By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
New York Times
MAY 19, 2015
Happy Rockefeller, the socialite whose 1963 marriage to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, soon after both had been divorced, raised a political storm in a more genteel time and may have cost him the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, died on Tuesday at her home in Tarrytown, N.Y. She was 88.
The family said in a statement that she died after a brief illness.
Beyond the 1964 nomination, won by Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, the scandal helped scuttle any further presidential hopes Mr. Rockefeller had. While his governorship remained secure until 1973, he came no closer to the Oval Office than the vice presidency, to which President Gerald R. Ford appointed him in 1974, ending the musical-chairs turmoil set off by the Watergate scandal.
In an era when marital infidelity and divorce were toxic for presidential candidates, many Americans were shocked when Margaretta Fitler Murphy, called Happy, and Mr. Rockefeller, who was nearly 18 years older than she, married on May 4, 1963. He was in the second of his four terms as governor and a leading contender for the presidency at the time, having run strongly in 1960.
As the couple left for a honeymoon in Venezuela, exposés retailed gossip of their extramarital affair and detailed their out-of-state divorces — Mr. Rockefeller’s in 1962 from Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller, his wife of 31 years and the mother of his five children; Mrs. Murphy’s from Dr. James Slater Murphy, to whom she surrendered custody of their four children five weeks before marrying Mr. Rockefeller.
Many Republican leaders and voters were scandalized. Former Senator Prescott S. Bush, a Connecticut Republican and a longtime Rockefeller supporter (and the father of one future president and the grandfather of another), declared: “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? 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.”
No divorced man had ever won the presidency. Former Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, a Democrat who divorced in 1949, had been the most recent to try. He won his party’s nomination in 1952 and 1956 but lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in back-to-back landslides. In Britain, Mr. Rockefeller was likened tendentiously to King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 to marry a twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Polls that showed Mr. Rockefeller leading Mr. Goldwater quickly turned around.
“Only a few weeks ago Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller was far out in front,” The Philadelphia Inquirer said. “Now, abruptly, the picture has changed. The Rockefeller image has been damaged.”
Mr. Rockefeller faced the divorce issue squarely by taking his new wife on the campaign trail. She handled the glare of publicity well, gamely greeting crowds, even donning maternity clothes as the campaign, and her pregnancy, progressed. Some advisers opposed her involvement, but she was an unexpected hit, with many voters responding warmly to what they called her cheerful, artless charm.
“The first shock waves generated by the marriage of Governor Rockefeller to the former Mrs. Murphy seem to have simmered down to a ripple,” Gwen Gibson reported in The New York Herald Tribune. “One look at this wholesome, dimple-chinned woman, and the most critical matron is apt to remark: ‘She doesn’t strike me as a femme fatale.’ ”
Still, Mr. Rockefeller’s primary results were dismal. His support faded, especially among women, and he withdrew from the race. Mr. Goldwater lost the election to his Democratic opponent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a landslide.
Mr. Rockefeller resumed life as governor in Albany, and his wife gave birth to two sons, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller Jr. in 1964 and Mark Fitler Rockefeller in 1967. She appeared with the governor at official and unofficial functions, and when he was an undeclared candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, she took an active part in his effort to win support, becoming a political asset in the view of many.
Though Mr. Rockefeller did not enter primaries, he campaigned, sought uncommitted delegates and cited his availability for a draft. Richard M. Nixon was nominated on the first ballot and went on to defeat Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey for the presidency.
In 1974, as her husband awaited Senate confirmation as vice president, Mrs. Rockefeller learned she had breast cancer and had two mastectomies, five weeks apart. Weeks earlier, President Ford’s wife, Betty, also had a mastectomy. They and Shirley Temple Black were among the first to announce mastectomies publicly and were widely credited with raising national awareness for the early detection of breast cancer.
During his vice presidency, Mr. Rockefeller and his wife lived in their own home in Washington, though the official vice-presidential residence was established during his tenure at the former home of the chief of naval operations on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory. They hosted several official functions there.
As the nation’s second lady, Mrs. Rockefeller was a low-key presence in Washington, and often spent time in New York and at the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Mr. Rockefeller served until a defeated President Ford left office in January 1977.
A year after Mr. Rockefeller died, in 1979, Ronald Reagan became the only divorced man elected to the presidency. His 1949 divorce from the actress Jane Wyman was not a major campaign issue in 1980, largely because it had occurred three decades earlier and because divorce, in a nation where it had become commonplace, no longer seemed a serious blemish on a candidate’s character.
Margaretta Large Fitler was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on June 9, 1926, one of two children of Margaretta Large Harrison Fitler and her first husband, William Wonderly Fitler Jr., a yachtsman and heir to an $8 million cordage fortune. A scion of Main Line privilege, Happy — she acquired the nickname for her sunny disposition — was a descendant of Gen. George Gordon Meade, who commanded Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. She and her brother, William, were often left in charge of servants, and her parents divorced when she was 10.
She was a popular but indifferent student at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. After graduating in 1944, she became a wartime driver for the Women’s Volunteer Service in Philadelphia. She made her debut in 1946 and married Dr. Murphy two years later. They had four children, three of whom survive her: James B. II, Margaretta M. Bickford and Carol M. Lyden. The fourth, Malinda M. Menotti, died in 2005.
Mrs. Rockefeller is also survived by her sons with Mr. Rockefeller, Nelson Jr. and Mark, and 14 grandchildren.
Dr. Murphy, a boyhood chum of Mr. Rockefeller’s brother David, followed his father, Dr. James B. Murphy, a renowned cancer researcher, into the Rockefeller Institute in New York in 1950. He became a noted virologist there. The Murphy and Rockefeller families were neighbors in Manhattan, had summer homes in Seal Harbor, Me., and shared social orbits. The Murphys even built a home near the Rockefeller estate, Kykuit, at Pocantico Hills, overlooking the Hudson River in Westchester County.
In 1958, Mrs. Murphy became a volunteer in Nelson Rockefeller’s first campaign for governor. After his election, she became his confidential secretary — and, later reports said, his mistress.
After Mr. Rockefeller’s death, Mrs. Rockefeller and her sons gave up the Pocantico Hills mansion, which had been home to generations of Rockefellers; it was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened for public tours in 1994. But she kept a Japanese house designed by Junzo Yoshimura on the estate and an apartment in New York. She had lived in her home in Tarrytown for more than 50 years.
Mrs. Rockefeller continued her husband’s activities as a patron of the arts and philanthropist, and for many years maintained a busy schedule of social, cultural and charity functions, squired by her sons and members of the Rockefeller clan. Her name and picture were often in society columns, alongside political, business and entertainment leaders and royalty.
Enid Nemy and Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on May 20, 2015, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Happy Rockefeller, 88, Whose Marriage to Governor Scandalized Voters, Dies. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe