This is the story of how a friendship between two men influenced the course of history in the twentieth century.
On June 12, 1987 Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States, stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. He called out to Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “Mr. Gorbachev,” said the President, “tear down this wall,” meaning the wall that split Berlin in half. In 1989 the wall did come down and in 1991 the Cold War was officially over.
How did Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor, become a catalyst for great changes? The Cold War had lasted for 45 years(1) and cost millions of lives. But in the 1980s a remarkable trio of people stood up against Soviet might and backed the cause of freedom. They were Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Pope John Paul II and President Reagan. They stood firm against tyranny and encouraged those, like Lech Walesa of Poland, who were struggling to free their people from the communism.
Ronald Reagan had the courage of his convictions. He believed in the American ideals of freedom and justice and was willing to fight for them. He refused to abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which convinced Gorbachev that he could not defeat America militarily.
Ronald Reagan was originally a liberal Democrat. He was always interested in politics and gradually his views changed. In 1962 he switched to the Republican party and 4 years later was elected Governor of California. How did all this happen and what part did Robert Taylor play?
The two men were the same age, both born in 1911, and were from similar backgrounds. Robert Taylor was born in Filley, Nebraska and grew up in the nearby town of Beatrice. Mr. Taylor considered Beatrice his home and kept up his contacts there all his life. Mr. Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois and grew up in neighboring Dixon. Robert Taylor began acting in high school and continued at Pomona College in California. In 1933 he was spotted by a talent scout in a college play and signed by MGM. Ronald Reagan acted in plays in high school and had ambitions to be a sportscaster. He graduated from Eureka College in Illinois in 1932. Five years later, Ronald Reagan moved to Hollywood and was signed by Warner Brothers.
In his autobiography, An American Life, Mr. Reagan tells the following story about his interview with Hollywood agent Bill Meiklejohn:
“At promptly ten o’clock the next morning, I looked across a big desk at a skin-colored blur, agent Bill Meiklejohn, while trying to project “star quality” (whatever that was).
“I’d taken Joy’s advice and not worn my glasses to the interview; as a result, I could hardly see him during one of the most important interviews of my life.
“But, heart pounding and hopelessly nearsighted, I presented a somewhat exaggerated description of my qualifications for movie stardom.
“After finishing my pitch, I asked Meiklejohn gingerly if he thought it would be worth it for me to knock on a few doors in Hollywood.
“Without a word, he picked up his telephone and dialed Max Arnow, a casting director for Warner Brothers.
“’Max,’ he said, ‘I have another Robert Taylor sitting in my office.’
“’God made only one Robert Taylor,’ Arnow said of Hollywood’s reigning male star, loud enough for me to hear his friendly burst of sarcasm.
“Nevertheless, Arnow agreed to take a look at me.”(2)
They would have known one another socially, as Hollywood was a small community and the studios expected their players to be seen in public. Both men enlisted in the military during World War II. Robert Taylor was a Navy Lieutenant, training pilots for combat and making 17 training films. Ronald Reagan was ordered to active duty as a U.S. Army lieutenant on April 19, 1942. Due to his poor eyesight he was classified for limited service only, which excluded him from serving overseas.(3)
As I will discuss below, both men were called before the HUAC (4) to testify in 1947. It seems likely that the hearings drew the two men together. They had shared a harrowing experience. Their sincere patriotism and anti-communism was also a bond. Despite being a liberal Democrat at the time, Ronald Reagan was a true patriot.
After the war, their personal lives continued in parallel. Ronald Reagan married actress Jane Wyman in 1940 and they were divorced in 1948. Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck married in May 1939 and were divorced in 1951. Each remarried—Mr. Reagan to Nancy Davis in March 1952, Robert Taylor to Ursula Thiess in May 1954. Both second marriages were a success and both women outlived their husbands.
During the fifties, the Taylor and Reagan families were neighbors and socialized frequently.
