of two other lives—she married Ronald Reagan, divorced him, remarried (not successfully), leaving Reagan to remarry happily to an aspiring actress, Nancy Davis.

Nancy was the mate for whom he was destined.  A competent actress but never a star, she found her place in the pantheon as First Lady. One doubts that there would ever have been a President Reagan, if it were not for Nancy. Both found their best roles at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  I think of this book as a triptych, with Jane in the center flanked by Reagan and Nancy.
Nancy and Reagan were good actors.  Nancy could have been a fine character actress.  She excelled at playing wives, mothers, secretaries, teachers—the staples of TV sitcoms and series.  Reagan had a real flair for romantic comedy.  He could do drama when it was not psychological, failing only once when he went out of his element to play an epileptic in Night Unto Night

 What was the most surprising thing you found during your research?

I knew that Reagan switched parties and became a Republican, but I never knew he was such a rabid anti-Communist until I started this book.  His anti-Communist paranoia was the main reason for Jane's divorcing him.  She simply could not stand listening to his rants.  In Nancy, Reagan found an audience.  She was indeed the mate for whom he was intended. 

However, my biggest discovery was Jane Wyman's conversion to Catholicism.  It began when she was making Stage Fright in London.  One day, the car that was at her disposal drove past Westminster Cathedral, She asked the driver to stop, having never seen such an imposing sight before.  Later, she had the courage to enter the Cathedral.  Seeing rosaries for sale in a gift shop, she bought one and another for a friend, thinking they were the equivalent of admission tickets.  She soon learned otherwise. 

Fascinated by Catholicism, she began preparing for her conversion to the Catholic Faith and eventually was received into the Church.  From that point on, namely from 1954 to her death, she remained a  devout Catholic. In the last years of her life, she became a Third Order Dominican, and was buried in the Dominican habit. 

I am honored to tell her story.  She was a woman of great faith, which, in retrospect, came through in her performances, even before she converted.  She was always looking for something, and finally found it.