When Nancy Reagan died on March 6 at the age of 94, she left behind a legacy of style, grace and eternal love for her husband, “Ronnie.” No surprise that her funeral was a classy affair full of family and friends. Among the well-wishers were former presidents, heads of state and a who’s who of iconic 1980s entertainers including Tom Selleck, Mr. T and Yakov Smirnoff, the famous Russian comedian.
Best known for his “What a Country” catchphrase, multidecade residency in Branson, Missouri, and his upcoming “Happily Ever Laughter” tour, Mr. Smirnoff was the former president and former first lady’s favorite funnyman. During the Reagan presidency he was often called on to perform for the couple at The White House on several occasions.
Question: When did you first meet Nancy Reagan?
Answer: It was the same night I met President Reagan for the first time. We were at [former Washington Times editor in chief] Arnaud de Borchgrave’s house. Nancy was there. They separated after dinner for dessert. The ladies were at one table and the men were at another table. That’s where a lot of things were happening for me and Ronald. Nancy was very much there always for him, watching his back. I could see she was watching me and Ronald, making sure he was happy.
Q: Nancy was said to be the gatekeeper. Did she accept you right away?
A: After she heard him laugh, then I could sense that she was more at peace. Because I was the only person that she did not know at that dinner. It was the first encounter for me and the Reagans. As Ronald and I were hitting it off, I could tell she was getting more and more comfortable. She was on alert. But once he started laughing and everything was going well, she accepted me, and I was OK.
Q: They have been described as inseparable. Did you see that?
A: At first when I saw them, I didn’t think it was real because it didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before. She would stare at him like he was God. I couldn’t understand it. I thought she was putting it on. But she wasn’t. It was totally consistent.
Every time I saw them together, whether he was delivering a speech or he was just sitting at a table, she was consistently showing that devotion and love to him. The more I saw them, the more real it was.
Q: Did Nancy Reagan appreciate your comedy?
A: The second time I performed for them, I have a video where Nancy was cracking up, laughing at all the jokes. At the time the jokes were about Gorbachev and the fact that that thing on his forehead formed the shape of Poland.
Q: Did she ever tell you a joke?
A: No, but she told me a story that was very endearing. When my book “America on Six Rubles a Day” came out, I sent a copy to them. She said one day he was resting and she was in the other room. She heard him laughing out of the blue —so hard. She got concerned and ran in to find he was reading my book.
Q: Over the years, how many times did you perform for the Reagans?
A: Performed probably about five times, I would say. Socially we met for dinner or lunches on another three or four times.
I remember one time I was doing my show at The White House and I had just gotten engaged. Nancy spent 10 to 15 minutes talking to my fiancee about where to get the dress and what kind of dress she should get to make her look better. It was really an enduring thing for her to do. I have a picture of that night after my performance when Ronald called me a “national treasure.” That was such a big moment for me. It hangs on the wall of my house.
Q: Were you at President Ronald Reagan’s funeral?
A: No, I couldn’t because I was doing shows in Branson at the time.
Q: Did you maintain a relationship with Mrs. Reagan after the president died?
A: I did. I hadn’t seen her, but we exchanged notes. I had invited her several times to come see my show. However, her health was weakened and she would send a note saying she appreciated the invite but was not well enough to attend.
Q: You were at Mrs. Reagan funeral. What was the service like in person?
A: It was very emotional, and it felt like the end of an era seeing all the people from The White House that I was connected to when the Reagans were there. I spent some time with the guy who wrote the line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Being connected to them. Sitting in the middle of all those dignitaries. George W. Bush and his wife. Michelle Obama and Hillary [Clinton].
The ceremony was beautiful. By far [daughter] Patti [Davis] and [son] Ronald [Reagan Jr.] stole the show in a way. They shared such emotional moments. I was choked up. Patti’s stories in particular were describing Nancy the way we knew that she was. A gatekeeper, as you said, for Ronald. They were so connected that there was not that much room for anyone else — unless they got on her best side.
When she felt safe with them, they were included. I felt very fortunate that I was included, fortunate that I got to know them a little bit in real life.
Q: Ultimately, what do you think Nancy Reagan’s legacy is?
A: In my personal opinion, the legacy is the love story that she created with Ronald. When I talk to my students about “Happily Ever Laughter,” I tell them the Reagans were that couple. This is the couple that were able to meet each other’s needs and live as one person. Together they were able to accomplish so much more than each of of them separately would.
Yakov Smirnoff’s special, “Happily Ever Laughter,” airs on PBS March 18 and 19.
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