Former US first lady Nancy Reagan dies at 94 in California

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Los Angeles, March 7: Nancy Reagan, the helpmate, backstage adviser and fierce protector of Ronald Reagan in his journey from actor to president - and finally during his 10- year battle with Alzheimer's disease - has died. She was 94.

The former first lady died on Sunday (March 6) at her home in Bel-Air, California, of congestive heart failure, assistant Allison Borio told The Associated Press. Her best-known project as first lady was the "Just Say No" campaign to help kids and teens stay off drugs.

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When she swept into the White House in 1981, the former Hollywood actress partial to designer gowns and pricey china was widely dismissed as a pre-feminist throwback, concerned only with fashion, decorating and entertaining.

By the time she moved out eight years later, Nancy Reagan was fending off accusations that she was a behind-the-scenes "dragon lady" wielding unchecked power over the Reagan administration - and doing it based on astrology to boot. All along she maintained that her only mission was to back her "Ronnie" and strengthen his presidency.

Nancy Reagan carried that charge through the rest of her days. She served as a full-time caretaker as Alzheimer's melted away her husband's memory.

After his death in June 2004 she dedicated herself to tending his legacy, especially at his presidential library in California, where he had served as governor. She also championed Alzheimer's patients, raising millions of dollars for research and breaking with fellow conservative Republicans to advocate for stem cell studies.

Her dignity and perseverance in these post-White House roles helped smooth over the public's fickle perceptions of the former first lady. The Reagans' mutual devotion over 52 years of marriage was legendary. They were forever holding hands.

She watched his political speeches with a look of such steady adoration it was dubbed "the gaze." He called her "Mommy," and penned a lifetime of gushing love notes. She saved these letters, published them as a book, and found them a comfort when he could no longer remember her.

In announcing his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994, Reagan wrote, "I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience." Ten years later, as his body lay in state in the US Capitol, Nancy Reagan caressed and gently kissed the flag-draped casket.

As the newly arrived first lady, Nancy Reagan raised more than USD 800,000 from private donors to redo the White House family quarters and to buy a USD 200,000 set of china bordered in red, her signature colour.

She was criticised for financing these pet projects with donations from millionaires who might seek influence with the government, and for accepting gifts and loans of dresses worth thousands of dollars from top designers.

Her lavish lifestyle - in the midst of a recession and with her husband's administration cutting spending on the needy - inspired the mocking moniker "Queen Nancy."

(AP) ABH

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