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Gerald and Betty Ford on their wedding day, 1948.

‘Yeah, the April Fools Joke was on Me!

A free spirit who became an inspiration to millions

Betty Ford was a divorcee who spoke candidly about her children’s sex lives, her support for women’s rights and her long battle with depression, drink and prescription pills. Her frank approach to sex, drink and addiction helped win her the public?s admiration. Ford?s name has become synonymous with the battle against addiction.

For a Republican politician’s wife in post-war America, her frankness about matters personal and the public was startling.

Mrs Ford was to become one of the most popular first ladies of modern times following her husband Gerald’s dramatic if short-lived, ascendancy to the country’s highest office amid the turmoil of the Watergate scandal.

It was however as the founder of the world’s best-known substance abuse clinic and a pioneer of rehabilitation treatment that she is best known.

Her triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California.

The Betty Ford Center was founded in October 1982. Ford expected that the centre would be a Southern California centre, according to John Schwarzlose, the CEO of Betty Ford Center.

He says Ford “really underestimated the demand, the impact [of the centre], because of her, and everything she stood for as a woman. That we’d be worldwide. And that over, 35years later, we’re the best-known addiction centre in the entire world, was something that really overwhelmed Mrs Ford.”

Schwarzlose says Ford would run into former patients, who would flock to her. “They would say, ‘Betty, thank you so much for giving me this chance, for letting me build this new life.’ And Mrs Ford would look at every one of them, right into their eyes, and say, ‘You’re the one that did it.?You?did it.'”

While she was mired in problems of addiction, Ford’s family held an intervention for her in 1978. “It was actually April Fools Day. Mrs Ford ? years later, she would joke about that. She’d say ‘Yeah, the April Fools joke was on me!'” Schwarzlose says.

Mrs Ford, a former dancer and model, noted of her herself: “I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time. Through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people.”

August 1974: Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States, and his family at home. Front, left to right: Michael, Mrs Betty Ford, Gerald Ford and the family dog Sugar. Back, left to right: Steven, Susan and Jack. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Her candour about her struggles with addiction was not the first time that her openness had inspired the nation.

In Sept 1974, less than two months after her husband replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mrs Ford underwent a radical mastectomy, followed by two years of chemotherapy. Many American women said that her frankness about her condition and the removal of a breast encouraged them to go for examinations and undergo treatment.

President Ford and his wife played a key role in helping to re-establish American pride and self-respect in the wake of the Watergate bugging affair, but he lost office two years later to Jimmy Carter.

His wife’s outspoken and often controversial opinions cost him some support on some of his party’s conservative wing. She turned heads with an unguarded 1975 interview.

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 presidents. “Having babies is a blessing, not a duty,” Mrs Ford said.

While her husband served as president, Betty 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.

That Seventies Show: Betty Ford during the filming of her cameo appearance on MTM. Two weeks before Thanksgiving in 1975, Mary Tyler Moore and Betty Ford made some political TV history.

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

Mrs Ford had earlier scandalised some when she said that she and her husband shared a bed at the White House ? at the time, which was deemed an inappropriately intimate detail to reveal in polite society.

She also encouraged her husband to appoint women to senior positions, including Anne Armstrong as ambassador to London and backed abortion rights and gun control – positions that would be anathema to most in the current Republican Party hierarchy.

Yet despite her high public profile, she was carrying a secret that even she did not dare acknowledge. She became reliant on strong painkillers to deal with a pinched nerve in 1964, but she was already drinking heavily to deal the strains of life as a politician’s wife ? bringing up a family largely alone and suffering what she later admitted was a low sense of self-esteem.

Indeed, when Mr Ford realised what a toll had been exerted on his wife, he promised her in the early 1970s that he would retire from politics. But instead, as leader of the minority Republicans in Congress, he was first elevated to the rank of vice president when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign over corruption allegations.

And then in 1974, he became the accidental president after Mr Nixon quit following his impeachment. For all her cheery public exterior, Mrs Ford’s addiction to pills and to alcohol deepened in private as her husband’s career reached unexpected peaks.

She grudgingly admitted the scale of the problem after her family confronted her in an emotional “intervention” in 1978. Just four years later, she had founded the Betty Ford clinic near the couple’s retirement home in Rancho Mirage, a Californian golfing community.

Betty Ford in Ladies Home Journal, 1962.

Elizabeth Bloomer was born in Chicago in 1918 to an affluent family who moved to Michigan when she was two. After the 1929 stock market crash, when Bloomer was aged 11, she began to earn money by modelling 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

She made her way at 20 to New York, where she briefly joined the famed Martha Graham troupe and mixed with the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village.

She also worked as a model but returned to Michigan at her mother’s insistence.

In 1942, Elizabeth Bloomer married William G. Warren, who worked for his father in insurance sales, and whom she had known since she was 12. William Warren began selling insurance for another company shortly after their marriage. The couple moved frequently because of his work. At one point, they lived in Toledo, Ohio, where Elizabeth 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.

