Betty Ford (born 1918) was thrust into the public eye when her husband succeeded Richard Nixon as the 38th president of the United States. After leaving the White House in 1977, Ford battled alcoholism and drug dependency. Following her recovery, she co-founded a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Rancho Mirage, California., where she continues to serve as chairman of the board.
Betty Ford wanted to be a dancer, a wife and a mother. But she became much more. When her husband was appointed 38th president of the United States, she suddenly became a celebrity. She used her notoriety to promote humanitarian causes and to raise awareness of breast cancer, alcoholism and drug addiction, battles that she personally fought and was compelled to publicly acknowledge.
Betty Ford was born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 8, 1918 in Chicago. She was the third child and only daughter of Hortense Neahr and William Stephenson Bloomer. The family lived in Chicago and Denver, before settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Betty was two years old. William Bloomer sold conveyor belts for the Royal Rubber Co. The family spent summers at its cottage at Whitefish Lake in northern Michigan. In her 1978 autobiography, Ford described her childhood and high school years as filled with friends, dates, and social outings. Her mother was a stickler for etiquette and she enrolled her children in social dance classes. When Betty began the lessons at the age of eight, it was the beginning of a lifelong love for dance. Soon, she was learning Spanish, ballet, tap and acrobatic dance. She began teaching dance to young children at the age of 14. There were dark times in her childhood. The family lost money during the Depression, and when Betty was 16, her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on a car.
Dreamed of Dancing
After graduating from high school, Bloomer worked as a fashion assistant for a department store in Grand Rapids and taught dance. She dreamed of dancing in New York, but her mother, with whom she had a close relationship, refused to allow her daughter to move to New York until she was 20. As a consolation, Bloomer studied for two summers at the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vermont, where she met many well-known dancers, including Martha Graham. In 1938, Bloomer traveled to New York to study dance at Graham's school. To help support herself, she also worked as a model with the John Roberts Powers agency.
After about one year, Bloomer's mother persuaded her to return to Grand Rapids. She continued working at the department store, started her own dance group, worked with handicapped children, and maintained an active social life. Bloomer expected to return to New York to continue her studies with Graham, but her plans changed.
In 1942, she married Bill Warren, whom she'd known since grade school. Warren held a series of jobs, moving the young couple to Maumee, Ohio, and Syracuse, New York, before returning to Grand Rapids. Three years into the marriage, Bloomer realized the couple was incompatible. She wanted a home and a family; her husband spent a lot of time on the road. She decided to seek a divorce. Before she had the opportunity to share these thoughts with her husband, he fell into a diabetic coma, which left him unable to walk. Bloomer supported the household and visited her husband in the hospital until he recovered two years later. In 1947, when she was 29, the couple divorced.
In 1947, Bloomer met Gerald R. Ford, a Navy lieutenant who had recently returned from a tour of duty to resume his law practice. The young couple dated for a year before marrying on October 15, 1948. Two weeks later, her husband won election to the House of Representatives.
Life in Washington
The Fords moved to Washington, expecting to stay for one two-year term. They remained for 29 years. Ford immersed herself in her new life as the wife of a young Congressman. She learned how the legislature and Supreme Court operated and participated in the Congressional Wives Club.
The Fords had four children, Michael Gerald, born March 15, 1950; John Gardner, born March 16, 1952; Steven Meigs, born May 19, 1956; and Susan Elizabeth, born July 6, 1957. The family lived in Alexandria, Virginia. While her husband climbed through the ranks of the House, Ford was involved with her young children's activities, including Cub Scouts, Brownies, Sunday school and sports. She also remained active in the Congressional Wives Club, the 81st Congress Club, and the National Federation of Republican Women.
In 1964, at the age of 46, Ford suffered a pinched nerve in her neck, which caused debilitating pain. She was placed in traction and underwent physical therapy, but the condition remained. The pinched nerve combined with pain from arthritis prompted doctors to prescribe pain medication, which eventually caused dependence.
When her husband became minority leader of the House of Representatives in 1965, it put a strain on Ford's mental health. He traveled extensively, leaving her to care for the family almost exclusively. It was a difficult year for Ford. In her autobiography, she described herself as a fragile bottle that finally broke. She sought therapy to ease the strain.
