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Maureen Reagan Dies at 60 of Melanoma

Aired August 8, 2001 - 13:47   ET


DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, our breaking news for you that we were just telling you about. Maureen Reagan, the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan has passed away. She was suffering, diagnosed back in 1996, with melanoma skin cancer. It advanced, and I believe that she had brain tumor at the end.

We had heard a number of weeks ago now and she has passed away today, according to her husband. She was 60 years old and did speak out on a number of causes and she was very active including talking about -- became a crusader after her father started to suffer from Alzheimer's.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Indeed, before she had to face her own mortality with that diagnoses of melanoma in 18996 she began speaking out and crusading for some kind of a cure, lobbying congress for more search funding, and becoming a board of the National Alzheimer's Association as her father's health deteriorated, though it became apparent that she might proceed him.

KELLEY: She ran for the United States Senate in fact in 1982. She did not make it, but she had a bid for the Senate in 1982. And she was cochair of the Republican National Committee, you might remember. She did a term and she was also very heavily involved in women's rights issues, chair to a U.S. delegation in fact to a U.N. conference on back in 1085.

We hear that she had, really you can see a picture of her here with her stepmother, Nancy Reagan, that she had a warm relationship with her, as well as her mother, who is the actress, Jane Wyman, and of course her father of course, former President Ronald Reagan.

FRAZIER: And seemed, of course to have inherited his talent for communicating. Ronald Reagan known as the "Great Communicator." She too was an author and a political commentator and hosted a television and radio talk show which was all about politics.

KELLEY: Her birthday was January 4, 2001. That is when she turned 60 years old. She is survived by her husband and a teenaged daughter.

FRAZIER: She did start making speaking appearances not only about Alzheimer's disease but also about cancer until her disease worsened to the point where she had to stop making the speaking circuit. KELLEY: She passed away apparently at home. We are getting more information now. The Associated Press reporting that Maureen was at her home in the Sacramento area when she passed away. That is according to her husband, Dennis Revell. And their 16-year-old daughter is named Rita. She is a Ugandan girl that they adopted back in 1995.

FRAZIER: Maureen Reagan, of course, when you talk about her power of communicating, a lot of it was with humor. One of her best- known quotes talks about the equality for women and she said, "I will feel equality has arrived when can elect to public office women who are as incompetent as many of the men who are already there."

KELLEY: And as we mentioned, she was certainly involved in a political family, and her own politics as she campaigned during her father's presidential campaigns. And as we mentioned, the 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate. Even though she failed, she was in there trying.

FRAZIER: Maureen Reagan, we believe 60 years old now, and suffering, as we mentioned, from skin cancer for a good five years since her first diagnoses of melanoma.

KELLEY: Turned 60 years old on January 4, 2001, passing away today, if you are just joining us, daughter of former president and actress Jane Wyman, Maureen Reagan has passed away of cancer at the age of 60.

We have more on her life now from CNN's Anne McDermott.


ANNE MCDERMOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Maureen Reagan spent the final years of her life as a passionate advocate for people with Alzheimer's disease, people like her father.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is an equal opportunity disease, and it doesn't make special arrangements for former presidents or first ladies.

MCDERMOTT: But Reagan was also a savvy political analyst, a talk show host, an author. In short, her own person. Not easy to do when you are a child of two movie stars. Her mother, Jane Wyman was an Oscar winner. Her actor-,father later moved into another field with great success.

For a time it seem Maureen Reagan would follow in her father's political footsteps, but she failed in a bid for a U.S. Senate seat, though she did serve a term as co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Though close to her father, and one of his most effective cheerleaders, they did not agree on everything, such as abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that it's a decision between a woman and her God, and doesn't belong in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians.

MCDERMOTT: After her father retired to California, Maureen Reagan was a constant presence during the construction of the presidential library.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel him in here.

MCEDWARDS: Later, Reagan, who had a warm relationship with her stepmother Nancy, was often on hand after the president announced his Alzheimer's disease. She communicated from the central California home that she shared with her husband and teenaged daughter to Los Angeles.

Reagan became a national board member of the Alzheimer's Association and spoke out about the disease all over the country, the toll it takes on its victims, and the people who take care of them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Most caregivers are older themselves, and they have their own health problem, which are many times left uncared for because of what they are doing.

MCDERMOTT: Reagan, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 1996, was herself apparently delaying treatment for what turned out to be a return of the cancer, because she wanted to complete some speaking engagements. She was hospitalized instead. Maureen Reagan was 60 years old.


FRAZIER: As we've been telling you, Maureen Reagan, the outspoken presidential daughter, who became a crusader for Alzheimer's and for cancer research, has succumbed to skin cancer at the age of 60. We are learning today at her home in Sacramento, this was a woman who wrote frequently and spoke frequently about life with her father.

