Nancy Reagan Told ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert It Was ‘Hurtful’ How ‘People Had Misjudged Her’

In 1982, Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert got involved with Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No drug awareness campaign. She was named the youth spokesperson for the First Lady’s ACTION drug Prevention Program. So Gilbert traveled across the country with Reagan speaking out against “the evils of drug use.” Along the way, the actor and the First Lady shared some intimate moments.

Melissa Gilbert; Nancy Reagan
Melissa Gilbert; Nancy Reagan | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images; Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

The day Melissa Gilbert met Nancy Reagan at the White House

Before the tour began, Gilbert and her mother were invited to the White House to meet with the First Lady.

“We were escorted through an entrance off-limits to the public and taken to the private quarters into a room done in a yellow floral theme, where Mrs. Reagan soon joined us,” wrote Gilbert in her memoir, Prairie Tale. “Over tea and cookies, my mother and I talked with her about the program. We also talked about Hollywood and Los Angeles, where she and the president had lived.”

As the women (Gilbert was 17 at the time) spoke to one another, the Little House star “felt the mood in the room change” from “less formal to more personal.”

Nancy Reagan at home
Mrs. Ronald W. Reagan at home | Fred Lyon/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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“Mrs. Reagan started to talk about her life at the White House and how she thought people had misjudged her, and she said it was not just unfair but hurtful,” wrote Gilbert.

Reagan continued to open up about her life as the First Lady, particularly about how difficult it had been since the attempted assassination of the president.

“Mrs. Reagan started talking about the day her Ronnie was shot,” wrote Gilbert. “As she shared details, she began to cry, which made me uncomfortable. Then her tears turned into a full-on sob and my mom scooted over on the couch and put her arms around her.”

The next day, Nancy Reagan forgot who Melissa Gilbert was

The day following the women’s tea and cookies in the White House, the reception for ACTION took place. Gilbert and her mother stood in line to meet and greet the First Lady. When it was their turn to shake her hand, Reagan looked Gilbert in the eyes and asked, “And you are?”

“It stopped me halfway through my own hello,” wrote Gilbert. “Just fourteen hours earlier, she had been crying in my mother’s arms. Now she had no idea who we were. What was the deal? Had she been acting the previous day? But who would do that? And why?”

Melissa Gilbert and Nancy Reagan got to know each other over the course of the tour

In time, Gilbert figured the First Lady “was so overwhelmed by the number of people she met every day that she went on auto pilot, turning off everything but her smile, her handshake, and a scripted greeting.”

But by the end of the tour, Gilbert and Reagan became better acquainted.

Melissa Gilbert
Melissa Gilbert | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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“Able to recognize me through her thicket of handlers and Secret Service agents, she knew my name and complimented my increasingly strong and emphatic delivery to large groups of teenagers and their parents about the dangers of drug use,” wrote Gilbert.