“Nelson thought he was coming, but he was going.” That was one quip following the news that Nelson Rockefeller—New York’s four-term governor, former vice-president of the United States, and the most prominent scion of America’s most famous wealthy family—had succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 70, while in his midtown townhouse with his 25-year-old assistant, Megan Marshack. Preferred joke: How did Nelson Rockefeller die? Low blood pressure: 70 over 25.
Before there was Warren Buffett and his secretary, there was Rockefeller and his. Autres temps, autres mœurs. The official story quickly broke down. He had not been in his office working on a book about his art collection but in his townhouse. He had not been with his security guard but with his security guard and his chauffeur. Okay, security guard, chauffeur, and a young blonde woman in a black evening gown. He died instantly. Actually, he died one hour after he was stricken. The blonde called 911, and that’s all she did. Well, first she called her friend, TV personality Ponchitta Pierce, and it was Pierce who called 911. Where was Marshack? Out of town, replied the family spokesman, though when reporters had reached Marshack by phone a few hours after the death, she explained that she was with the family spokesman.
Eager for closure, the family allowed no autopsy and had the corpse cremated, hastily absolving everyone involved of any negligence or malfeasance—“4 Rockefeller Children Say All at Hand Did Their Best” read the good-natured headline in the Times. But the image of an engorged “Rocky” launched into eternity by an orgasm worthy of America’s premier financial titan was already firmly established in the popular mind.
The sudden death may have robbed the public of democracy’s birthright, the spectacle of the high and mighty crushed and fallen. Rockefeller himself was the very Midas of scandal, his touch turning gold to outrage: the Diego Rivera mural at Rockefeller Center, the prison riots at Attica, and of course his high-profile divorce from Mary Clark, his wife of 22 years, to marry Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, his wife at the time of his death. By the time scandal arrived breathless and too late in that midtown lair, Nelson Rockefeller, as a liberal Republican, had been out of sync with his various milieus for a long time. Of course, not knowing whether you are coming or going is the very definition of even a moderate Republican these days.