By Will Swift, author of the newly released Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage
Click here for PAT AND DICK: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage
The President and Mrs. Nixon walk on the beach in San Clemente.
When Dick Nixon and Pat Ryan met at a community theater play rehearsal on January 18, 1938, he found that he “could not take my eyes away from her.” He drove her and a friend home that night and asked her for a date. She turned him down with a curt, “I’m busy.” But he continued to pursue her, and when he announced, “Someday I’m going to marry you,” she laughed at him.
Twenty-five-year-old Pat Ryan was happy at the time, living with roommates and finally enjoying her freedom. She was not yet open to romantic love and the obligations of another relationship. She had struggled to raise her younger brothers after their parents died, and now, in her first year teaching business courses at Whittier Union High, she relished her independence and popularity. Glamorous enough to pick up parts as “extra” in movies, she impressed her students as “quite a dish.” Her colleagues adored her and students, both male and female, had crushes so potent they spied on her after the school day ended.
By contrast, twenty-five-year-old Dick Nixon was dissatisfied with his life and wanted change. He found his native ambition blocked. He was living in a small room over his parents’ garage. He was working in a law job he had been reluctant to take, he did not have a girlfriend, and he had returned to the town he had tried to leave behind.
Ignoring her initial standoffishness, Dick continued to woo Pat with the same determination and persistence he would later use to win seven elections. He hated ice-skating, but bloodied himself repeatedly in order to learn so he could go skating with Pat and her friends. On weekends, in order to spend time with her, he drove her to Los Angeles where she stayed with her half-sister and went on dates with other men. He would return on Sunday afternoons and wait until she was ready for him to drive her home. Finally, after two months of trying, he seemed to be making progress. She accepted the flowers he sent her on her birthday (March 16, 1938) and went out to a Laguna restaurant with him a few days later.
That spring and early summer, Dick wrote her notes and, even more intensely, composed poems and songs for her. He showed up at her apartment on school nights, asking her to go for a drive or to join him on walks around the hillside areas surrounding the college. One night he went on a romantic walk by himself (“a star fell right in front of me…Yes—I know I am crazy…but you see, Miss Pat, I like you,”) he wrote her. Pat remained cool. He ventured to write her: “I’d like so very much to see you any time you might be able to stand me…I swear you’ll not be bored if you give me a chance.” And life with him might not have been easy, but he was right- it never was boring.
Dick pursued Pat out of profound need for love and personal fulfillment—which Pat had already found, but he had not. If in 1938 a besotted young lawyer chased an intrigued, but wary young school teacher, 1939 became the year in which Pat Ryan let down her guard and accepted her increasingly confident and impressive suitor- a man who was developing a successful career as a lawyer.
They shared an interest in football; in fact Dick was crazy about the game. On January 2, because their two former schools were squaring off, she accompanied him to Pasadena to watch the Rose Bowl. Dick’s team, Duke, undefeated and un-scored upon in nine games that year, was heavily favored to beat Pat’s USC Trojans. In the final minute of the game, the Trojan quarterback threw a winning touchdown pass. Pat’s team won 7-3, but for Dick the game was a victory. He later told interviewer Frank Gannon that Pat felt sorry for him, and he claimed Duke’s loss helped him win her over.
On his twenty-sixth birthday—January 9th —Pat sent Dick a clock. He was excited by this first gesture signifying that the feelings between them might be mutual. In his thank you note, he included one of his law firm’s promissory note forms on which he pledged to pay her “four billion dollars when I’m fifty, or before if you’ll let me.” He explained that he had “an uncontrolled impulse” to send this note, “so here it is—crazy—but fun.” He ended exuberantly, “You’re sure tops, Miss Pat and I just have to tell you.”
Pat too began to love Dick, drawn in by his love of adventure, his brilliant mind, and his high sense of purpose- a sense she shared far more than the public recognized. He expressed his intense romantic feelings in letters that revealed his fears that he would “bore her with his thoughts,” and his view of himself as an unaccomplished suitor. “[T]here was something electric in the usually almost stifling air in Whittier. And now I know,” he wrote her. “An Irish gypsy who radiates all that is happy & beautiful was there. She left behind [means?] her a note addressed to a struggling barrister who looks from a window and dreams. And in the note he found…a great spirit which only great ladies can inspire…And though he is a prosaic person, his heart was filled with that grand poetic music, which makes us wish… she might be forever happy.”
