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First Ladies’ Club

The First Ladies' memorable celebrity encounters -- EW's favorite moments of presidential wives meeting with the stars

Betty Ford, a former member of the Martha Graham Auxiliary Group, surprised guests at a 1976 White House dinner for President Tolbert of Liberia by engaging in a wild, spirited 10-minute performance to Carole King’s ''I Feel the Earth Move.'' The other dancers parted to make room for Mrs. Ford and her partner, the bug-eyed, frizzy-haired comedian Marty Allen. Mrs. Ford had invited Allen, whose wife had recently died, to cheer him up. Later, he said that frugging with the First Lady had helped relieve some of his bottled-up grief.

One of the more bizarre images to emerge from the Reagan era was taken at a 1983 White House Christmas party, where a scowling Mr. T was playing Santa Claus. ''Who been good and who been bad?'' he demanded. At the appropriate moment, the stick-thin Nancy Reagan perched on the wrestler/actor’s knee and placed a light peck upon his Mohawked head.

In 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed to the White House a caravan of Hollywood heavyweights who had traveled cross-country selling war bonds. Among the stars were Cary Grant, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby, and Groucho Marx, who took it upon himself to tease the First Lady. During the show, a comedian named Charlotte Greenwood executed a high leg kick. ''You could do that,'' Groucho whispered to Mrs. Roosevelt, ''if you just put your mind to it.''

During her White House years, Mrs. Reagan developed a close relationship with Frank Sinatra. Whenever he was a guest at a ceremonial occasion, the First Lady made sure that he sat next to her, while his fourth wife, Barbara, was consigned to the outskirts. His frequent visits included private lunches with Mrs. Reagan, where she became something of a confidante. When the Sinatras’ marriage grew rocky, the First Lady counseled Ol’ Blue Eyes over frequent late night phone calls. At Sinatra’s funeral on May 20, 1998, Nancy Reagan nodded her head as his music played and left the church following immediately behind his family.

Originally posted Sep 03, 2004 Published in issue #781 Sep 03, 2004 Order article reprints