“The Taylors had also moved to the Palisades in 1954, shortly after they were married. Robert Taylor, “the man with the perfect face,” was one of the all-time great matinee idols, best remembered for holding a dying Garbo in his arms in Camille. He had been on the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] board in the 1940s, and he and his first wife, Barbara Stanwyck, had become friendly with Ronnie and Jane. He was divorced from Stanwyck in 1951, and, like Reagan, apparently found happiness and stability in his second marriage…..The two men, who were the same age, shared an enthusiasm for horse breeding and a love of words. If anyone could out-talk Ronald Reagan on the subject of the Communist threat, it was Bob Taylor. Reagan’s relationship with Taylor, Patti [Davis] would write, ‘was the only time I observed my father being close friends with another man.’”(5)
In his eulogy for Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan said:
“I know that some night on the late, late show, I’m going to see him resplendent in white tie and tails dining at Delmonico’s and I’ll smile—smile at Robert Spangler Arlington Brugh Taylor. Because I’ll remember how a fellow named Bob really preferred blue jeans and boots. And I’ll see him squinting through the smoke of a barbecue, as I have seen him a hundred times.”(6)
They were frequently in one another’s homes. The Taylors even kept a jar of “Uncle Ronnie’s” favorite jelly beans in their home.(7) Nancy Davis and Ursula Thiess were a lot alike, each devoted to her husband above all else.
While we will never know the details of those barbecues and the conversation that followed, there is ample evidence that Ronald Reagan and Robert Taylor were close friends. Bob and Ursula Taylor were godparents to the Reagans’ son Ron and the Reagans became godparents of Bob and Ursula’s daughter Tessa in 1959.
The Reagans and Taylors made mutual arrangements to look after the others’ children if they should be orphaned.
“Article Twelfth.” In the event my wife, Ursula, shall not survive the time of the final distribution of my estate or if for any other reason at any time she shall be unable or unwilling to serve as the guardian of the person and estate of any minor child of mine, or if she shall fail to designate such guardian or guardians in her Will, then I appoint Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, or the survivor of them, as the guardians of the person and estate of each of my children who shall be a minor at the time of the later death of my wife and myself.”(8)
Robert Taylor died of lung cancer on June 8, 1969.
Patti Davis says:
“I remember that week [the week Robert Taylor died] like a dream—Ursula Taylor’s face transformed by grief, my mother trying to comfort her, unable to hold back her own tears, my father’s eulogy for a man who had been one of his best friends.”(9)
“The Governor was weeping a few days later as he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of his close friend Robert Taylor…..Nancy was distraught, too. ‘I think Bob’s death hit me as hard as anything in my life,’ she later wrote. ‘The last time I saw him, I left the hospital to go back to Sacramento, telling Ursula I’d see her in a few days.. I got out in the hall and something made me turn back. I returned to his room and kissed him on the cheek. When I landed in Sacramento, the told me he had died…I flew back on the next plane to be with Ursula. She asked if Ronnie would deliver the eulogy, and, of course, he said yes. But the morning of the funeral he confessed to me that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get through it without breaking up.
“Ursula said that Nancy ‘took over for me…I was in shock. She made all the phone calls, all the arrangements, picked out my wardrobe—everything. Nancy could never separate herself from Ronnie for more than a day if she could help it, and she stayed with me for several days and took care of me.’
“Patti, who had just started her summer vacation from Orme, remembered her father being despondent over Robert Taylor’s death. He would come from work at five every day,’ she recalled, ‘but he didn’t seem part of those months.’”(10)
In his eulogy, Ronald Reagan made his regard for Robert Taylor quite clear. Addressing the family, he said:
“In a little while the hurt will be gone. Time will do that for you. Then you will find you can bring out your memories. You can look at them—take comfort from their warmth. As the years go by you will be very proud. Not so much of the things we have talked about here—you are going to be proud of simple things. Things not so stylish in certain circles today; but that just makes them a little more rare and of greater value. Simple things he had like honor and honesty, responsibility to those he worked for and who worked for him, standing up for what he believed, and, yes, even a simple love for his country, and above all, an inner humility.”(11)
Thirty years after Robert Taylor’s death, Ronald Reagan said in the introduction to his book, Speaking My Mind:
I liked Robert Taylor a lot. We were good friends; and since I still think about him now and then, I guess you could say I miss him.(12)
There is no documentation of political activity by either Robert Taylor or Ronald Reagan in the thirties. Both were deeply involved in their careers.
