Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller, the widow of former vice president and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller whose marriage to him triggered a public outrage that hampered his bid for the presidency during the 1960s, died May 19 at her home in Tarrytown, N.Y. She was 88.
A spokesman for the family confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.
Tall, winsome and almost 18 years her husband’s junior, Happy Rockefeller wrestled with her image as the woman who had caused the breakup of two families when she tied the knot in 1963 with the grandson of the Standard Oil founder.
A longtime friend and confidante to one of America’s wealthiest families, she enraged middle-class society by giving up custody of her four children to secure a divorce before marrying the man who became the 41st vice president.
Happy Rockefeller, who gained her nickname for her cheery disposition as a child, earned a reputation for being guarded and media-shy.
She preferred to let her husband do the talking while, in later years, privately encouraging him to leave politics so they could spend more time on their estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., about 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan. Her efforts were in vain for a man who had wanted to be president since he was a boy.
“After all, when you think what I had, what else was there to aspire to?” he famously said.
The marriage to Nelson Rockefeller, who divorced his wife to be with Happy Murphy, as she was formerly known, was seen as a major reason for him failing to win the Republican primary nomination for president in 1964.
Rockefeller, who had already missed out on getting his name on the ticket in 1960, needed President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat who encouraged him to run in 1968, to convince Happy that a third bid was a good idea.
“I’ve talked her into letting you run,” Johnson said, according to Rockefeller in his U.S. Senate profile. He lost the nomination to Richard Nixon in 1968. Although he failed to secure a presidential nomination, Rockefeller was elected four times as New York governor, and for 10 years his wife was New York’s first lady. He resigned in 1973 and became vice president in Gerald R. Ford’s administration the next year.
Ford, the former vice president, became president after Nixon resigned in August 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
“I had wanted that to be the end of politics,” Happy Rockefeller said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1985, referring to the moment when he stepped down as governor. “I wanted Nelson to come home so we would have time. He wasn’t that young. And he’d worked all his life.”
Margaretta Large Fitler was born on June 9, 1926, in Philadelphia. Her father was an alcoholic who had inherited $8 million from the family’s rope-making business, and her mother was “socially ambitious” and rarely had time for her children, according to a 1974 profile in People magazine. Her parents split when Happy was 10.
Happy Fitler graduated in 1944 from the private Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. She then worked in a hospital for the Women’s Volunteer Service and met James Slater Murphy, better known as Robin, a captain in the Army Medical Corps and a graduate of Princeton University.
At age 22, she married Murphy, who was six years older and later worked as a virologist at the Rockefeller Institute.
The couple moved to New York and became part of the Rockefeller social circle, facilitated by Robin Murphy’s childhood friendship with David Rockefeller, Nelson’s younger brother. During this time, the Rockefellers sold Robin and Happy Murphy land next to the family estate in Pocantico Hills, where they built a house.
John D. Rockefeller Jr., Nelson’s father, had a close relationship with Happy Murphy, who became a confidante to the aging widower.
“The lonesome head of the Rockefeller clan saw the young woman almost as a daughter,” Theodore H. White wrote in “The Making of the President 1964,” his 1965 book. “She walked in the woods with him, cheered him, made his days brighter.”
In 1958, Happy Murphy worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign for the New York governorship and became his secretary after he won office in Albany. He then separated from his first wife, the former Mary Todhunter Clark, with whom he had five children, in 1961.
After consulting a psychiatrist to help deal with a jealous husband who wouldn’t give up full access to their four children, Happy Murphy divorced him and granted him custody, White wrote.
She married Rockefeller on May 4, 1963, in Pocantico Hills. The pastor who performed the service was censured as a “disturber of the peace and unity of the church” by the Hudson River presbytery, according to Rick Perlstein’s book “Before the Storm” (2001). The couple was condemned in the media as destroyers of family values.
For 16 years, they divided their time between properties at Seal Harbor, Maine; the family estate in Pocantico Hills, which had a 35-room mansion, four tennis courts, two swimming pools and a nine-hole golf course; an apartment in Manhattan at 810 Fifth Ave., which was later joined with one next door at 812 Fifth Ave., creating almost 12,000 square feet of living space; and a home in Venezuela.
The Rockefellers never lived in the vice presidential mansion on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in the District, using it only for entertaining.
Happy Rockefeller had two mastectomies in 1974.
The first surgery came 19 days after first lady Betty Ford had the operation, and the second procedure was done almost six weeks later. Their ordeals helped raise awareness of breast cancer and reduce the stigma of the disease.
In 1979, Mrs. Rockefeller had to deal with a family scandal when her husband died of a heart attack at his townhouse office late one evening in the company of his 25-year-old assistant, Megan Marshack.
After the 70-year-old former vice president collapsed, Marshack telephoned a girlfriend, who went to the townhouse and called for an ambulance an hour later.
Shifting explanations about the evening, which initially concealed the presence of the aide, helped fuel speculation about their relationship. In his will, Rockefeller forgave a $45,000 loan to Marshack, which she had used to buy an apartment two doors from the townhouse, People magazine reported.
Happy Rockefeller’s survivors include three children from her first marriage and two sons from her second; and 14 grandchildren, the New York Times reported. A daughter from her first marriage died in 2005.