DETROIT — Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center, has died, a family friend said Friday. She was 93.
Mrs. Ford’s death was confirmed by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. He did not comment further, and said he expected the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum would release information later.
Betty Ford, whose husband, Gerald, died in December 2006, had undergone surgery for an undisclosed ailment in April 2007. During and after her years in the White House, 1974 to 1977, Mrs. Ford won acclaim for her candor, wit and courage as she fought breast cancer, severe arthritis and the twin addictions of drugs and alcohol. She also pressed for abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
But it was her Betty Ford Center, a desert oasis that rescued celebrities and ordinary people from addiction, that made her famous in her own right. She was modest about that accomplishment.
“People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,’ and ‘You’ve turned my life around,”’ she recalled. “They don’t realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves and that’s all.
“That’s a God-given gift as far as I’m concerned. I don’t take any credit for providing anything that wasn’t provided to me.”
After the former president died Dec. 26, 2006, at age 93, his widow said: “His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.” They had been married in 1948, the same year he w as elected to Congress.
As she and their children led the nation in mourning him, Americans were reminded anew of her own contributions, as well as his. It was calculated then that the Betty Ford Center had treated 76 ,000 people.
“It’s hard to imagine a more important figure in the substance abuse field than Mrs. Ford,” Rick Rawson, associate director of the integrated substance abuse program at the University of California at Los Angeles, said at the time.
She and her husband had retired to Rancho Mirage after he lost a bruising presidential race to Jimmy Carter in 1976. She went to work on her memoirs, “The Times of My Life,” which came out in 1979. But the social whirlwind that engulfed them in Washington was over, and Betty Ford confessed that she missed it.
“We had gone into the campaign to win and it was a great disappointment losing, particularly by such a small margin,” she said. “It meant changing my whole lifestyle after 30 years in Washington, and it was quite a traumatic experience.”
By 1978, she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. She would later describe herself during that period as “this nice, dopey pill-pusher sitting around and nodding.”
She entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and underwent a grim detoxification, which became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. She saw her recovery as a second chance at life.
Her own experience, and that of a businessman friend whom she helped save from alcoholism, were the inspiration for the center, located on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center. Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from the first President Bush in 1991. In October 1999: Gerald and Betty Ford both were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
She continued to be outspoken on public issues, pressing for fellow Republicans to be moderate on social questions. She spoke out in favor of gays in the military in a 1993 Washington Post interview, saying they had been serving for many years.
Elizabeth Bloomer was born in Chicago on April 8, 1918, and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich. She was talented in dancing and ultimately studied with the great dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. She also worked as a model to make extra money during the Depression.
With her gray-green eyes, chestnut hair and stately bearing, she was often described as regal.
An early marriage to a furniture company representative, William Warren, ended in divorce before she met Gerald Ford, a lawyer just out of the Navy. When he proposed in 1948, she said later, she had no idea he planned a political career.
Political life was hard for her. While her husband campaigned or worked late on Capitol Hill, she raised their four children: Michael Gerald, born in 1950; John Gardner, born in 1952; Steven Meigs, born in 1956; and Susan Elizabeth, born in 1957.
She became an outspoken advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, favored legal abortion and supported drafting women for the armed services. When asked on “60 Minutes” what she would do if he r daughter, Susan, had an affair, she responded, “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’d think she was a perfectly normal human being. … If she wanted to continue, I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject.”
Drawing on her dance background, she also helped foster interest in the arts during her time as first lady. She reconnected with her old teacher Graham, who remembered her as “very dedicated,’ ‘ and Graham received the Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony during the Ford years.
When she underwent a radical mastectomy for removal of a cancerous breast, she kept no secrets, bringing the disease into the open.
Thousands of women rushed to get breast examinations because of Ford’s example.