In 1944 a number of film industry leaders founded an organization called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Some of the early members were Sam Wood, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Leo McCarey, Ward Bond, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck.(13) Ronald Reagan was still a liberal at this time.
In 1945 and 1946 Hollywood was torn apart by labor strikes. Two unions were fighting to represent set decorators and other behind the scenes. The CSU (Conference of Studio Unions) was left-wing and thought by some to be under communist influence. The IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) more moderate. Performers were divided in their allegiances. SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) sided with the IATSE.
“Reagan had reached his conclusion [about the CSU] after trying to mediate the second 1946 strike as elected head of a special SAG committee. He and his committee held meetings over the next seven months with representatives from Sorrell’s CSU painters union. In September, a SAG delegation headed by Reagan and consisting of George Murphy, Edward Arnold, Dick Powell, Walter Pigeon, Jane Wyman, Robert Taylor and Gene Kelly traveled to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention in Chicago to try to bring peace to Hollywood. Reagan concluded that the CSU did not want to settle the strike unless Roy Brewer’s IATSE was completely destroyed.(14)
After World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War, the United States House of Representatives began an investigation into the influence of communism on the Hollywood movie industry. In May of 1947 a number of people, including Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan, testified privately about their knowledge of this in Hollywood. Despite the assurances of privacy, Mr. Taylor’s remarks were quickly leaked to the newspapers.
Neither man called anyone a communist.
It seems likely that the hearings drew the two men together. They had shared a harrowing experience. Their sincere patriotism and anti-communism was also a bond. Despite being a liberal Democrat at the time, Ronald Reagan never had any doubt who the enemy was.
In October of the same year, the HUAC(4) held grandiose public hearings that seemed more of a publicity stunt for the politicians than a serious inquiry. Robert Taylor desperately wanted to avoid exposure in this forum and wrote a letter to the committee’s attorney asking in very strong terms to be excused. He stated that her would not participate unless forced to by subpoena.(15) Mr. Taylor was subpoenaed and testified for 25 minutes on October 22, 1947. Ronald Reagan, also under subpoena, testified the following day. Among other things, he said:
Mr. REAGAN: Sir, if I might, in regard to that, say that what I was trying to express, and didn’t do very well, was also this other fear. I detest, I abhor their philosophy, but I detest more than that their tactics, which are those of the fifth column, and are dishonest, but at the same time I never as a citizen want to see our country
become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment. I still think that democracy can do it.(16)
While sharing barbecue in the fifties, the two actors discussed politics for hours. It’s easy to imagine Ronald Reagan being influenced by Robert Taylor’s passionate conservative views. In 1962 Mr. Reagan became a Republican, which must have pleased Mr. Taylor no end.
In 1966 Ronald Reagan announced that he was running for Governor of California against incumbent Edmund (Pat) Brown. His running mate was California politician Robert H. Finch. The Hollywood right rallied around him, making speeches, television commercials and helping in the grassroots campaign.
It is not well known that Robert Taylor himself was considered for the gubernatorial candidate before Ronald Reagan.
“But Bob had also been asked to run. His part in the direction in which Hollywood went in those earlier years was most significant behind the scenes, more so than Reagan’s, who more often stood in front of the podium.
“Bob was a solid potential candidate; he was photogenic and classy, quietly and seriously political, ultra-conservative, above scandal, well-liked and respected. His inner circle knew he was plugged in and aware. In the early 1960s he would repeatedly tell people, ‘The Middle East is going to gt us into the third World War.’ One person said Bob Taylor was the individual who most consistently influenced Ronnie Reagan’s eventual history-making views of the world.
