This post is a part of Fashion In the Broad Sense: a series of posts that explores how The Golden Girls relates to important topics and issues surrounding women and fashion.
Inspiration sometimes strikes in the strangest of ways, and this post comes courtesy of the USPS’s untimely announcement on the first day of Pride Month that it will be unveiling a stamp commemorating former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, on June 6th. The announcement was understandably met with swift criticism since President Reagan was extremely slow in reacting to the AIDS crisis during his time in office. His administration cut spending for AIDS research in the 1985 federal budget proposal, and Reagan did not even publicly address the disease until 1987. For her part, Nancy Reagan also denied a request for help from her friend, the actor Rock Hudson, in 1985. More on that a little later.
We’re introduced to Blanche’s sister, Virginia, in Transplant, the fourth episode of the first season. In the opening scene Blanche is fussing around the living room and arranging some floral arrangements with Rose to make sure everything is just right for Virginia’s visit.
Oh, I wish I’d gotten a decorator. Nancy Reagan’s decorator. That’d kill my sister.
Now, this episode isn’t one that usually tops people’s lists of favorites since it gets pretty lost in the shuffle of so many other first season standouts, but I really like it. The writing is superb, and we start to get the backstory of Blanche’s relationships with her sisters and their family dynamics. So the implication of Blanche’s comment about Nancy Reagan’s decorator is that she’s trying to show off for a sister that she doesn’t like. Viewers in 1985 would certainly have been aware of Mrs. Reagan’s expensive and well-publicized renovations to the White House in 1981 during her husband’s first term as president, though, and that context is what turns it into a punchline.
President Reagan’s second term began in January of 1985, and the politics of his administration and the Cold War have an influence on many of the other jokes and pop culture references throughout the series. For example, nuclear war is the focus of the season three episode, Letter to Gorbachev, which also includes a direct reference to President Reagan. And although President George H. W. Bush was in office by the time of 72 Hours in the fifth season, Reagan’s negligence towards AIDS undoubtedly played a large part in how the subject was addressed so memorably in the episode.
I guess maybe I just didn’t think you’d recognize good taste. You know this house was done by Nancy Reagan’s decorator.
Blanche makes the joke again after she and Virginia return from the lovely lunch, and it’s here that another slight dig at the Reagans emerges. While the reference to Nancy’s interior design efforts was clear then, the bit about “good taste” also alludes to the wholesome image that the Reagans were so deeply invested in promoting. Nancy became known for her fashionable and often extravagant glamor as the first lady; both she and her husband were former Hollywood film stars, after all. Her focus as the first lady was the infamous “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign that she launched in 1982 alongside the President’s war on drugs. For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s the influence of this messaging cannot be overstated. It was everywhere. The joke reaches its conclusion once Virginia reveals that she needs a kidney transplant. Blanche struggles with deciding to donate her kidney to her sister, but it turns out she’s not a match. Instead, she returns home and tells the Girls that “a retired Mormon schoolteacher” with a “showroom-new” kidney was the donor. The writing here is so clever and funny, and it’s also a great allusion to the wholesome, all-American image that the Reagans were invested in promoting to the world.
Yet, by digging a little deeper into just who “Nancy Regan’s decorator” actually was, some even more surprising connections emerge. His name was Ted Graber, and he died in 2000 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Graber was gay and lived with his partner, Arch Case, for 40 years. He got his start as an interior decorator working alongside William “Billy” Haines, who was also a former Hollywood actor and longtime good friend of Joan Crawford. Haines was gay as well, but his film career ended when he refused to hide his sexuality following a scandal that outed him in the 1930s. In stark contrast to Nancy, Joan continued to champion Haines and helped make him more well-known as an interior designer than as an actor. If all that’s not enough, Nancy Reagan even pops up again alongside a reference to Joan in the Dorothy’s Prized Pupil episode in season two. But you’d have to know that she’s called by her maiden name, Nancy Davis, in that hilarious scene between Sophia and Rose to get the full six degrees of separation effect. Thankfully, Matt Browning’s amazing book, The Definitive Golden Girls Cultural Reference Guide, is there to help us make these connections, too. Of course, in further contrast to the Reagans, all of The Golden Girls were public supporters of the LGBTQ community. Estelle Getty was particularly well known for her support of AIDS fundraising events. Which leads us back to Rock Hudson.
The Reagans were friends with Hudson from their days in Hollywood together, and he even attended a state dinner at the White House where he sat at Nancy’s table. Hudson was known as an “All-American” man and heartthrob for his roles in films like All That Heaven Allows (alongside Reagan’s first wife, Jane Wyman), Giant, and for starring alongside another symbol of American wholesomeness, Doris Day. He was also gay but kept his sexuality private for many years in order to maintain his career. Still, the fact was known privately among his friends in the industry. Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. In 2015 it was revealed for the first time that Nancy Reagan refused a request for help from Hudson when he was attempting to receive treatment in Paris in 1985. The Mattachine Society uncovered the telegram sent from Hudson’s publicist to the White House in materials at the Reagan Presidential Library in a file simply labeled “Hospitals.”
In other words, Nancy Reagan was obviously happy to be friends with gay men and even to support their careers when it benefitted her, but she was also completely fine with maintaining the status quo of Republican “fairness.” It was exactly this shade of homophobia that contributed to keeping actors like Hudson and others in the closet and certainly did nothing to help the LGBTQ community when it was most needed. Imagine rationalizing that it was ok for your husband, the President, to call your dying friend and offer those ever useful “thoughts and prayers” while also refusing to make the call that actually could have relieved the same friend’s suffering because of the feeling that it “was something the White House should [not] get into.” Hudson was the first major celebrity to die of AIDS on October 2, 1985. Still, 25,000 Americans would die of AIDS by May 31, 1987 when President Reagan finally gave his first public address about the disease. Nancy Reagan’s decorator, indeed.
On the surface, it might seem a little extra to go so far in dissecting a joke like this, but I think it plays a big part in what makes The Golden Girls still so relevant and interesting all these years later. After all, the ultimate moral of the show is to treat your friends like your family. Susan Harris would’ve been well acquainted with the negative aspects of the Reagan administration, and I love that such a seemingly innocuous joke can still have an impact today. Finally, with the right to privacy under threat at the Supreme Court and the potential widespread implications of the upcoming Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, it’s more important than ever to remember historical details and make connections to the present day.
Finally, I’d like to end this post on a more positive note with one more connection to The Golden Girls. Before she became as well known for portraying Dorothy Zbornak as she had been as Maude, Bea Arthur hosted her very own television variety show special with none other than her friend, Rock Hudson, as one of the featured guests. He and Bea sing a hilarious ode to drugs called “Everybody Today Is Turnin’ On” from the musical 1977 musical, I Love My Wife. Cecily Strong and Bowen Yang also parodied the song in a skit on SNL last year. As always, everything old is new again. But fans of The Golden Girls already know that, of course.