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.

When he proposed, she didn’t know about his political ambitions; when he launched his bid for Congress during their engagement, she figured he couldn’t win.

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.

Mrs Ford was thrust into a role she found exhausting and unfulfilling: political housewife. 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.

The country?s affection for Betty Ford transcended party lines. It began in earnest slightly more than two months after Gerald Ford became president in August 1974, following President Richard M. Nixon?s resignation over Watergate. Mr Ford had been vice president for less than 10 months, named by Nixon to succeed Spiro T. Agnew, who had resigned in disgrace over accusations of bribery and tax evasion. On Sept. 28, 1974, Mrs Ford had a radical mastectomy after doctors discovered cancer in her right breast.

Within days, 10,000 letters, more than 500 telephone calls, more than 200 telegrams and scores of floral arrangements poured into the White House and into her suite at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of American women, inspired by Mrs Ford?s forthrightness and courage in facing her illness, crowded into doctors? offices and clinics for breast cancer examinations.

After leaving the hospital, Mrs Ford underwent chemotherapy treatment for two years. In November 1976, her physician announced that she had made a complete recovery.

Mrs Ford was once asked if she felt sorry for herself during the trauma of losing her breast.

?No! Oh, no ? heavens, no,? she replied. ?I?ve heard women say they?d rather lose their right arm, and I can?t imagine it. It?s so stupid. I can even wear my evening clothes.?

She advised women facing such an operation to ?go as quickly as possible and get it done.?

?Once it?s done,? she said, ?put it behind you and go on with your life.?

Breast cancer was only one of the medical battles Mrs?Ford won.

Former President Gerald R. Ford embraced the former first lady, Betty Ford, at the White House Oval Office in 1974. Credit White House Photograph courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Library

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 the 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 a 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.

First Lady Betty Ford Delivers President Ford’s Concession. In November 1976, President Gerald Ford was defeated in his re-election campaign by challenger Jimmy Carter. Because Ford was hoarse from campaigning, First Lady Betty Ford speaks on his behalf, informing the nation that the president officially conceded and offered his congratulations to the new president-elect.

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.

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

Her drinking, which became troublesome as she was faced with her husband?s frequent absences on political business, grew increasingly serious as Mr Ford?s Congressional career advanced. Her loneliness was compounded by low self-esteem and a debilitating self-consciousness about things like her lack of a college degree.

?Now I know that some of the pain I was trying to wipe out was emotional,? she recalled in ?Betty: A Glad Awakening? (1987), the second volume of her autobiography written with Ms Chase. Going back to the days when her husband was a Michigan congressman and minority leader in the House of Representatives, she remembered that ?on one hand, I loved being ?the wife of?; on the other hand, I was convinced that the more important Jerry became, the less important I became.?

Her husband, children, doctors and several friends confronted her about her drinking and her abuse of pills and insisted she seeks 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?.

My makeup wasn’t smeared, I wasn’t dishevelled, I behaved politely, and I never finished off a bottle, so how could I be alcoholic?

She refused to acknowledge that a problem existed, calling her family ?a bunch of monsters,? But in the long run she was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on.”

She eventually entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital in California for treatment, 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.

She credited their “intervention” with saving her life.

“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”.

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

She used the unvarnished story of her own descent and recovery to crusade for better addiction treatment, especially for women. She co-founded the non-profit Betty Ford Center near the Fords’ home in?Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982. Mrs Ford raised millions of dollars for the centre, 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.”

“People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,’ and ‘You’ve turned my life around,'” Mrs Ford once said. “They don’t realise we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that’s all.”

She quickly turned it into the preeminent, cutting-edge facility in the field, serving celebrities and blue-collar workers alike. Elizabeth Taylor famously met her eighth husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, at the centre.?Ford for years showed up at the centre on a daily basis to talk to patients, give lectures, and listen to problems. Many of the alumni say they feel they owe their lives to Ford personally?not just to the program.

First Lady Betty Ford in the Cabinet Room, congratulating her husband President Gerald R. Ford as he signs the International Year of the Woman proclamation in March 1975, joking to him, ?You?ve come a long way, baby!?

For the last 30 years of her life, Mrs Ford worked tirelessly to promote awareness of substance abuse and the role for rehabilitation in treatment.

Few first ladies have been as popular as Betty Ford, and it was her frankness and lack of pretence that made her so. She spoke often in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, endorsed legalised abortion, discussed premarital sex and revealed that she intended to share a bed with her husband in the White House.

When her husband?s voice failed him the morning after he was defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976, it was she who read the official concession statement with smiling grace. And when Mr Ford died in December 2006, it was Mrs Ford who announced his death. The six days of national mourning returned her to a spotlight she had tried to avoid in her later years, living in Rancho Mirage, Calif., a golf community south-east of Palm Springs, and tending to her clinic there, the Betty Ford Center.

