Did Ronald Reagan have an illegitimate child with his high school and college sweetheart?
That provocative question is raised by Bob Spitz in a major biography of Ronald Reagan. Spitz, New York Times bestselling biographer of figures as diverse as The Beatles and Julia Child, has published Reagan: An American Journey. The book has received high praise and rave reviews. In chapter seven, titled “The Disappearance of Margaret,” Spitz claims that Ronald Reagan’s first love, Margaret “Mugs” Cleaver, temporarily disappeared from Eureka College to possibly deliver a baby or (particularly remarkable) to have an abortion. The child would have been the child of Ronald Reagan.
We’ll here consider these claims carefully, but let it be stated emphatically from the outset: the facts contradict both the claim of a pregnancy brought to term by Mugs or of an abortion by Mugs, let alone a “disappearance.”
For the record, “Mugs” and “Dutch” dated for years, up to and including their time at Eureka College, where they were a popular couple on campus. Margaret even accepted Ronald Reagan’s fraternity pin. This “pinning” was almost tantamount to an engagement, thus making Mugs nearly Reagan’s fiancée. She was his love. The young Reagan was certain he would marry her. Moreover, Margaret was the daughter of the Rev. Ben Cleaver, Reagan’s pastor in their hometown of Dixon, Illinois, and like a second father to Reagan. Cleaver had a profound spiritual influence on the boy, second only to Reagan’s mother.
Spitz notes, correctly, that Margaret did not return to campus at Eureka in September 1930 for her junior year. This has long been known by Reagan biographers. “According to most accounts,” Spitz reports, “Margaret, a straight-A student, found the coursework [at Eureka] unchallenging and opted to take a semester or two at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” It is strange, says Spitz, that a star student would drop everything and do this. “It seems an odd choice for a gifted young woman who was also the president of her class.”
To the contrary, it was not an odd choice. It would have been an “odd choice” if Margaret had not considered taking the opportunity to join her older sister Helen, who was starting at the university in the fall of 1930 with a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree. The University of Illinois in 1930 was a renowned and vibrant academic institution. It may surprise people today to know that the university was ranked with the likes of Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Stanford, and others as a leading American university. It was also a national athletic powerhouse. The campus was alive with events, teams, clubs, fraternities and sororities, musical and theatrical groups, and publications; the 672-page 1931 yearbook needed hundreds of pages to record them all. And this all came with one of the lowest tuitions of any major Midwestern school. An ambitious and energetic “gifted young woman” like Margaret Cleaver had every reason to spend a year with her sister considering a big-campus experience.
Spitz’s account becomes truly alarming, however, when he questions not only Margaret’s choice to attend the university but also whether she even attended the school at all. He levels a jaw-dropper: “In fact, she didn’t. The University of Illinois has no record of Margaret Cleaver’s ever attending the school. Its chief archivist exhausted every possible avenue in search of her records — the morgue files, the student files, and the university’s microfilm collection of transcripts — without finding any trace of her.” Spitz quotes this “chief archivist,” identified as Scott Krinninger, telling him: “There is no matriculation record that she ever enrolled at the University of Illinois.” When Spitz asked if any record might exist elsewhere or have been misplaced, he says Krinninger responded, “Not a chance.”
Thus, Spitz concludes, “for a six-month period — from September 1930 to the spring of 1931 — her whereabouts are unexplained.” From there, he ventures into the provocative speculation.
So, Spitz asks, where was Margaret Cleaver from September 1930 to the spring of 1931? He first suggests that she may have been kept at home in Dixon to save the family from her tuition expense. But that evidently uninteresting notion is soon supplanted by the idea that she disappeared — perhaps to hide a pregnancy—or even to have an abortion, maybe involving some facility in central Illinois catering to sorority girls from Northwestern and some smaller schools.
Now that’s a dramatic jump in the narrative.
Spitz notes the existence of a nearby facility called “the Baby Fold” in Bloomington-Normal, known for “taking on and finding homes for adopted babies from sorority girls from Northwestern and some of the smaller Illinois schools.”
