The actress Jane Wyman, who died yesterday at 93, had already been married twice before she became the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan.
The match was unequal from the start. He called her cutely "Little Miss Button Nose" and she dubbed him cruelly "America's number one goody two shoes." By the time the youthful Reagan arrived in Los Angeles from Tampico, Ill., Wyman was already an established Warner Brothers leading lady with all the usual Hollywood trappings: an imposing Spanish-style mansion, a reputation for being difficult on set, and a wandering eye. In Reagan she found a rare simplicity and honesty, qualities that some 40 years later would ensure his election to the White House.
In retrospect, it is chilling to hear Reagan boasting of his newfound love: "I believe we belong together and that we will end our days together." There was little chance of that. Not long after they took their wedding vows, in 1940, Wyman was badmouthing Reagan to her friend the actress June Allyson. "Don't ask Ronnie what time it is because he will tell you how a watch is made," she complained.
A daughter, Maureen, an adopted son, Michael, and a miscarriage later, the marriage was on the rocks. When Reagan returned from testifying in Washington before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he found Wyman had packed his bags and loaded them into the convertible she had given him for his 37th birthday. Brokenhearted, he drove to the home of his friend William Holden and bunked there for weeks, waiting for Wyman to return to him.
Before long, Wyman went public that she was having an affair with her co-star in the film "Johnny Belinda," Lew Ayres, and even then Reagan acted the big lug, ready to take her back at a moment's notice. He blamed her genius for acting and getting too close to a role for the breakdown of their marriage. "The trouble is, she hasn't learned to separate her work from her personal life. Right now, Jane needs very much to have a fling and I intend to let her have it," he told sniggering reporters.
The divorce, in 1948, came as a surprise to no one except Reagan. "I suppose there had been warning signs, if only I hadn't been too busy, but small-town boys grow up thinking only other people get divorced," he said. "The plain truth was that such a thing was so far from ever being imagined by me that I had no resources to call on."
Wyman would never have guessed it at the time, but her divorce from Reagan would guarantee her a place in American history. As the first wife of the first president to be divorced, she became an interesting anomaly, the first first lady we never had.
More significantly, she made way for one of America's most applied and determined first ladies, Nancy Reagan, born Anne Frances Robbins in Flushing, Queens. A Reagan presidency without the untiring support and devotion of a doting Nancy is unthinkable — just ask the chief of staff she edged out of the White House, Donald Regan.
In addition, Wyman's contribution to American political history is that she, entirely unwittingly, contributed to the end of divorce being a deal-breaker for presidential nominees. Just as before John F. Kennedy being Roman Catholic was considered an insuperable inhibition to being elected president, so divorce remained an insurmountable hurdle, particularly in the GOP, the party of Christian vows and family values.
Reagan became such a firm favorite with conservatives after delivering what became known as "The Speech" in support of the failed presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 that the fact of his divorce became irrelevant, even among conservatives. At its peak, in 1980, divorce brought to an end about 40% of all American marriages. Since then, the proportion of marriages ending in divorce has slowly declined.
Had it not been for Jane Wyman, the current Republican presidential lineup would be without its front-runners. There would be no Mayor Giuliani, divorced twice, married three times, currently married to a twice-divorced wife, Judith; no Fred Thompson, divorced once, married twice; and no Senator McCain, divorced once, married twice, currently married to a divorcee, Cindy. All three might raise a toast to Wyman.
Eventually, Reagan and Wyman were reconciled, and she was prominent among the mourners at a 2004 ceremony held for the former president at the Ronald Reagan Memorial Library in Simi Valley, Calif. She came to blame herself, not Reagan, for the divorce that made history. Ruminating on marriage, she said: "I guess I just don't have a talent for it. Some women just aren't the marrying kind, or anyway not the permanent marrying kind, and I'm one of them."
Mr. Wapshott's "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher" is published by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin USA, on November 8.