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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2003 / 4 Adar I, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Dear Joan ... | She was only 14, a butcher's daughter and a student at Perry High School on Pittsburgh's North Side.

He was 36, a handsome Hollywood leading man with a beautiful blonde movie-star wife and a $1 million contract with Warner Bros.

But when Joan Roll walked down to the Perry Theater on a Saturday afternoon in 1947 and saw Ronald Reagan in "The Voice of the Turtle," a sophisticated comedy of the day, it was love at first sight.

Seeing the tall, tan actor that Saturday afternoon not only brought throbs to Roll's young heart, it changed her life forever. Within two years, she'd be president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Ronald Reagan Fan Club. Within three years, she would meet her screen idol in person.

And for nearly the next 40 years, as Roll grew up, raised a family and became a nurse, and as Reagan moved into television, led a conservative political revolution in America and helped the Free World topple one of mankind's most evil governments, Roll and Reagan kept in touch.

They were more than pen-pals. They exchanged dozens of handwritten letters, cards and family photos. For years they even sent each other birthday and Christmas presents. When Reagan officially switched from being a Democrat to a Republican in 1962, so did Roll.

Though their personal correspondence ended in the early 1960s, Roll's respect and admiration for her screen-hero-turned-real-life-hero-turned-Alzheimer's-victim is undiminished today.


She still calls him "Ronnie" or "Ron." Her eyes still light up when she shows you the key-and-heart gold bracelet he sent her for Christmas half-a-century ago and when she tells you what a dedicated family man and courageous world leader he was.

And as Thursday, Feb. 6, brings President Reagan's 92nd birthday, Roll has found her own way to document her special relationship with Ronald Reagan and pay homage to the movie star and politician she believes is a great hero and an even greater Christian.

She has spent nearly $10,000 for a new self-published book, "The Real Ronald Reagan - A True Humanitarian." Published by Epic Press, a Christian book publisher from Canada, it tells how Roll (now Mary Joan Roll-Sieffert) became a Reagan pen-pal and reproduces about 50 of the original letters, postcards and more than a dozen autographed photos he sent to her from 1948 to 1962. It is for sale at Northern Christian Community Church on Route 19 in Wexford (724-935-6800) or by calling her at 412-369-0936.

As the book shows, Reagan's scrawled letters to Roll usually talk about his movie career or his family or thank her for sending him such gifts as hankies or neckties. Although she received unsigned Christmas cards from the Reagan White House well into the 1980s, his last signed letter (typed) came in 1962, two years before he'd make the famous televised speech for Barry Goldwater that would make him conservatism's rising star.


Reagan's letters and thank-you notes to Roll are often detailed and frank. In one of his longer ones - two sides of Warner Bros. stationery - Reagan tells Roll on March 11, 1950, that he is concerned because his fans are writing him and accusing him, unfairly, of becoming just another stuck-up Hollywood star. He explains to Roll that "the Big bosses" at Warner Bros. would not let him stretch the rules of his studio contract to appear, as had been publicized, as a guest on a charity radio program.

"I feel pretty badly about it," Reagan writes, "because 'as God is my witness,' I love nothing better than to give my services to raise money for all the things the money is needed to help less unfortunate (sic), and yet I have no way of letting the public know how wrong they are, in judging me such a heel."

A letter dated Nov. 2, 1948, is Roll's most prized. Reagan wrote it a few weeks before crossing the Atlantic to make "The Hasty Heart." Going to England to make a movie, he writes, "is something I've dreamed of, ever since I signed up with Warner Bros. and now that dream is coming true, oh! Boy!"

In the same letter, Reagan, who was in the middle of marital troubles with Jane Wyman that would end in divorce, expresses the hope that the discord would turn out all right in the end and that "maybe Jane will realize 'I'm her man.' "


As Roll explains in her book, she met her idol Ronald Reagan only once in person. It happened May 21, 1950, when he and Betty Hutton came to the Syria Mosque in Oakland to do a live, nationally broadcast radio play, "Page Miss Glory," for the NBC series "Theater Guild on the Air."

