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Image: Betty Ford watches husband being sworn in as president
Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images
Betty Ford watches on Aug. 10, 1974, as President Gerald Ford is sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger in Washington, D.C.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 7/9/2011 7:57:50 AM ET 2011-07-09T11:57:50

Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California, died at age 93, a family friend said late Friday.

Her death Friday was confirmed to The Associated Press by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said later that the former first lady died at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Other details of her death were not immediately available.

"She was a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous First Lady," former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement on Friday. "No one confronted life's struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced."

Video: Betty Ford dies at 93
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In a joint statement, President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they were "deeply saddened" her death, NBC News reported.

"As a staunch advocate for women's and equal rights, Betty paved the way for generations of women to follow," the statement said.

"Her courage, compassion, and commitment to helping our nation deal with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction helped thousands of people to a successful recovery and in the process she helped to save countless families," it added.

They said Ford was "a remarkable woman whose legacy will live on in people around the country whose lives are longer and better because of her work."

Refreshing openness
While her husband served as president, Ford's comments weren't the kind of genteel, innocuous talk expected from a first lady, and a Republican one no less. Her unscripted comments sparked tempests in the press and dismayed President Gerald Ford's advisers, who were trying to soothe the national psyche after Watergate. But to the scandal-scarred, Vietnam-wearied, hippie-rattled nation, Mrs. Ford's openness was refreshing.

And 1970s America loved her for it.

Story: Funeral services for Betty Ford set for next week

According to Mrs. Ford, her young adult children probably had smoked marijuana — and if she were their age, she'd try it, too. She told "60 Minutes" she wouldn't be surprised to learn that her youngest, 18-year-old Susan, was in a sexual relationship (an embarrassed Susan issued a denial).

She mused that living together before marriage might be wise, thought women should be drafted into the military if men were, and spoke up unapologetically for abortion rights, taking a position contrary to the president's. "Having babies is a blessing, not a duty," Mrs. Ford said.

"Mother's love, candor, devotion, and laughter enriched our lives and the lives of the millions she touched throughout this great nation," her family said in a statement released late Friday. "To be in her presence was to know the warmth of a truly great lady."

Candor worked for Betty Ford, again and again. She would build an enduring legacy by opening up the toughest times of her life as public example.

In an era when cancer was discussed in hushed tones and mastectomy was still a taboo subject, the first lady shared the specifics of her breast cancer surgery. The publicity helped bring the disease into the open and inspired countless women to seek breast examinations.

Her most painful revelation came 15 months after leaving the White House, when Mrs. Ford announced that she was entering treatment for a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol. It turned out the famously forthcoming first lady had been keeping a secret, even from herself.

She used the unvarnished story of her own descent and recovery to crusade for better addiction treatment, especially for women. She co-founded the nonprofit Betty Ford Center near the Fords' home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982. Mrs. Ford raised millions of dollars for the center, kept close watch over its operations, and regularly welcomed groups of new patients with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict."

Although most famous for a string of celebrity patients over the years — from Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Cash to Lindsay Lohan — the center keeps its rates relatively affordable and has served more than 90,000 people.

In a statement Friday, President Barack Obama said the Betty Ford Center would honor Mrs. Ford's legacy "by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."

"As our nation's First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights," the president said. "After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment."

Early studies as a dancer
Mrs. Ford was a free spirit from the start. Elizabeth Bloomer, born April 8, 1918, fell in love with dance as a girl in Grand Rapids, Mich., and decided it would be her life. At 20, despite her mother's misgivings, she moved to New York to learn from her idol Martha Graham. She lived in Greenwich Village, worked as a model, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Graham's modern dance ensemble. "I thought I had arrived," she later recalled.

But her mother coaxed her back to Grand Rapids, where Betty worked as a dance teacher and store fashion coordinator and married William Warren, a friend from school days. He was a salesman who traveled frequently; she was unhappy. They lasted five years.

While waiting for her divorce to become final, she met and began dating, as she put it in her memoir, "probably the most eligible bachelor in Grand Rapids" — former college football star, Navy veteran and lawyer Jerry Ford. They would be married for 58 years, until his death in December 2006.

Two weeks after their October 1948 wedding, her husband was elected to his first term in the House. He would serve 25 years, rising to minority leader.

Video: Betty Ford's enduring legacy (on this page)

While her husband campaigned for weeks at a time or worked late on Capitol Hill, she raised their four children: Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan. She arranged luncheons for congressional wives, helped with her husband's campaigns, became a Cub Scout den mother, taught Sunday school.

A pinched nerve in her neck in 1964, followed by the onset of severe osteoarthritis, led her to an assortment of prescription drugs that never fully relieved the pain. For years she had been what she later called "a controlled drinker, no binges." Now she began mixing pills and alcohol. Feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, she suffered an emotional breakdown that led to weekly visits with a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist didn't take note of her drinking but instead tried to build her self-esteem: "He said I had to start thinking I was valuable, not just as a wife and mother, but as myself."

The White House would give her that gift.

In 1973, as Mrs. Ford was happily anticipating her husband's retirement from politics, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced out of office over bribery charges. President Richard Nixon turned to Gerald Ford to fill the office.

Less than a year later, his presidency consumed by the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned. On Aug. 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the only chief executive in American history who hadn't been elected either president or vice president.

Mrs. Ford wrote of her sudden ascent to first lady: "It was like going to a party you're terrified of, and finding out to your amazement that you're having a good time."

She was 56 when she moved into the White House, and looked more matronly than mod. Ever gracious, her chestnut hair carefully coifed into a soft bouffant, she tended to speak softly and slowly, even when taking a feminist stand.

Her breast cancer diagnosis, coming less than two months after President Ford was whisked into office, may have helped disarm the clergymen, conservative activists and Southern politicians who were most inflamed by her loose comments. She was photographed recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital, looking frail in her robe, and won praise for grace and courage.

"She seems to have just what it takes to make people feel at home in the world again," media critic Marshall McLuhan observed at the time. "Something about her makes us feel rooted and secure — a feeling we haven't had in a while. And her cancer has been a catharsis for everybody."

The public outpouring of support helped her embrace the power of her position. "I was somebody, the first lady," she wrote later. "When I spoke, people listened."

She used her newfound influence to lobby aggressively for the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed nonetheless, and to speak against child abuse, raise money for handicapped children, and champion the performing arts.

After losing in '76, a descent
It's debatable whether Mrs. Ford's frank nature helped or hurt her husband's 1976 campaign to win a full term as president. Polls showed she was widely admired. By taking positions more liberal than the president's, she helped broaden his appeal beyond traditional Republican voters. But she also outraged some conservatives, leaving the president more vulnerable to a strong GOP primary challenge by Ronald Reagan. That battle weakened Ford going into the general election against Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Carter won by a slim margin. The president had lost his voice in the campaign's final days, and it was Mrs. Ford who read his concession speech to the nation.

The Fords retired to a Rancho Mirage golf community, but he spent much of his time away, giving speeches and playing in golf tournaments. Home alone, deprived of her exciting and purposeful life in the White House, Mrs. Ford drank.

Video: America's First Ladies: Betty Ford (on this page)

By 1978 her secret was obvious to those closest to her.

"As I got sicker," she recalled, "I gradually stopped going to lunch. I wouldn't see friends. I was putting everyone out of my life." Her children recalled her living in a stupor, shuffling around in her bathrobe, refusing meals in favor of a drink.

Her family finally confronted her and insisted she seek treatment.

"I was stunned at what they were trying to tell me about how I disappointed them and let them down," she said in a 1994 Associated Press interview. "I was terribly hurt — after I had spent all those years trying to be the best mother, wife I could be. ... Luckily, I was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on."

She credited their "intervention" with saving her life.

Mrs. Ford entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and, alongside alcoholic young sailors and officers, underwent a grim detoxification that became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. In her book "A Glad Awakening," she described her recovery as a second chance at life.
And in that second chance, she found a new purpose.

"There is joy in recovery," she wrote, "and in helping others discover that joy."

Family spokeswoman Lewandrowski the family expects to organize a service in Palm Springs over the next couple days. Ford's body will be sent to Michigan for burial alongside former President Gerald Ford, who is buried at his namesake museum in Grand Rapids.

-----

Key dates in the life of Betty Ford:

April 8, 1918: Elizabeth "Betty" Bloomer born in Chicago.

1920: Family moves to Grand Rapids, Mich.

1936: Graduates from Central High School in Grand Rapids; spends next years studying dance, working for a time in New York with famed choreographer Martha Graham.

1942: Marries salesman William Warren in Grand Rapids; the union ends in divorce.

Oct. 15, 1948: Marries Gerald Ford.

Nov. 2, 1948: Gerald Ford elected to U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress for nearly 25 years, including stint as House minority leader.

March 14, 1950: Birth of first child, Michael Gerald. The Fords' other children are John Gardner, born in 1952; Steven Meigs, 1956; and Susan Elizabeth, 1957.

Dec. 6, 1973: Gerald Ford confirmed as vice president after resignation of Spiro Agnew.

Aug. 9, 1974: Gerald Ford becomes president after resignation of Richard Nixon.