Talked about the life in politics and talked about a relationship between a young daughter and a political father. She talked about the day her father lost the Republican nomination in Kansas City in the year 1976. "More than he," she wrote, "she was devastated."

She cried for two days straight, could not stop, and every time that Ronald Reagan saw her during that period, he tried to cheer her up. It was difficult for him to cheer her up than to get pass the loss. As convention was closing, he pulled Maureen Reagan into a meeting room and told her that there is a reason for this, I don't know what it is, but there is reason. He always believed in that.

Maureen Reagan goes on to write about the optimism that her father shared and how that was a very powerful example of it, and said that he quoted his own mother, Nel, saying that when one door closes, another one opens. Everything happens for a reason. Of course, four years later, the nomination, Ronald Reagan, was the Republican nominee and went on to win the election and the rest is history, including the role of his daughter in that history as an outspoken Republican activist, and as an advocate for various health care and research programs. Ironically, research for one of the diseases that took her own life today -- Donna.

KELLEY: Stephen, a little bit more coming from her husband announcing the death of Maureen Reagan today. He said she died in her home in the Sacramento area and their 16-year-old daughter's name is Rita. She is a girl from Uganda that they adopted in 1995. Revell going on to say, her husband going on to say that she was surround by loved ones after a courageous five-year-long battle with malignant melanoma.

In the books "In Dutch," a memoir of Ronald Reagan, the author, who is Edmund Morris, wrote of Maureen Reagan, "Had she Ronald Reagan's emotional discipline, she might be an assemblywoman somewhere."

He said that she was absolutely fascinated by politics and this author, Edmund Morris said if anything was actually a better speaker than Ronald Reagan. Had an avid interest in every issue and had a real fluency of gesture. She did make a couple of unsuccessful bids for public office as we mentioned earlier, trying for the U.S. Senate nomination in California in 1982. That was eventually won by Pete Wilson.

And then in 1992 she was second among 11 candidates for the Republican nomination for a new House seat. She got about 31 percent of the vote then.

FRAZIER: Which is quite really, an outstanding, when you think that she's not a professional politician, but rather part of a professional political family, that's an outstanding outcome, there, 31 percent of the vote in California.

KELLEY: And just 11 candidates.

FRAZIER: Well, what they understood was the language of politics, when she and her father spoke and she could then take that with her into her own work including the radio talk show host and the advocacy work. You see her here, appearing before Congress in advocating more research funding for Alzheimer's.

It was a great talent which she understood. She, too, could talk to waiters or taxi drivers or kings or heads of states.

KELLEY: Joining us on the phone is Lou Cannon, who is a Reagan Biographer. Lou, can you hear us?


KELLEY: Hi, thanks. What can you tell us about Maureen. We were just hearing in Anne McDermott's report that she was her own person.

CANNON: She was her own person ,but she was also a person of great loyalty to her dad, particularly. And in the last few years to Nancy Reagan as well. Of all the children, she was the one who rallied most around her father when he had Alzheimer's. She became an outspoken advocate in the in the cause of battling Alzheimer's disease.

And she was, in one of my biographies of Reagan, I recount how he made his first statement other than I presume Nancy, that he was interested in running for the presidency in a letter to Maureen Reagan. So she was a confidant of his but fiercely loyal, too.

KELLEY: What about politics? Did she love politics, or did she just have to go along, because that's what her family was into?

CANNON: No, I think -- well, if you look at the other Reagan children, you don't see the same absorption with politics. I think she -- I think that she was really fascinated with it and also I think that she -- she also felt very strongly from an early age that changes needed to be made in the country, essentially conservative changes, and so I think she was -- she was -- she wanted her father to become politically active.

And I, you know, she was very active in the Republican National Committee. She nearly ran for Senator. And she, I think she was genuinely interested in political life.

KELLEY: There was a lot of public life for her. She seems very energetic and cheerful when we'd seen her on television. Can you tell us little bit more about her privately, what her life was like?

CANNON: Well, she had a rough sliding in her earlier life. She had a very difficult marriage. And a number of disappointments, and I think her present marriage which has lasted quite a while was -- I think in the last years of her life before she was stricken with this cancer, she became a much happier and peaceful person. But I liked her a lot. I knew her fairly well. She was outgoing. I'd write stories for "The Washington Post" that she didn't like. She would tell you, you know?

I like people who really are themselves and don't -- there were no phony to her. She was outspoken. She told everybody what she thought. And sometimes people didn't like it. But she was the real article. She was, as we used to say, the "real Mccoy."

KELLEY: Lou, it seems to me when you are saying that when she got the cancer, you said these last five years that she became happier and peaceful. Did the cancer change her, do you think?

CANNON: No, I think before she had the cancer I think she was happier in the last, I don't know what the number of her marriages were, but this last marriage that she had was a very stabilizing thing for her. And I think she became -- she was out here and she became close to her father, you know, after the presidency.

