She was born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer in 1918 in Chicago, Illinois, the third child and only daughter of Hortense (née Neahr; July 11, 1884 – November 20, 1948) and William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr. (July 19, 1874 – July 18, 1934), who was a traveling salesman for Royal Rubber Co. She was called Betty as a child.
Hortense and William married on Nov 9, 1904 in Chicago. Betty’s two older brothers were Robert and William Jr. After the family lived briefly in Denver, Colorado, she grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she graduated from Central High School.
After the 1929 stock market crash, when Bloomer was aged 15, she began to earn money by modeling clothes and teaching children popular dances, such as the foxtrot, waltz, and big apple. She also entertained and worked with children with disabilities at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children. She studied dance at the Calla Travis Dance Studio, graduating in 1935.
When Betty Bloomer was age 16, her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the family’s garage while working under their car, despite the garage doors being open. He died the day before his 60th birthday.
In 1936, after Bloomer graduated from high school, she proposed continuing her study of dance in New York City, but her mother refused. Instead, she attended the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vermont, for two summers, where she studied under director Martha Hill with choreographers Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. After being accepted by Graham as a student, Bloomer moved to New York City to live in its Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood; she worked as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers firm in order to finance her dance studies. She joined Graham’s auxiliary troupe and eventually performed with the company at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Her mother opposed her daughter’s choice of a career and insisted that she move home, but Bloomer resisted. They finally came to a compromise: Bloomer had to return home for six months, but if she still wanted to return to New York City at the end of that time, her mother would not protest further. Bloomer became immersed in her life in Grand Rapids and did not return to New York. Her mother remarried, to family friend and neighbor Arthur Meigs Goodwin, and Bloomer lived with them. She got a job as assistant to the fashion coordinator for Herpolsheimer’s, a local department store. She also organized her own dance group and taught dance at various sites in Grand Rapids.
In 1942, Bloomer married William C. Warren, who worked for his father in insurance sales, and whom she had known since she was 12. Warren began selling insurance for another company shortly after, later he worked for Continental Can Co., and after that Widdicomb Furniture. The couple moved frequently because of his work. At one point, they lived in Toledo, Ohio, where she was employed at the department store Lasalle & Koch as a demonstrator, a job that entailed being a model and saleswoman. She worked a production line for a frozen-food company in Fulton, New York. When they returned to Grand Rapids, she worked again at Herpolsheimer’s, this time as “The” Fashion Coordinator. Warren was an alcoholic and in poor health. Just after Betty decided to file for divorce, he went into a coma. She took care of him for another two years as he convalesced, at his family’s home. She stayed upstairs while he was nursed downstairs. After he recovered, they were divorced on September 22, 1947, on the grounds of “excessive, repeated cruelty”. They had no children.
On October 15, 1948, she married Gerald Ford, a lawyer and World War II veteran, at Grace Episcopal Church, in Grand Rapids. Ford was then campaigning for what would be his first of thirteen terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the first of adjustments for politics, he asked her to delay the wedding until shortly before the elections because, as The New York Times reported, “Jerry was running for Congress and wasn’t sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer.”
The couple had three sons: Michael Gerald Ford (born 1950), John Gardner Ford (nicknamed Jack; born 1952), Steven Meigs Ford (born 1956), and a daughter, Susan Elizabeth Ford (born 1957). Betty Ford never spanked or hit her children, believing that there were better, more constructive ways to deal with discipline and punishment.
The Fords moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and lived there for twenty-five years. Gerald Ford rose to become the highest-ranking Republican in the House. After Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President in 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to the position. He succeeded to the presidency in 1974, upon Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The Fords, who were married 58 years until Gerald’s death, were among the more openly affectionate First Couples in United States history. Neither was shy about their mutual love and equal respect, and they were known to have a strong personal and political partnership.