Reagan's mother, Nelle, who handled Reagan's fan mail for a time and also wrote six letters to Roll, had told the 17-year-old that her Hollywood heartthrob would be in Pittsburgh. She met Reagan and Hutton at the old Schenley Hotel and the trio walked over to the Syria Mosque together. Still attached to Roll's ticket for the play, which she never had to use to get inside the theater, is a note to herself: "In memory of an unforgettable day. Met Ronnie on Sunday, May, 21, 1950. What a guy!!!"

Roll's historic collection would be even larger, but she lost a portion of it in 1960, when a fire destroyed her Bellevue apartment. Some of her letters and photos still bear the scorch marks and water damage and she considers it a miracle everything wasn't lost.

Roll's long-running correspondence with Reagan is remarkable, but according to several experts it was not unique. During his career, Reagan wrote - often in longhand - to scores of ordinary fans like Roll and to fellow celebrities like Frank Sinatra and world leaders like Margaret Thatcher.


This fall, in fact, Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, will publish hundreds of them in "Reagan: A Portrait in Letters." Drawn from about 4,000 pieces of Reagan correspondence, its authors/editors are Martin and Annelise Anderson, two former Reagan advisers, and Kiron Skinner, a Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor of history, political science and public policy.

Skinner - who, like the Andersons, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University - collaborated in 2001 with the couple to co-edit "Reagan: In His Own Hand," a New York Times best-seller. The book featured 750 radio commentaries, essays and speeches Reagan wrote in longhand during the late 1970s of ideas that often presaged policies he pursued while President.

Among the letters being compiled in the new book will be some Reagan sent to Lorraine Makler Wagner, who was president of the Philadelphia Ronald Reagan Fan Club when Roll was presiding over her nine-member club in Pittsburgh.

Wagner had a steady, deep, 51-year correspondence with Reagan that evolved from movie talk to political talk to a personal relationship that included three family trips to the White House, a special private phone number from Reagan and access to his press conferences. Among the things Reagan wrote in letters to Wagner was his suspicion that President Jimmy Carter was "a real phony" and his description of the Chinese government as "a bunch of murdering bums."

In the summer of 1999, Wagner, who was active in Republican Party politics, sold her massive collection of 276 letters (plus hundreds of photographs) from Reagan, Jane Wyman and Nancy Reagan through Steven Raab Autographs in Philadelphia. Though some media reports reported the selling price as $400,000, Raab said last week that it was much less but still "in six figures." (Wagner declined to reveal the exact sum, saying that what's much more important is that Ronald Reagan, virtually unique among movie stars, cultivated close, long-term personal relationships with his fans because he truly liked and appreciated them.)

Individual letters written by Reagan are not uncommon. Raab, who says their value is determined by their content, recently sold an exceptionally historic one from 1961 in which Reagan wrote to a narrowly defeated local Republican candidate that "You have confirmed my theory that a large conservative vote is just waiting for someone to claim it." Raab said he received the asking price of $6,900. Elsewhere on the Internet, individual Reagan autographs and letters range from $1,000 to $3,000.


Though Mary Joan Roll-Sieffert's collection of letters has yet to be appraised by experts, it is unlikely it will bring anything close to what her old friend Lorraine Wagner got. Roll-Sieffert, who says she needs to sell her collection to pay her publisher, says she has been offered $20,000 by the Young America's Foundation, the conservative student outreach group that now owns Wagner's collection and displays it at their Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, Calif.

But the curator of the Reagan Ranch Center, Marilyn Fisher, says that is not true. Young America's Foundation has talked to Roll-Sieffert and has seen her collection, Fisher says, but has not put a value on it nor offered her any money for it. "We simply offered to help her find someone who would be interested in purchasing it," Fisher says.

"Unfortunately, the right individual has not come along."

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald