Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller, the widow of former U.S. Vice President and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and one of the first women to speak publicly about her breast cancer in the 1970s, has died. She was 88.
Happy Rockefeller, who earned her nickname as a child because of her pleasant personality, died peacefully in her sleep Tuesday at her home in Tarrytown, New York, said family spokesman Fraser Seitel.
She had suffered from a brief illness.
“She was blessed with great commonsense and insight into human beings and human nature,” said longtime friend Richard Parsons, a senior adviser at Providence Equity Partners. “I thought she was extraordinary.”
Both she and the New York governor were divorced when they married in 1963. That was seen as scandalous at the time, and political pundits blamed the marriage for Nelson Rockefeller’s failure to secure the 1964 Republican presidential nomination.
At that time, no divorced candidate had ever won the presidency; Ronald Reagan became the only divorced president when he was elected in 1980.
After her husband served four terms as New York’s governor, he was named by President Gerald Ford to serve as vice president after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal in 1974. Shortly after being chosen, Happy Rockefeller was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent two mastectomies. She and Ford’s wife, Betty, were among the first women to speak publicly about the disease.
“She went through it with dignity and was one of the first role models,” Parsons said. “She carried herself unapologetically.”
A well-known socialite for many causes, Happy Rockefeller served as chairman of the board for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. In 1991, she was appointed as a public delegate to the United Nations by President George H. W. Bush.
Philanthropic activities included support for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual visits to China. She also supported the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City, the Central Park Conservancy and Historic Hudson Valley.
Born Margaretta Large Fitler on June 9, 1926, she often spoke of being a proud descendant of Gen. George Gordon Meade, who commanded Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. She graduated in 1944 from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and married Dr. James Slater Murphy in 1948. The couple had four children, three of whom survive.
She divorced Murphy about a month before marrying Rockefeller in May 1963. They had two sons.
In a statement, the family said Happy Rockefeller “above all, was dedicated to her immediate and extended family and greatly loved spending time with her children and grandchildren. She had a firm belief in the importance of family and the nurturing, support, and perspective it can provide to its members.”
Funeral services have not been announced.
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