Reporters wondered what kind of first lady Ford would be, as they thought her predecessor, Pat Nixon, as noted by one reporter, to be the “most disciplined, composed first lady in history.” In the opinion of The New York Times and several presidential historians, “Mrs. Ford’s impact on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than that of her husband, who served a mere 896 days, much of it spent trying to restore the dignity of the office of the president.”
Steinhauer of the New York Times described Ford as “a product and symbol of the cultural and political times — doing the Bump dance along the corridors of the White House, donning a mood ring, chatting on her CB radio with the handle First Mama — a housewife who argued passionately for equal rights for women, a mother of four who mused about drugs, abortion and premarital sex aloud and without regret.” In 1975, in an interview with McCall’s, Ford said that she was asked just about everything, except for how often she and the president had sex. “And if they’d asked me that I would have told them,” she said, adding that her response would be, “As often as possible.
She was open about the benefits of psychiatric treatment, and spoke understandingly about marijuana use and premarital sex. The new First Lady noted during a televised White House tour that she and the President shared the same bed. Ford was a guest on 60 Minutes and, in a characteristically candid interview, she discussed how she would counsel her daughter if she was having an affair. She said she “would not be surprised” by that, and also acknowledged that her children may have experimented with marijuana, which was popular among the young. Some conservatives called her “No Lady” for her comments and demanded her “resignation”, but her overall approval rating was at a high seventy-five percent. As she later said, during her husband’s failed 1976 presidential campaign, “I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers.”
During her time as First Lady, Ford was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and was a prominent force in the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. She supported the proposed ERA and lobbied state legislatures to ratify the amendment, and took on opponents of the amendment. She was also un-apologetically pro-choice. Her active political role prompted Time to call her the country’s “Fighting First Lady” and name her a Woman of the Year in 1975, as representing American women, along with other feminist icons.
For a time, it was unclear whether Gerald Ford shared his wife’s pro-choice viewpoint. In December 1999, he told interviewer Larry King that he, too, was pro-choice and had been criticized for that stance by conservative forces within the Republican Party.
Weeks after Ford became First Lady, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer on September 28, 1974, after having been diagnosed with the disease. Ford decided to be open about her illness because “There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration.” Her openness about her cancer and treatment raised the visibility of a disease that Americans had previously been reluctant to talk about.
“When other women have this same operation, it doesn’t make any headlines,” she told Time. “But the fact that I was the wife of the President put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I’m sure I’ve saved at least one person — maybe more.”
Adding to heighten public awareness of breast cancer were reports that several weeks after Ford’s cancer surgery, Happy Rockefeller, the wife of vice president Nelson Rockefeller, also had a mastectomy. The spike in women self-examining after Ford went public with the diagnosis led to an increase in reported cases of breast cancer, a phenomenon known as the “Betty Ford blip”.
As First Lady, Ford was an advocate of the arts; she was instrumental in gaining award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for choreographer and dancer Martha Graham in 1976. She received an award from Parsons The New School for Design in recognition of her style.
After Gerald Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Presidential election she delivered her husband’s concession speech because he lost his voice while campaigning.
After leaving the White House in 1977, Ford continued to lead an active public life. In addition to founding the Betty Ford Center, she remained active in women’s issues, taking on numerous speaking engagements and lending her name to charities for fundraising.
In 1978, the Ford family staged an intervention and forced her to confront her alcoholism and an addiction to opioid analgesics, which had been prescribed in the early 1960s for a pinched nerve. “I liked alcohol,” she wrote in her 1987 memoir. “It made me feel warm. And I loved pills. They took away my tension and my pain”. She went into treatment for substance abuse.
In 1982, after her recovery, she established the Betty Ford Center (initially called the Betty Ford Clinic) in Rancho Mirage, California, for the treatment of chemical dependency. She served as chair of the board of directors. In addition, she co-authored with Chris Chase a book about her treatment, Betty: A Glad Awakening (1987). In 2003, Ford produced another book,Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery.
In 2005, Ford relinquished her chair of the center’s board of directors to her daughter Susan. She had held the top post at the center since its founding. Her husband joked about how she had been chairperson of the board while he had only been a president.
