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Long before it became reality show fodder, Betty Ford helped create the original celebrity rehab.

The centre that bears her name has a legacy of rehabbing Hollywood's elite. In the process it became a household name, a punchline, but — above all — a highly respected addiction treatment centre.

Since its opening in Rancho Mirage, California, in 1982, stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and, most recently, Lindsay Lohan have been among the more than 90,000 people who have received treatment at the Centre.

Taylor met one of her husbands, Larry Fortensky, while in treatment. Kelsey Grammer credited his stay there with saving his life. So too did Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, who paid tribute to the former first lady on social networking site Twitter on Friday evening.

"She and Betty Ford Centre helped me beat my addiction and she was an angel to many," Matlin wrote. Betty Ford died on Friday at the nearby Eisenhower Medical Centre at the age 93.

Located in the desert about two hours east of Hollywood, the Betty Ford Centre is by no means the closest place offering addiction treatment. But its association with entertainment industry came from its reputation as a place where addicts — famous or not — could get top-notch care.

One Day at a Time actress Mackenzie Phillips, another Betty Ford alumna, wrote on the site, "RIP Betty Ford. A pioneer in treatment of addicts. We owe Mrs Ford our gratitude and prayers. And love. She was one classy woman."


Ali MacGraw, who was treated at the centre in 1986, said that she is grateful for what Ford has done for her.

"She changed so many of our lives with her courage and intelligence, her honesty and humility, and her deep grace," McGraw said. "Her vision impacted my own life as few people have."

Taylor's first stay at the Centre came in 1983 and provided another high-profile face to those struggling with addiction.

Cash soon became a patient after he broke five ribs and relapsed into abuse of painkillers. "I ended up in the Betty Ford Centre for 43 days," Cash said in 1986. "I've had no drugs since then. It has been the best three years of my life, the most productive and the happiest."

Other musicians, including Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and jazz singer Etta James, who battled heroin addiction, also received treatment at Betty Ford.

her own addiction

One of Ford's defining characteristics was her candour, and that included confronting her own addiction head-on. She revealed a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol 15 months after leaving the White House, and regularly welcomed new groups of patients to rehab with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict."

"People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,' and ‘You've turned my life around,'" Ford once said. "They don't realise we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that's all."

The centre distinguished itself from later iterations of rehabs that catered to the wealthy, ones that resembled spas more than an environment to honestly confront one's demons. In recent years the stigma of rehab has lessened to the point that it has become fodder for reality television, with shows such as VH1's Celebrity Rehab and A&E's Intervention showing both the impact of drug abuse and offering some insight into its treatment.

But the Betty Ford Centre wasn't part of the trend. Ford was fine with famous patients discussing their treatment at the centre— provided they stayed sober— but the facility keeps its clients confidential.

In 1996, Grammer described to Jay Leno how his treatment at Betty Ford helped restore his joy of living. The comedian also quipped about the Centre's stature and its famous patients.

"When I was on my way to the Betty Ford Centre, I turned to one of my friends and said, ‘You know, I've finally made it. I'm going to the Betty Ford Centre,'" he said.

When a judge sent Lohan to the centre for three months late last year, many experts said it would be her best shot at recovery.

"There's no place that's better with chemical dependency than Betty Ford," Jeffrey C. Friedman, a substance abuse counsellor at the Cottonwood Tucson centre and a recovering heroin addict, said at the time.