By the spring of 1939, as the orange trees once again unfurled their yearly blossoms, he felt particularly encouraged about their relationship. At one point Pat invited him to supper: “[W]hy don’t you come Early Wednesday (6)—and I’ll see if I can burn a Hamburger for you.” She sounded on the brink of romance: “Did you see the sunset? A new picture every few minutes. Well? Yes, Pat.” At another time (perhaps on her birthday in March) she accepted a gift from him with greater enthusiasm than she had the clock he had given her the previous year: “Gee Dick. Guess I am a pretty lucky Irishman!…Best of all was knowing you had remembered.”
In August 1939 “the vagabond,” her friend Virginia, and her roommate Margaret took a sightseeing vacation, driving up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver in British Columbia. By the time they got to San Francisco, Pat found she missed Dick. She felt “so sorta’ lonesome,” she wrote him, because she did not have a chance to say a proper goodbye. When they reached Vancouver she sent him at his law office a scenic postcard with the cryptic message “Love from Mother.” This time she was not pushing him away, but hiding her growing feelings from the local gossips at home. Pat knew that Dick’s mother Hannah Nixon would not be alone in her suspicion about a bond between a Nixon and a Ryan. Whittier’s prominent local boys were not supposed to marry outsiders, and particularly not those below their station. “Some people felt,” Judith Wingert, the daughter of the senior partner in Nixon’s law firm, recalled, “that he should have been going with a girl from, you know, a better family…one that didn’t work.” Pat was neither part of Whittier’s pious inner circle of Quakers nor a member of its upper middle class country club and bridge set.
In the winter of 1940, Dick honored the second anniversary of their first meeting by writing Pat a letter trumpeting how madly he was still in love with her. Now calling her “my dearest heart,” he let her know that in Quaker terms that “Nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee.”
Dick promised her adventure. Slowly he convinced her that “he was going places.” Pat was impressed, as she told her daughter Julie, that Dick “always saw the possibilities.” He “believed that life could be good and that problems—well, if you could not solve them, you could make things a little better.” Other men might have been more appealing and easy, but she was finding herself drawn to his vitality, his stability in his profession, and his openness to a wider world. He could offer her not just the promise of his career but his emerging but intense sense of purpose. She could be part of that. “From the first days I knew you,” he declared in a letter, “ you were destined to be a great lady,…I want to work with you toward the destiny you are bound to fulfill…It is our job to go forth together and accomplish great ends and we shall do it too.” Although Dick and Pat would later claim that they did not discuss politics often in the early days, Pat told several of her best friends that Dick was “going to be president someday.”
In March 1940, Dick took Pat in his black Oldsmobile for an hour and a half drive down U.S. Highway 101 into southern Orange County half way between Los Angeles and San Diego. He pulled into a dirt road leading to the Dana Point promontory, a sandstone cliff with a precipitous face, overlooking Capistrano beach and the San Clemente coastline. Parked by the edge of the cliff, he waited until sunset to make a bold proposal. As the sun eased into the ocean off Dana Point, Dick once again asked Pat to marry him. Their daughter Julie tells us that, even as Pat accepted, she still felt conflict about giving up her freedom. In the era of Pat Ryan’s young adulthood, women usually married when they were in their early twenties. Pat had defied convention by giving herself the years of adult independence she always wanted. She did not feel completely ready for the commitment marriage entailed, but she resolved to make it work. She told Dick yes.
Dick soon formalized his proposal in a letter that called upon them both to strive to make a significant contribution to the world around them. His “dear heart” was, in his opinion, an extraordinary woman. “You have always had that extra something,” Dick wrote, “which takes people out of the mediocre class.” Dick encouraged Pat by seeing in her a nobleness of spirit, a gallantry, and a fine intelligence that she was not prone to acknowledge in herself.
As for Dick, he already felt indebted to Pat. She had transformed him into a more open and happy young man. “I someday shall return some of the benefit,” he wrote, “you have conferred upon me.” Whatever life brought them, he promised, “I shall always be with you—loving you more every hour and attempting to let you feel that love in your heart and life.”
Whatever the dynamic of power and influence would be between husband and wife in the long term, in the spring of 1940 Pat took charge of planning their June wedding. Uncomfortable with grand occasions, she arranged for a small celebration. She didn’t want the event to create financial burdens for her husband, her brothers, or her in-laws. Dick chose the least expensive room for the ceremony—the two-level, fortuitously named Presidential suite—at the Spanish styled Mission Inn in Riverside, California.
