Betty Ford (1918 – 2011)

Betty Ford, briefly America’s quirky First Lady and its perennial therapeutic icon, is dead, aged 93. 

When we say the name Betty Ford these days, it almost always refers to her eponymous center in Southern California frequented by adulterous evangelists, drug-abusing athletes and misbehaving celebrities. Dubious though this honour was, it was something Betty Ford cherished.

If her husband’s road to the American Presidency was unconventional, Betty Ford’s First Ladyship was equally unconventional. In those heady days before rehab was “cool”, Ford openly talked about her breast cancer, then her mastectomy, and finally her addiction to pills and alcohol.

Betty Ford was a dancer and (like her husband) fashion model; she studied at the Bennington School of the Dance, joined Martha Graham’s company, founded her own dance troupe, and taught disabled children dance. During her short and mostly absent stay at the White House, Ford would dance through the halls of the White House. Her dance on the Cabinet Room table amidst ashtrays and notepads was a fulfillment of a long-harboured wish.

The moment was captured by David Hume Kennerly, who encouraged her to jump onto the table

I said, ‘Well, nobody’s around.’ She said, ‘I just think I’m going to do this.’ Then she’s on the table. She’s a tiny woman, really, in very good shape. Very graceful, as a former dancer with the Martha Graham company. She got up there…. Very few women have had a seat at that table. I bet you could count them on one hand at that point, and knowing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, she was tap-dancing in the middle of this male bastion. She was storming the walls of the gray suits and gray-haired eminences….

I did not want people to put a martini glass in her hand and say here she is drunk on the Cabinet Room table. That would just be wrong. Because that is not what happened.”

It was Gerald Ford’s last full day in office and the picture disappeared into Ford Archives. It was first published only in 1995 with Kennerly’s book Photo Op . Kennerly remembers showing the photo to the former first couple before its publication:

And it’s like one of those cartoon moments where his eyes come bulging out, and he goes, ‘Oh, Betty isn’t going to like this.’ Remember, he knows her better than anybody. I’m sunk. But he doesn’t say anything when she comes in, and she looks at the picture and she starts laughing. She says, ‘Oh, I forgot all about this. That is so great.’ And I ask her, you won’t mind? And Mrs. Ford says, ‘No! It’s a terrific picture.’ Then President Ford says, ‘Well, Betty, you never told me you did that.’ And she smiles at him and says, ‘There’s a lot of things I haven’t told you, Jerry.’ “


(Kennerly interview from the Smithsonian Magazine) 

Ford and Hirohoto


In this David Hume Kennerly photograph from the Blue Room of the White House, President Ford sits down with Japan’s Emperor Hirohito before a state dinner in his honor on October 3, 1975. It was the emperor’s first trip to America’s capital, but President Ford had already met the Emperor the previous year in Tokyo. Even with the formal atmosphere extruding from the white tie gala, the nearly silhouetted figures backlit by a lamp have an intimacy within formal surroundings. Kennerly’s photo reflects how far the relationship between two countries has come since Commandore Perry, Pearl Harbor and two Atom Bombs–two countries has as the emperor toasted that night, “have become the nearest of neighbors…. Never before in history have two such distant and different peoples forged such close bonds of friendship.”