LOS ANGELES – Long before it became reality show fodder, Betty Ford helped create the original celebrity rehab.
The center that bears her name has a legacy of rehabbing Hollywood's elite. In the process it became a household name, a punchline, but -- above all -- a highly respected addiction treatment center.
Since its opening in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982, stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and, most recently, Lindsay Lohan have been among the more than 90,000 people who have received treatment at the center.
Taylor met one of her husbands, Larry Fortensky, while in treatment. Kelsey Grammer credited his stay there with saving his life. So too did Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, who paid tribute to the former first lady on social networking site Twitter on Friday evening.
"She & Betty Ford Center helped me beat my addiction & she was an angel to many," Matlin wrote. Betty Ford died Friday at the nearby Eisenhower Medical Center at the age 93.
Located in the desert about two hours east of Hollywood, the Betty Ford Center is by no means the closest place offering addiction treatment. But its association with entertainment industry came from its reputation as a place where addicts -- famous or not -- could get top-notch care.
"One Day at a Time" actress Mackenzie Phillips, another Betty Ford alumna, wrote on the site, "RIP Betty Ford. A pioneer in treatment of addicts. We owe Mrs. Ford our gratitude and prayers. And love. She was one classy woman."
Ali McGraw, who was treated at the center in 1986, said in a statement Friday that she is grateful for what Ford has done for her.
"She changed so many of our lives with her courage and intelligence, her honesty and humility, and her deep grace," McGraw said. "Her vision impacted my own life as few people have."
Taylor's first stay at the center came in 1983 and provided another high-profile face to those struggling with addiction.
Cash soon became a patient after he broke five ribs and relapsed into abuse of painkillers. "I ended up in the Betty Ford Center for 43 days," Cash told The Associated Press in 1986. "I've had no drugs since then. It has been the best three years of my life, the most productive and the happiest."
One of Ford's defining characteristics was her candor, and that included confronting her own addiction head-on. She revealed a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol 15 months after leaving the White House, and regularly welcomed new groups of patients to rehab with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict."
"People who get well often say, `You saved my life,' and `You've turned my life around,"' Ford once said. "They don't realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that's all."
The center distinguished itself from later iterations of rehabs that catered to the wealthy, ones that resembled spas more than an environment to honestly confront one's demons. In recent years the stigma of rehab has lessened to the point that it has become fodder for reality television, with shows such as VH1's "Celebrity Rehab" and A&E's "Intervention" showing both the impact of drug abuse and offering some insight into its treatment.
But the Betty Ford Center wasn't part of the trend. Ford was fine with famous patients discussing their treatment at the center -- provided they stayed sober -- but the facility keeps its clients confidential.
In 1996, Grammer described to Jay Leno how his treatment at Betty Ford helped restore his joy of living. The comedian also quipped about the center's stature and its famous patients.
"When I was on my way to the Betty Ford Center, I turned to one of my friends and said, `You know, I've finally made it. I'm going to the Betty Ford Center,"' he said.
When a judge sent Lohan to the center for three months late last year, many experts said it would be her best shot at recovery.
"There's no place that's better with chemical dependency than Betty Ford," Jeffrey C. Friedman, a substance abuse counselor at the Cottonwood Tucson center and a recovering heroin addict, said at the time.