Significantly, Spitz offers no proof that Margaret ever approached the door of the Baby Fold, nor does he offer attestation for a really striking charge that follows in the very next line in his narrative: “Was a dummy transcript placed in her [Margaret’s] Eureka file to preserve her reputation? It remains a possibility.”
This is a serious charge, apparently suggesting that someone at the administrative level at Eureka College fabricated documents and inserted them into Margaret’s file to protect the reputation of her and the Cleaver family. Here again, no proof is offered for this claim, either.
Spitz’s speculation concerning Mugs continues from there.
He notes that when Margaret returned to Eureka College in the fall of 1931 for her senior year, she no longer lived in the dorms but at home, perhaps a wayward daughter under her parents’ watchful eyes. Spitz speculates that “the hastily arranged move created an impression that the Cleavers wanted to keep a closer grip on their daughter.”
This is another charge that has no merit. The reality is that the Cleavers had moved to Eureka from Dixon because the Rev. Cleaver took a pastorate (on May 24, 1931) at a Disciples of Christ church in the town of Eureka. Their home might have been technically “off-campus,” but it actually sat directly across the street from the campus entrance. Really, it’s practically on-campus — a literal hop, skip, and jump. For Margaret not to have stayed at the house upon her return from Urbana-Champaign would have been nonsensical let alone an unnecessary financial drain on her parents, who were not wealthy. It was a natural move.
The Historical Record
In sum, Spitz’s account is based on professed research suggesting that Margaret Cleaver disappeared between September 1930 and the spring of 1931 and on speculation regarding why she disappeared. Here’s what the facts actually show:
Margaret Cleaver did not “disappear” during this period. Her whereabouts between September 1930 and the spring of 1931 were public, apparent, and easily explained. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an active member of the student body, completing two semesters with an outstanding record. She also maintained an active and public social life with Dutch and her friends at Eureka College. Both the University of Illinois and Eureka College hold the records to prove it.
For starters, there exists indisputable proof, photographically, of Margaret attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the 1930-31 academic year. Posted online is a digitized trove of the university’s Illio yearbooks extending all the way back to 1895. Mugs is pictured in the 1931 yearbook. She is listed as a junior (which she would have been in 1930-31) in the Delta Zeta sorority group photo and named in the Glee Club roster as a first alto. (Mugs was a member of the same Delta Zeta sorority at Eureka.)
One can click here and go to page 532 to view these items and see Mugs’ photo (her sister Helen’s as well) with her large sorority. She was clearly enrolled at the university, and active in a sorority. She was not in hiding. She was engaged in the social and extracurricular life of the university. And by no means does she look pregnant.
Moreover, Eureka College’s student newspaper The Pegasus provided ample reporting on Margaret at the time. It showed that Margaret returned to campus for social events throughout the college’s 1930-31 academic year, except for February. In February, Margaret and many of her college friends were victims of the flu epidemic sweeping Central Illinois. But in October 1930 Margaret and her sisters had returned for a Homecoming that was “the biggest and best in the history of the school” and for which “[g]reat credit goes to Dutch Reagan, president of the Booster club.” Reagan’s Irish heritage must have added special pleasure to his and Mugs’ attendance at the St. Patrick’s function put on by the Eureka chapter of Mugs’ sorority. In April 1931, Mugs returned from Urbana-Champaign for the college’s first spring formal, put on by Dutch’s fraternity, the Tekes. A few weeks later Dutch and Mugs attended her own Eureka sorority’s formal. Mugs’ busy social life on the Eureka College campus during 1930-31 would have left her college friends astounded at the idea that she had “disappeared.”
Furthermore, Mugs’ hometown friends saw her, too, and knew she was a student at the University of Illinois. She returned home to Dixon with her sister Helen for the holidays in December 1930. We know this from her hometown newspaper. The December 30, 1930, issue of the Dixon Evening Telegraph included Margaret among the list of Lee County students enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (see pdf). The list came from official figures provided by the university itself.