“Bob was ripe for the picking…except he didn’t want the job.”(17)
Robert Taylor was one of the first to join the Reagan campaign:
“The first enlistees to the Reagan campaign included the best known stars, including John Wayne, Robert Taylor, Forrest Tucker, Cesar Romero, Mary Pickford, Walter Pidgeon, Lucille Norman, Lloyd Nolan, Tony Martin, June Macmurray, Ken Murray, Mrs. Clark Gable, Andy Devine, Hoagy Carmichael, Eddie [Rochester] Anderson and Nick Adams.”(18)
“In May [of 1965] the exploratory committee launched Friends of Ronald Reagan…..Friends of Reagan sent out a mailing with requests for donations, which quickly brought in $135,000….Among the forty-names on the letterhead were James Cagney, Walt Disney, Robert Taylor and Randolph Scott.”(19)
Stu Spencer [campaign organizer] was one of the first to understand a key factor in Ronnie’s relationships: “Reagan didn’t have any close friends. Well, Robert Taylor was close….”(20)
Robert Taylor, although he was in uncertain health, campaigned tirelessly. He made speeches for his friend and used his charisma and still tremendous popularity to reach as many voters as possible. The campaign was a success and Ronald Reagan became the
33rd Governor of California with 58% of the vote.
On the night of the election, a small group of friends waited for the results:
“The General got it all together in less than three hours, managing to round up the Salvatoris, the Wilsons, the Wrathers, Bob and Ursula Taylor, Irene Dunne and Lorena Nidorf, Louis B. Mayer’s widow, who was remarried, to Hollywood businessman Mike Nidorf.(21)
Robert Taylor was not the only person who influenced Ronald Reagan’s transition from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. Nancy Reagan had strong conservative views and considerable influence over her husband. Mr. Reagan also drew from his own experiences as president of SAG and later as roaming ambassador for General Electric. However, the strong and enduring friendship between the two men suggests that Robert Taylor’s passion for his ideals would have moved Ronald Reagan to question his views and eventually to modify them. Thus, Mr. Taylor played his part in history—helping Ronald Reagan develop a strong and reasoned belief system that made him ready to play his greatest role: the President who ended the Cold War.
No. 1. 1947-1991.
March 5 1946: Iron Curtain Speech by Winston Churchill – “an “iron curtain” has descended on Europe”
Tear Down This Wall” Speech by President Ronald Reagan – June 12, 1987;
August 1991, end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. (Sources: History Timelines web site and The History Place website. SDI is in use today in Israel as the Iron Dome.
No. 2. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1990, page 79.
No. 3. Military Service of Ronald Reagan, University of Texas archives, page 82.
No. 4. House Un-American Activities Committee.
No. 5. Bob Colacello, Ronnie & Nancy, N.Y., Warner Books, 2004, page 277.
No. 6. Ursula Thiess, But I Have Promises To Keep, Xlibris Corp, 2007, page 201.
No. 7. Thiess, page 86.
No. 8. Last Will and Testament of Robert Taylor, March 22, 1965, page 9.
No. 9. Patti Davis, The Way I See It, N.Y., G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971, page 127.
No. 10. Colacello, page 404.
No. 11. Thiess, pages 201-202.
No. 12. Ronald Reagan, Speaking My Mind, Simon and Schuster, 1999, p. 46.
No. 13. “The Man Who Fought the Hollywood Reds,” American Thinker, Feb. 27, 2012.
No. 14. Donald T. Critchlow, When Hollywood Was Right, Cambridge University Press, 2013, page 83.
No. 15. Letter of September 23, 1947 from Robert Taylor to attorney H.A. Smith. This letter is now in the United States National Archives. You can also see it on this blog.
No. 16. Official transcript, HUAC hearings, 1947
No. 17. Linda J. Alexander, Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism. North Carolina, Tease Publishing, 2008, pages 330-331. The most likely explanation for why Robert Taylor refused to run for Governor is his poor health.
No. 18. Critchlow, page 191.
No. 19. Colacello, page 338.
No. 20. Colacello, page 348.
No. 21. Colacello, page 350.