Books: The Marriage that Ended a Political Career





Following is an excerpt from Mr. Perlstein's Before the Storm. The story picks up with the announcement that Nelson Rockefeller, candidate for the Republican nomination in 1964, had decided to remarry following his divorce.

* * * * *

Nelson Rockefeller was behaving strangely.

As soon as the pundits began declaring his nomination a lock, opportunistic politicians naturally began lining up to endorse him. As soon as they offered, he turned them down. An explanation would arrive soon enough. Among the first to receive it was Rockefeller's friend Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator was up on his roof high above Paradise Valley puttering with the TV antenna when Rockefeller called. Peggy answered the phone.

"This is Nelson Rockefeller."

"Well, hello yourself," she replied."This is Mamie Eisenhower." (Barry's friends liked practical jokes.)

Peggy was finally convinced. Goldwater climbed down from the roof to answer the phone. What Rockefeller told him so shocked him that it was a good thing he had climbed down from the roof. The most shocking part of all, was that Rockefeller seemed not to realize just how shocking it was. Probably Rockefeller had been misled by his divorce a year earlier, which produced a sharp dip in the polls that was made up within a few weeks. Divorce was a tragedy; people accepted that sometimes it had to happen. Rockefeller's shocked no one who had eyes to see; the flaws in his pairing with Mary Todhunter ("Tod") Clark, a flinty Philadelphia society girl whom he had married just six days out of college in 1930, were evident before the union took place.

What if all men got the idea to dump their middle-aged wives?

The affairs began within the decade, abetted by Rocky's tendency to administrative overreach: even in his wartime office he carried seven secretaries, each more lovely, clever, and voluble than the last; serially, he would set up a secretary almost as a second wife in the townhouse he kept eight blocks down from his 810 Fifth Avenue home."I want you to know that Tod and I have an agreement that we will never get divorced but will live our own separate lives," he would say. When divorce did come, most presumed that Rockefeller would remain a playboy bachelor (there were rumors that he was dating Joan Crawford). That would have served him in better stead. But that was never his intention. For he was in love. And now he was getting remarried. Which was a political disaster.

Margaretta Fitler ("Happy") Murphy had volunteered in his 1958 campaign. She lived with her husband, a microbiologist for the Rockefeller Institute, and four children aged three to twelve, within the vast Rockefeller compound at Pocantico Hills. She was thirty-six; Nelson and Tod were both fifty-five. Happy got a divorce on April 1, immediately signing away custody of her children to her husband. The presiding judge announced that the case would be sealed"in order to protect the children"--a privilege rarely extended to those not about to marry billionaires. Four Sunday afternoons later, the cou- ple wed at the cottage of Nelson's brother Laurance at Pocantico with a handful of guests, the Reverend Marshall L. Smith from the family's church nearby (a simple New England-style clapboard with stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse) presiding. A bulletin was dispatched to the press. The couple jetted off to the Venezuelan finca, thither to a Rockefeller-owned hotel in the Virgin Islands. Photographs reached the wires: girlish Happy and beaming Rocky striding through the Caribbean surf in matching shorts and low-buttoned shirts as if ready to reprise From Here to Eternity.

Rockefeller's enemies couldn't have planned it better if they tried. Now he looked like a corrupter of the nation's husbands and an accomplice to child abandonment. What if all men got the idea to dump their middle-aged wives? What if all women abandoned their children?

"Just because no divorced man has ever been elected president doesn't mean we won't have one sometime."

It is hard to understand the response now, given the revolution separating their time and our own. Since women were expected to give up virtually everything else when they gave themselves to a man to form a family, losing a husband seemed to most women equal to losing everything. It was a time, according to Betty Friedan, when it was easier to find an abortionist than a minister willing to marry a divorcé."It is the plain fact," the esteemed Columbia University literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950,"that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." Politically, he may have had something. But the popular graduate text The Psychology of Women clearly had not entered into his researches; it pronounced,"Woman's intellectuality is to a large extent paid for by the loss of valuable feminine qualities." Nor had Modem Woman: The Lost Sex, which suggested banning women from college teaching outright and identified feminism as"at its core a deep illness." Adlai Stevenson, the divorcé, speaking at a Smith College commencement in 1955, said:"I think there is much you can do about our crisis in the humble role of housewife." (He spoke of the spiritual crisis of the West.)"You may be hitched to one of these creatures we call 'Western man,'" Stevenson continued,"and I think part of your job is to keep him Western, to keep him purposeful, to keep him whole. ...You can do it in the livingroom with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand." The week after Rocky's nuptials, the Pulitzer board rejected the drama jury's recommendation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the play depicted adultery. And that was among the intellectuals. The same message was repeated a thousandfold every day in every medium. A culture's unspoken assumptions were laid bare by the reaction to the Rockefeller remarriage.

"Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her," railed Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush at a prep school graduation, in a tongue-lashing Time called the most wrathful any politician had suffered in recent memory,"then persuade a young mother of youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?" (No one bothered to call Happy's ex, who remarried as quickly as she did, to ask if he felt"abandoned.") The Hudson River presbytery brought up for censure the minister who had performed the ceremony, branding him"a disturber of the peace and unity of the church"; he expressed"deep regret" at violating the Church's requirement of a one-year waiting period before divorced people could remarry. Rockefeller attended the convention of the National Federation of Republican Women with Happy on his arm. They made their entrance into the ballroom to stony silence. An entire table of bejeweled, begloved matrons rose and marched out. The same matrons raised the roof when Barry and Peggy arrived.

Cadres of forward-thinking psychologists and sociologists leapt at the chance to wax knowingly that the nation was ready to take it all in stride. Rockefeller's backers did likewise."I don't think this marriage changes his political picture at all," said the Michigan state chair;"Just because no divorced man has ever been elected president doesn't mean we won't have one sometime," said a New Jersey committeeman. Rocky was still"the logical nominee," proclaimed Thomas Dewey--the logical nominee from 1948. Politically it didn't matter; for now public servants started hearing from their constituents. A Maryland woman's club previously scheduled to meet its liberal Republican congressmen on an urgent matter of policy never got to it: the women begged him to cut loose from Rockefeller instead. A Denver representative heard from a woman who would"rather have Liz Taylor in the White House than that Happy." In Randall County, Texas, the GOP chair declared he would have to quit his job if Rockefeller was nominated.

The following Sunday, clergymen right and left sermonized in massed chorus. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the towering figures of American liberalism, reported that his pious Baptist cleaning woman was disgusted, paused a beat, then added,"I share that view." Khrushchev denounced"parasitic capitalists who live a life of luxury, drinking, carousing, and changing wives." Hearst columnist Frank Conniff borrowed the argot of another celebrity brought low by remarriage:"As a presidential possibility, Nelson Rockefeller is in deadsville." On May 26, three days after Rockefeller returned from his honeymoon, Gallup pronounced the last word. Previously 43 percent of Republicans had been for Rocky, 26 percent for Barry. Now it was Goldwater 35 to 30 percent. The New York Times reported on mail received by New York congressmen -- 1 percent pro-Rockefeller, 99 percent against. And Rockefeller, the object of so much conspiracy theorizing, began spinning theories of his own: he suspected Goldwater was somehow behind it all. Goldwater, for his part, thought the reaction might have something to do with Richard Nixon.

Rockefeller's support had always been thin on the ground. A Congressional Quarterly poll had reported a month earlier that most 1960 delegates assumed Rockefeller would be the nominee. But they vastly preferred Goldwater. The conservatives Rockefeller had won through his recent insinuation that Kennedy was"appeasing" the Soviets in Cuba welcomed the remarriage as an excuse to cut loose from someone they were never excited about in the first place. His efforts to woo conservatives had already driven away much of his liberal Republican support (the Herald Tribune called his Cuba speech"unworthy of a presidential aspirant and quite revealing of the Governor's qualifications, or, rather, the lack thereof"). And Rockefeller was in the doghouse in his home state. New Yorkers were incredulous at his attempt to disguise a $105 million tax increase as a mere increase in"fees." His deputy Jud Morhouse resigned under a cloud during an investigation of corruption in the State Liquor Authority. The governor kept on trying to assess several hundreds of dollars per family for bomb shelters, embarrassingly oblivious of how few could afford the financial sacrifice. If it weren't for a newspaper strike in New York City, Rockefeller would have been doing even worse.


Excerpt from BEFORE THE STORM by Rick Perlstein. Copyright© 2001 by Rick Perlstein. Used by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that the work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Charles B Mitchell - 12/20/2005

Apparently during the 1958 campagin, Nelson and Happy used to meet at her sisters house in Bronxville, (Westchester County) for their trysts. I know this because this is my house and my parents purchased it from Happy's sister and brother in-law.

History News Network