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The Personal Letter from President Reagan:

How It Came About

I had some success in publishing articles in the gambling field starting in the early 80’s. I would go to Vegas from time to time from my home in southern California to do research in the UNLV Library. While in the library one day in late 1983, I came across a brief article about then-President Ronald Reagan playing Vegas in the early 50’s.  He only played for two weeks, did an MC bit, clowned around with a couple acts, and told a few jokes.  He was originally offered a gig into the El Rancho where there was a stripper on the bill and he turned that down. He then played The Last Frontier.

A little more research turned up more interesting facts. The major one was this: he was broke. He needed the money for child support payments to his first wife, Jane Wyman, for Maureen and Michael. He was $18,000 in debt. He had mortgage payments on three properties. And he had a new wife, Nancy Davis, and a new baby, Patti, who would later be joined by Ron.

A little while later I was in the Litton Industries Foundation in Beverly Hills , talking to the Executive Director, Colonel Barney Oldfield. There was also a Barney Oldfield who was a race car driver. Colonel Oldfield was his nephew. This Oldfield was a journalist who parachuted into the Battle of the Bulge.  So, we were chatting about a possible grant to the Center on Disabilities at California State University , Northridge (CSUN), an office which I founded and headed. Oldfield and I had a nice chat and agreed to meet a second time several weeks hence. 

Fast forward: I then took a business trip to Dayton , Ohio and visited the Air Force Museum there. In the museum was a picture of Reagan and Oldfield, both in uniform. Oldfield’s arm was slung around his buddy, Ronald Reagan.

So on my second visit with Colonel Oldfield, once we finished with university business (we never did get a grant from Litton), I asked about his relationship with Reagan. I told him I had seen the article about Reagan playing Vegas and had also seen the photograph of Oldfield and Reagan together in the Air Museum. I told him I did freelance writing and might be interested in writing about the President’s Las Vegas experience.

Oldfield told me he was Reagan’s publicist during his movie days and was a good friend. In fact, the President had just called him that morning as Oldfield recently recovered from surgery.

I asked questions of Barney about Reagan’s time in Vegas. He said he didn’t know much about it but added, “Why don't you ask those questions of the President?” 

Oh, Yeah , I thought. How do I do that?  He then gave me the name of Mr. Reagan’s personal secretary. He said that if I added her name to the envelope it would be sorted into the President’s personal mail rather than his business mail.  So I wrote a letter to the President using a Las Vegas address. The content of my letter was all ‘softball’ stuff. How did you like playing Vegas? Did you consider other stage engagements?

My message apparently went directly to Reagan and he responded with the letter that is in the book, Reagan: A Life in Letters (edited by Andersen and Andersen, p. 142, addressed to Murphy James).  By the way, there are many letters to Barney Oldfield in this book.

Almost thirty years after the Vegas experience of the President, I was fortunate enough to locate one of the acts on the same bill. I interviewed the lead singer, Ben Cruz, of The Continentals, who shared the stage with Reagan during that two-week period.

So, I wrote an article, “When the Gipper Played Vegas,”and included the text of the letter from the President. I also got some stock pictures of Reagan on-stage from the Las Vegas News Bureau. I submitted the article to the San Antonio Express-News. An editor from the newspaper called me and said they wanted to buy the article. However, they first had to check its authenticity with the White House.  Did I mind?  I said, no, go ahead, it is an authentic letter, of course. It was signed personally (no machine signature) by the President.  So they called the White House Press Office. 

The San Antonio editor came back to me, saying, yes, of course, it is a legitimate letter. We want to publish your article.  He added that he was told by the White House Press Office that Reagan handwrote that letter – as he did many of his letters - on Air Force One coming back from a California trip. Did I know that?  I said, no.  He said, if you can get hold of that original handwritten letter, you would have something valuable. 

I wrote to the White House Press Office asking if I could have a copy of the original handwritten letter.  They came back with a polite no.  Using my Las Vegas PO Box address, I decided to write to Senator Paul Laxalt from Nevada , a personal friend of Reagan.  I explained everything and asked for his help.  I got back a poorly Xeroxed copy (shown below) of the first few lines of the letter in Reagan's handwriting. 

There is one inaccuracy in the original letter to me that is corrected in the book by Andersen and Andersen. Reagan apparently meant to write MCA (his agency at the time). In the original letter to me, it is “MCR”, instead of MCA, perhaps because a transcriber took his handwritten “A” to be an “R.” “When the Gipper Played Vegas” was later republished in a Dallas newspaper as well as one in St. Petersburg , Florida .

It is a featured letter in Reagan: A Life in Letters (Free Press: Andersen and Andersen, editors, 2004, p. 142). According to Andersen and Andersen, the original handwritten letter to me is in the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley , California . I must take a look at it someday.

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