Saying goodbye to a pioneering First Lady

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated July 15, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

It may be difficult to imagine, in this era when substance abuse and rehab stints provide endless fodder for memoirs, gossip sites, talk shows, and reality TV series, but there was a time when such things simply weren’t discussed. Betty Ford changed all of that. Vaulted unexpectedly into the role of First Lady in 1974 amid the turmoil of the Watergate scandal, Ford — who died of natural causes on July 8 in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at age 93 — reminded a nation scarred by secrets and lies of the liberating power of unvarnished honesty. Her greatest taboo-smashing legacy came from her decision to talk openly about her own battle with addiction to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1982, Ford founded the rehabilitation center that bears her name, and over the ensuing decades, nearly 100,000 people — including such celebrities as Robert Downey Jr., Drew Barrymore, and Elizabeth Taylor — have passed through its doors in search of help. ”When I was on my way to the Betty Ford Center, I turned to one of my friends and said, ‘You know, I’ve finally made it,”’ Kelsey Grammer once joked. Despite her fame and influence, Ford never held herself above anyone who shared her struggle. ”I’ve been at meetings where someone turned and thanked me,” she once wrote. ”I hugged the person and said, ‘Don’t thank me, thank yourself, you’re the one who did it, with God’s help.”’