The wedding occurred against a somber backdrop that surely tinged the events for the young couple and their family and friends: dispiriting news that had arrived regularly that spring and summer from the European war that was increasingly preoccupying America. The day after their nuptials, France would officially surrender to Germany, leaving Great Britain alone and vulnerable to invasion. On Friday afternoon June 21, Don Nixon drove Pat from Whittier to Riverside. At the inn Pat changed into a simple light blue suit, pinned an orchid to its lapel, and donned a dark rose hat adorned with blue roses. Dick bought himself a dark suit for the occasion.
For their friend Helen Noll and the other twenty-five or so guests, this was “not just another wedding.” At the end of a decade of economic hardship and austerity, and with war swallowing Europe, it was considered a major event to hold a marriage ceremony in such an exotic setting. Noll remembers flowers massed in the Presidential suite and Pat entering through a side door to take her vows. Facing each other Pat and Dick were married in a Quaker ceremony in front of a grand piano. William Mendenhall, the new president of Whittier College, read the service. There are no photographs recording the start of their fifty-three year marriage.
During their first three happily-married years, they traveled as often as they could- visiting the Canadian Rockies and taking a Caribbean cruise. But Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, and by mid 1943 Dick Nixon had enlisted in the navy, while Pat took an important job at the Office of Price Administration in San Francisco. Dick claimed that her job with the OPA was far more important than his job with the OPA in Washington had ever been. “I’m really very proud—as I have always been. I like to tell the gang how smart you are as well as being the most attractive person they’ll ever see. Dear Heart you are the tops! Small wonder that I have no other interest than you.”
On March 17, 1944 (her 32nd birthday), he happily remembered that it was the sixth anniversary of the first time that he had sent her flowers, and that “For all the years to come—your birthdays will be reminders of our happiness and my love for you.” He would indeed honor her future birthdays—including throwing her a surprise party in their first spring in the White House in 1969.
His wartime separation from his wife heightened his attachment to her. In a letter replete with the sentiment of his 1938 infatuation, he wrote, “the only thing that matters is that I love you more every day.” His postscript describes her powerful impact upon his mood: “When I feel blue—I think of our times together—and it has a miraculous effect. You are a real tonic for me.” Dick did not have with him a good photograph of his wife. He badgered Pat for nine months until she set aside her reservations about doing something self-indulgent and dragged herself to a portrait studio. The beautiful picture left Dick ecstatic. Now he had something tangible to brag about with his wartime buddies. “Everybody raved—wondered how I happened to rate! (I do too),” but the image of his absent wife intensified his loneliness amid the tedium and tension of war.
In September 1943, flying at 10,000 feet overlooking the South Pacific islands and the ocean, he did not have time to complete a full letter, but wanted her to know that “I love you just the same up here as down below.” The next morning when the sun came up, he flew above the clouds and saw a spectacular sunrise. He missed her then, but assured her, “We will see sunrises from the air together—and I hope very soon.”
With dull work and too much time on his hands, he was often miserable. He urged his wife to “get good dinners, see lots of shows, buy nice clothes, have your hair fixed—and anything else you want or need,” hoping that she could “make up for me here.” “It will make me feel swell to think of you having some enjoyment.”
When Dick returned from the war in the South Pacific in the summer of 1944, Pat greeted him at the airport in San Diego: “her eyes lit up…and she ran about fifty yards at breakneck speed and threw her arms around me.” It was no doubt the biggest and most joyful embrace of their married life, and one of the few occurring in public.
For twenty-eight years from 1946 until 1974 the Nixons served as a political couple in the public eye. Pat supported Dick in seven electoral campaigns and six years in the White House. After Nixon resigned the presidency during the Watergate crisis, the couple lived a relatively normal and increasingly intimate life together in San Clemente and New York and New Jersey. While Pat quietly tried to recover from a 1976 stroke, Dick consulted with presidents and traveled the world to restore his reputation.
As he told aide Frank Gannon, Dick Nixon always considered himself “the guy with no game who got the “hot” girl.” When Frank asked what words were written on his heart, he said, without a moment’s hesitation, “PAT.” As Pat, frail from her battle with lung cancer, lay dying in a chair in June 1993, Dick whispered to her, “Your family loves you, your country loves you, the whole world loves you.” She went into a coma and died the next day. At her funeral at the Nixon Library and Foundation, Nixon, who had worked all his life not to be vulnerable in the public gladiatorial arena, was so distraught that he could not control his tears. He tried to cover his face with a handkerchief, but to no avail. He had written to her during the war that she “was the only one for me.” And now he was alone. A fellow mourner told Nixon’s attorney Leonard Garment that Nixon would not last a year. He died ten months later.
Theirs was a great love story that few Americans ever knew about. Their teamwork helped shape the 20th Century.