I don't -- I think that was before she got the cancer.

KELLEY: Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon. Thank you.

CANNON: Thank you very much.

KELLEY: Stephen.

FRAZIER: Donna, of course in addition to the popularity and the achievements of the Reagan Presidency, there is now the poignant period of the former president' s life where he is a victim of the Alzheimer's disease and his daughter Maureen again growing more active and close to him with that, becoming member of the national board of the directors of the Alzheimer's Association and crusading for more federal research into some kind of a cure.

We have with us on the phone to talk about that, Ginny Helms now with the Alzheimer's Association and who can give us some sense of what Mrs. Reagan's work was on the board -- Ms. Helms.

GINNY HELMS, Alzheimer's ASSOCIATION: Maureen Reagan was a wonderful advocate for the Alzheimer's Association. She played a very active role, was willing to get right there in the middle with all of the advocates and lead everybody in the effort.

She would testify before Congress, and just make the most passionate pleas for increased funding for research, and she did a wonderful job. Everybody always knew that her heart was in the right place.

FRAZIER: I have to wonder if it was because of her own public persona that she added quite a public face, then, too. This is a terrifying disease and people are correctly afraid of it in the abstract. But they had no celebrity figure to champion their cause until she arrived.

HELMS: I think that you are exactly right. We've seen a huge increase of awareness about Alzheimer's disease since the Reagan family disclosed that former President Reagan had Alzheimer's. And she really brought it to the public with the face to match with it. You didn't just hear it. You saw her. And you saw her in action and she just was marvelous.

FRAZIER: But how effective was she? Has there been a change in federal funding for research?

HELMS: I think that she was very effective and that we've seen big increases in funding for Alzheimer's research. But we're still not where we need to be. This year, they increased funding up to $515 million and we need to see the increase reach a billion. And I think that Maureen would say that we have come a long way but we have quite a ways to go.

FRAZIER: And was she effective because of telling anecdotes of her widely beloved father, or because she could also transfer her own personal experience to the thousands, the hundreds of thousands of people afflicted with Alzheimer's?

HELMS: I happening that it was both. With Maureen you really got a sense of how it impacted her family. But she also was so gracious in how she handled it. And so I think that she allowed the public to see how the disease affects the families and the caregivers and what they're going through. And I think earlier, I think a lot of people didn't really think that you could do much in terms of finding a cure.

But I think that she helped make it seem so lifelike that she helped people believe that we need to be working towards it.

FRAZIER: Now were you working closely with her, Ms. Helms, as her own health deteriorated, and what was that like?

HELMS: I think that everybody across the nation who works with the Alzheimer's Association were told along about her health and everybody sent her warm wishes and thoughts. And that for all of us to hear as her health declined, everybody was very saddened -- very saddened. We haven't just lost a famous advocate. We have lost a very good friend, very good friend.

FRAZIER: Ms. Helms we are grateful for your bringing us those insights into Maureen Reagan's work for the Alzheimer's Association. Ginny Helms speaking to us from the board of directors of the association --Donna.

KELLEY: If you are just joining us, let's recap what we have learned. Maureen Reagan the daughter of Jane Wyman and Former President Ronald Reagan has passed away today, according to her husband. She was 60 years old. Back in 1996 she was diagnosed with skin cancer, one of the deadliest forms of it, and she had just returned home this month after undergoing brain radiation for malignant melanoma and there was a large mole that was found on the back of her thigh when she was first diagnosed back 1996.

What I have just gotten is a statement by Nancy Reagan regarding the death of Maureen Reagan that I am just going to read to you since I have just been handed it.

From Los Angeles: "Maureen Reagan has been a special part of my life since I met Ronnie over 50 years ago. Like all fathers and daughters there was a unique bond between them. Maureen had his gift of communication, his love of politics, and when she believed in a cause she was not afraid to fight hard for it. Maureen was very devoted to her father. And during every campaign, especially in 1980, when he was running for president, Maureen was a tireless crusader. Later when Ronnie asked her to cochair at the Republican National Committee, she eagerly rolled up her sleeves and dug right in."

"In the last 15 years, not only did Maureen write a book and run for political office, which she became a passionate advocate and an articulate spokesperson for both Alzheimer's disease and melanoma. Not the least of Maureen's strengths was her devotion to her husband Dennis and their daughter Rita. Maureen was the special spirit that guided them through every part of the day and I cannot imagine the intense grief that they are going through right now. Dennis's love for Maureen has been painfully apparent through his devotion and strength in every step of her illness and treatment. My heart breaks for both of them -- for both him and Rita."

"I hold them close in my thoughts and I pray that God will see them through their pain. Ronnie and I loved," -- and it looks like she says, Murmy. It must have been a nickname, "Murmy very much. We will miss her terribly."

That's from the statement from Nancy Reagan that we just got in here to CNN. We will have more coverage for you as we continue on right here on CNN.




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