Margaretta 'Happy' Rockefeller
Socialite whose marriage to Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York horrified Republican voters
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
Margaretta "Happy" Rockefeller, who has died aged 88, was a socialite who in 1963 scandalised America by leaving her husband and four children to marry Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York and a married father of five; but the public soon warmed to her and she was seen as humanising her considerably older, patrician husband.
In that more socially conservative era, the scandal put paid to Rockefeller's hopes of ever becoming president, though he was in 1974 appointed vice-president by Gerald Ford after Ford ascended to the presidency following Nixon's resignation. John F Kennedy commented, dumbfounded, on Rockefeller's divorce: "No man would ever love love more than politics."
Happy Murphy - as she was then, married to a virologist called James Murphy - had been Rockefeller's private secretary since he was first elected as governor in 1958. According to rumour the pair had begun a love affair soon after, and in 1962 Rockefeller divorced his wife of 31 years, Mary Todhunter Clark. Happy divorced her husband on April 1 the following year and just over a month later married the governor at the Rockefeller estate in the Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson river.
The press coverage was extensive and the scandal horrified the Republican hierarchy as much as the voters. The fact that Happy had surrendered custody of her four children only made matters worse.
In the contest for the Republican presidential nomination for 1964, Rockefeller, an old-school East Coast liberal, was battling the ardent right-winger Barry Goldwater. He took his new wife with him on the campaign trail - their first child, Nelson Rockefeller Jr, was born three days before the California primary - and voters liked her spontaneous charm and unthreatening good looks. But the damage had been done; Goldwater was selected - and was duly trounced by Lyndon B Johnson in the election. Not until 1980 would Americans elect a divorced man (Ronald Reagan) to the presidency.
The daughter of the millionaire heir to a maritime rope fortune, Margaretta Large Fitler was born at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania on June 6 1926. She was nicknamed "Happy", as she later recalled it, after her French nursemaid heard the news on the radio that Charles Lindbergh had safely landed in Paris having made the first solo transatlantic flight. Overcome with delight, she starting bouncing one-year-old Margaretta; the child grinned in response and the nursemaid cried out: "You are zee most happy baby I have ever seen.''
Happy, descended from General George Gordon Meade, who defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg, had a privileged upbringing, although it was marked by sadness - her parents divorced when she was 10. She attended the Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, and in the penultimate year of the war took a job as a driver for the Women's Volunteer Service in Philadelphia.
In 1949 she married Dr Murphy; he worked at the Rockefeller Institute in New York and was friendly with various Rockefellers, which led naturally to Happy volunteering to help Nelson in his first campaign for the New York governorship.
In 1974, while her husband was vice-president, Happy Rockefeller discovered a lump near her left armpit which proved to be a malignant tumour. She was prompted to seek a check-up by the example of Betty Ford, the President's wife, who had turned her breast cancer diagnosis into a public awareness campaign. Happy was praised for speaking openly about her illness and treatment. She underwent two mastectomies and, as she later recalled, "swift, early detection and action made it possible for me to have a full and rewarding life".
Happy and Nelson Rockefeller lived in opulent style and spent many happy years with their children and those of Nelson's first marriage at the Rockefeller family seat, Kykuit, in the Pocantico Hills. They also had a vast apartment in Fifth Avenue, hung with paintings by Matisse and Picasso, and holiday houses in Maine and Venezuela. Nelson was a hands-on father, teaching the boys to sail and play tennis and camping out with them. After he died in 1979 Kykuit was passed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, eventually, opened to the public.
The circumstances of Nelson Rockefeller's death were the subject of much fevered speculation. According to his biographer he died of a heart attack while naked at a Manhattan town house with his 25-year-old aide, Megan Marshack.
Happy Rockefeller retained a small Japanese-style house on the family estate and in later years divided her time between it and an apartment in Manhattan, pursuing a philanthropic commitments.
Interviewed in 1985 she said of Nelson Rockefeller: "I resolutely adored him. I'd do it all over again, only faster."
Happy Rockefeller, who died on May 19, is survived by a son and two daughters of her first marriage and her two sons with Rockefeller; one daughter from her first marriage died in 2005.