With a best actress Oscar on her shelf and a lucrative contract as the host of TV’s Fireside Theatre, Jane Wyman had few money worries. Yet in 1955, when her 10-year-old son Michael Reagan asked for a bicycle, she wasn’t quick to buy it for him.
“She said, ‘Do you love it enough to get a job?’” Michael remembers to Closer Weekly, on newsstands now, adding that his mother only agreed to get him the Schwinn if he used it to deliver newspapers and pay her back with the money he earned. “She said, ‘I build men. I don’t build boys.’”
For Michael, that story exemplifies his mother. The former talk radio host describes Jane as a strong and self-sufficient woman who never forgot her humble beginnings — and worked hard to instill good values in her children. “She was very strict with both Maureen and I,” says Michael, 76, who was adopted by Jane and then-husband Ronald Reagan four years after they welcomed their biological daughter. “She taught us to appreciate the things we had but to also earn those things.”
Jane’s teachings came from experience. Born Sarah Jane Mayfield in Saint Joseph, Missouri, she saw her life turned upside down at the age of 4 when, in quick succession, her parents divorced and her father died unexpectedly. Raised by foster parents, she grew up feeling insecure, both personally and financially. Said Jane: “It was years before I could reason myself out of the bitterness I brought from my childhood.”
Yet she persevered, changing her name to Jane Durell in her teens and finding work as a bit player in Hollywood. After a brief marriage to salesman Ernest Wyman, Jane signed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1936 and finally began to feel some sense of security. Four years later, she wed Ronald and welcomed Maureen and Michael before snagging breakthrough roles in the 1946 film The Yearling and, two years later, Johnny Belinda, for which she won the Oscar.
Through it all, Jane took nothing for granted. She divorced Ronald in 1949, then married and split with bandleader Fred Karger twice. At the urging of close friend Loretta Young, Jane embraced Catholicism in 1954 and raised her children with an old-fashioned work ethic that lasted into their adulthoods.
“When I started my talk show in the early ’90s, I was driving from L.A. to San Diego, and I called her and said, ‘I need some help. … There’s no money coming in,’” Michael recalls. “I said, ‘Can you help me?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I can.’ I said, ‘Great, Mom. What can you do?’ And she said, ‘I can tell you this. Shut up and keep driving.’”
As it turned out, Mother knew best. Michael’s show proved successful — and he was ultimately grateful for Jane’s special brand of tough love. “She made people better actors being on the same set as her, and made her family better by following her lead,” says Michael of Jane, who died at 90 in 2007. “Her legacy is that she made everybody better.”
—Alison Gaylin, with reporting by Fortune Benatar
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.