July 8, 2014 at 10:04 am

Unveiling of Betty Ford portrait also spotlights artist

Patricia Hill Burnett's portrait of Betty Ford will be unveiled today. (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

The painter Patricia Hill Burnett — who is also the feminist, the socialite, and the once-Miss Michigan — first wrote to Betty Ford in 1975, seeking “three to five sittings.”

Today, Burnett’s portrait of her will be formally unveiled in the lobby of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, where it will remain on permanent display.

Despite Burnett’s admonition to the then-first lady (“It’s time you were immortalized!” she wrote), the White House demurred and Burnett persisted, according to the library’s archive. The archival record suggests she ultimately painted from photographs, some supplied by the White House.

Burnett’s last big public moment was in 1995, when she published an autobiography (“True Colors”) and cheerfully told my colleague Marney Rich Keenan that “marrying a rich man has some nice things that go with it, like ‘help.’ ” She had a Rolls Royce then.

She still uses the Rolls Royce, when she’s not being driven in the white Mercedes convertible she prefers for summer.

Burnett is 93 now, and still able to captivate callers with the sort of outsized charm, wit and glamour that’s more Rodeo Drive than Woodward Avenue. Betty Ford was a model and first lady who was widely celebrated for being down-to-earth; Patricia Hill Burnett is her opposite: You celebrate her spirit of excess and joie de vivre, as if she were a local, more highly educated version of Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Born in 1920 — two years after Betty Ford — Burnett learned to formidably combine ambition, beauty and artistic talent. When the world occasionally failed to budge in her direction, she pushed back.

“I was very unhappy about some rebuff and thought, what the hell,” she recalls, of her beginnings as a feminist leader. She looked up Betty Friedan, intending to start a Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women, and flew to Manhattan. There, she climbed several floors of steps, clad in furs and diamonds.

“Somebody told Betty Friedan, ‘Betty, there’s a woman outside in a chinchilla hat and muff, trying to start a chapter of NOW ... I never knew how to underdress,” she says, deadpan.

She started the NOW chapter with her friend, the journalist Marj Levin, and boldly got together 40 friends to march through the front door of the Detroit Athletic Club in 1972, which then relegated women to a side entrance. They went in singing, appalled the members, and improbably emerged triumphant.

“The next day, my husband was asked, ‘Can’t you control your wife? But of course he couldn’t. No one could.’ ”

Her career as a portrait painter was aided by her social connections, which gave her entree to executive and political suites. Her feminist credentials helped her obtain commissions from powerful and influential women, including Indira Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Margaret Thatcher.

But for decades, her portrait of Betty Ford was stored in her Detroit home, and then in the Bloomfield Hills condominium where she now lives. Today at 3 p.m. a curtain will open, and Burnett’s portrait will at last be on public view.

The former beauty queen’s elaborate makeup and coiffures have always defined her own look. “Whenever I go home, she does a miracle makeover on me,” says her daughter, Terrill Burnett. So it’s no surprise this particular feminist painter’s study of Betty Ford is striking for the way it softens Ford’s helmet-like hairstyle, and gracefully illuminates her features.

“The hair is more attractive than others,” says Elaine Didier, director of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. “It’s one of the prettiest that’s ever been done.”

Burnett (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
In a 1966 photo, Patricia Hill Burnett works on a portrait at the Scarab ... (Detroit News archives)