Richard Nixon: The gushy, romantic side of 'Tricky Dick'

Richard Nixon's love letters to Patricia Ryan showed a romantic young man. The letters from 1938, reveal Nixon, the 37th US president, as idealistic, poetic.

(AP Photo/File)
In this circa 1930's photo Richard Nixon is shown as a member of the Whittier College football squad in Whittier, Calif.

Long before Richard Nixon rose to power and fell from grace, he was just another man in love.

Decades before he became known to some as "Tricky Dick," Nixon was the one penning nicknames (sweet ones) to his future bride in gushy love notes that reveal a surprisingly soft and romantic side of the man taken down by Watergate.

Nixon shared the stage with Patricia Ryan in a community theater production and six of the dozens of letters they exchanged during their two-year courtship will be unveiled Friday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum as part of an exhibit celebrating the 100th birthday of the woman Nixon playfully called his "Irish gypsy."

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In Nixon's letters, he recalls their first meeting in flowery prose, daydreams about their future together and waxes poetic about the first time his "dearest heart" agreed to take a drive with him.

"Every day and every night I want to see you and be with you. Yet I have no feeling of selfish ownership or jealousy," he writes in one undated letter. "Let's go for a long ride Sunday; let's go to the mountains weekends; let's read books in front of fires; most of all, let's really grow together and find the happiness we know is ours."

Eighteen years after his death, the correspondence offers a tiny window into a fiercely private side of Nixon that almost no one ever saw and represents a love letter of sorts to fans of the 37th U.S. president, who were infuriated when the National Archives took over the museum and overhauled it to include a detailed chronicle of Watergate.

"These letters are fabulous. It's a totally different person from the Watergate tapes that people know. President Nixon started out as an idealistic young man ready to conquer the world and with Pat Ryan he knew he could do it. There's a lot of hope, there's a lot of tenderness and it's very poetic," said Olivia Anastasiadis, supervisory museum curator.

"He loved her, he was absolutely enthralled by her and that's all he thought about."

The letters stand in stark contrast to the grim-faced leader forced to resign in 1974, disgraced.

Instead, Nixon comes across as an ardent and persistent suitor in the letters, which date from 1938 to just before the couple's marriage in June 1940.

The two met while auditioning for "The Dark Tower" in the Southern California town of Whittier and dated for two years until Nixon proposed to his sweetheart on the south Orange County cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He later delivered her engagement ring in a small basket overflowing with mayflowers. They were married in a small ceremony on June 21, 1940.

The romantic touch and chivalry that Nixon brought to his seaside proposal comes through in the letters, as well.

In two of the handwritten notes, Nixon — raised a Quaker — uses "thee" instead of "you" to refer to his future bride, a pronoun that signals a special closeness in the Quaker tradition. He also writes about himself in the third person, referring to himself as a "prosaic person" whose heart was nonetheless "filled with that grand poetic music" upon knowing her.

"Somehow on Tuesday there was something electric in the usually almost stifling air in Whittier. And now I know. An Irish gypsy who radiates all that is happy and beautiful was there. She left behind her a note addressed to a struggling barrister who looks from a window and dreams. And in that note he found sunshine and flowers, and a great spirit which only great ladies can inspire," Nixon wrote. "Someday let me see you again? In September? Maybe?"

A much more practical — and somewhat less impulsive — Pat Ryan replies in one short note: "In case I don't see you before why don't you come early Wednesday (6) — and I'll see if I can burn a hamburger for you." The object of Nixon's affection was slower to come around, but eventually was just as smitten with Nixon as he was with her, said Ed Nixon, Nixon's youngest brother, in a phone interview from his Seattle home.

"She was quite an independent young lady and she was very cautious about anyone she met and if they couldn't smile, she wouldn't want to do too much unless she could make them smile. That captured Dick's imagination," the younger Nixon said. "She was challenging. She challenged me and I think she challenged Dick."

Nixon's presidency began to unravel in 1972 when burglars who were later tied to his re-election committee broke into the Democratic headquarters to get dirt on his political adversaries. Nixon denied knowing about plans for the break-in beforehand, but an 18 1/2 minute gap in a recording of a post-Watergate White House meeting led many to suspect a cover-up.

Faced with impeachment and a possible criminal indictment, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974 and retreated to his native California. The following month he was granted a pardon by President Gerald Ford.

Pat Nixon never doubted her husband and stood by him until she died in 1993, a day after their 53rd wedding anniversary, said Robert Bostock, a consultant to the Richard Nixon Foundation, which is co-sponsoring the exhibit, and a former aide to Nixon after he left the White House.

Her loyalty and spirit was a testament to their love and part of what bound them together from the earliest days of their courtship in Whittier, when he was a young attorney and she a high school stenography teacher fresh out of college.

"She was with him the whole way; she never lost faith in him. Her feeling was that it was the country's loss when he had to resign, that he had accomplished so much good and had so much more good to accomplish," Bostock said. "Her favorite saying was, 'Onward and upward.' She spent no time looking back. She was always looking forward."

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