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My unforgettable lunch with Nancy Reagan

Rob Long recounts sharing a meal with former first lady Nancy Reagan
Nancy and Ronald Reagan in their prime. Murray Garrett /Getty Images
Nancy and Ronald Reagan in their prime. Murray Garrett /Getty Images

There are stars’ superstars, and then there is another category altogether.

I learnt that lesson a few years ago, at the Hotel Bel-Air. I had somehow managed to be invited to have lunch with Nancy Reagan – the by-then frail but still razor-sharp former First Lady, who lived a few metres uphill from the leafy and elegant Bel-Air, the best hotel in the best neighbourhood in Los Angeles. I knew she had recently had trouble with one of her hips and was using a steel walker for stability, but she was nevertheless a spry and talkative lunch companion.

I got there early. My plan was to make sure the staff at the hotel were prepared for her arrival, scout out the best and most convenient table, and do what in politics is called “advance work”, which means, basically, map out the entire event and plan for any contingencies.

I needn’t have bothered.

“I’m here to have lunch with Mrs Reagan,” I told the manager on duty. “So I’d like to ...”

He held up his hand – a little imperiously, but then that’s how great hotel managers are supposed to act. A well-run hotel is like a well-run army: efficient, no-nonsense and utterly autocratic.

“Here is how it will go,” he said. “Mrs Reagan will arrive precisely seven minutes after I receive the call from her security detail. I will escort her to her usual table where you will already be waiting. You will stand as she arrives. She will sit on the far side of the banquette. You will sit to her right. We will then serve her the chilled tomato soup and the salad.”

“OK,” I said. “You seem to have this under control. Will it make it easier if I place my lunch order now? I’ll have the ...”

The hand went up again. “You will have the chilled tomato soup and the salad.”

“Why yes,” I said, “I believe I’ll have the chilled tomato soup and the salad.”

I’m happy to report that the chilled tomato soup and the salad, like everything else at the Hotel Bel-Air, is exceptional. Mrs Reagan’s arrival unfolded just as the manager decreed, and before I knew it I was sitting next to one of the most famous and talked-about women in the world.

She was, as I said, frail. Her voice was quiet and she occasionally leaned in a little closer to hear. But from the way she laughed and cocked her head to one side – better to catch the sunlight as it dappled through the bougainvillaea, better to look slyly sideways at you – and the way she reached out to touch me on the arm whenever she wanted to make an emphatic point, it was clear that she was not just the wife of a president, a former First Lady, she was also a former movie star. She knew how to make an entrance and how to keep her lunch companions dazzled.

We didn’t talk about politics. We talked about show business. Mrs Reagan asked about which movies and television shows were popular, though she clearly already knew. She talked about the entertainment business of today with well-earned authority and with the detailed knowledge of someone who paid attention to the changes in the business that launched her husband’s political career.

How are the cable and satellite businesses changing traditional television? Will grown-up, quieter dramas get crowded out by loud superhero action pictures? Who is writing the smart, witty screwball comedies these days? Which young talent should she be keeping an eye on?

Despite her years in the White House and as a player in world politics, Nancy Reagan remained, at heart, a sharp-eyed observer of Hollywood and the entertainment business.

She was what we call Old School: she was more interested in the economics of our town than the latest celebrity dust-up. Stardom, she knew, is fleeting. Show business goes on and on. We talked about all of these topics as the soup and salad were served. Every now and then she’d break in with a funny reminiscence – the times Spencer Tracy would sleep on their sofa, the low-key place on Holloway Drive in West Hollywood where she and Ronnie would eat when they were young and counting their pennies.

“That place is still open, Mrs Reagan,” I said. “It’s still the place to go if you’re young and starting out in the business and trying to keep your expenses down.”

She thought for a moment. “Do they still serve the chilli?”

I nodded. There was a pause.

“Do you want to go sometime and get some chilli?” I asked.

She laughed and cocked her head to one side.

“That sounds like you’re asking me out on a date,” she said, with the smile of a woman who, in her unmarried days, was asked out on a lot of dates.

“Is that a yes?” I asked.

She laughed again. “It’s a maybe.”

I never did get to take her out to that slightly downscale chilli joint in West Hollywood. But I know that had I managed it, she would have fitte right in.

Rob Long is a producer and writer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: March 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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