Nancy and Ronald Reagan: A classic love story

By her own account, her most important role was that of Ronald Reagan's wife and fierce protector
By her own account, her most important role w... 03:23

The nation is remembering former first lady Nancy Reagan. During her lifetime she played many roles: actress, mother, advocate for Alzheimer's research. She also transformed the role of the first lady. But by her own account, her most important role was that of Ronald Reagan's wife and fierce protector, reports CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante, who covered the Reagan administration.

Mrs. Reagan once said, "My life began when I married my husband." Her death has led many to look back on the classic love story between herself and Ronald Reagan. The pair seemed inseparable at times, Mrs. Reagan giving her husband an adoring look that became known to the country as "the gaze."

During their 52 years of marriage, Nancy and Ronald Reagan's devotion to one another was undeniable. They met where love stories are made -- Hollywood.

Nancy Davis, then a Hollywood starlet, contacted Reagan, who was head of the Screen Actors Guild, for help after her name mistakenly popped up on a list of Communist sympathizers.

"At that point, I just wanted to meet Ronald Reagan!" Mrs. Reagan had said in a 1976 "60 Minutes" interview.

They married in 1952 and became parents of two children, Patti and Ron.

"It's impossible to imagine Ronald Reagan being elected president without Nancy," said Kati Marton, who authored "Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our Recent History." "She was everything that he was not and he relied on her for pretty much everything."

Mrs. Reagan was often accused of meddling in the White House, as when she orchestrated the firing of House chief of staff Donald Regan. She once appeared to feed her husband a line when he was at a loss for words after a reporter asked about talks with Soviets on space weapons.

"We're doing everything we can," Reagan had responded.

She was also criticized for wearing designer evening gowns in her signature "Reagan red" or ordering a $200,000 dollar set of new White House china during a recession, but her husband always stood by her.

"Nancy's taken a bit of a bum rap. There has been no new china for the White House since the Truman administration," Reagan said in 1982.

"For all the years we've been married, it's been we, not you and I. It would be inconceivable to me to go my own way without her," President Reagan once said.

But Mrs. Reagan won over some skeptics on her own, dressing up as a bag lady at a white-tie gathering of journalists and D.C. power brokers, singing "Secondhand Clothes."

After the Reagans left the White House, the first lady focused her energy on the health of her husband.

"They were very short -- the golden years," Mrs. Reagan once said.

In 2002, she spoke to "60 Minutes" about his battle with Alzheimer's.

"That's the worst part about this disease. There's nobody to exchange memories with, and we had a lot of memories," Mrs. Reagan said.

The world watched as she kissed the love of her life good-bye in 2004.

The Reagans would have celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary last Friday.

On their 31st anniversary, the president wrote her, "I more than love you, I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone, I'm waiting for you to return so I can start living again."