Nineteen seventy-four was among the most traumatic years in modern American history: Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace following the Watergate scandal, just a year after his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and left office. Gerald Ford ascended to the Presidency and one of his first acts was to nominate New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President. Yet, although the country had a new administration, the healing process would be long and complex. The definitive account of Watergate came that same year from reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in their best-selling book “All The President’s Men.” But it was two women – Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller, the new First and Second Ladies – who provided perhaps the greatest examples of strength and inspiration for a nation sorely in need of profiles in courage.
A decade earlier, then-Governor Rockefeller had married Margaretta “Happy” Fitler Murphy. It was a second marriage for both, and their union challenged taboos (now quaint seeming) against politicians who were divorced. It generated a fair amount of tabloid coverage, but by 1974, that was old news, and Happy came back onto America’s radar only when her husband was tapped to be Vice President. Soon after, the country was astonished to learn that their soon-to-be new Second Lady suffered from breast cancer, as did Betty Ford, and would undergo two mastectomies. And she announced it to the nation. Breast cancer was hardly unknown, but at the time it was virtually unheard of for women, especially well-known women, to reveal their condition publicly. Long before wearing a pink ribbon came to signify the fight against breast cancer, Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller did more than anyone before them to raise awareness of the single greatest threat to women’s health.
Happy died in 2015, at age 88, generating several obituaries, and now the two-part sale of “Property from the Collection of Nelson & Happy Rockefeller,” provides another opportunity to appreciate her many contributions, mostly little known, to the worlds of culture and politics. Happy was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, and through her first husband, had become close to several members of the Rockefeller clan. In its obituary, the New York Times reported that Happy became a confidante of Nelson’s aged father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the founder of Standard Oil and one of the richest men in the world. She worked on Nelson’s first campaign for governor and, after they married, Happy entered a world of stupendous wealth and the height of cultural sophistication.
Nelson was already a towering figure on the public stage. In his essay “From MoMA to Washington: How Nelson Rockefeller Redefined the Role of the Art Patron & Politician for the 20th Century,” Jed Perl lays out the herculean accomplishments of this scion of one of the richest families in history, who went on to make a lasting mark in many fields. In their grand apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue and at Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, in Westchester County, Nelson had already amassed a wide-ranging collection of art and design spanning continents and periods. Many of the great art and design masterpieces Nelson acquired were donated to museums, but Happy held on to important pieces throughout her life, along with the decorative arts objects they collected together and several significant pieces of jewelry.
When Happy married Nelson, the governor was seeking to capture the 1964 Republican Presidential nomination against Barry Goldwater, and she dutifully joined him on the campaign trail. According to the Times, “she was an unexpected hit, with many voters responding warmly to what they called her cheerful, artless charm.” She never sought the spotlight during her 16-year marriage to her famous husband, but Nelson’s biographer, Richard Norton Smith, revealed that she nonetheless exerted influence. In a letter to the Times following Happy’s death, Smith wrote that her “quiet advocacy, first with her husband and then with the State Senate president, Earl W. Brydges, helped bring about the historic repeal of New York’s ban on abortion in 1970.” As the wife of the Vice President, following her recovery from cancer she assumed a more visible role. The couple entertained heads of state, government and other dignitaries at Kykuit and 812 Fifth Avenue, and Happy was actively involved in setting up and overseeing plans for those events.
At that time, the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. became the official residence of the Vice President. Happy worked with the architects during construction and while furnishing the house. She also donated her mother’s Chippendale dining room set as well as other pieces of furniture. They remained at the residence after the Vice President left office. Happy was also actively engaged in historic restoration closer to New York, serving as a trustee of the Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Inc. In a 1975 Vogue profile, “Happy Rockefeller Now,” Kate Lloyd visited her at Kykuit. “I’m crazy about history and nature,” Happy is quoted in the article. Of her work for Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Lloyd reported that she “has a warm, informed, informal relationship with the curators.” But there was one issue, above all, that most animated her. “The family, of course, is the essential structure of our society,” she told Lloyd. “In the past, Americans had a terribly strong family structure. . . . I worry about some of the so-called modern trends, and the possible danger of the young losing their initiative.”
Following Nelson’s sudden death in 1979, Happy certainly didn’t lose any of her own initiative. She continued to entertain at 812 Fifth Avenue and the Japanese House, another Rockefeller home, which she moved into after Kykuit was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened to the public. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Happy as a public delegate to the United Nations. Wrote Norton Smith, at the U.N. “her personal diplomacy reaffirmed the validity of her childhood nickname.” It was at this time that Happy lent Picasso’s famous tapestry after Guernica, which, still hangs outside the Security Council, a perfect place for Picasso’s great anti-war painting. Happy also staked out the Performing Arts as an area to support, becoming President of the Board of the Saratoga Arts Center, just north of Albany. Upon her death, Norton Smith summed up the achievements of this remarkable woman: “Long after tabloid caricatures have faded, Americans remember Mrs. Rockefeller’s personal gallantry and public contributions.”
Anthony Calnek is Editor in Chief of Sotheby’s Magazine.