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Nancy Clark Reynolds, a Player in Reagan’s Washington, Dies at 94

Nancy Clark Reynolds, whose life as a Washington insider stretched from the 1930s, when she arrived as the daughter of a New Deal congressman, to her role as a confidante to Ronald Reagan and, finally, to her prominence as one of the city’s best-connected lobbyists in the 1980s, died on May 23 at her home in Santa Fe, N.M. She was 94.

Her son Clark Wurzberger confirmed the death.

Ms. Reynolds led a Zelig-esque life in the nation’s capital. Her father played poker with Harry S. Truman. As a young woman she dated J.D. Salinger and Jack Valenti, an ad executive who become one of Lyndon Johnson’s closest aides and later led the Motion Picture Association of America.

She was best friends with Nancy Reagan, but also with Anne Wexler, a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter known as the “Rolodex queen” for her extensive political connections.

Ms. Reynolds inhabited a Washington very different from today’s hyperpartisan battleground. In her time, congressmen with decidedly different politics might still clink glasses at a Georgetown reception and hash out a deal over canapés. Ms. Reynolds was one of a fast-vanishing breed of D.C. fixers — known sometimes pejoratively as hostesses — who knew how to create the social conditions to make those breakthroughs happen.

As part of the Reagan transition team, Ms. Reynolds offered a critical link between the Washington establishment and the presidential advisers imported from the West Coast, including Michael K. Deaver, the incoming deputy chief of staff, and Edwin Meese III, a White House counselor and future attorney general. When the socialite Brooke Astor was planning a reception for the Reagans in New York, she came to Ms. Reynolds for advice.

Ms. Reynolds began her career as a TV journalist in the late 1940s, when the medium was still in its infancy, and in the mid-1960s became one of the first women to anchor a major nightly news program, in San Francisco. She was known for landing high-profile interviews, including with Sonny Barger, a founder of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and with Ronald Reagan during his successful 1966 campaign for governor of California.

That interview, which she conducted on horseback at Reagan’s ranch near Santa Barbara, so impressed him that he hired her as his press secretary. She stayed with him for his two terms as governor and through his 1976 presidential campaign, handling celebrities (a not-unimportant task in California), easing tensions among the hard-charging gubernatorial staff, and becoming a confidante of Mrs. Reagan, helping her navigate her new role as a politician’s wife.

“Some people you feel just totally at home with right away, right?” Ms. Reynolds told The Washington Post in 1980. “Well, she’s friendly and warm, but there’s a great deal of reserve. It’s not easy to know her well in the beginning. It takes time, but it’s worth it.”

She did not join the administration but remained close to it, hosting parties and opening doors for the White House on Capitol Hill. She was close enough to give President Reagan reading recommendations, including a 1984 thriller by Tom Clancy, a not widely known author at the time. Reagan loved the novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” and his very public endorsement of it made it one of the decade’s best sellers.

Ms. Reynolds in 1985 with Reagan. She was also a confidante of Nancy Reagan, helping her navigate her new role as a politician’s wife.Credit…Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library

Ms. Reynolds parlayed her political experience and connections into a career as one of a new breed of Washington superlobbyists, opening D.C. offices for major corporations and later cofounding Wexler, Reynolds, Harrison and Schule, among the most powerful lobbying firms of the 1980s and one of the first to be led in part by women.

“What serves you well over the years is just the old gut reaction,” she told The New York Times in 1983. “Experience and contacts help, but in the end it’s an instinct, an antenna. This city is a tremendous amalgam of incredible people from all walks of life who are elected to political office. You have to be fascinated with the political process.”

Nancy Lee Clark was born on June 26, 1927, in Pocatello, a small city in southeast Idaho. Her father, David Worth Clark, was a lawyer who won a special election in 1935 to become one of the state’s two U.S. representatives. Her mother, Virgil (Irwin) Clark, was a homemaker.

Moving to Washington, the Clarks lived in the Shoreham Hotel — de rigueur for new members of Congress, who felt buying a home might appear presumptuous. Mr. Clark needn’t have worried: He won re-election in 1936 and a Senate seat in 1938. He was a New Deal Democrat, but he made friends across factions and parties; his friends included Richard Russell, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, and Robert Taft, a conservative Republican from Ohio.

Washington in the 1930s was a very different place from the one Ms. Reynolds would return to in the 1970s. In many ways it was still a sleepy Southern town, crisscrossed with bridle paths, on which she rode horses with her father. Though the family returned to Idaho every summer, she graduated from high school in Washington, then studied English at Goucher College, in Maryland. She graduated in 1945.

Already an experienced journalist, having interviewed film stars like Lauren Bacall and Anthony Quinn for her college newspaper, she got a job as a reporter for a Baltimore TV station, WBAL.

She met Salinger in New York, where he showed her around Greenwich Village and told her about a story he was working on for The New Yorker called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” She advised him to change the title. He didn’t.

Soon after, she married Bill Wurzberger, had three children and settled down in the suburbs. When they divorced in 1961, she decided to start over, moving back to Idaho with her boys in tow.

Another marriage, to Frank Reynolds, a journalist, Republican campaign aide and lobbyist, also ended in divorce. Along with her son, she is survived by her partner, Bob Kemble; her sons Kurt Wurzberger, Dean Wurzberger and Michael Reynolds; and four grandchildren.

Back in Boise, Ms. Reynolds got a job as the host of a daytime talk show, and a few years later moved to San Francisco, eventually joining Governor Reagan’s staff.

After Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, Ms. Reynolds went to work for the building materials company Boise Cascade as its head of government relations; she later held the same job for the manufacturer Bendix Corp., where she stayed — aside from a six-month leave of absence in 1980 to work on Reagan’s White House transition — until 1983, when she left to join Ms. Wexler.

In 1981, Reagan named her the U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a part-time role that took her several times to Africa. She fell in love with the continent and especially its prehistory; after becoming friends with the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, she joined him on several of his digs in the Rift Valley, in eastern Africa.

She and Ms. Wexler sold their firm in 1990, and soon after, Ms. Reynolds moved to Santa Fe.

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