Former First Lady Betty Ford Dead at 93

Ford also became famous as a pioneer in the battle against substance abuse.

ByABC News
July 5, 2007, 12:55 PM

July 8, 2011 — -- Betty Ford, wife of former President Gerald Ford and the founder of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction, has died at age 93.

In public, she was one of the most visible and outspoken first ladies in history. In private, she triumphed over serious personal adversity.

She was married to Gerald Ford for 58 years. Shortly after becoming president in 1974, Ford said, "I am indebted to no man and to only one woman, my dear wife."

Ford died Friday at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., ABC News has learned. Her cause of death was not immediately clear.

Ford's family has traveled to California and expects to arrange a service in Palm Springs soon, Barbara Lewandrowski, a family spokeswoman, told The Associated Press. Ford will be buried alongside her husband, the former president, at his library in Grand Rapids, Mich., she added.

Take a look at images from Betty Ford's years in the White House.

Betty Ford Dies: Presidents React

Reactions to Ford's death came in quickly from subsequent occupants of the White House.

President Obama noted how Betty 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. After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. While her death is a cause for sadness, we know that organizations such as the Betty Ford Center will honor her legacy by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."

President George W. Bush said he and his wife Laura "admired her as a first lady and valued her as a friend. She made countless contributions to our country, and we especially appreciate her courage in calling attention to breast cancer and substance abuse. Because of her leadership, many lives were saved."

President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also cited Ford's dedication to woman's rights and substance abuse issues, and recalled honoring her during her lifetime.

"We were honored to host President and Mrs. Ford at the White House in 1998 when they received the Congressional Gold Medal for their dedication and service to our nation," the Clintons wrote. "Betty was a remarkable woman whose legacy will live on in people around the country whose lives are longer and better because of her work."

President George H.W. Bush called her, "a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous first lady. No one confronted life's struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced. The Betty Ford Center, which already has helped change the lives of thousands of people, will be her lasting legacy of care and concern. We were proud to know her. We were proud to call her a friend."

Fellow first lady Nancy Reagan also was "deeply saddened" by the news.

"She has been an inspiration to so many through her efforts to educate women about breast cancer and her wonderful work at the Betty Ford Center," Reagan said. "She was Jerry Ford's strength through some very difficult days in our country's history, and I admired her courage in facing and sharing her personal struggles with all of us."

President Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who succeeded the Fords in the White House, recalled "a close personal friend and our frequent partner in bipartisan efforts to improve mental health and substance abuse care in our nation. She was a remarkable political spouse, whose courageous candor helped forge a new era of openness after the divisiveness of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Also, as a tireless advocate for women's rights and social justice, she helped to improve the lives and opportunities of countless women and children."

A Dancer and Fashion Model

Elizabeth Bloomer, who was known from childhood as Betty, was born in 1918 in Chicago and grew up in Michigan.

From a young age, she had a passion for dancing. She studied dance under Martha Graham in New York, working as a fashion model to finance her studies. She joined Graham's auxiliary troupe and eventually performed with the company at Carnegie Hall.

Married and divorced in her 20s, in 1947 her life changed forever when she met Gerald R. Ford. They married in 1948, two weeks before he was elected to his first term in Congress.

As Betty Ford recounted at the time, the wedding was delayed until shortly before the election because, "Jerry was running for Congress and wasn't sure how voters might feel about his marrying a divorced ex-dancer."

Unexpected Rise to First Family

The Fords' unlikely rise to first family started in 1973, just as they were planning on retiring from Congress. President Richard Nixon selected Gerald Ford to serve as his vice president after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.

On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon stepped down following the Watergate scandal. Ford would become the 38th president of the United States. Betty Ford was at his side.

It was something the couple neither expected or 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."

The first lady helped the nation restore its faith in the presidency following the Watergate scandal, once saying she wanted the White House to sing again.

Saw Role as Goodwill Ambassador

Betty Ford saw her role in the White House as official hostess and a goodwill ambassador.

"In terms of the White House atmosphere, there's no doubt that Mrs. Ford wanted to, in her own words, let open the windows," said Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and one of the eulogists at the funeral for President Ford.

"Early on, she went to the head usher and asked why the staff didn't return her good morning greetings," Smith told ABC News. "Did they dislike her? 'Not at all,' he replied. It was just that they were accustomed to the more formal atmosphere prevailing under the Nixons. Thereafter, Mrs. Ford's daily greetings were verbally reciprocated."