Former Addict Jeff Wald Remembers Betty Ford

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The former first lady helped him overcome a staggering cocaine habit.

Former manager Jeff Wald had a special relationship with Betty Ford. As he recounted to THR in an “as told to” story in May, he met Ford when he was strung out on cocaine, married to Helen Reddy and managing her as well as a roster of stars including Sylvester Stallone and George Carlin. Late in 1975, Norman Brokaw of The William Morris Agency called Wald to say that the First Lady had seen Reddy and Carol Burnett performing a medley of 165 songs on television and wanted them to reprise the performance at an upcoming White House state dinner. Wald, a major Democratic fundraiser, told Brokaw, “"Tell them to f--- themselves. The guy pardoned Nixon, f--- him." Two days later, Wald got a call from Ford, who told him, “My husband is president of all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, and you don't turn down a state dinner.” Wald agreed, accompanied his wife to the dinner and thus began a friendship that ultimately would save his life.

In the mid-'70s, Helen and I had given a quarter million dollars to Cedars Sinai. They called and said they would love it if she would come out for a fundraiser for a cancer pavilion and they would name it for her. She said, “I’ll come if I can dance with Dick Van Dyke." I called Dick Van Dyke and he was thrilled. She came out here and was so charming at the fundraiser and she danced with Dick Van Dyke.

I had the balls to invite her to a concert by Helen Reddy at Constitution Hall to raise money for the Equal Rights Amendment. The concert was being sponsored by a women's political group founded by [firebrand liberal congresswomen] Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm.  She said she would go and I went to the White House to accompany her.

She was a little drunk or maybe on pills. I was wired to the tits. She was slurring her words but I certainly didn’t tell her I was doing coke and she didn’t say to me that she was drinking or doing pills.  . . . So we get to the event and they put us in a holding room until everybody is seated. Then they direct us to the presidential box. When we got to the box, everybody stood and applauded. I, stoned as I was, bowed and waved. She said, “I think they’re standing for me,” so I stepped aside a little.

We socialized with [the Fords] a number of times and in 1980, Helen announced that she was getting separated from me due to my cocaine habit. We got back together [temporarily] and I told Mrs. Ford that I was sober. She always looked at me like she didn’t believe me. [Ford had been sober since 1978.]

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Segue to 1986, and I’m in the hospital for the overdose at Cedars. After the intervention, at the end, Norman [Brokaw] had Mrs. Ford call me to say, “You really should come [to Betty Ford Center]." Gerald Ford got on the phone and said, "You should come here after. We can play golf." I remember being a smartass and saying, “I don’t have a pair of pants with whales on them.”

So I get to Betty Ford Center thinking I’ll stay at their house. She made it obvious that there were no favors. I wasn’t going to get a better room--a better anything. I had eight pieces of Cartier luggage; I had to send seven of them back. She was there almost every day. She had an office there and she was very involved in everything. Three or four days into my stay, she gave a lecture. She did a lecture with each [group] that came in.

I was there a few days and it was Valentine’s Day and I had this patch over my eye [from surgery during the hospitalization]. I went to get mail and I had one f--ing Valentine’s card. I opened it and I couldn’t see very well. She came out of her office, saw me and said, “What’s happening with you?” I said, “I got this valentine and I can’t read it.” She said, “I’ll read it to you.” It said, “On Easter we think of bunny rabbits, on Thanksgiving we think of turkeys and on Valentine’s Day we think of pussy.” She read it out loud. When she said that, the place got so silent you could hear a pin drop. I started to apologize and she said, “I’ve been through enough AA meetings---I’ve heard everything.” I freaked--she didn’t.

I expected to get out after the 28 days but two weeks in, my counselor told me [I’d have to stay longer]. I was livid. I walked into her office and sat down and she said, “You’ve been suffering from terminal uniqueness.” She said, “I’ve seen a thousand of you come through here.” In other words, you’re not so unique. The bottom line is Mrs. Ford kept me another two weeks and she was right.

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I never heard her raise her voice but she had backbone. I tell my daughter that she fought for herself, had a relationship with a husband who supported her even if it wasn’t in his best political interest. It was probably the end of the era where somebody could have a different opinion and not get ostracized. . . I don’t think Laura Bush or Michelle Obama would get away with doing what she did. She was a real individual who made her mark.

To me, she was the most important first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of having something to say. It’s almost not measurable, the things that she did, especially when it comes to sobriety.