A Noted Life Exits the Stage: Jane Wyman, RIP

Jane Wyman died on Monday at the age of 90, one of the few holdovers from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the public’s eye, she is best known for her roster of celebrated films and, unfortunately, for her divorce to Ronald Reagan, the only president to have experienced the break up of a marriage.

The first time I spoke to anyone with inside knowledge into the Wyman-Reagan separation was in the summer 2001 in Dixon, Illinois, hometown of Ronald Reagan. I was chatting with a group of elderly women who had known Reagan since childhood. They blushed as they recalled how girls in Dixon had a crush on the teenage lifeguard, and how the girls envied a young lady named Mugs Cleaver, who was Reagan’s girlfriend. Reagan was certain he would marry Mugs. These ladies did not understand why Mugs ultimately turned him down, and neither did Reagan. “She won’t talk to anyone about their relationship,” they informed me—“and neither will Jane.” “Jane?” I replied. “Yes, Jane Wyman,” they clarified.

Ah, yes. Jane Wyman. I had some questions about her: “I read that she was divorced three or four times aside from her divorce to Reagan,” I asked innocently, angling to get my facts straight with these insiders—“is that true?” The ladies were offended by the question. “Now listen,” began one of them sternly, pointing her finger at me. They proceeded to tell me that to Jane’s great credit, she never dumped on Reagan or blasted him publicly for the divorce. She never succumbed to all those reporters looking to dig up dirt. Jane wouldn’t budge. She was known to stop an interview if asked about her ex-husband.

That was also true of Ronald Reagan, who likewise took the high road, despite being devastated by the divorce. He saw marriage as a lifetime commitment. He did not want the divorce, Jane did. Yet, he, too, was tight-lipped. Remarkably, he seemed to blame himself, citing his obsessive interest in politics: “Perhaps I should’ve quit trying to save the world and instead tried to save my marriage.”

Some Reagan biographers have dealt with the marriage, most notably Edmund Morris, the historian brought into the White House as the official biographer of Reagan. Perhaps the most bracing statement in Morris’ thick, controversial biography is found at the very beginning, where he dedicates the book to someone named “Christine,” prompting readers to immediately respond: Who in the world is Christine? The answer: Christine was the baby girl prematurely brought into the world by Jane in 1948, before dying shortly thereafter in a neo-natal unit. It is frequently said that the death of a child can bring death to a marriage. It was no coincidence that Reagan and Wyman, married in 1940, and already struggling, divorced in 1948.

The best book on Jane Wyman is the memoir of her adopted son, Michael Reagan, Twice Adopted, a stunning narrative that is hard to read and even harder to put down. There, readers will see a complicated woman, who they may alternately like and dislike. Yet, Michael extended to Jane the same charity displayed by his father, accentuating her better qualities, particularly as a single mom working her tail off in the 1950s.

In a memorable evening here at Grove City College last February, Michael spoke of the moment at the hospital in 1945 when he as a newborn was transferred from the arms of the biological mother he never knew—Irene Flaugher of Portsmouth, Ohio—to the care of the famous actress: “Irene had come to California, got into the acting business, little bit parts…. She found out that they [the Reagans] were looking for a child and got a hold of Jane. And then after something like 55 hours of labor, she called Jane. Irene actually wanted to put me into the arms of the woman who would be my mother. So she put me into the arms of Jane, and I would go home a week later to the house.”

As Michael spoke about Jane that evening, it was clear that he was enormously proud of her, rattling off fact after fact: “I mean Jane Wyman was a hottie…. She won the Academy Award for best actress in 1948 for her role in Johnny Belinda. She was nominated four times for best actress. She’s won twelve Golden Globes. She has two stars on Hollywood Blvd., one for television, one for motion pictures. Her name is next to Natalie Wood’s at Grauman’s Chinese…. She had a hit series in the 1950s—Jane Wyman Theater…. And then in the 1980s, some people might remember her for Falcon Crest, which was a series that ran for nine years…. People would call me and say ‘Gosh, you know, your dad is the president of the United States!’ I would say, ‘Yeah, but my mom is making as much as him in a week!’”

Every life has a complicated story. As Jane is laid to rest, hopefully she will be remembered beyond her movies and as the first ex-wife to a president. Surely that’s on the mind of Michael Reagan this week, as he mourns the loss of the final member of his family and the only mom he ever knew.