What Betty Taught Me: The lessons I learned from Grand Rapids’ dancing queen

by Kayla Sosa | Photography Courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan

For the past two years, I had the opportunity of a lifetime as a young, aspiring writer. I had the honor of being the research assistant to a New York Times Best Selling author, working on a biography of Grand Rapids native Betty Ford. Lisa McCubbin, the author, is based in San Francisco, California and most of our work together was done virtually, besides a couple times she traveled to Michigan for some local research. For months, I pored over articles and photos in the Grand Rapids City Archives beginning in the early 1930s through the early 2000s.

As the book concept developed, Lisa began writing the manuscript. Quite often, she’d send me little assignments to write about specific events that would later be edited by her to go into a chapter, which she’d then send me to read over and edit. Later, my big project was the Notes section of the book, which is the Bibliography in the back of the book. Just take a look at it and you’ll see that many hours were put into perfecting that section.

This entire process has taught me so many things and even has inspired me to someday write my own book. But most of all, learning so much about Betty – her daughter Susan said I might even know more about her own mom than her! – has given me new perspectives and an appreciation for who she was and the influence she had during her lifetime.

 

(First Lady Betty Ford Dancing with Prince Philip of Great Britain in the State Dining Room during a State Dinner Honoring Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, 7/7/1976.)

Betty Ford was born in 1918 in Chicago. After moving around some, her family – mother, father, and two older brothers – settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Betty grew up spending summers at Whitefish Lake and became a spunky little girl. She attended Central High School where she was apart of the sorority, The Good Cheers. While she wasn’t a straight-A student, she had many friends, dated boys and attended parties and gatherings outside of school. Over the years, Betty really got into dancing. She attended the Calla Travis School of Dance locally in downtown Grand Rapids, and learned all styles of dance: ballet, tap, ballroom, before settling on her favorite, modern dance. She worked at a local department store, Herpolsheimer’s, as a model and fashion coordinator. During the summer, Betty went to Bennington College to further study dance.

Pretty soon, she got the opportunity to learn from the famous Martha Graham through her dance program in New York City. All of this was incredibly thrilling to young Betty, but her mother was not too fond of the idea. Reluctantly, she still drove her there and helped her get settled into an apartment. She started the program and began modeling on the side. Betty enjoyed being able to do what she loved, modern dance, under her role model, Graham. But Graham could tell that Betty was a social being, and warned her after a few months that she would have to choose between her social life and dance. At the same time, Betty’s mother was pleading that she come home, just for a little bit. Betty agreed, with the stipulation that she would return if she was unhappy.

“No matter what obstacle life threw at her, she handled it with candor and grace; whether it be breast cancer, being a somewhat single mother, divorce, chronic pain or addiction, she endured and showed other women that they can do the same.”

So Betty came back to Grand Rapids and began to shine. She started her own dance school and became known as the “Martha Graham of Grand Rapids.” Then, she met a guy, Bill Warren. She had known him in high school, and they had reconnected through mutual friends. They began dating and after a while, he asked for her hand in marriage. Betty said yes, although her mother and stepfather did not approve. This was Betty’s first marriage, and what she would later call “The Five Year Misunderstanding.” A series of events led Betty to be unhappy in her marriage and in 1947, she divorced him.

Back in Grand Rapids, Betty still thrived on her own. She loved working at the department store and continuing to dance. She was beautiful, had many friends and loved to go out. It’s safe to say she was pretty popular. Later on, when Betty became nationally recognized, many of her childhood friends back in Grand Rapids would say how pretty she was and how she “got all the boys” and that they weren’t surprised that life had taken her in the direction that it did.

Handsome and well-known himself was local lawyer, U.S. Navy veteran and University of Michigan football star Jerry Ford. After asking a friend who was single in the area, he was told to talk to Betty. Jerry was 35 and Betty, 30, at the time. He called her up and found a feisty woman on the other end. After some convincing, Betty agreed to go out for a drink with Jerry. They sat at a small booth in a small bar on the corner of Hall Street and Division Avenue. Time flew by and Betty was quickly attracted to him.

After dating for a few months, Betty invited him over to her house, where there were also three other men drinking beer and hanging out. “Like a stern father,” Betty recalled in her memoir that Jerry sat on the couch and opened up a newspaper, clearly unhappy with the situation, and waited until they left, one by one. When there was just one man left, Betty told them she was tired and was going to bed. From her bedroom, she heard Jerry and the other man outside. Jerry asked, “What are your intentions with Betty?”

 

(President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford read a petition, signed by all 100 members of the United States Senate, in the President’s Suite at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, MD, following the First Lady’s breast cancer surgery. October 2, 1974.)

That’s when Betty knew he was a determined man.

Very quickly, Betty and Jerry fell in love. Pretty soon they were engaged. Jerry didn’t care about her past or her spunky personality – odd for a woman in 1948 – he admired it. But, he did wait to marry her until after he was elected as Representative, because a Republican with a divorced wife running for office would probably not make it. It wasn’t right, but it was how it was. Betty was supportive and helped pass out flyers and lead the team of canvassers to get Ford elected.