White House Years
In 1973, as the Fords were planning for retirement, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and President Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as his replacement. The family was suddenly thrust into the limelight and Ford had to adjust to the attention and the challenge of dealing with the media. She soon developed a reputation for candor. During an interview with television journalist Barbara Walters, she commented on the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, saying, it was time to bring abortion out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belonged.
Less than a year after being appointed vice president, Gerald Ford became president of the United States when Richard Nixon resigned. On August 9, 1974, Ford took on a new role-first lady. In her 1978 autobiography, Ford described her sudden fame: "I was an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time. I was no different once I became first lady than I had been before. But, through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people."
As first lady, Ford became known for her candor and forthrightness. She gained the public's admiration when, shortly after moving into the White House, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. At the time, cancer and mastectomy were subjects people didn't discuss publicly. Ford explained her reason for going public in an interview in Ms. magazine in 1984: "We were in a position where my husband had been sworn into office during a very, very difficult time. There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford Administration. So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be public." The American people reacted with admiration. Breast detection clinics opened nationwide and women lined up for screenings.
Ford championed many other causes as first lady. She campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, the proposed Constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed equal rights to women. She encouraged the president to appoint women to high-level positions-secretary of Housing and Urban Development and ambassador to Great Britain. Ford was an advocate for the arts. She persuaded her husband to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Martha Graham. Ford remained a friend of Graham's until her death in 1991. Ford also worked for social causes. She supported Washington's Hospital for Sick Children, the Heart Association, Goodwill Industries, the Cancer and Arthritis foundations and No Greater Love, an organization which assisted children of soldiers lost or missing in action.
Ford's outspokenness continued to gain attention. During a television interview with Morley Safer on Sixty Minutes, she repeated her support for the right of pregnant women to decide whether they wished to have an abortion. She also raised no objections to young people of opposite genders cohabiting before marriage. Some people believed that the expression of Ford's liberal opinions was inappropriate for her position. Many others rallied behind her and her popularity rose.
Battled Alcohol and Drugs
After Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential race, the Fords retired to Palm Springs, California. They had spent their entire married life in Washington. Several years later, Ford acknowledged that the adjustment to private life and retirement was more difficult that she realized at the time. "It was like cutting off one life and starting a completely new one," she said in a 1984 Ms. magazine interview.
Ford had been taking pain medication since 1964. She also took tranquilizers and sleep medication. Doctors had prescribed and recommended these drugs for many years. In addition, Ford has never stopped social drinking. The combination proved dangerous. In 1978, her family confronted her about her chemical dependency and Ford entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital for alcohol and drug treatment. She described her recovery in a 1987 book, Betty A Glad Awakening. After her recovery, she became an advocate for drug and alcohol awareness, education and treatment. In 1982, Ford and Leonard Firestone co-founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, to treat people with drug and alcohol dependencies. It is regarded one of the best treatment facilities in the United States. Ford is the center's chairman of the board.
No Rest in Retirement
The Fords live in Rancho Mirage. They have six grandchildren. Ford continues her work at the center and remains involved with handicapped children, the arts, breast cancer detection, arthritis, AIDS, and other women's issues. Ford's legacy is her openness and forthrightness in discussing her personal struggles. Her willingness to reveal her breast cancer raised the public's awareness of the disease and educated many women about early detection. She also spoke frankly about mental health and helped remove the stigma associated with alcoholism.
At a time of her life when she could be enjoying retirement, Ford works tirelessly to raise awareness about alcohol and drug education. She has been honored for her work related to cancer, arthritis, alcoholism, disabled people, women's rights, and women's health. In 1999, she and her husband received the Congressional Gold Medal for their dedication to public service and their humanitarian contributions.
Further Reading on Betty Ford
Ford, Betty, Betty A Glad Awakening, Doubleday, 1987.
Ford, Betty, The Times of My Life, Harper & Row, 1978.
Detroit Free Press, p. A3. October 25, 1999.
Ms., April, 1984, p. 41.
"Betty Ford," http://www.wic.org, (October 21, 1999).
"Betty Ford Biography," http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/ford (October 25, 1999).
"Betty Ford-Awards and Honors Received," http://www.ford.utexas.edu(October 25, 1999).
"Elizabeth Bloomer Ford," http://www2.whitehouse.gov(October 21, 1999).