Ford continued to be an active leader and activist of the feminist movement after the Ford administration. She continued to strongly advocate and lobby politicians and state legislatures for passage of the ERA. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ford to the second National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year (the first had been appointed by President Ford). That same year, she joined First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter to open and participate in the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, where she endorsed measures in the convention’s National Plan of Action, a report sent to the state legislatures, the U.S. Congress, and the President on how to improve the status of American women. Ford continued to be an outspoken supporter of equal pay for women, breast cancer awareness, and the ERA throughout her life.
In 1978, the deadline for ratification of the ERA was extended from 1979 to 1982, resulting largely from a march of a hundred thousand people on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The march was led by prominent feminist leaders, including Ford, Bella Abzug, Elizabeth Chittick, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. In 1981, Eleanor Smeal, the National Organization for Women’s president, announced Ford’s appointment to be the co-chair, with Alan Alda, of the ERA Countdown Campaign. As the deadline approached, Ford led marches, parades and rallies for the ERA with other feminists, including First Daughter Maureen Reagan and various Hollywood actors. Ford was credited with rejuvenating the ERA movement and inspiring more women to continue working for the ERA. She visited states, including Illinois, where ratification was believed to have the most realistic chance of passing. The amendment did not receive enough states’ ratification. In 2004, Ford reaffirmed her pro-choice stance and her support for the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, as well as her belief in and support for the ratification of the ERA.
In 1987, Ford underwent quadruple coronary bypass surgery and recovered without complications.
In November 18, 1991, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. That same year, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to her and her husband.
On May 8, 2003, Ford received the Woodrow Wilson Award in Los Angeles for her public service, awarded by the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution.
During these years, she and her husband resided in Rancho Mirage and in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Gerald Ford died, aged 93, of heart failure on December 26, 2006 at their Rancho Mirage home. Despite her advanced age and own frail physical condition, Ford traveled across the country and took part in the funeral events in California, Washington, D.C., and Michigan.
Following her husband’s death, Ford continued to live in Rancho Mirage. She was the third longest-lived first lady behind Bess Truman and Lady Bird Johnson. Poor health and increasing frailty due to operations in August 2006 and April 2007 for blood clots in her legs caused her to largely curtail her public life. Her ill health prevented her from attending Johnson’s funeral in July 2007; her daughter Susan Ford represented her mother at the funeral service.
Gerald and Betty Ford were the first U.S. President and First Lady to both live into their nineties. Bess Truman and Lady Bird Johnson lived into their nineties but their husbands Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson did not. Herbert Hoover and John Adams both lived into their nineties but their wives Lou Henry Hoover and Abigail Adams did not. On April 8, 2011, Ford turned 93, the same age that her late husband, President Ford reached on his last birthday, July 14, 2006. On July 6, 2011, former First Lady Nancy Reagan turned 90, and thus she and her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, joined the Fords as the second first couple to both live into their nineties.
Betty Ford died of natural causes on July 8, 2011, at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, aged 93.,
Funeral services were held in Palm Desert, California, on July 12, 2011, with over 800 people in attendance, including former president George W. Bush, First Lady Michelle Obama and former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rosalynn Carter, Cokie Roberts and Geoffrey Mason, a member of the Board of the Betty Ford Center delivered eulogies.
On July 13, her casket was flown to Grand Rapids where it lay in repose at the Gerald Ford Museum overnight.
On July 14, a second service was held at Grace Episcopal Church with eulogies given by Lynne Cheney, former Ford Museum director Richard Norton Smith and son, Steven. In attendance were former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former first lady Barbara Bush. In her remarks, Ms. Cheney noted that July 14 would have been Gerald Ford’s 98th birthday. After the service, she was buried next to her husband on the museum grounds.
- April, 08, 1918
- Chicago, Illinois
- July, 08, 2011
- Rancho Mirage, California
- Gerald R. Ford Museum
- Grand Rapids, Michigan