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Betty Ford Said That Dance Was Her Happiness: an interview with Lisa McCubbin  photo

I probably never would have read a book about Betty Ford if I hadn’t randomly come across a notice for a reading by the author to be held at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library here in Ann Arbor.  I’d seen signs for the Presidential Library in town for over a decade but had never been. I’d never been to a Presidential Library until my stepfather took me to the George W. Bush library when I was in Dallas a couple years ago. Once you go to one, you suddenly want to see them all. Or I think this is a common response. 

The only thing I knew about Betty Ford was that she had been: the wife of a president and an alcoholic who opened one of the most famous rehab centers in the country.

I was curious what sort of turn out there would be at a Presidential Library for a book reading. I thought I might be one of ten or eleven people.

I was shocked to find the main parking lot full by the time I arrived. I parked across the street and crossed with a number of people who looked to be in their eighties or nineties. Inside the library it was the same thing: an overflow crowd of mostly eighty and ninety year old couples. There were probably a hundred of them, and most seemed to know one another.

The author, Lisa McCubbin, did a reading with a slide show. Somehow I ended up crying a lot. From the opening discovery that Betty’s father had been an alcoholic who committed suicide in their garage when Betty was sixteen, to Betty’s years wanting to be a dancer in New York City and studying with the legendary Martha Graham, to Betty’s first marriage ending in divorce, her years as an outspoken and controversial first lady, her years popping pills and drinks, her family’s intervention(s) and her ultimate recovery.  

I bought Lisa McCubbin’s biography Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer thinking I would look through the photographs and maybe skim a few pages. I ended up reading half the book the night of the reading. I read the rest the next day.

I can’t remember reading about a first lady who openly had different political opinions from her presidential husband and dared to speak them while he was president. Betty Ford was pro-ERA, pro choice, and one of the first persons Elizabeth Taylor turned to to help her raise money for AIDS research in the mid80s.

Author Lisa McCubbin was kind enough to answer some very long questions from me about Betty Ford.




Q: Even though she was born about twenty years too late, in some ways, in reading your book, Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer, Betty Ford reminds me of a flapper, a Zelda Fitzgerald type, a sort of wild, charismatic, creative woman who was independent and bold, but who also flirted with nervous breakdowns and full on addictions. But she was a very modern woman (for her time). Before she even met Gerald Ford she had already studied dance, lived and modeled in New York City, and been married for five years to another man, a man who was very self-destructive. Would you say the comparison to Zelda Fitzgerald and the flapper persona is an apt one? Perhaps a slightly more in control Zelda, though Betty does end up having a series of breakdowns and she does seem emotionally fragile at times (while at the same time frank and courageous).

A. Perhaps there are some similarities between Betty Bloomer Ford and Zelda Fitzgerald, but Betty wasn’t what I would call “wild” or even necessarily bold. She was indeed a modern woman, but she even though she was a dancer and loved to socialize, she didn’t seek the limelight. From what people told me, she just had the sort of personality that people wanted to be around her, and she loved people. She was truly interested in others and had a compassionate heart—especially for children with disabilities or those who suffered from disease or poverty.

I think many women can relate to the time in Betty’s life when she suffered from a nervous breakdown. She had put her career aside to be a housewife and was almost singlehandedly raising three active boys and a daughter, while her husband was traveling constantly in his aspirations to be Speaker of the House. She was feeling overwhelmed, empty, and unappreciated. She sought the help of a psychiatrist, which really helped with her self esteem. She realized other women must have been going through the same kinds of feelings and thus she felt no shame in talking about how the treatment had helped her.

I also think many will be able to relate to how her addictions developed and might even see themselves or family members who are in the same situation. Slowly developing a dependence on medication prescribed by doctors for legitimate reasons, and/or the habit of a nightly cocktail or two to unwind.


Q: I think most people would be surprised to learn that Betty studied with the great Martha Graham, first at Bennington College and later in New York City. (Martha Graham being a famous dancer/choreographer, someone who worked with all sorts of famous people, including Madonna.) How much did dance influence Betty’s life, even after she gave up her dream of being a professional dancer?

