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Happy Birthday, Betty Ford, First Lady and Founder of Addiction Rehab Center

Written By Anne Szustek
Last updated: March 1, 2023

Betty Ford has worn many hats throughout her lifetime: model, dancer, first lady, feminist, cancer and substance addiction survivor. Her candor in sharing her opinions and her flaws made her a role model for many. To this day, the nonagenarian continues to inspire those suffering from substance abuse.

Betty Ford's Early Days

The future First Lady was born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago. In 1920, her family moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where she grew up and graduated from high school. Betty Bloomer’s natural grace was evident early. During her adolescence, she took dance lessons and taught dance to younger children, in addition to being an all-around athlete.

The future First Lady’s father, William Stephenson Bloomer, Sr., died when she was 16. A PBS slideshow profiling Ford’s early years writes that her mother said that William Stephenson Bloomer was an alcoholic.

After high school, Ford headed to Vermont’s Bennington College School of Dance. She met Martha Graham and moved to New York in 1939 to dance at the famed choreographer’s studio, supporting herself by modeling. She moved back to Grand Rapids a few years later, where she worked for a department store and founded a local dance group. During this time, she married childhood friend William Warren, but divorced him after five years. She then met rising Republican politician Gerald Ford. They married in 1948 during his successful inaugural campaign for Congress.

Betty Ford's Notable Accomplishments

Sources in this Story

  • Elizabeth Bloomer Ford
  • PBS: Online NewsHour: Betty Ford: The Real Deal
  • The New York Times: Back in View, a First Lady With Her Own Legacy
  • Time magazine: Betty Ford: Facing Cancer
  • Betty Ford Center: Our History

After Gerald Ford’s election to the House of Representatives, Betty Ford assumed the role of political wife. Along with the part came feelings of isolation. PBS NewsHour notes that it was during this time that Betty Ford turned to alcohol and the use of painkillers. Gerald Ford, aware of how fragile his wife had become, contemplated leaving politics in the early 1970s, despite having risen to House Minority Leader.

But after Vice President Spiro Agnew was ousted in 1973, President Nixon chose Gerald Ford to take his place, thrusting Betty Ford into the spotlight as America’s second lady. The following year, Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, making Gerald Ford president and Betty Ford first lady.

In October 1974, two months into her husband’s presidency, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. She transformed the ordeal into a platform for public awareness about the disease, speaking candidly about her mastectomy.

This marked Betty Ford’s emergence as a public figure; it could be argued that her vocal stances on several issues affected more cultural change than the actions of her husband, the president.

The following year, she became an enthusiastic supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. If that didn’t earn her the ire of some conservatives, her pro-choice views and hints that her children may have dabbled in illegal drugs and premarital sex did. “While Mrs. Ford drew hundreds of angry letters,” wrote The New York Times in 2006, “public opinion ended up on her side, with ‘Betty’s Husband for President’ buttons decorating the campaign trail” during President Ford’s reelection bid in 1976.

The Rest of the Story

The Woman and Her Work

President Ford lost the presidential election that year to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, the now-former first lady was losing her own battle against substance addiction. In April 1978, her family staged an intervention led by Susan, her youngest child. Betty Ford was admitted to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., for chemical dependency. Her experiences made her see a need for a detox center that would address the needs of each gender separately. Ford and her friend Ambassador Leonard Firestone co-founded the nonprofit Betty Ford Center in 1982.

The Rancho Mirage, Calif. facility has since become among the most highly regarded drug treatment centers in the country—to the point that “going to Betty Ford” has become synonymous with seeking help for addiction. Betty Ford remained chairman of the center’s board of directors until 2005, when her daughter Susan Ford Bales assumed the role. 

Gerald Ford died in December 2006; Betty Ford now lives a quiet life in California, allowing her legacy to speak for her.

Charles Eames

Anne Szustek is a seasoned journalist and acclaimed writer with an in-depth understanding of the celebrity world. Known for her insightful coverage and nuanced profiles of stars across the entertainment spectrum, she consistently brings readers closer to the lives of their favorite celebrities. Szustek's work, characterized by its journalistic integrity and creative flair, provides a unique blend of informed commentary and engaging storytelling.

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