LOS ANGELES — Hers are concise notes, funny and practical; his are lengthy, flowery and eager.
“Somehow on Tuesday there was something electric in the usually almost stifling air in Whittier,” Richard Nixon wrote to Pat Ryan in an undated letter written during their courtship. “And now I know. An Irish gypsy who radiates all that is happy and beautiful was there.”
The letter and others exchanged between Nixon and the woman who would become his wife of 53 years will be on display at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., over the next several months. They are part of an exhibit celebrating what would have been Pat Nixon’s 100th birthday. She was born March 16, 1912.
The correspondence spans 1938 to 1940, when the couple married. Pat Nixon died in 1993 in New Jersey, one year before her husband.
The letters show another side of a man rarely associated in the public imagination with romance and passion.
“You can’t read them and not see a warm, personal, somewhat playful side of Richard Nixon,” said Richard “Sandy” Quinn, president of the Richard Nixon Foundation.
The foundation, largely run by Nixon’s family and former staff members, is co-hosting the exhibit. It comes about a year after the opening at the library of a new and unflinching exhibit about the Watergate scandal. Foundation leaders have been highly critical of that display which, they said, should have been more friendly to the former president.
Six letters will be made available during the exhibit (two at a time) but dozens from the couple’s courtship and their marriage belonging to the Nixon family are stored at the library, said exhibit curator Bob Bostock said. He read many of them while preparing the display.
Taken together, the correspondence paints a portrait of young love between two people who “both wanted to travel and make a mark,” he said.
Pat Ryan and Richard Nixon met in 1938 when they were cast in a community production of the play “The Dark Tower” in Whittier. He proposed two years later as they sat in his car near the edge of a cliff in Dana Point, according to the exhibit.
Pat’s engagement ring is displayed next to two of the letters along with a playbill from “The Dark Tower.”
In sharp contrast to Richard Nixon’s letters, Pat’s are light, humorous and more concerned with setting dates than making amorous declarations.
“Hi-ho, Hi-ho!” she wrote in 1938. “How does it go? It would be good to see and hear — . Night school is over about 9 so if you are through with club meeting perhaps I’ll see you?”
The letters, Bostock said, are “really personal and charming and really help illuminate how their relationship started and what they were hoping to accomplish with their lives.”
Whatever those aspirations may have been, it seems at the time that Nixon didn’t imagine his love notes would one day be displayed for the world to see:
“No one shall see my writing on this stationery but you,” he wrote in one letter, “because you see I have so much to write to you and so many times I have to send you notes!”