Image and reality

Anna Quindlen

April 12, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

MORE THAN 100 years ago, a great man did something that great men sometimes do. He fell in love. The problem was that he was married at the time and had 10 children, and that his beloved was an actress many years his junior.

But the larger problem was that he was considered a kind of god, and that part of his elevation sprang from his image as champion of home and hearth.

His solution was despicable. He insisted his wife was mentally ill, he took away their children and attacked as vicious gossip the stories about his attachment to the actress.

The man was Charles Dickens, the actress Nelly Ternan, and this account of their relationship is contained in "The Invisible Woman," a marvelous story of a woman sacrificed on the altar of public image. The book suggests that Dickens believed his popularity demanded he make a kind of lie of his life.

Maybe he was right. Or maybe he just underestimated the public. Maybe he was just a tiny bit like Nancy and Ronald Reagan; after all, Dickens was an amateur actor too.

You've heard -- and heard and heard and heard -- about Kitty Kelley's new biography of Mrs. Reagan. (This is the first time -- and probably the last -- that anyone has compared it to Dickens.) You've heard it's a dishy book. You've heard it's an exhaustive book. Exhausting is more like it; like marathon running, it feels so good when you stop.

Here is what you haven't heard: It's a pathetic book. There are the children Nancy dealt with only in nagging telephone calls to headmasters of boarding schools while she was publicly touting the virtues of family. And the tale she told of her childhood as "good old times in the good old days," even though her actress mother dumped her for five years with an aunt and uncle.

The most chilling anecdote comes not from Frank Sinatra but from Kirk Douglas, whose son Eric was young Ron Reagan's best friend. One day, seeing a bumper sticker on the Reagan family car, Eric said, "Boooo, Goldwater."

Nancy went ballistic and phoned Eric's parents. "You come right up here and take this boy," she demanded. Then she roared off into the sunset, leaving Eric sobbing with the maid. And that was the end of the friendship.

The kid was 5 at the time.

Occasionally our public figures are squarely in the pantheon of real people: Betty Ford saying she would not be surprised if her daughter had an affair, Jimmy Carter lusting in his heart.

The irony is that Nancy Reagan could have made hay talking feelingly about her childhood or her stepchildren. Buried deep beneath the Adolfo suits were trace elements of those things that make us most human. But her character refused to let them loose.

Instead she affected perfection: the happy family, the idyllic marriage, the flawless clothes. Among the people sacrificed on that altar are ordinary people, who wonder what character flaw brought them divorces, estrangements, raveled hems. Our public figures illustrate either who we are or who we will never be. When they turn out to be less than either, we gloat.

Dickens' work speaks for itself. "Bleak House" remains a great book by a flawed man. If only he had used his real life to enrich his portrayals of women. But that might have required introspection he could ill afford.

Ronald Reagan's administration will speak for itself, too. And some of what it will say is here, almost inadvertently, in the portrait of a wife who wiped her husband's children by a first marriage off the screen of family history, who feared her son would become gay because he was a ballet dancer, who pretended everything was fine even when it wasn't.

Does it matter if the president dyed his hair? No, except that it became so terribly important that no one suspect he did.

Perhaps all this explains why people have fallen joyfully upon Barbara Bush, an L.L. Bean kind of first lady. Perhaps it explains why they have fallen gleefully upon this book.

Next to living well, the best revenge is discovering that those who do are flawed, that perfection is papier-mache.

This is a book about choosing appearance over reality, and the tumult surrounding it is about how damaging it can be when the two are far apart. In that sense, it typifies the Reagan administration.

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