On the evening on Friday, Jan. 26, 1979, an old lion and warrior of the GOP, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, was unexpectedly struck down by a heart attack.
Though Rockefeller had no history of heart disease, the strain that night had apparently been too much for the 70-year-oldman.
He’d been governor of New York for four terms and had sought the GOP presidential nomination, sometimes desultory, sometimes aggressively, in 1960, 1964, and 1968.
His candidacies, except 1964, were mostly a figment of the New York and Washington political media’s imagination. Rockefeller was too liberal, too overbearing, too Eastern establishment, too rich, too cosmopolitan.
His divorce in 1964 and subsequent marriage to Margaretta "Happy” and her pregnancy during the heat of the crucial battle in California with Barry Goldwater in 1964 did nothing to help him win that make or break primary which propelled Goldwater to the nomination.
None of this had endeared him to the increasingly conservative GOP.
In 1968, at the GOP convention in Miami Beach, Richard Nixon had not yet sewn up the nomination and Rockefeller, knowing how unpopular he himself was with a large element of delegates, leaked it out to the media that Nixon was considering a batch of liberals for vice president, including Rockefeller himself.
The ingenious tactic was to scare wavering conservatives from the Nixon’s camp into the Ronald Reagan camp, produce a deadlocked convention, and then Rocky would negotiate for the nomination.
It almost worked. Nixon did not go over the top until the Wisconsin delegation was polled near then end as these affairs went alphabetically.
The evening of his death, Rockefeller had dined with Happy and returned, as it was reported at the time, to his office at Rockefeller Center ostensibly to work on an art book.
Rumors swirled around Republican politics for years that he in fact went to visit his young female assistant, Megan Marshack, 27, with whom he had been having an affair.
He had first met Marshack when she’d been hired on his press staff while he was serving as vice president.
Rockefeller was stricken with a major coronary while intimate with his young aide. She called not an ambulance or the police. Instead, she called her girlfriend, Ponchitta Pierce, at the time a New York television personality.
Reports at the time also indicate that while Rocky was first stricken at 10:15, Marshack did not call for an ambulance until 11:16. A longtime Rockefeller aide, Hugh Morrow, appeared and together they tried to assemble what was left of the old man’s dignity before the paramedics, police, and with them the cream of the New York media arrived.
The story went, they dressed Rockefeller in his business suit and sat him in a chair. But rigor mortis was embarrassingly setting in. They creatively placed his shoes and that day’s Wall Street Journal in his hands, as if he’d died reading it.
But when the paramedics did arrive, they found it curious that Rocky was reading the newspaper upside down. A New York policeman who arrived at the scene, George Frangos, told reporters that Rockefeller was “clad in dark trousers and socks but no shoes,” according to reports.
Rocky was cremated only 18 hours after his death. The family refused an autopsy, and Marshack went into hiding. At 4 a.m., reporters knocked on her door, but she would not speak to them except to confirm that Morrow was in her apartment, trying to clean up the mess left for him by his old boss.
Marshack was later was left a Manhattan townhouse and $50,000 in Rockefeller’s will.
Media reports initially said Rockefeller was at his office at Rockefeller Center but in fact, the ambulance found the stricken Rockefeller at 13 West 54 Street . . . next door to Marshack’s home at 25 West 54 Street. Rockefeller owned both buildings.
A comedy of errors ensued as no one seemed to get the story right as to how, where, and under what circumstances Rocky died. Both Marshack and Pierce were put under house arrest by the family’s many public relations operatives and neither was allowed to talk to the media.
All others, including personal aides and Rocky’s chauffeur were not allowed to talk to the press. The driver had dropped off Rockefeller at 25 West 54 Street at around 10 p.m.
The popular television show, Saturday Night Live spoofed a “promo” of another NBC hit show, Emergency, “starring Megan Marshack.”
Morrow regrettably told a gaggle of sniggering media at the hospital of Rockefeller’s demise, “He was having a wonderful time with the whole art enterprise. He was having a ball” (as reported in the New York Times). A joke that went around GOP circles was that Rocky actually died of “low blood pressure . . . it was 70 over 27.”
Marshack, who that night was seen wearing a “long black evening gown” (was reported in the New York Post) melted into the ephemeral of history.
It was a humiliating end for a conflicted and controversial, but ultimately good man who’d lost his way in national politics and whose party had discarded him several years earlier.
He was as generous as his equally flayed and fabled grandfather, “John D.”
He and his retainers sometimes talked about making a run in 1980 and settle all scores once and for all, but no one else in the party though Rocky had a future in national politics. His familiar greeting was to all, “Hiya fella.”
Craig Shirley is the author of "Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America," "Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All," "December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World" and “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.” He is the founder of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, and has been named the first Reagan scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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