Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller died on Tuesday at home in Tarrytown, N.Y., her family said in a statement to the New York Times. She was 88.
She became Happy Rockefeller in May 1963, notwithstanding the dire warnings. But it was never just about divorce. It was about infidelity as well.
Rockefeller was among the nation’s wealthiest men, heir to the fabled fortune first accumulated by John D. Rockefeller, the co-founder of the Standard Oil Company. He was 18 years older than Happy and had recently walked away from his wife of 31 years. She had left her husband and four young children to be with him.
“Have we come to the point where a governor can desert his wife and children, and persuade a young woman to abandon her four children and husband?” former senator Prescott Bush (R-Conn.) told the New York Times at the time. “Have we come to the point where one of the two great parties will confer its greatest honor on such a one? I venture to hope not.”
The couple met in 1957 during Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaign. When he won the next year, Happy became his secretary. The love affair of “Rocky” and “Happy” scandalized society. In 1962, Rockefeller divorced his wife, Mary Todhunter Clark. In 1963, Happy divorced her husband, James Slater Murphy, a virologist and close friend of Nelson Rockefeller, and handed over custody of their four children. The next month, the two were married.
Soon, Happy “established her credentials as a social asset to her husband,” Marguerite Higgins wrote 1963 in The Post. “But the degree to which her personal triumph can be turned into a political factor in behalf of Gov. Rockefeller will be wrapped for some time in the riddle of how strongly the Puritan ethic still binds a country in which the divorce statistics are far removed from Puritanism.”
Happy became New York’s first lady — a role that, some said, didn’t seem to fit her. She was modest, often appearing without eye makeup or a professionally done hairdo. Her friends called her “shy” and “private.” She rarely spoke to the news media and, when she did, became anxious. “I’ve seen her turn to Nelson and say, ‘What should I say? What should I do?'” a friend told People magazine in 1974. “The trouble is, she doesn’t know her own charm.” On the other hand, some said, her “lack of eagerness” was refreshing.
In public, reporters described her as charming, warm — and happy. Behind the scenes, she seemed more hesitant to embrace it all.
“I don’t know,” she said off-the-record when asked whether she wanted her new husband to become president. “I don’t know if any woman wants the man she loves to take on such awesome responsibilities.” Her quote was later printed by mistake, according to a 1963 article in The Post.
Her new husband, the leader of what was then the liberal wing of the Republican Party, pursued the Republican nomination ultimately won by conservative Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson.
Rockefeller never entered primaries. He only campaigned. But he campaigned hard, and Happy stood beside him, smiling and shaking hands. “Meet Happy Rockefeller,” he would say.
In 1964, she gave birth to their first son, Nelson Rockefeller Jr., and, three years later, their second son, Mark Rockefeller.
Rockefeller had hoped that during a time when one in four marriages reportedly ended in divorce, theirs would be forgiven.
But the party grew more conservative and he was never able to win the support he needed to snag the nomination, losing to Richard M. Nixon in 1968.
Rockefeller served another two terms as governor — four terms in all. Then in 1973, he resigned.
“I had wanted that to be the end of politics,” Happy told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “I wanted Nelson to come home so we would have time. He wasn’t that young. And he’d worked hard all his life.”
But in 1974 he was named Gerald Ford’s vice president.
That same year, Happy was diagnosed with breast cancer and had two mastectomies about six weeks apart.
“When I was waking up in that recovery room the first time, with Nelson and the doctor hanging over me … well, I’ve [had] six children, so the first thing I asked was, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?'” she told the Chicago Tribune.
Happy, along with first lady Betty Ford and Shirley Temple Black, were among the first to speak publicly about their breast cancer, helping to raise awareness about the disease.
In 1979, Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died while with his 25-year-old aide Megan Marshack. Some started to speculate about the nature of their relationship.
“For any woman, widowhood is an enormous change — especially if you’ve been as close over the years as Nelson and myself,” Happy Rockefeller told the Chicago Tribune after his death. “It was a hard transition, and the hardest thing was facing the void left by a very vital human being. … He said that I made him strong. I think he made me strong.”
“I’ve got everything but him, really,” she added. “He taught me this: Every time you see an open door, go through it; opportunity is on the other side.”