Jane Wyman divorced Ronald Reagan—and voted for him anyway.
An Oscar-winning actress who played proper wives and sympathetic girlfriends before taking a late-career U-turn as the conniving matriarch of TV's Falcon Crest, but who perhaps became best known as the first wife of a future U.S. President, Wyman died Monday at her home in Palm Springs, California. A publicity statement said she had been in failing health for several years.
Accounts of Wyman's age varied. The Internet Movie Database and Associated Press, citing a 1914 birth year, said she was 93. Other sources list her as having been born in 1916, which would have made her 91. Her official bio said she was 90, a baby of 1917, who fibbed about her birth year in order to make herself appear older, apparently an asset in Hollywood's golden age.
In any case, Wyman's career was a long and substantial one, spanning the black-and-white 1930s to the cable-TV-equipped 1990s.
"I've always done the four-handkerchief bits," Wyman told the New York Times in 1981, remarking on her knack for being cast in big-screen weepies.
The genre served Wyman well, earning her the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a deaf woman in 1948's Johnny Belinda.
"Not once does she speak throughout the picture," New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in a 1948 review. "Her face is the mirror of her thoughts."
Wyman rated three other Oscar nominations, for playing: Gregory Peck's wife in the dearly beloved deer tale, The Yearling (1946); the grieving mother turned governess in The Blue Veil (1951); and, the object of a guilty Rock Hudson's obsession in Magnificent Obsession (1954).
The rise of Wyman's career coincided with the demise of her marriage to Reagan. Wyman and Reagan married in 1940, when he was enjoying his run as the Gipper in Knute Rockne All American, and she was trudging through the likes of Tugboat Annie Sales Again. By the late 1940s, she was an Oscar-caliber player, and he was a fading star who was beginning to wield power as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Wyman divorced Reagan in 1948, three months before the release of Johnny Belinda. The couple had two children, daughter Maureen, a political activist like her father, who died in 2001, and son Michael, a talk-show host.
"I have lost a loving mother, my children Cameron and Ashley have lost a loving grandmother, my wife Colleen has lost a loving friend she called Mom," Michael Reagan said in a statement Monday, "and Hollywood has lost the classiest lady to ever grace the silver screen."
It was politics, not diverging career paths, that doomed the union, Wyman told her divorce judge. According to a 1948 Los Angeles Times account of the proceedings, Wyman said that she just wasn't as interested in the subject as Reagan was.
"Finally, there was nothing in common between us," Wyman said, per the L.A. Times. "Nothing to sustain our marriage."
Wyman, who was in her early 30s at the time of the split, would go on to marry and divorce the same man, music director Fred Karger, twice. Reagan, who was 37, would go on to enjoy an enduring union with Nancy Davis, a fellow B-picture star, who would go down in the history books as first lady Nancy Reagan.
As her former husband became a bigger and bigger political star, first being elected California governor in 1968, and then the United States' 40th President in 1980, Wyman largely held her tongue.
But on the night of Reagan's biggest victory in 1980, Wyman, a registered Republican like her ex-husband, let it be known she was in his corner.
"I voted for Mr. Reagan, of course," Wyman told UPI, terming his landslide win "marvelous."
Born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Missouri, Wyman made her film debut, as Sarah Jane Fulks, in the 1932 musical, The Kid from Spain. The Fulks surname was assumed in tribute to neighbors who took her in after the death of her father, the publicity statement said. The Wyman surname came by way of a former husband of the Fulks' matriarch, it added, although it didn't seem to know for sure, prefacing the story with a "reportedly."
Wyman worked steadily as a Warner Bros. contract player throughout the 1930s, finally earning stardom in film classics such as 1945's Lost Weekend, where she played the long-suffering girlfriend to Ray Milland's alcoholic writer.
In the mid-1950s, Wyman bucked movie-star tradition, and embraced the new-fangled field of television. Wyman earned two Emmy nominations for her anthology series, Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre, also known as Jane Wyman Theater.
Wyman essentially retired from acting in the early 1960s, save for the occasional TV or film appearance, including 1969's How to Commit Marriage, her final feature starring role, opposite Bob Hope.
Wyman's period of relative quiet ended in 1981, just as Reagan was moving into the White House, when she accepted the role of wine-valley maven Angela Channing on the prime-time soap, Falcon Crest. The series ran nine seasons, ending in 1990.
Reagan died in 2004 at the age of 93. At the time of his death, Wyman remembered her ex-husband as a "great President and a great, kind and gentle man."