Most importantly, the University of Illinois archives hold records of Margaret’s enrollment and successful academic performance at the university during her junior year. A colleague of ours, Richard Renner, had been puzzled by Spitz’s story of Margaret’s alleged disappearance. A family story in his uncle’s unpublished memoirs had his grandfather driving his uncle to the state tennis tournament in Champaign and giving a young Ronald Reagan a ride there to visit his girl in May 1931. Renner’s uncle remembered Dutch and his girlfriend even came to one of his matches. Curious about Spitz’s allegations, Mr. Renner visited the university archives and, with the help of archivist Linda Stahnke Stepp, quickly discovered Margaret’s transcripts for the two semesters of 1930-31. They also easily found Margaret’s entry in the university’s 1930-31 annual register as a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The archives even maintain a “Margaret Cleaver” file for responding to public inquiries. And Mr. Renner learned that Spitz’s “chief archivist,” Scott Krinninger, in fact had been merely a short-term undergraduate intern.
Margaret Cleaver was a busy young student at the University of Illinois from September 1930 to the spring of 1931. The top of Margaret’s major transcript lists her as matriculating at the university on September 22, 1930. Her transcripts (see PDFs here and here) show that Mugs not only attended the university through the spring of 1931 but took a huge load of classes and excelled in them. How many? She took six courses her first semester, earning four A’s and two B’s, and took seven courses her second semester, with four A’s and three B’s. This is a stellar record which clearly indicates that she was attending class and not hiding in shame at some home for unwed mothers. The thriving Margaret Cleaver was on her way not to a delivery room but more along the road to a potential class valedictorian.
Clearly, this shows that Margaret did what her transcripts show and what Reagan biographers have long understood: she went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with her sister, to try out the new academic environs for a year, and did very well. Furthermore, she did this while maintaining an active and public social life at the Eureka College campus with her classmates and boyfriend.
Need to Make a Serious Correction
We could say more but, in sum, there’s not a scintilla of evidence that Margaret Cleaver disappeared from Eureka College in 1930-31 and lied about attending the University of Illinois to hide some shameful secret. Quite the contrary. This hurtful misperception should be corrected before it gains further currency. For instance, no less an esteemed historian than H. W. Brands, an excellent Reagan biographer, writes in his Washington Post review of Spitz’s book:
Spitz tells of the mysterious disappearance of Reagan’s sweetheart Margaret Cleaver for several months during their time at Eureka College. She informed Eureka that she was taking classes at the University of Illinois. Spitz tracked her, nearly a century later, and discovered that she was lying. The university had no record of her attending. An official there told Spitz, “She could have gone away to have a child — or an abortion.” Spitz strokes his chin noncommittally. “It remains a possibility,” he writes.
No, no, and no. Margaret was not lying, and there’s no mystery. And the university does have records of her attending.
To be sure, we do not want to be overly critical of Bob Spitz. We all make mistakes. We’re all human. No biographer is perfect, and biographers often receive flawed information that they fail to adequately or fully vet. We fix mistakes in follow-up editions of our books.
Moreover, Spitz is to be particularly commended for his non-partisanship toward his main subject, as he has publicly stated he never voted for Reagan. It’s hard to find biographers capable of dealing with their subjects in such an unbiased way when they disagree politically.
Nonetheless, Spitz’s material (or lack thereof) presented on Margaret Cleaver, young Reagan’s love, getting pregnant, and possibly terminating the pregnancy illegally, has no foundation. It is speculation not only without proof but repudiated by existing evidence to the contrary.
This needs to be corrected. Mugs and Dutch eventually grew apart, in part because she was not attracted to the celebrity limelight so appealing to her beau. She married someone else, lived a quiet and honorable life as a wife and mother and grandmother, and is now past defending herself. The historical record of a future president and the reputation and good name of one of the most important people in young Reagan’s life deserve a fully accurate account.