The philosophy, for the program, at the centre, is drawn from the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, is based on peer interaction and learning to identify and express feelings appropriately. Therapy is modelled closely on the program at Hazelden in Center City, Minn., one of the country’s most respected rehabilitation facilities. Multiple Dependencies

Among the patients at the Ford centre, the most common addiction is to alcohol. For men, cocaine is second; for women, prescription drugs. Yet most patients have multiple dependencies. The centre does not treat those whose primary dependency is heroin or those with severe medical or psychological problems.

”Alcoholism is a disease, and it’s chronic and progressive and ultimately fatal if not arrested,” said Susan Stevens, a centre spokeswoman who is a registered nurse. ”I look at this place as an intensive-care unit. People come here just to begin the process of recovery.”

To protect privacy, administrators will not say whether various celebrities have been among the patients.

Those who are dependent on prescription drugs and cocaine generally stay for six weeks. There are additional charges for family members who attend an educational program the third week of a patient’s stay. Since the centre is a hospital, medical insurance often covers most of the expense, and financial assistance is available, based on need.

The Betty Ford Center comprises six white single-story buildings around a central green: an administrative building, a family-education building and four residences, each housing 20 patients. Throughout the stay, each of the groups in the four residences live in what is described as a ”therapeutic family.” All quarters are shared, with rooms for two or four. Everyone is required to perform ”therapeutic duties,” including making beds, doing laundry, setting and clearing tables – jobs that help patients become part of a community again.

Patients are admitted as soon as beds are available, and no one gets priority treatment. Despite 100 to 200 telephone calls a day requesting information, the average wait for admission is only two or three weeks.

Once admitted, patients are examined by the medical director, who, along with two-thirds of the staff and five of the centre’s seven board members, are recovering from an addiction. Because most experts describe chemical dependencies as lifelong diseases, those who abstain are described as ”recovering,” not ”recovered.”

While certain patients are given drugs such as Librium (to prevent seizures) during detoxification, any medications or alcohol they may have brought from home are confiscated. That includes aspirin, Tylenol and vitamins – even mouthwash.

In addition to their visits with the medical director, patients are seen regularly by a spiritual counsellor, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a recreational therapist. Each group of 20 patients works with three certified alcoholism counsellors. Registered nurses are on the staff, and any medical emergencies are handled at Eisenhower. Days Begin at 6:30

The daily schedule is tightly packed, starting with a 6:30 A.M. wake-up. Breakfast is at 7, followed by a walk. The ”therapeutic chores” follow. A half-hour lecture is next, then a group therapy session when patients share their feelings about their addictions and learn to express emotions often suppressed as a result of drug dependencies. Then there is lunch, another lecture, more group therapy and exercise. After dinner, there are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, lectures and educational films. When requested, Mrs Ford herself counselled patients who experienced particular problems in adjusting to their group. She also lectured monthly, spending three to four days a week in her office.

”I feel responsible for it,” Mrs?Ford said. ”My name is on it, and I’m on the board of Eisenhower.”

Exterior – Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA. Photo: Mark Davidson

Every patient who completes the program is advised to attend group therapy once a week for at least a year, supplemented by regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous. A Bronze Medallion

On the last day, each patient receives a bronze medallion, which is passed among the 19 other members of the group. Each holds it and says a few parting words to the recipient.

The goal of the Ford centre program is for former patients to avoid mood-altering drugs, including alcohol, for the rest of their lives. In a recent study, more than three-quarters of centre’s former patients were interviewed, and 81 percent had remained drug-free.

Of herself, Mrs?Ford said: ”I no longer have the urge to drink. I don’t even think I’d like the taste. Alcohol affects me in a much different way since I am an alcoholic and I know that. So I think of it as being something I’m allergic to, and with my head on straight, I don’t want those difficulties.”

Ford never regretted her sobriety. She and her husband, Former President Gerald Ford, lobbied the California legislature to pass a new law creating an addiction hospital. The law passed and was signed into law, and work began on the Betty Ford Center.

“Then the question was asked of Mrs Ford, would you agree to put your name on it? And she said, ‘Absolutely not. I’ve only been clean and sober myself for a little over three years. And, you know, if I put my name on it, what if I take a drink?’ And President Ford at the end was the one that finally convinced her. ‘If you do put your name on it, it will be like a beacon to say to people, this is a safe place to go.'”

Betty Ford agreed to put her name on the centre, but her reluctance is, the reason why there’s only one Betty Ford Center.

Her courage and candour continue to be a source of inspiration for many. As one of the country’s first prominent advocates for recovery, Betty Ford’s legacy serves as the foundation of the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy.

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.

Betty Ford died of natural causes on July 8, 2011, at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, aged 93.

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