When Nancy Reagan died in March it was twelve years since the death of President Reagan and twenty seven years since the couple left the Whitehouse.
In 1989 the Reagans headed home to California where they resided at 668 Saint Cloud Road in Bel Air in a house that had for the previous twelve months been carefully prepared by designer Ted Graber, a noted Hollywood interior designer, and Mrs Reagan herself.
The house was sold in July. Its contents are at auction at Christie’s New York on September 21st and 22nd in 441 live lots, whilst an online auction runs till September 28th with 261 additional lots.
As Christie’s has described the sale, every object provokes its own individual conversation whilst the moments they have witnessed tell a uniquely “American story”.
What does this intimate and often poignant insight into the Reagans definitively tell us about the former President and First Lady, their legacy and the ongoing relevance of this “American story”?
Well on a personal level there was glamour and friendship from the movie days that carried on to the Whitehouse. Christie’s decorative arts specialist Gemma Sudlow who reviewed the collection was most struck by a circa 1981 Tiffany desk clock. The clock was a gift from Frank Sinatra and his wife following the 1980 election, and the brass plaque is inscribed with “GOOD MORNING MR PRESIDENT” and “JANUARY 1981 Love / Francis and Barbara.”
This glamour was a key element of the optimism and renewal that the Reagans brought to America after the long, dark days of the Carter administration. Nearly four years later a needlepoint cushion emblazoned with “You ain’t seen nothing yet, November 6th 1984” marked the re-election triumph which saw Reagan carry 49 states and the Democratic party knocked out of the Presidency till 1992.
Reagan’s greatest triumph – defeating the Soviet Union and contributing to the fall of the Iron Curtain which occurred just after he had left office – is represented by a fragment of the Berlin Wall bearing President Reagan’s signature. Also for sale is a Russian Silver Samovar with the wording “To Nancy and Ronald Reagan, with love and appreciation, Galina and Slava Rostropovich”, a gift from the Soviet and Russian cellist-dissident and his wife.
The Special Relationship with the United Kingdom is marked with a pair of Elizabeth II silver beakers from Margaret and Denis Thatcher and touchingly inscribed “With love from Margaret and Denis Thatcher.”
Comrades in the Fight are also recognized with a duotone reproduction of a photograph of Barry Goldwater, signed by Goldwater “To a dedicated American – a valued and loyal friend Ronald – With admiration, Barry.”
Finally, the book collection is suitably on message. Richard Cornuelle’s Reclaiming the American Dream arguing that volunteerism rather than the Government could effectively solve social and political problems is a suitable work by America’s leading libertarian. His mentor Ayn Rand is represented with a copy of The Fountainhead, individualism triumphing over collectivism came to represent the spirit of the 1980s. And of course, a no Reagan book collection would be complete without a book of Irish Proverbs.
Why is this important?
This US Presidential election cycle has invoked less references to Ronald Reagan than any other election. But the similarities between Reagan and the present Republican candidate are clear.
The legacy and relevance is of a Republican President, with a wealthy and glamourous background, who brought back a sense of optimism to a deflated country with the slogan “Make America Great Again”, who was committed and assured of winning economically, domestically and in foreign affairs, and who could name and then defeat his nation’s existential enemies whilst committing to support allies who pay their way. He was feared by his critics as a maverick to not be trusted with the nuclear button or international alliances, whilst facing a Democratic opponent with huge negatives and a Democratic legacy of poor economic growth and failures in foreign policy.