Jerry was very successful in politics and soon he and Betty moved to Washington, D.C. Over 25 years, Ford worked his way up to House Minority Leader and Betty became more well known. During that time that Ford was climbing the political ladder, Betty was home raising their four children, basically as a single mother. There were years where Jerry was gone most days out of the year. This boiled up to a breakdown for Betty. She saw a psychiatrist for anxiety. During this time she also got a pinched nerve while trying to reach to shut a window in the kitchen. This was just the start of severe chronic pain, and the first time she was prescribed drugs – like Valium – to deal with the pain. At this time, Valium was known as “Mommy’s Little Helper” and doctors were prescribing it loosely to many housewives at the time, without warning of addiction or the dangers of mixing it with alcohol.

When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, Ford was President Richard Nixon’s next pick for VP. And he took it, but not without discussing it with Betty first. At this point, the Fords had hoped to retire after 25 long years in government service. Betty had been an active member of the congressional wives and as the kids started to move out and start their adult lives, she was ready for a change as well. But when this opportunity presented itself, they couldn’t say no.

 

(Betty and daughter Susan make ornaments for Christmas at the White House.)

Less than a year later, Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal, which meant Ford was set to be President of the United States. That inauguration day, Betty said, was the worst day of her life. The climate was so confusing and negative, and the Fords were terribly hurt after having been close with the Nixons up until that point. It was not a time to celebrate. But the Fords took it in stride and ended up being what was needed for the country at the time.

While Ford was only president for a little over two years, he was a peacemaker during the transition time for the country. Nixon was the first president to really abandon the public’s trust in the way that he had, and many people saw First Lady Pat Nixon as a silent wife without much to say. Betty changed this.

Lesson 1: You are not politically defined by the times

From the beginning, Betty was transparent with the country whether they liked it or not. When she got breast cancer the first year in office, she shared it with the world. When she was asked on 60 Minutes about marijuana and premarital sex, she answered honestly that her kids have probably done it and she would hope that as a parent they could have a conversation with her about it and ask for advice. She told 60 Minutes that she supported abortion.

This was all very shocking to a lot of people in the ‘70s, and she got a lot of angry letters. But that didn’t stop her. She continued to be open and even traveled to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Lesson 2: The First Lady does not always have to agree with the President

Betty often would question Jerry’s decisions and he admitted she was a strong counsel for him, in and out of office. When Betty first spoke out in that 60 Minutes interview, Jerry half-joked that she had made him lose supporters. But really he admired her outspokenness and when some White House officials told him that he needed to tell her to stop talking about her opinions, he told them to go tell her themselves – they never did. And it’s funny to look back and see that Betty was pretty liberal for a Republican First Lady, and some of her views differed from Jerry’s – but that was okay. Her open minded personality was a perfect balance to Jerry’s straight-laced mentality.

Betty struggled a lot with the fast paced lifestyle but was happy to see her husband more and have her kids at the White House. She actually loved the fame – after all, it was the former model and dancer’s dream! So it makes sense that after leaving the White House, she suddenly felt so alone. Jerry was traveling around giving speeches and playing golf while Betty sat alone in their home in Rancho Mirage. The family began to see that she was different, and Susan staged an intervention.

It was hard, but eventually Betty admitted that she was abusing painkillers and alcohol. She admitted herself to Bethesda Naval Hospital, all the while still remaining open to the public about what she was going through. When she got done with recovery, she wanted to use her money and influence to help others so she opened the Betty Ford Center. Now, it’s a common phrase to go to “Betty Ford” and get treatment, and they are known for their expert care and services.

Betty lived a happy life and never once went back to drinking or taking pills. Jerry even quit his nightly martinis to support his wife. When Jerry died, Betty was crushed and spent the next five final years of her life sleeping with his flag next to her in bed and would often say:  “I just want to be with my boyfriend.”

(Betty, then a Calla Travis Dance School instructor, takes a sensuous pose in a benefit performance of “Fantasy.” She is wearing a costume she designed consisting of a grey satin skirt and leotard with magenta sash and gloves, 1942.)

 

 

Lesson 3: Women are SUPERheroes!

Throughout the course of producing this book with Lisa, we felt a strong force that connected us to Betty. More than just a job, it felt like

(Newlyweds Gerald and Betty Ford depart Grace Episcopal Church following their wedding ceremony. Grand Rapids, Michigan. October 15, 1948.)

it was destiny that we specifically were working on this book. And I wish more than ever that I could have met Betty. The way that she breezed through life with humor and a positive attitude will always be an inspiration to me. No matter what obstacle life threw at her, she handled it with candor and grace. Whether it be breast cancer, being a somewhat single mother, divorce, chronic pain or addiction, she moved through it and showed other women that they can do the same. When she shared about her mastectomy, breast exams spiked up as women flocked to their doctors to get checked. Between that and the Betty Ford Center, it’s impossible to estimate how many hundreds of thousands of lives Betty touched, and possibly saved. Although Betty grew up in a very limiting time for women, she never let gender roles define her as a woman or a person.

If I could say one thing to Betty today, I would just thank her. For helping so many people and for having a legacy that will affect many generations beyond her and mine. She showed women that they do have a voice and that it does have power, and she uplifted everyone around her and motivated us all to be a little better.

Thank you, Betty. You’ll always be in my heart.

 

 

Source:

McCubbin, Lisa. Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

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