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On This Day In History, January 26: Dream of Presidency Never Achieved

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller died of a heart attack late in the evening of Jan. 26, 1979. The next morning a three-column headline emblazoned the front page of The New York Times, announcing the former vice-president’s death. The report announced that Rockefeller had died of a heart attack at 10:15 the night before while working at his desk on the 56th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan.

 

Later that day, Rockefeller family spokesman Hugh Morrow recanted his earlier statements. Rockefeller had not died in his main office but in his town house at 13 West 54th Street, which adjoined another of his offices. The time of the heart attack was not at 10:15 p.m. as first reported but after 11 p.m., just before 911 was called at 11:16. When police and medics arrived they found Rockefeller lying unconscious on the living room floor. Also present, Morrow said, were a bodyguard and a 31-year-old woman with whom Rockefeller had been working, Megan Marshack.

 

By press time on Monday, Jan. 29, a transcript of Marshack’s frantic call to 911 was published: “It’s death! It’s immediate! Please!” The revised stories also said that Marshack was 25, not 31. She had been a reporter for the Associated Press before joining Rockefeller’s staff in Washington in 1975 when he was vice president under Ford. She was one of the few who had been kept on when Rockefeller returned to private life in New York in 1977. Marshack was reported as saying that she and Rockefeller had been working on a book about his modern art collection when he died.

 

The stories kept changing. It turned out that Rockefeller’s heart attack did occur at 10:15 p.m. after all — an hour before 911 was called — and it was not Marshack who made the call. A voice analysis of the tape confirmed that help had been summoned by Ponchitta Pierce, hostess of a weekend NBC television show who owned a co-op in the same building as Marshack, a few doors from Rockefeller’s town house. Pierce had gone to the town house after Marshack called her, then returned home after calling 911.

 

It also turned out that the bodyguard had not been in Rockefeller’s town house, only Marshack and the former vice president. Although the family spokesman said Marshack was wearing a long black hostess gown, the Daily News called it a housecoat and said there were no papers to indicate that they had been working on a book, only food and wine on a table.

 

Not much more was ever published regarding the facts, but there was much speculation and rumor. One final fact came to light at the reading of the will. Rockefeller had forgiven a $45,000 loan he had given to Marshack so she could buy her co-op. Marshack’s salary as Rockefeller’s assistant was $60,000 per year.

 

The year 1979 saw an America already coming to terms with the notion of seeing the names and reputations of its devoted public servants sullied. Social observers fretted that the line between news and gossip was perhaps becoming blurred, not to mention the line between privacy and public interest. A sidenote on this occurred in 1979, sometime after Rockefeller’s death. The chief medical examiner at the time, Michael Baden, was fired by Mayor Edward Koch after his office dropped hints that Nelson Rockefeller had died while having sex.

 

Nelson Rockefeller’s grandson, Steven Rockefeller, was 18 at the time. He said he was satisfied that Marshack and everyone else had done everything they could to save his grandfather.

 

“I don’t know what Megan’s role was exactly,” he said, “but if she was involved with Granddaddy, I hope she did the best she could and that she was instrumental in some of his success.”

 

Asked what he would say to Megan Marshack, the young Rockefeller said: “I would tell her: ‘I hope you made my grandfather happy.’”

 

Nelson Rockefeller died without having achieved his most avid desire — the presidency of the United States, which he sought three times. He had to settle for a truncated two-year stint as vice president to Gerald Ford. He served New York as its governor for 15 years. Politics aside, he was overseer of America’s most famous fortune.

January 26, 2012 - 10:40am


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