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The black-tie party for President Ronald Reagan’s 70th birthday on Feb. 6, 1981, which he referred to as “the 31st anniversary of my 39th birthday,” was supposed to be a surprise — until Tom Brokaw mentioned it on the Today show that morning. The party, paid for by the president’s California “Kitchen Cabinet” supporters, came two weeks after his inauguration and was the first major social event the Reagans held in the White House.
It began a heightened era of Hollywood mixing with Washington. The 120-person guest list had Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart socializing with Vice President George Bush, Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, columnist William F. Buckley Jr. and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
“It was a beautiful night, and to be in the White House with someone you voted for was exciting,” recalls Betsy Bloomingdale, whose late husband, Alfred, was a key Kitchen Cabinet member. “Nancy always had special things for Ron all the time; everything was for him. That was a real romance.”
White House photographer Michael Evans made his own edits from that night, without the usual public-relations filter, and released the famous picture of Reagan cutting in on Frank Sinatra as he danced with the first lady. It was “by far the shot of the party,” Evans has said. Almost immediately after it went out, he got calls from chief of staff James Baker and media manager Michael Deaver, both furious over the choice: It might give the media a chance to rehash Sinatra’s alleged organized crime connections and embarrass Reagan. Evans thought he’d be fired. Then Nancy Reagan called — she said she loved the photo, which had hit the front page of The Washington Post, and wanted copies “to give to Frank.”
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