Author Claudia Kalb discusses the former first lady’s alcohol, drug addictions in new book
It was a Saturday in 1978. Not even two years earlier, Betty Ford lived in the White House, upholding the title of first lady. Now her husband, former President Gerald Ford, four children and doctors gathered in her California living room to deliver news she did not want to hear — or believe.
One by one, her loved ones confronted her about her substance abuse problems. Jack shared how he never wanted to bring friends home, in fear of what “shape” Mother was in. Susan relayed how she used to admire her mother’s dancing, but now she was always “falling and clumsy.” Then 19 years old, she organized the entire intervention.
“We want you to listen, because we love you,” Gerald Ford told his wife.
But she was in denial.
“My makeup wasn’t smeared, I wasn’t disheveled, I behaved politely, and I never finished off a bottle, so how could I be an alcoholic?” she thought.
Author Claudia Kalb describes Betty Ford’s decades-long struggle with alcoholism and prescription drug abuse in “Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities” (National Geographic, 2016). The New York Times bestseller looks at 12 high-profile historical figures and their mental health.
Some, like Ford, were outspoken about their conditions. Others had symptoms that mental health experts say might have been diagnosed today, including Albert Einstein, who exhibited behaviors associated with autism, and George Gershwin, whose unbounded energy might have been associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Kalb, a former senior Newsweek writer, will give a talk at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit annual book fair at 11 a.m. Monday on the evolution and treatment of mental health conditions and how they affect others.
“My overarching goal was to address the issue of stigma through storytelling and to let people know that no one is immune,” Kalb says of writing the book.
In a telephone interview from the Washington, D.C., area where she resides, Kalb says Ford is just one example. Though she always exemplified a “Midwestern charm and honesty” and advocated for fellow breast cancer patients after her diagnosis, the first lady struggled with self-esteem issues and loneliness when her husband was off working.
“We remember her as really strong and brave and full of confidence, but she wasn’t so self-assured when she was in those early days of political life in Washington. ... She really suffered with insecurities and feelings of low self-esteem at that time, and the drugs and alcohol played on that vulnerability,” Kalb says.
Ford started taking prescription drugs, originally to treat a pinched nerve. She hated “feeling crippled,” so she took more drugs — to the point where she popped as many as 25 pills a day, and “alcohol became a soothing elixir,” Kalb writes in the chapter.
“I had a gourmet collection of drugs — I did a little self-prescribing; if one pill is good, two must be better — and when I added vodka to the mix, I moved into a wonderful fuzzy place where everything was fine, I could cope,” Ford recalled.
Kalb says she chose to highlight Ford, over countless celebrities who’ve struggled with addictions, because the Grand Rapids native is in many ways more relatable and “of the people.”
“When she was growing up in Michigan, she was working in a department store, spending time with friends and she got married,” Kalb says, “She was like a lot of people making their way in life, and when she started struggling with addiction, she happened to be along for the ride to first lady with her husband.”
Betty Ford died in 2011 at age 93, having overcome her addictions and founding the Betty Ford Center in 1982 to help other addicts recover. Kalb shares a few things you may not know about the 38th first lady, which she learned during her research for the book.
Betty Ford trained with dancer and choreographer Martha Graham
At Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont, Ford (then Elizabeth Ann Bloomer) met legendary modern dancer Martha Graham. She then studied with her in New York City and performed in shows at Carnegie Hall. But Graham was strict, Kalb says, and chastised Ford, a socializer, for not giving her full attention to dancing. Meanwhile, her mother, Hortense Bloomer, seeing her daughter’s friends get married and settle down with husbands in Grand Rapids, called for her return. “Her mother started pleading for her to come back home,” Kalb says, “and ultimately, her mother won out.”
Betty Ford was married to a man before Gerald Ford
His name was William Warren, and he asked Betty to her first school dance at age 12. “She married him thinking he’d be a good match — a hometown Michigan boy,” Kalb says. But it didn’t work out. Warren was in the insurance business and liked to hang out with his pals more than with her. After five years of marriage, Ford filed for divorce. She then married Gerald Ford in Grand Rapids in 1948. “Gerald Ford didn’t seem to have an issue with it,” Kalb says, “despite it being an era when divorce was far less prevalent, perhaps because Ford’s own parents had divorced when he was a baby.” After Ford became vice president, a People magazine reporter asked why she never spoke about the divorce. Her response: “Well, nobody ever asked me.”
It took another rehab patient for Ford to admit she had a problem
“Here she was barely out of the White House, the first lady title barely gone, and she finds herself in rehab with people struggling with addiction,” Kalb says. “It was so difficult for her to accept.” When Ford went to rehab, around her 60th birthday, she initially admitted to prescription drug abuse — but not alcoholism. “She could admit to the drugs because they had been prescribed for a medical purpose, and it didn’t have that same stigma as ‘you’re drinking too much and making a bad choice,’ ” Kalb says. It was the denial of another patient, who said her drinking didn’t cause her family any suffering, that influenced Ford to admit she had a drinking problem. “Suddenly I was on my feet, and I said, ‘I’m Betty, and I’m an alcoholic, and I know my drinking has hurt my family,’ ” she recalled. “Because I thought, by God, if she isn’t gutsy enough to say it, I will. It surprised me to hear myself and yet it was a relief.”
Ford convinced Mary Tyler Moore to return to rehab
When patients threatened to leave the Betty Ford Center, she swooped in and convinced them to stay, Kalb says. That was the case with actress Mary Tyler Moore, who checked into the facility in 1984 to be treated for alcohol dependence. Moore had a similar reaction to the first lady when she arrived in rehab. “She didn’t want to be there at all,” Kalb says. Moore felt she was above the mundane tasks of cleaning and abiding rules. So she snuck out in a taxi to a Marriott. The next morning, Ford gave her a ring. “That phone call saved my life,” Moore wrote in her memoir “After All.” “I returned on my knees, pleading for reentry.”
Ford didn’t want her name on the rehabilitation center
“She didn’t want the center to be about her. She wanted it to be about recovery,” Kalb says. But she was convinced otherwise. In a 2002 NPR interview, Gerald Ford said it was “fortuitous” that the center included her name. “It had a certain attractiveness to people who needed help,” he said. Decades later, over 90,000 people — from actress Elizabeth Taylor, singer Johnny Cash and actress Drew Barrymore, to parents who want to sober up for their families — have sought treatment at the facility.
“The Betty Ford Center, everybody knows that name,” Kalb says, and having “Betty Ford” in the title is, in part, why it’s so significant.
“It indicates that anybody can have a problem with addiction, even somebody as high level as the first lady,” she says. “It reinforces the reality that you’re not alone — Betty Ford has been there, too. She really struggled, she got through it and she turned her own experience around to save lives.”
65th Annual Jewish Book Fair
Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit
6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield Township
‘Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder’ Book Talk
Janice Charach Gallery