Nelson A. Rockefeller was a vice president of the United States, a governor of New York, and a multimillionaire noted for his generosity and his collections of modern and primitive art. The prize he valued most -- the presidency of the United States -- eluded him.

His career in public service spanned almost 40 years and included appointments under five presidents in addition to 15 years in the New York governorship. The formal end of his political career came on Jan. 20, 1977, when Jimmy Carter became president and Walter F. Mondale succeeded Rockefeller as vice president.

Since then, Rockefeller spent much of his time on projects to make his art works more widely available. He was working on a book about his collection when he was stricken about 10:15 Friday night in a town house at 13 W. 54th St. in New York City.At 12:20 a.m. Saturday at Lenox Hill Hospital, he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest. He was 70 years old.

As a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil and the nation's first billionaire, Nelson Rockefeller had the advantages of enormous wealth. But in the tradition of his family he regarded his fortune as a public trust as well as a private advantage. He used it to help gain positions of high responsibility and help solve the problems of the nation and the world as he saw them.

"You know, I'm not basically a politician," he said in the spring of 1974. "A lot of people think I am. But politics is not really my metier. My real interest is in solving people's problems."

The medium through which he wished to solve problems was the presidency.

One night several years ago, as he was flying into Washington aboard one of the family's jet aircraft, Rockefeller was asked how long he had wanted to be president.

"Ever since I was a kid," he replied. "After all, when you think of what I had, what else is there to aspire to?"

He tried for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, of which he was a lifelong member, in 1960, 1964, and in 1968. Each time he failed, losing to more conservative candidates. He said last spring that he thought he would have won had he been nominated.

In the view of James M. Cannon III, a close friend and aide of Rockefeller for several years, "Nelson Rockefeller was less interested in winning than in governing. That was at once his great strength, but ultimately the reason he never got elected. He thought more about what he would do as president than how he would get there."

The Rockefeller bid for the Republican nomination in 1960 is a case in point. He began by issuing a statement questioning the competence and good faith of the party leaership. At the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower was nearing the end of his presidency and Richard M. Nixon, the vice president, was the odds-on favorite ot be the partry's next presidential nominee.

Nixon won the nomination, but Rockefeller forced him to accept a liberal civil rights plank. It became known as "the Fifth Avenue Compact" because it was worked out at a meeting between Rockefeller and Nixon at Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue apartment in New York.

In 1964, the prize went to Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona. Although Rockefeller campaigned hard he lacked the grassroots organization that Goldwater had put togehter. Moreover, he had alienated the conservatives within the party by his actions in 1960. Finally many party leaders in the South and West were becoming increasingly wary of the eastern establishment represented by the New York governor.

A memorable moment in the GOP convention that year occurred when Rockefeller rose to support civil rights and was greeted by shouts and boos from the delegates. Nonetheless, he carried his point.

In 1968, he made another abortive attempt, reportedly after being persuaded to do so by Syndon B. Johnson. By then, Rockefeller was betinning to question U.S. policy in Vietnam. For the second time, he lost to Nixon.

Despite his defeats at the hands of fellow Republicans, Rockefeller was a formidable candidate.He broke into elective politics in 1958 when he defeated the patrician Averell W. Harriman for the governorship of New York. Harriman was the incumbent and the favorite in a heavily Democratic year.

"Rocky" filled the airwaves, the billboards and the rest of the media with his campaign material. He paid for most of it himself. He hit the streets in shirtsleeves. A political observer remarked that every time he opened his mouth, he put a hotdog or a blintz in it. He shook hands with thousands of people, and his greeting, "Hiya, fella," became a byword.

He beat Harriman by more than 500,000 votes.

Rockefeller's early years as governor were marked by massive programs for education and aid to the poor. New York developed one of the most generous welfare programs in the nation. He expanded the state university system from 28 campuses with 38,000 students to 71 campuses with 246,000 students.