Sept. 28, 1974: Betty Ford undergoes mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Her openness about the disease helped encourage other women to get tested.

September 1975: Two attempts on President Gerald Ford's life, both unsuccessful, in California.

Nov. 2, 1976: Ford defeated by Jimmy Carter in quest for a full term as president.

Jan. 20, 1977: Carter is inaugurated; Fords leave the White House.

April 1978: The former president and their children persuade Betty Ford to seek treatment for abuse of medication, alcohol. ("I didn't say a word, just listened and cried," she wrote later.)

November 1978: Betty Ford publishes memoir, "The Times of My Life."

1982: Betty Ford Center opens at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

1987: Her book, "A Glad Awakening," about her recovery from substance abuse, is published; ABC-TV broadcasts "The Betty Ford Story," starring Gena Rowlands.

1991: Betty Ford is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

1999: Gerald and Betty Ford both presented with Congressional Gold Medals.

August 2000: Gerald Ford suffers small stroke while attending the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

2005: Betty Ford steps down as chairman of the Betty Ford Center board.

Dec. 26, 2006: Gerald Ford dies at age 93.

April 2007: Betty Ford undergoes surgery for an undisclosed ailment.

Aug. 31, 2007: Attends ceremony in California for issuance of postage stamp honoring her husband.

This article contains reporting from NBC News, msnbc.com staff, The Associated Press and Reuters.

Video: Betty Ford dies at 93

  1. Closed captioning of: Betty Ford dies at 93

    >> with the death of betty ford , the former first lady helped sparked some important conversations in this country. died in california on friday, she was 93. in a statement president obama called for a powerful advocate for womens rights . because of ford's leadership, many lives were saved. brian williams looks back on her life.

    >>> we got to know her all over again during the week of mourning for president gerald ford , her strength and dignity still intact 30 years after leaving the white house .

    >> i was an ordinary woman called on stage at an extraordinary time.

    >> the president's first and our first lady, betty ford .

    >> elizabeth boomer ford, never expected to be anything other than a congressman's wife.

    >> and his wife, betty ford .

    >> oh but she became first lady the day richard nixon resigned. it was, as she later said, the saddest day of her life.

    >> i'm indebted to no man and only to one woman, my dear wife.

    >> i didn't know what i was getting into and i don't think there's anything that can prepare you for it.

    >> suddenly, america wanted to know all about betty ford .

    >> mrs. ford was born in chicago, lived most of her life in grand rapids , michigan.

    >> she married jerry ford in 1948 , two weeks before he was elected to congress. they raise a family that became america's first family, as regular as the neighbors next door. from the beginning, betty ford spoke her mind.

    >> i think it's time that the women step up and take their place.

    >> this first white house press conference terrified her, but it was nothing compared to what came seven weeks later.

    >> betty ford underwent surgery for breast cancer on saturday.

    >> dr. lukash has assured me she came through the operation all right.

    >> she openly and courageously faced breast cancer and a radical mastectomy inspiring countless women to get breast exams herself. she spoke out for women, campaigning actively for the equal rights amendment .

    >> hi should my husband's job, or yours, prevent us from being ourselves?

    >> i hear about that from betty virtually every night.

    >> she lobbied for a woman on the supreme court and publicly supported abortion rights .

    >> and in our own family, my dear wife, she differs substantially with me.

    >> but the president did listen.

    >> you have come a long, long way.

    >> she grew to love being first lady, a former professional dancer, she found plenty of opportunities to step out. and along the way, met some of the world's most interesting people.

    >> we're just good friends.

    >> betty ford is considered by many to be the president's biggest asset.

    >> when gerald ford lost the 1976 election, his voice gone, he turned to his wife to read his concession.

    >> real spokesman for the family, betty.

    >> the fords retired to california, only to confront another crisis.

    >> on friday, mrs. bettyord was released from hospital treatment for addiction to pain-killing drugs and alcohol.

    >> once again, by honestly and publicly facing a very personal problem, betty ford became a pioneering role model.

    >> having this happen to me has been the best thing in the world. i never felt better.

    >> she made recovery from substance abuse her mission -- co-founding the petty ford center in 1982 . and helping untold thousands of people.

    >> i'm very,ery proud of betty with her leadership at the betty ford center .

    >> betty ford faced perhaps her greatest challenge with the death of her husband in 2006 , the closing chapter in an extraordinary 58-year marriage. all her life as first lady and long afterward, betty ford found the strength to face her challenges head on, giving countless others the courage to do the very same thing and that was her gift.

    >> i'm delighted that i could carry a message. i think that's what we're here on this earth for, to help others.

    >> brian williams , nbc news, new york.

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