Brobdingnagian, a word penned by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, comes closest to describing politician Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller’s peregrinations on this planet as a man of both towering intellect and colossal blind spots. Which also probably pegs his appeal, since there have not been many figures in public life who were so public about their thinking even when they thought stupid stuff — Bill Clinton came close and exceeded Rockefeller in craft by a full measure.
Or, in Rockefeller’s case, did stupid stuff. Like? Like in 1972, when, as governor of New York, he set the National Guard loose on rioting inmates at Attica Prison, which left 39 people dead, 10 of them hostages. And then breezily explained it away later while chatting with President Richard Nixon by saying, according to The New York Times, “That’s life.”
Rockefeller was the rarest of creatures — one that we don’t see much of these days: a liberal Republican.
Heavy, and existentially so, but in keeping with the man who, on a campaign swing in 1976 as vice president to Gerald Ford, greeted hecklers with a raised middle finger, for a time dubbed the Rockefeller Salute, and refused to apologize for it. Because? Well, because he was Nelson Rockefeller. Who held the special salute long enough for people in the press pool to get all the photos they needed.
“Not bad for a Dartmouth man,” says former Newsday reporter Ed Newton, laughing. But outside of being a reliable generator of comedy, Rockefeller was the rarest of creatures — one that we don’t see much of these days: a liberal Republican. “Reagan and Goldwater didn’t have the time of day for him,” says Newton. For good reasons, they thought. Rockefeller gave somewhat of a damn about the environment, and he spent money on education. Indeed, it was largely through his agency that the multicampus State University of New York was created. And the capper for some of the more doctrinaire Republicans: Through investment in New York State’s infrastructure, he was in tight with the unions.
See, Rockefeller was the grandson of both the man widely held to be the wealthiest American of all time, as well as the richest person in modern history, according to PBS and Fortune magazine. Nevertheless, oilman John D. Rockefeller was a pragmatist. With a schoolteacher mother and an education forged in a tony Upper West Side experimental school staffed with teachers from Columbia University’s Teachers College, Rockefeller did end up being a Dartmouth man. Cum laude, no less.
And, as time unspooled, not only would Rocky work in the family concerns, which at that point included, well, everything from oil to banking, and dabble in the requisite rich-guy stuff involving universities, art and museums, but he would also pursue the aforementioned crazy career in the public sector.
In addition to vice president and governor, Rockefeller did time, twice, as a cabinet secretary. First as assistant secretary of state for American republic affairs under Roosevelt and then Truman. And second as under secretary of health, education and welfare in the Eisenhower administration. But that high-profile public service is not how he’s remembered or why we’re talking about him here.
Here’s why. Rockefeller died from a heart attack on Jan. 26, 1979, at age 70, not that surprising, even if, as I spread out the paper that fateful morning, I was surprised. (Rockefeller was fond of seeing a psychic for some of life’s stickier moments, so he should have seen it coming.) At least he died doing what he loved, which the early reports indicated was slaving away at his desk in Rockefeller Center. On a book about art. Which is where he was found by security, slumped over his desk.
Ah, oops. NOT.
Back in the ’80s, I met the woman between whose thighs he allegedly died.
Allan MacDonell, journalist
As maybe Rockefeller himself would have wanted it, maybe, the report was soon corrected to state that he had had the attack at another “office.” This one a townhouse. In attendance was a 25-year-old “aide,” name of Megan Marshack. Which was a little more surprising, and which the media had a field day with, which really should surprise no one.
“Back in the ’80s, I met the woman between whose thighs he allegedly died,” says Allan MacDonell, a journalist whose investigative chops would later bring down Republican Senator Bob Packwood and an executive editor at Hustler for 20-some-very-odd years. “I was in my early 30s when I saw her, and accustomed to working at Hustler. I remember thinking: She doesn’t look like heart attack material.”
The deceased’s family, including wife Happy Rockefeller, tastefully demurred, even if longtime aide Joseph Persico confirmed the affair. The issue for them, though, was that their loved one was dead and would be missed. At the memorial service a week later, more than 2,000 people showed up to pay their respects, feeling very much the same way.
Despite it all. Despite Rocky’s three failed attempts to secure the presidency, the dead in Attica, divorce, remarriage, infidelity, middle finger, friendship with Henry Kissinger — despite it all, it was comfortably being acknowledged: a major player had passed.