He started drug rehabilitation programs, reorganized metropolitan New York's transportation system, and started lavish public works projects. The most spectacular was the "Nelson Rockefeller Empire South Plaza" complex of government buildings in Albany, N.Y. It cost $1.5 billion.

Rockefeller raised taxes for New Yorkers. The state borrowed heavily. Sentiment for liberal programs began to flag and Rockefeller himself began to change. By 1973, he was calling for mandatory life prison sentences for drug dealers and expressing regret that he had not been tougher on what he called welfare "cheats and chiselers."

His most controversial actions as governor came in 1971, when inmates at the Attica state prison rioted and took hostages. For three days the inmates controlled the prison and for three days they demanded that Rockefeller appear in person to grant them amnesty and to negotiate with them about conditions at the maximum security facility.

Rockefeller refused. On the third day, he ordered state police to storm the prison. The result was that 39 men -- 29 person employes and 10 inmates -- were killed by police bullets. Four others had been killed earlier by the prisoners.

The governor always maintained that he had acted correctly, that if he had negotiated in person he would not have succeeded in ending the siege.

"There was more at stake even than saving lives," he said years later. "there was the whole rule of law to consider. The whole fabric of society, in fact."

In December 1973, Rockefeller resigned as governor to head the Commission of Critical Choices for Americans. He organized and financed the group, and many regarded it as a kind of springboard for yet another bid for the presidency. In the late 1950s, he had set up a similar "think tank," one of whose members was Henry A. Kissinger, then a professor at Harvard University.

Kissinger was always considered a Rockefeller protege until Kissinger went to work for president Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Rockefeller left the governor's mansion as the Watergate scandal was drawing toward its climax. On Aug. 9, 1974, when Nixon resigned as president, Gerald Ford, who had become the nation's first appointed president after Spiro Agnew was forced from that office in disgrace, succeeded to the presidency.

On Aug. 20, Ford nominated Rockefeller to be vice president.

Throughout Watergate, Rockefeller had maintained that the scandals were a "tragedy of individuals" rather than a blot on the Republican Party. Although he had often said that he did not wish to be "vice president of anything," he accepted Ford's nomination. Part of the reason, he said, was a strong feeling that the new president and the country needed unity and that it was his duty to serve as requested.

It was not a happy experience for Rockefeller. First, it subjected him and his family to a degree of scrutiny -- particularly about their finances -- that they found distasteful. Second, Rockefeller found himself isolated from the inner circles of the new administration.

During his confirmation hearings, the congressional examination into his money and how he used it was particularly painful to Rockefeller. He listed his personal fortune in 1974 as $62.5 million.He also was the sole beneficiary of two trusts with a total value of $116 million.

Tax returns submitted to the Senate Rules Committee showed that Rockefeller's income had averaged $4.7 million in each of the 10 perceding years; that his charitable deductions had averaged $1.5 million a year, and that he had paid taxes averaging $2.2 million a year except for 1970, when he paid no taxes. This was due to a drop in his income combined with charitable deductions.

Rockefeller also disclosed that he had made loans and gifts to close aides over the years totalling more than $2 million. Those who received the gifts included Kissinger, who received $50,000, and William J. Ronan, who had been the first chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority that Rockefeller created and who later was chairman of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority.

In a letter to Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.), the Rules Committee chairman, Rockefeller said the gifts had been to help his aides with expenses such as the education of their children and the cost of relocating their families to take new jobs.

"I have been especially fortunate in being able to share in the meeting of these needs," Rockefeller said. "That sharing has always been a part of my upbringing and we always have lived our lives that way."

After he was confirmed and sworn in as vice president, Rockefeller found himself relegated to ceremonial and peripheral duties rather than the "full partnership" with Ford that he had expected.

Late in 1975, he removed himself from consideration as a possible running mate for Ford in the 1976 election. A according to one former aide of the governor who also worked in the White House, Rockefeller did so at Ford's behest.

