In the summer of 1975, while preparing for her interview with Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Megan Marshack, a 22-year-old journalist with Associated Press radio, found out that Rockefeller liked Oreo cookies. She bought a box of them, took them out and wrapped each one individually, and presented them as a gift to the vice president.
"I guess you don't forget someone who does something like that," said one of her AP radio colleagues.
A few weeks later, Megan Marshack went to work for Rockefeller.
Because Marshack, now 25, has been caught up in the blaze of notoriety that surrounds the death of an extremely prominent man, and, because of the discrepancies and tangled accounts of the circumstances surrounding his fatal heart attack, she has been forever labeled The Woman Who Was There.
Obscure a few weeks ago, her name now belongs to that certain celebrity category; New York tabloids headline her, first name only. Every attitude seems to have been aired -- from acquaintances and strangers who sympathetically feel Marshack should be left alone, to others, like Johnny Carson and the "Saturday Night Live" crew, who think her fair game for jokes.
Wednesday, four children of Nelson Rockefeller broke a family silence to issue the statement that they were "satisfied" that Marshack "did her best" to save Rockefeller and that "all the people who tried to help acted responsibly."
They did not respond to the numerous questions raised by conflicting accounts of the timing and circumstances. Nor does Marshack, who remains in seclusion, help clarify these discrepancies.
The major unanswered questions are: 1) Whether or not -- as some accounts claim -- an hour elapsed between Rockefeller's Jan. 26 heart attack and the summons to the police. 2) The discrepancies in accounts as to whether or not Marshack was alone with Rockefeller at the time of the attack.
The effect of the silences has been, ironically, to feed the questions and sharpen the curiosity about Megan Marshack, making of her something of a mystery woman.
In interviews with former friends and acquaintances from her high-school days in California, and with her colleagues in New York and Washington, there emerges a sometimes contradictory portrait of a young woman filled with drive and ambition, a woman with flashes of charm and wit.
The adjectives for her are many -- aggressive, witty and exuberant, bright and bold, kind and imperious, dramatic. A tall, largeboned blond, Marshack seemed both assured beyond her years when she strode into a room, yet also upon occasion immature to those who worked with her.
An overriding dedication to her single-minded goal of making it to Washington's press and political power world is mentioned by everyone -- including Marshack.
"I decided to become a White House correspondent at age 12... I spent every waking moment and every dreaming moment trying to map out my strategy. When I was 15 and 16 I was out trying to hustle stories -- with noted unsuccess," Marshack told a reporter for the San Fernando Valley News just last month. The article was entitled, "Megan Marshack is more than another Girl Friday."
Members of the White House press corps remember her as an AP radio stringer and magazine free lancer who would turn up at San Clemente and other California trips and attach herself to the press corps. "Megan was attracted to power and politics," said Stephen Peters, who met her when they were both volunteers in a 1974 Common Cause-sponsored campaign to reform California election campaign laws.
Ed Defontaine of AP Radio said, "Megan filed for us as a stringer for quite a while and indicated she wanted to come to Washington. She seemed to be efficient and did a good job for us. When Ford was shot at in San Francisco by Sara Jane Moore, she did a lot of stringing for us and we had very good experience with her work." Hired on the strength of her California performance, Marshack came to Washington in February of 1976 and worked nights as an editor in a fast-paced AP radio world. She did not do as well in this pressure situation. "She would panic at deadlines," said a former colleague. She had been told that AP was letting her go at the end of her six months' probationary period, just at the time she landed the job with Rockefeller.
In August of 1976, she went from an AP radio salary of about $225 a week to a $138-a-day consultant with duties in the vice president's press office.
"She is an extreme extrovert. She doesn't creep into an office. She just sort of lands there. It is an explosive personality. She can be charming, funny, energetic and alive. But she created a lot of friction, particularly among the other women in the staff," says a former colleague on the vice president's staff. "She could be very, very aggressive and overbearing. She was a good promoter both of herself and Rockefeller. I remember when Pete Lisagor (the respected journalist) died, I don't think Rockefeller was scheduled to go to his funeral and Megan forced the issue and got the schedule changed. It was sort of a feeling on her part that it was a good promotion idea for Rockefeller. And it was."
Another colleague said, "Megan seemed swept up in her great good fortune. She flaunted the fact that she had so much access to Rockefeller, but she also wanted to be liked and she learned the hard way that she wasn't. So she toned down."
Marshack was hired at a peculiar time, just six months before Rockfeller was to leave office. There were last-minute details, days of living around packing crates, much confusion.
She did not replace anyone; her position was created for her. "Her duties were vague," said one colleague.