A: Betty said that dance was her “happiness.” It was truly something that brought joy into her life. She taught dance and enrolled her daughter Susan in dance classes almost as soon as she could walk. When she became first lady, there was always dancing at the White House State Dinners with live bands, and, typically, President and Mrs. Ford were the last ones to leave the dance floor in the wee hours of the morning.


Q: Gerald Ford can seem, today, to those of us who know almost nothing about him other than that he sort of inherited the presidency post Watergate, a rather boring historical figure. But he fell in love with and married Betty, a divorcee who was almost thirty, and one must assume he fell in love with her nontraditional personality, her frankness and strong-mindedness. And he never shied away from her sometimes, controversial opinions, nor tried to change or silence them, even when they were in direct contrast to his own, or to the political party he represented. In fact, you told a story the night I saw you read about Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney asking Gerald Ford to talk to his wife, after she’d given yet another controversial interview, to sort of get her to stop talking to the press so candidly or to stop voicing her political opinions. And I believe Gerald’s response to Cheney and Rumsfeld was, you talk to her! It sort of reminded me of the infamous story of Axl Rose accosting Kurt Cobain backstage at an MTV Video Awards, telling him to “control your bitch,” meaning Kurt’s wife, Courtney Love, after she had had words for Axl. I believe Kurt’s response was something along the lines of President Ford’s. What do you think about Gerald Ford being viewed as sort of a boring square when he was married to such a dynamic, untraditional, not square woman?

A: I definitely think that Gerald Ford has not been given the credit he deserves. One rainy evening, he slipped on the steps coming off Air Force One, and after it was caught by photographers, Chevy Chase created this bumbling, stumbling character of him on Saturday Night Live. The truth is that Gerald Ford was perhaps the most athletic president we’ve ever had. He was a star football player at the University of Michigan and was even recruited to play professionally (he turned down the offers to pursue a legal and political career); he swam nearly every day to keep fit; and played tennis and golf.

Even though he “inherited” the presidency, I believe he was the right man at the right time to heal our nation after President Nixon resigned in disgrace. He was decent, trustworthy, and served our country during one of the most difficult times in modern history. He was incredibly smart and was able to get along with people on both sides of the political aisle.

When it came to his relationship with Betty, it truly was a passionate, loving, equal relationship. He loved her spunk, valued her opinions, and sought her advice on everything. There was no way he was going to tell her not to voice her opinions. He really saw her as an equal. And regarding the story with Cheney and Rumsfeld, neither of them told her to quiet down because they knew she wouldn’t take that lightly. Indeed, as it turned out, the majority of people loved the fact that Betty was candid, and she became more popular than her husband, largely because of her outspokenness. As she told Morley Safer on 60 Minutes in 1975, “If someone asks you a question, you have to be honest, and tell them exactly how you feel.”


Q: Gerald Ford had only been president a few months when Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, which at that time was considered a very deadly disease and also one talked about in euphemisms, as “breast” was still not said on radio or television or in newspapers. Betty underwent an operation two days after her diagnosis and had one of her breasts removed, after which she spoke candidly to the press about her disease and masectomy. How radical was this for the time? Had any other women talked openly about having had breast cancer or about having a breast removed? How did this change the way in which we as a nation viewed and discussed breast cancer?

A: It was extremely groundbreaking when Betty spoke candidly about her her breast cancer and removal of her breast. Breast cancer, at that time, was almost shameful. You just didn’t talk about it. So here was Betty, America’s brand new first lady, going through this extremely private and personal matter, and she decides to tell the world about it. This shows her compassion and deep-seated belief that honesty was always the best policy. She realized that there were countless other women going through the same thing she was going through, and it needed to be discussed. Literally, overnight, she changed women’s healthcare forever. Money poured into research, women became educated about how to check their breasts, and suddenly, the word “breast” was just a body part, not a dirty word.


Q: The Sixty Minutes interview with Morley Safer was another turning point. Betty, as First Lady, was asked her views on a number of controversial topics – abortion, the ERA, marijuana, the sexual revolution – and she answered them all honestly and frankly. For one, she said of abortion, “I feel very strongly that it was the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion, and, in my words, bring it out of the backwoods and into the hospital where it belonged. It was a great, great decision.”

