Pat Nixon: Superstar

Yes, THAT Pat Nixon (1912-1993), First Lady of the United States (1969-1974), and hopefully the title of this post will attract as many people as it repels, if for no other reason than to find out what the hell I’m talking about.

Today would be her 110th birthday, but that by itself would not be sufficient to merit her inclusion in our annals. Thelma Catherine “Pat” Ryan grew up on a farm, and worked an enormous variety of menial jobs to help support her family: janitor, clerk, secretary, lab assistant, pharmacist. One of the many jobs she had while attending USC was as a MOVIE EXTRA! I learned this only recently while scanning the cast of one of my favorite movies The Great Ziegfeld (1936). She was a chorus girl in that film!

According to a private collector, that’s Pat sitting down in this very fuzzy still from the film Becky Sharpe (Rouben Mamoulian’s 1935 screen adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair), with stars Miriam Hopkins and Cedric Hardwicke dancing in the foreground:

Apparently she had a line or two in the film, which wound up on the cutting floor. I love the ghostly nature of this image. Sometimes the past simply will NOT come into focus. In Small Town Girl (1936) with Janet Gaynor, she actually played a named character, even if it was her own name: “Thelma Ryan”. Pat was also one of the dancers, though presumably not one of the pirates, in Dancing Pirate (1936) with Charles Collins and Frank Morgan. Having initially done some modeling, Pat took several screen tests, and that is what led to these small roles. Whether she would have gone farther in the industry will ever be academic.

In 1937, Pat graduated cum laude from USC, and went to Whittier, California to be a schoolteacher. There, in 1940, she met a young lawyer named Richard Nixon while the two were acting in an amateur production of The Dark Tower by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott. Strange, but true. Nixon was in a play! He also played piano pretty well, some of you may remember. It’s one of the ways (besides his innate ruthlessness) that he was able to make inroads into politics; it was his substitute for charisma.

Anyway, the pair were immediately married and thereafter this cum laude college graduate and once independent woman changed gears, later proclaiming “I have sacrificed everything in my life that I consider precious in order to advance the political career of my husband.” (Which apparently she did not also consider precious, to read between the lines). Such sacrifices were de rigueur in 1940, and 1950, and even 1960, but when she was First Lady in 1970, it went very much against the grain of the national zeitgeist as Second Wave Feminism picked up steam.

Naturally, the political life required her to be a very public person, and on occasion she got to put a toe back into show business. When she was Second Lady during the 1950s, she was on The Magical World of Disney several times (with Dick, of course), and later she made appearances on Bob Hope specials and The Mike Douglas Show.

But the life took its toll. She had the first of two strokes in 1976, just months after Nixon’s disgrace and resignation. I’ll be less responsible than a journalist or a doctor might be in this case, when I declare categorically that Nixon gave his poor wife a stroke. But he clearly needed her, too. Less than a year following Pat’s death of lung cancer in 1993, Nixon himself died…of a stroke. If I were telling their story in an E.C. Comic I’d make that Pat’s revenge.

At any rate, a far cry from the tidal wave of show biz folk who would later enter politics (you know the usual suspects), but interesting nonetheless.

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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.