The statement from Rockefeller that he would not consider the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket came after Howard H. (Bo) Callaway, then Ford's campaign manager, said Rockefeller was "the No. 1 problem" facing Ford in his own efforts to get the presidential nomination. Neither Ford nor any of his colleagues would disclaim this statement.

Rockefeller's early withdrawal was designed to placate the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was led by former governor Ronald Reagan of California. Reagan tried for the nomination and sewed up many delegates from the South and West who might otherwise have been pledged to Ford. As the Republican convention approached, Rockefeller, always a loyalist, helped deliver the New York and Pennsylvania delegations to Ford.

At the convention in Kansas City, Rockefeller appeared to be doing nothing more than enjoying himself. Millions saw him on television as he mingled with delegates on the convention floor and drank beer with them.

But at a farewell breakfast with reporters in December 1976, he said he should not have taken himself out of contention until "Mr. Callaway delivered the southern delegates (to Ford). I wasn't smart enough to think of it at the time."

Since leaving office, Rockefeller has made relatively few public appearances. He has done some traveling with his second wife, "Happy," the former Margaretta Fitler Murphy, whom he married in 1963, and has devoted much time to his art collections. He planned to publish five books about his art and to issue a limited number of reproductions of his famous art collection.

"Art has been a major factor in my life, my joy and distraction, my balance under the pressures of political life," he told The New York Times in an interview last March. "It may be hard to believe that somebody who's dealt with a scale of things I have can be interested in publishing art books and making reproductions and going through the problems and going through the problems of how you sell them, how you price them. how you distribute them, but these are interesting problems to me, relating to things I'm fascinated with."

Of his political career, Rockefeller said, "You're either in it or out of it, and you really can't do both. So I got out. And that means nationally, locally, statewide. There's no sight worse, in my opinion, than some person who has been active slowly petering out, trying to maintain a position of influence or power."

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1908, at Bar Harbor, Maine. His parents were John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller. He was the third of six children born to the family.

Although the surroundings were sumptuous, the upbringing of the children was governed by strict Baptist principles. The children did small chores for their pocket money. Prayers were regular and frequent. The notion of service was instilled daily.

Rockefeller recalled his childhood with fondness, but it was not always easy. For one thing, he was left-handed. His father tried to make him right-handed and went so far as to tie a string to the boy's left hand to remind him to use his right at meals.

For another, Rockefeller had dyslexia, a learning impairment that makes for reading difficulties.It bothered him all of his life.

Despite this, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1930 with a Phi Beta Kappa key. He spent the next 10 years working in various family enterprises.

Shortly after his graduation, he married Mary Todhunter Clark of Philadelphia. The marriage lasted until 1962, when a widely publicized divorce took place. The couple had five children, one of whom Michael, disappeared while on an exploration trip to the South Pacific in 1961. He was never found.

Rockefeller began his government career in 1940 when he became coordinator of inter-American affairs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He helped develop the Good Neighbor Policy and later served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America.

Under President Harry S. Truman, Rockefeller helped formulate the Point Four Program of aid to underdeveloped countries. He chaired a commission that recommended the formation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Eisenhower administration, and was an undersecretary in that department. He finally turned to elective politics because of what he said was his feeling that it was only through elective office that he could accomplish his goals.

The career of Nelson Rockefeller was visible for longer than those of his brothers and sister, but they also excelled in their fields. His older brother, John D. III, had carried on the tradition of philanthropy started by his grandfather and continued by his father. He died in an automobile accident last summer at the family estate, Pocantico Hills, in Westchester County, N.Y.

Another brother, Winthrop, served two terms as governor of Arkansas. He died in 1973.

Two brothers survive. They are Laurance, a philanthropist and conservationist, and David, president and chairman of the board of the Chase Manhattan Bank. His sister, Abby Mauze, also survives.

A nephew, John D. Rockefeller IV, is Democratic governor of West Virginia.

In addition to his wife, Rockefeller is survived by four children from his first marriage and two by his second.