Did her pro-choice view of abortion contrast with her husband’s? Was he or had he run on an anti-abortion position? Is there any evidence Betty had an abortion before they met? She was married five years without having a child, which seems unusual for the time.

A: I did not come across any evidence that Betty ever had an abortion. In her first marriage, she was smart enough to realize that her husband was unstable and in fact, she wanted to divorce him after just three years of marriage, but waited another two years because he had taken ill. The Republican Party was not pro-choice. However, I think Gerald Ford respected his wife’s opinions and that women should have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies.


Q: Betty was an outspoken supporter of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and, I believe, considered herself a feminist. Did President Ford support her in this fight? What was his public (and private) position on the ERA? Did Betty change his views overtime on topics like the ERA and women’s issues and rights?

A: President Ford listened to and respected Betty’s opinions, but at times her views put him in a tough position, when they conflicted with those of his party. She was very persuasive and used “pillow talk” to get her points across. On January 9, 1975, Betty stood proudly behind President Ford when he signed an executive order creating the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.  The 34-person commission was tasked with encouraging cooperative activity in the field of women’s rights and responsibilities in conjunction with International Women’s Year which was declared by the United Nations.


Q: Betty was prescribed a plethora of drugs for a plethora of ailments. One of her biggest physical ailments was a pulled muscle in her neck for which she’d been hospitalized. You write about how back then, the physician would advise the patient to “stay ahead of the pain” by taking the pain pills round the clock, not even waiting to see if there was further pain. There was also no discussion of how the pain pills might or might not mix with alcohol. So over the years, Betty was taking pain pills, Valium, and an assortment of other prescribed drugs with her two or three nightly cocktails. In fact, at some point after the Fords leave the White House, Betty’s personal assistant goes through Betty’s drawer and makes a list of all the medicine she has been prescribed and the list filled three pages! Did Betty have numerous doctors? Or was this common then, for one doctor to prescribe so many different drugs? Was Gerald unaware of how many drugs his wife was taking? Was one of the drugs an opioid?

A: Betty had a few different doctors—just like we would today—a general physician, as well as a specialist for her arthritis, and a psychiatrist focusing on her mental health. But when she was in the White House, the White House physician controlled all her medication and was well aware of all the medications she was taking. At least two times, her assistants became concerned and boldly confronted her doctors. The doctors basically told them to mind their own business.

When her assistant made that list, and showed it to President Ford and Susan Ford, they were shocked. No one in the family knew how much medication she was taking. She was on very strong pain medications, and it is likely that at some points, she was prescribed a form of opioid.


Q: In the late 1970s, when the Ford family planned an intervention for Betty, interventions were a very new concept in our country. How did they get the idea to have one and did they have professionals to help them? How much did Betty fight getting help?

A: Susan Ford was really the instigator of the intervention. She realized her mother had really spiraled downward and was afraid she was going to die. She didn’t realize what was going on, but when she approached her family doctor who was himself a recovering alcoholic, he is the one who helped coordinate the intervention. The entire family, along with Clara, their former housekeeper, Betty’s personal assistant, and three medical professionals were all part of the intervention. It was extremely emotional for everyone involved. Betty agreed at the end of the intervention that she did indeed need help and agreed to be admitted to the Long Beach Naval Hospital for rehab.


Q: As with breast cancer, once Betty did seek help for her alcoholism and drug addiction, she didn’t shy away from talking about it publicly. Before Betty, had there been any public figures who had spoken so openly about their alcoholism and recovery? I think it was especially unusual for a woman to talk about alcoholism, weren’t most of the facilities that dealt with alcohol addiction geared toward men at that time? How did the nation react to Betty’s admission? Did Betty help sway the country from thinking of alcoholism as more of a moral weakness than a disease?

