Two confidantes share their memories of the Bel Air home in which the former First Couple lived after leaving the White House — a reflection of their love, their shared journey, and of Mrs. Reagan’s elegant taste
The Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan comes to auction on 21 and 22 September, as a highlight of Christie’s Americana Week sales series in New York. The sale encompasses furniture, decorative works of art, books, memorabilia, jewellery, paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints from the couple’s home in Bel Air, and proceeds are designated for The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
We spoke with Catherine Busch, whose relationship with the Reagans spanned 25 years from when she first joined the Reagan White House, and Peter Schifando, the interior designer who collaborated with President and Mrs. Reagan on the Family Residence at the White House as well as on their home in Bel Air. Together, the Reagans’ friends recall ‘a very personal retreat where two people found contentment and privacy together after a public career on the world stage.’
Catherine Busch: ‘The Reagan home is nestled on a hilltop off a winding road in Bel Air, California. It was a modest 1950s ranch house by neighbourhood standards, and the couple shared it from the day President Reagan left the White House in January of 1989 until his death, following years struggling with Alzheimer’s, in 2004.’
Peter Schifando: ‘[Interior designer] Ted Graber and I had a very focused year of remodelling, designing furniture, and decorating the house in preparation for the First Couple’s arrival. To witness the President and Mrs. Reagan’s excitement and joy in arriving from the White House in January 1989, in what was perhaps the proudest moment of Ted Graber’s career, was an amazing experience. Ted had made the President and Nancy happy to feel at home in a California ranch-style house with no pretension. Finally, they could relax away from the scrutiny of the press and the pressure of the presidency.’
Catherine Busch: ‘Their home was a reflection of their love which endured for half a century, their extraordinary journey together, and Nancy’s elegant taste. Once the Secret Service had signalled the gate to open, visitors would slowly ascend the bougainvillea-lined driveway until the house came into view. Often, President and Mrs. Reagan were standing there in the sunshine, arm-in-arm on the stone walkway to greet their guests. Always hospitable, Mrs. Reagan served her guests pomegranate iced tea with a sprig of fresh mint. Bronze Western sculptures dotted the hallway, and, even in later years, one could almost imagine her strapping husband walking through the front door in his blue jeans and cowboy hat.’
Peter Schifando: ‘The unpacking of their precious porcelains, decorations and bronzes, which had been on display at the White House for eight years for the enjoyment of presidents, royalty, celebrities, artists and close friends, was a daunting task. Special shelves were designed for either side of the fireplace in the living room to feature these items. Family heirlooms that had been stored unseen for eight years were a welcoming sight for the First Lady. As the furniture was delivered and installed according to plan, it was remarkable to realise that these very same pieces had just come from the White House.’
Catherine Busch: ‘Stepping over the threshold, one was struck by the graciousness of the Reagan home. It was inviting and relaxed — a very personal retreat where two people found contentment and privacy together after a public career on the world stage.’
Peter Schifando: ‘Ted Graber retired in 1989, and a very special friendship with Nancy began for me. Jonathan Joseph, my Boston associate, came to Los Angeles to continue the interior design business with me. Jonathan had not met the First Lady or the President before so he was somewhat ill at ease, but Nancy greeted him graciously and expressed her delight that we would all be working together. A mirror for the master bedroom was ready for installation, and when Nancy left the room to check on other things, Jonathan found himself alone there. Moving backwards for a better look at a tree in the garden, he stepped on the foot of someone. When he turned to apologise, he was astonished to see Ronald Reagan standing there in his gym clothes.’
Catherine Busch: ‘Orchids thrived in the warm sunshine that streamed through every window. The living room was poised to receive guests, and its soft hues exuded warmth right down to the needlepoint pillows bearing the initials of “RWR” and “NDR” on the quilted chintz sofas.’
Peter Schifando: ‘The library was their haven and often, just as they had in the White House, they would dine on trays while watching the TV or talking on telephones, discussing the news with politicians or close friends.
The shelves held many gifts that the couple had received while they were at the White House, their books, and also specially bound movie scripts from their former careers.’
Catherine Busch: ‘In the years following their departure from Washington, the Reagan home became a much sought-out stop on any West Coast tour. World leaders such as Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney were welcomed warmly on St. Cloud Road. Presidential hopefuls — from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney — paid visits in the middle of intense campaign battles and in spite of gruelling schedules. Even Hollywood came calling, and so did a small circle of journalists who had earned the Reagans’ trust. These visits were held far away from the prying lenses of the media and from the public, but the symbolism was unmistakable.
‘Productive years passed as the couple continued to work on behalf of many causes near and dear to their hearts — none more so than the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which supports his Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and all its educational programmes.’
Peter Schifando: ‘As life changed for the First Couple with the President’s illness, Nancy felt it was paramount to maintain normal life at home. Thanksgiving and Christmas were important traditions to her and she felt strongly that everything should be the same every year. A Christmas tree and the decoration of the house were planned early each autumn and the silver centrepiece, candlesticks, and stirrup cups for floral arrangements were selected for polishing. Decorations from the White House years would be cleaned and readied and red candles would be set out on the dining table and consoles. In later years Christmas dinner was always an intimate affair, often with family and her closest friends.
‘With the opening ceremony of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a new and all-consuming responsibility came to Nancy. In planning their estates, she was mindful that their private possessions should be sold to benefit the library. These objects and mementos of President and Mrs. Reagan’s life together are testament to their mutual devotion and strength.’
Catherine Busch: ‘How fitting that proceeds from this singular auction will benefit the Reagan Foundation. I have no doubt that the Reagans would be pleased to know their legacy endures, and that the California style they savoured for all those years lives on.’
Peter Schifando’s quotes are extracted from a longer article which appears in the Christie’s catalogue for The Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.