Over the weekend, I happened on a copy of Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, by Kitty Kelley. It’s an old book, but besides reminding us that Nancy Reagan was Chicago’s first First Lady, it contains an interesting anecdote about how Nancy’s mother, Edith Davis, worked with the Chicago Machine.
Chicago's First First Lady
Edith Davis was a bit actress who married a mediocre doctor from a small town in Illinois who was on the rebound from a divorce, and helped him become one of Chicago’s most prominent surgeons. Socially ambitious, the Davises lived on the Gold Coast and cultivated Chicago’s most powerful citizens -- including politicians. Edith, who made her living as a radio actress, offered free elocution lessons to Ed Kelly, the city’s not-so-articulate mayor. She also directed the women’s division of the Citizens Committee for Mayor Ed Kelly in 1943. The Davises were conservative Republicans but wanted to suck up to people who could help them in a Democratic city.
And help Ed Kelly did. For her political work, Edith was rewarded with a $2,141-a-year job on the police department’s payroll, as an undercover officer. She didn’t have to report to a station house, but she did enlist six young sailors in a scheme to entrap tavern owners for selling liquor to minors. When one of the sailors admitted the plan was hatched in the apartment of “Mrs. Davis on the North Lake Shore,” the charges were dropped -- and the newspapers ran headlines about the society matron moonlighting as a policewoman. “Mrs. Davis, Socialite, Is A Policewoman.” It was embarrassing to Nancy’s mother, who needed the job because her social pretensions were always greater than her income.
Three years later, Edith quit the police department. Her husband’s (and Nancy’s stepfather’s) career was thriving: Dr. Loyal Davis eventually became chairman of the surgery department at Northwestern University and attending surgeon at Passavant Hospital. However, she called on Kelly again, when she needed a $25,000 loan to build a retirement home in Arizona.
Nancy left Chicago at 18, for Smith College and Hollywood. But she’d learned well from the mother who helped her husband conquer Chicago. Nancy’s own life followed an almost identical pattern, though with much grander results, as she married a mediocre actor from a small town in Illinois on the rebound from a divorce, and helped him become president of the United States.