A: Betty was indeed one of the very first women of prominence to speak openly about alcoholism and drug addiction. When women were diagnosed with alcoholism or addiction at that time, they were treated in mental health facilities. There were very few treatment centers and yes, the majority of patients were men. It took a lot of courage, but once again, Betty realized she wasn’t the only one going through this. She had seen how her platform as first lady had made such an impact when she spoke out about breast cancer, and realized that because she was a public figure, she could do something positive with this. There is still a lot of work to be done to help remove the stigma from alcoholism and drug addiction, but Betty’s openness was nothing short of trailblazing.


Q: I think one of the reasons, you write, that Betty opened The Betty Ford Center, was because of the lack of beds for women in hospitals and other places that treated addiction. Didn’t Betty say there would always be at least an equal number of beds reserved for female patients at her center? 

A: Yes, the Betty Ford Center remains the only facility in the world that has an equal number of beds reserved for women as for men.


Q: Maybe the first celebrity to openly talk about going to the Betty Ford Center was Elizabeth Taylor, whose family had its own intervention. Did Betty and Elizabeth become close friends as a result of Elizabeth attending the center and getting sober?

A: Yes, Betty and Elizabeth Taylor became very good friends and supporters of each other and their causes. There’s a very interesting anecdote in the book in which Betty goes to Studio 54, about a year after going through rehab, and is there with Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, both of whom eventually end up at the Betty Ford Center.


Q: Betty Ford was one of the first famous persons to help Elizabeth Taylor in her fight to raise awareness of AIDS and to raise money for research, at a time when many people Elizabeth called were too afraid to be associated with gay men and AIDS. Did Betty have many gay friends? Was she friends with many people in the dance and fashion worlds?

A: Yes, she did have quite a few gay friends and once again, this showed the deep and sincere compassion she had for all people who were suffering.


Q: Another woman Betty teamed up with to address controversial issues – mental health and addiction – was the First Lady who succeeded her, Rosalynn Carter. How unusual was it then for prominent people of different parties (or at least their husbands represented opposing political parties, I’m not sure if Betty considered herself a Republican or not) to work together for a common cause? And do you think Betty considered herself aligned with a particular party? Do you think she identified as a Republican?

A: Yes, she definitely identified as a Republican although her views were more centrist. Still, today’s Republican Party is a lot different than it was when Gerald Ford was president. The great thing about Betty and Rosalynn Carter working together was showing the world how to find common ground even when coming from different political stances. We could use a lot more of that right now.


Q: You spoke at the event at the Gerald Ford Library about Betty’s humor, about how one of her friends or family members said that was what she was most known for. But I didn’t see as much of that in the book, which deals mainly with more serious topics. What is a good example of Betty’s sillier side? or sense of humor?

A: She loved practical jokes and dressing up in silly costumes. She had a quick wit and didn’t take herself too seriously.


Q: More than anything, this book is a love story. Betty and Gerald Ford, individually and together, faced many battles, controversies, illnesses, and setbacks, but their union never seemed to be tested. They always supported one another and stood by each other’s side.

I remember tearing up at your talk when you said Betty slept with the flag that covered her husband’s casket every night of the five years between his death and her own. What do you think it was that made their relationship so strong and so invulnerable to the stresses and failings of so many other marriages, then and today?

A: I think they had a deep and profound respect and admiration for each other. They truly adored each other and loved being together. There was a physical chemistry and unbounded trust.


Q: Lastly, a year after Betty completed rehab, she had a facelift. And, of course, she wasn’t shy about admitting this to the public, either. I really can’t think of any other First Lady, or many famous women in general, for that matter, who so openly and unapologetically were themselves. Do you think it was because of her father’s hidden alcoholism and depression that Betty was so publicly herself? For better or worse? Love her or leave her? She just didn’t seem to have the time or to care what people thought of her (outside of her family). And maybe in this way, in not caring if people liked her, she was one of the most liberated women of the last fifty years.

A: I don’t think Betty’s father had much influence on her character. Her mother, Hortense, was very strong-willed, and like Betty, was pretty much left to manage the household and raise the children (Betty had two older brothers) while her husband was traveling. When her father died, Betty saw how her mother just did what had to be done. It was 1934 and her mother went out and got her real estate license and began selling real estate. She was an enormous influence on Betty. Tragically, she died shortly after Betty and Jerry married, so Betty lost that role model.