She was born Elizabeth Ann Boomer in Chicago, Ill., the daughter of William Boomer, a traveling salesman, and his wife Hortense. She had two older brothers, Robert and William Jr.
The family moved from Chicago to Denver, then to Michigan, where she went to school and fell in love with dancing. As a child she studied tap dance, ballroom dancing and ballet, and at age 14 began modeling at a department store. During high school she taught dancing as a counselor at summer camp, and also as a volunteer at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children.
She graduated from Central High School in 1936 and, against her mother's advice, went off to the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vt., where she caught the eye of Martha Graham. She moved to New York City to continue studying dance, living in Greenwich Village and Chelsea and taking modeling jobs to earn some money. She danced with the Martha Graham dance troupe and once performed with the company at Carnegie Hall.
However, her mother remained skeptical of her career choice and urged her to come home to Michigan. They finally reached a compromise. Elizabeth would return home for six months. After that, if she still felt the pull to New York, she could go back with her mother's blessing.
In 1942 she married childhood friend William Warren, a salesman who moved around from job to job. The young couple lived in Toledo, Ohio, then Fulton, NY, and eventually moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where Elizabeth again took a department store job.
Unfortunately, Warren suffered from diabetes and was also an alcoholic. In 1945 he fell into a coma and was moved to his parents' home. He struggled to recover, and for two years Elizabeth lived with her in-laws, nursing her husband back to health while holding down a job. In 1947, with Warren back at work, Elizabeth filed for divorce. They had no children.
She began dating a World War II Navy veteran, a local lawyer who was running as a Republican for the U. S. Congress. He asked her to marry him; but insisted they wait until after he had secured the nomination -- he worried some supporters might cast a dim view of him marrying a divorced ex-model and dancer. They were then married in October 1948, a couple of weeks before the general election.
Her husband won the election, the first of 13 terms in the House of Representatives, and they moved to Virginia, in the Washington suburbs. They went on to have three sons, Michael, John and Steven, and a daughter Susan. The parents claimed they never spanked their children, believing there were better ways to foster discipline and self-control.
Her husband eventually became the Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, and in 1973 was appointed vice president. When Richard Nixon resigned, her husband Gerald Ford ascended to the presidency of the United States.
Ford ran for election in 1976, but lost to Jimmy Carter. The New York Times summed up his legacy: "Mrs. Ford's impact on American culture may be far wider and more
lasting than that of her husband, who served a mere 896 days, much of it
spent trying to restore the dignity of the office of the president."
Betty Ford, more than her husband, had captured the hearts and minds of the American public. She wore a mood ring, chatted on a CB radio with the handle First Mama, and made a cameo appearance on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She held nuanced views on such controversial subjects as drugs, premarital sex and abortion, and to the consternation of some conservatives in the Republican party, she was an outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet she enjoyed huge popularity with both the press and the public. As she said during her husband's election campaign, "I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers."
Betty Ford Center in California to treat people with any kind of chemical dependency. She wrote two books: Betty: A Glad Awakening in 1987 and Healing and Hope in 2003.
Betty Ford continued to work for women's rights, and served as chairperson of the board of the Betty Ford Center until 2005 when she relinquished the post to her daughter Susan.
Husband Gerald died in 2006 at age 93. By that time Betty Ford had curtailed her public appearances, and she herself died of natural causes in 2011, also at age 93. She and her husband are buried at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.