Others in the press office were much relieved when after a few months she took over the thankless task of writing special letters that Rockefeller wanted to sign personally. At that point, Marshack moved out of the press area into an office next to Rockefeller's with a private entrance to his.
As in all transitional offices, there was much concern about who was going where after Jimmy Carter's January inaguguration. "There was some resentment that the new girl was tapped to go to New York," said one high-level former aide to the former vice president. "But Megan's thrust was to please the boss, not the other staffers."
In last month's Valley News article, just weeks before Rockefeller died, Marshack said of the 70-year-old former governor and vice president, "He's such an exciting man to work for. He's terribly creative and he's as interested in your work as you are in his. He wears us all out and he's promised everyone he'll live to be 100. At that rate, I could retire... I think of myself as being pretty liberal, but the thing I have found is that when we get into a discussion, he's so much better informed than I am. And, although we may not agree, he's openminded and instructional.
"Social life? I have none," she continued. "It's really no fun (going out) when you're by yourself..." She also reflected, "Somehow in the Governor, the anxieties, fears and passions of America have been distilled -- integrated into his character. Without question he is the most caring man and considerate boss I've met -- and that's something that makes all the difference to me and my work That's why I'm there."
She also wrote of Rockefeller to her California friend Stephen Peters. In one letter she wrote that Rockefeller suggested she take up horseback riding. She wrote enthusiastically of how much fun it was, although she fell off and sprained her wrist. She also wrote that Rockefeller was the nicest man she had ever met, even though once in 1977 she complained to Peters that she was not being paid enough money.
"She wanted to marry somebody with money," Peters said the other day. "That's basically why we only went out once. She said, 'Stephen, you're a nice boy, but you're searching for somebody and I'm not that somebody. I'm looking for somebody who will support me in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed... Maybe when you become rich and famous I'll reconsider.'"
Marshack was born on Oct. 31, 1953, and lived in an affluent section of Sherman Oaks, Calif. -- although her father's loss of a job brought financial insecurities when she was in high school. Their ranch-style house, nestled at the foot of Hollywood Hills, included a guest house and swimming pool. According to neighbor Kenneth Holzman, the family "seemed to never talk to each other... If you didn't know, you wouldn't know they were a family."
Holzman, who visited the family often, said this week, "There was a distance in the home." Holzman also describes a far different Megan as a child, than those who knew her as a young woman. "She was extremely quiet. My remembrance of her is a shy, withdrawn person."
Holzman also said the house had fallen in disrepair, and the Marshacks moved to a smaller home after Megan left, in 1974. In 1970, when President Nixon made cuts in the space program, Marshack's father, Sidney, lost his job as an aerospace engineer. During this time, her mother, Credwyn, worked as a piano teacher tutoring at her house, and her younger brother, John, did gardening in the neighborhood.
In her high-school newspaper, Marshack wrote an emotional article about what it was like to experience being fired. Quoting an "anonymous aerospace engineer," Marshack wrote: "'They just handed me a pink slip with my paycheck and told me to have my desk cleared out by Monday.' Families, once secure with $15,000-plus income, were now left to drift in a sea of horrendous financial problems," she wrote.
One other bizarre incident in the 1970s was traumatic to the family, Holzman says. Marshack's father heard what he thought was water in a room in the family house and went to investigate. Reaching out, he was bitten by a rattlesnake and, according to Holzman, lay in a coma between life and death for many weeks.
After he recovered, the Marshacks set up a fabric store in Van Nuys.
By all accounts, Marshack was a bright student and teachers, both in high school and college, speak fondly of her. "She was a lovely, extremely intelligent girl, with a double major in history and journalism," said one history professor at California State University at Northridge.
"She was the type of girl who liked to associate with the teachers, not in an obsequious manner -- she wasn't a teacher's pet," said her high-school history and government teacher, Louis Barak. While at California State University, she would invite professors and their wives to dinner at her parents' house, cooking for the occasion, her journalism teacher Erling H. Erlandson said.
She often returned to visit high-school teachers. When she got the job with Rockefeller, she mailed them a press release.
Marshack skipped a semester and graduated from high school in February 1971, went for a year to Los Angeles Valley, a community college, before transferring to California State University in February 1972. She graduated in 1975.
Journalism was her main interest at Ulysses S. Grant High School, a predominantly white middle-class school.
Sue Dingilian, a classmate, said that when the journalism class visited The Los Angeles Times, both Megan and Sue "walked around plotting how to get jobs at The Times. We went and had dinner in the employes cafeteria acting as if we belonged there."
Marshack was interested in the emerging women's liberation movement and helped organize a girls' week at school. The featured speaker was a National Organization for Women representative.
In college, her assertiveness grew. Sam Feldman, who taught a communications law class, described her as a "what-makes-Sammy-run -- female-style. She ingratiated herself with any one. She's typical over-achiever. She was trying to get out of the Valley and make a name for herself. In a sense I admired her for that."
Her contacts with White House journalists were made while she was a student at Cal State. "She had an eagerness to learn and stay close to professionals," said Prof. Erlandson.
Marshack has said that, while in college, she did a free-lance article on the White House press corps based in Laguna Beach near San Clemente for the now-defunct Coronet magazine. In the January Valley News artice she said that is when she met members of the national press.
"Megan would just show up on the press bus. She was always doing some free-lance work," says one member of the national press corps. During this time, she was having a "very obvious" romance with a Washington journalist that became the talk of the press corps; they were seen often holding hands, on the press bus, at dinner, in the bars frequented by the press corps.
To some Marshack had a cherubic face. Others viewed the tall 5 foot 8 Marshack as somewhat matronly.
"Her charm is that she is great at ego-massaging. She almost babies men and flatters them enormously. She is this big. tall woman who had a way of being almost maternal. Her appeal is that she likes to take care of you," said a woman who knew her well in Washington. "I found her very dynamic. She comes across real bold, but she can be sweet when she wants to be."
She was engaged to a California photographer at one point, according to California sources.
In the past two weeks, the New York papers have had almost daily Megan Marshack stories. Most of the information comes from anonymous sources. She was photographed one day last week, wearing a heavy raccoon coat and carrying a Gucci purse as she stepped from the lobby of her apartment building at 25 W. 54th St., a few doors from the brownstone where Rockefeller suffered his heart attack.
She looked pale and uncertain as she told a reporter, "I don't want to comment," and stepped into a taxi.
A New York Post article said Rockefeller paid Marshack $60,000 a year to be an art researcher, furnished her apartment with antiques and art objects from his personal collection and that she issues orders to his house-hold staff. The anonymous source was described as one "whose connections to key figures in the case leave little question as to the accuracy of the information." A Washington friend of Marshack's has said he thinks that $60,000 salary is incorrect and is too high. Rockefeller spokesmen refuse to deny or verify.
Rockefeller's will forgives $45,000 lent to Marshack, who used the money to buy a cooperative apartment. (He also forgave loans to other employees.)
The details surrounding Rockefeller's heart attack are no more clear today, after days of sifting over the varying accounts. Family spokesmen have given different versions of the time and place where Rockefeller was stricken, have issued erroneous reports on who was present, what those people did and in what sequence.
The last family report was issued by Hugh Morrow, a longtime Rockefeller spokesman. On Jan. 28, he said Rockefeller had been stricken and died almost instantly at 11:15 p.m. while working on an art book at the town house with Marshack, who has been coordinating the art book projects. Morrow said Marshack immediately called the police and that a security aide, Andrew Hoffman, also was present.
The New York Times, however, quotes other "high Rockefeller sources" as placing the time of the heart attack at 10:15 p.m., an hour before the police were called at 11:16 p.m.
Those sources said it was not Marshack but Ponchitta Pierce, a television personality and friend of Marshack's who lived in the same apartment building, who made the call.
Pierce, 36, in a statement through her lawyer last week, said she did make the phone call summoning police and that Marshack had called her sometime between 10:50 and 11 p.m. at her nearby residence. She said when she got to the townhouse Rockefeller was lying stricken on a couch in a small ground-floor sitting room, with Marshack attempting to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
According to Pierce's version, 16 to 26 minutes elapsed between Marshack's call to her and her call to the police. She offered no explanation as to why Marshack had not called police, nor why she (Pierce) left immediately after placing the call. Pierce said Marshack was the only person present with Rockefeller when she entered the townhouse.Rockfeller was pronounced dead at Lenox Hill Hospital at 12:20 a.m.
One male former aide to Rockefeller said, "If time did elapse, who knows whether Rockefeller felt well enough to urge Megan not to call anyone? I've worked for him long enough to know that anyone -- including myself -- would probably think twice about calling out everyone for someone so famous as Rockefeller if you felt it wasn't serious."
The Rockefellers and Marshack and others involved in the controversy surrounding his death hope this week's statement from the Rockefeller children will lay the matter to rest.
Perhaps no one will ever know exactly what happened. In the meantime, Marshack has talked to few friends, even. Her office says, "We have no idea when she will be back to work."
A Washington acquaintance says, "It is really a sad, sad story. Megan had so much going for her."