WASHINGTON – He called her "Mommy." She called him "Ronnie." The love affair between Ronald and Nancy Reagan (search) lasted more than half a century and was unblushingly on public display for much of that time.
They walked hand in hand. When he left the White House, she waved from the window.
When they were separated for a few days or more, he became blue.
He loved to doodle, and sometimes he presented his little drawings to his wife, signed, "I.T.W.W.W." As she explained in her memoirs, that meant, "I love you more than anyone 'in the whole wide world."'
He was smitten. So was she.
During his campaigns, first for governor of California, then for president, she became famous for "The Gaze" — a steady, adoring stare at the star. She laughed at jokes she had laughed at a thousand times before.
"The golden years are when you can sit back, hopefully, and exchange memories, and that's the worst part about this disease," she said in a 2000 interview on CBS. "There's nobody to exchange memories with ... and we had a lot of memories."
More than ever, Nancy became his guardian.
In happier times, Reagan once said that theirs was "a marriage that was like an adolescent's dream of what a marriage should be."
And Nancy Reagan used to say, "My life really began when I met Ronnie."
Describing their first date in her book "My Turn," she said, "I don't know if it was exactly love at first sight. But it was pretty close."
"We had dinner together the first night. And the night after that. And the one after that. For the next month or so we must have gone to every restaurant and nightclub in Los Angeles," she wrote.
At the time, Reagan was a Hollywood actor, recently and painfully divorced from actress Jane Wyman (search). He also was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
He met his second wife when actress Nancy Davis arranged to see him to talk over a problem: Her name appeared, without her permission, on a list of left wingers in an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter.
Two years later, they married, on March 4, 1952. She willingly gave up her rising screen career to become a full-time wife and mother, although they made one movie together in 1957, "Hellcats of the Navy."
Ten years later, he was elected governor of California, and she had to get used to life in the goldfish bowl.
It was not easy.
Even in the Sacramento days there were whispers that she was the ventriloquist and he was the puppet. She was criticized when she refused to move into the governor's mansion and they bought a home in the suburbs, surrounded by wealthy neighbors. She said the mansion was a firetrap.
When they moved into the White House for an eight-year run in 1981, she was ridiculed for accepting free outfits from big name designers and for spending lavishly on redecorating the White House.
Again she was portrayed as the real power, Ronald Reagan's manipulator. She denied it; he never seemed to mind it.
Real pain came on March 30 of that year, less than 21/2 months after Reagan took office. Nancy suffered the ordeal of having her husband seriously wounded by a would-be assassin.
Later, both had cancer crises — colon cancer for him, breast cancer for her.
After Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan, was forced out — by Nancy, it was said — Regan wrote a tell-all book revealing how her consultations with a Los Angeles astrologer had affected the scheduling of the president's public appearances.
Reagan himself had to deny that his wife was "kind of a dragon lady."
"I often cried during those eight years," Nancy Reagan wrote in her book. "There were times when I just didn't know what to do, or how I would survive."
The saddest time, of course, was yet to come, with Reagan's announcement on Nov. 5, 1994, that he had been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's, a degenerative neurological disease characterized by memory loss and disorientation. He said he had started "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."
After that, they were rarely apart. They reconciled with their children — two by his first marriage, two by their marriage.
Nancy Reagan received a standing, tearful reception at the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996. "I can tell you with certainty he still sees the shining city on the hill," she told the delegates.
"We have learned, as too many other families have learned, of the terrible pain and loneliness that must be endured as each day brings another reminder of this very long goodbye," she said.
Earlier, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, she attended a big dinner in West Hollywood. He could not be there.
It was an emotional moment.
"I'd like to propose a toast to all of you for what you've done for Ronnie and me," she said, holding aloft a glass, fighting the tears. "I'd like to propose a toast to my fella, my love."