Former first lady Betty Ford, whose candor about her own battles with substance abuse helped erase much of the stigma attached to addiction, has died. She was 93.
She died Friday at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. and her cause of death was not immediately clear.
The Ford family issued the following statement: "Mother's love, candor, devotion, and laughter enriched our lives and the lives of the millions she touched throughout this great nation. To be in her presence was to know the warmth of a truly great lady. Mother's passing leaves a deep void, but it also fills us with immeasurable appreciation for the life we and Dad shared with her."
A bold, public crusader, Betty Ford was the wife of the nation's 38th president, Gerald Ford.
She lived in the White House in an era during which she was expected to simply serve tea and host luncheons but instead, she fought for women's rights and spoke openly about her battle with breast cancer.
"Throughout her long and active life, Elizabeth Anne Ford distinguished herself through her courage and compassion. As our nation's First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights," President Obama said in a statement Friday. "After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment."
She was best known for her willingness to go public about her dependency on prescription medication and alcohol -- and her determination to help others with the same problem.
"The point is, I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time," Ford wrote in her autobiography, "The Times of My Life." "I was no different once I became first lady than I had been before. But through an accident of history, I became interesting to people."
Indeed, Ford did become first lady by an accident of sorts.
In 1973, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace after the Watergate scandal, her husband, who had been appointed vice president following the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew, was sworn in as the nation's commander in chief.
It was something the couple neither expected nor wanted, Betty Ford recalled in her memoirs.
"Jerry did not want this," she wrote. "I certainly did not want it, and neither did our children. But the main point was, it was best for the country."
Trials of a Political Marriage
Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago, she grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. A tomboy who also took dance lessons, she grew up to become a dancer and model, studying with Martha Graham in New York City. At age 24, she married, but divorced five years later.
She met Gerald R. Ford in the late 1940s and married him in 1948. Although they would have four children, she found that being the wife of a politician was lonely. As the minority leader of the House of Representatives, her husband spent 258 days a year away from his wife and children.
Ford once said, however, that she would not have to worry about her husband having an affair, because his work was "Jerry's mistress. But I didn't care. I was crazy about the man."
Ford became a capable first lady in her own right. She was popular with women for her candor. In an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" that would become famous, she talked about marijuana, equal rights for women, abortion and the possibility of a premarital affair for her daughter, Susan.
The first lady was also commended for speaking candidly about breast cancer after she discovered she had the disease and had to have a radical mastectomy.
In addition to her battle with breast cancer, Ford struggled with substance abuse. A pinched nerve and spinal arthritis led her to become dependent on prescription drugs. Ford was also an alcoholic. Her problems were compounded when her husband lost the 1976 presidential race.
She was treated at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. After that, helping others overcome addiction became her chief cause.
"I'm not out to rescue anybody who doesn't want to be rescued," she once said. "I just think it's important to say how easy it is to slip into a dependency on pills or alcohol, and how hard it is to admit that dependency."
She later helped found and financially support the Betty Ford Center, a chemical dependency recovery unit located in Rancho Mirage, Calif.