David Burnett/Contact Press Images

Nelson Rockefeller (right) with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention, Kansas City, Missouri, 1976

In his later years the first John D. Rockefeller, known to his family as “Senior,” was said to have handed out 30,000 dimes. Adjusting to hard times when the Depression hit, the country’s richest man dispensed nickels instead. His grandson, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, adjusted to hard times in the second of his four terms as governor of New York by raising the sales tax, only to be pelted with dimes by protesters as he marched in a civic procession on Long Island. Putting the big-spending politician on the receiving end, taxpayers were reminding him that it wasn’t his money that he was pouring into ambitious state buildings, housing subsidies, and welfare programs.

The distinction sometimes seemed lost on him. The most conspicuous member of his generation of Rockefellers never felt he had to apologize for his wealth or the uses to which he put it. “Wasn’t it wonderful of Grandfather to make all this lovely money?” he remarked once over a gratifying acquisition.

His acquisitions included, by the time of his death, 16,000 works of art, distributed among various residences, including a thirty-two-room triplex apartment on Fifth Avenue that featured retractable walls, one behind another, making it possible for him to hang a little more than a modicum of the paintings and drawings in his collection; there the fireplace was framed by Matisse female figures he’d commissioned, the wall over a staircase covered by Léger. At the family’s Pocantico Hills barony in Westchester he ultimately had three houses. There was another at Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine (only twenty-one rooms), a twenty-six-acre estate on Foxhall Road in Washington (thirty rooms), a 14,000-acre ranch in Venezuela, plus other properties in Texas and Mexico. He also had a collection of vintage cars.

And blurring the line between private and public, he maintained notable collections of retainers and advisers who benefited from his largesse in the form of stipends, grants of stock, and loans supplementing their official salaries, if they were on the public payroll. His speechwriter, spokesman, chief of staff, and the chairman of the Republican state committee were on this list, plus a retinue of secretaries he appears to have treated as a harem. So, at various times, were Henry Kissinger and Wallace Harrison, his favorite architect, who had a leading part in most of his major public and private projects from Rockefeller Center to what’s now called the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany, derided as “Rocky’s pyramid,” which had taken more than a dozen years and $750 million to complete. (That was five years after he resigned as governor; he saw it in its finished form only once.)

At the end of his public career, acceding to an appeal from the newly elevated Gerald Ford to serve as an appointed vice-president, he had to open the books on his side deals for perusal by congressional committees passing on the nomination. Then it was disclosed that in his fifteen years as governor (1959–1973), he’d handed out $2 million to twenty individuals, paying an additional $850,000 in gift taxes on his bequests.

The one acquisition Nelson Rockefeller failed to make was the one he was thought to have craved the most—the presidency. His second wife, Margaretta Rockefeller, always known as Happy, cast doubt on that assumption in an interview with Richard Norton Smith for On His Own Terms. Her observation comes across as more than half-serious, notwithstanding a charming touch of self-mockery. “Every time he came close,” she said, “he went and did something stupid—like marry me!”

Their wedding was in May 1963. Happy Murphy, as she then was, hadn’t secured the custody of her four children. They were presumably with their father that day; two of the governor’s grown children from his first marriage were conspicuously absent, as were his brothers John, Winthrop, and David. If they were scandalized, so were many mainstream Republicans, already wary of the free-spending do-gooder from New York who’d launched an eleventh-hour challenge to the party’s platform and all-but-certain nominee, Richard Nixon, in 1960. Unable the next time around to see why he couldn’t have both the woman of his choice and the White House, he declared for the presidency six months after his wedding, two weeks before the assassination of President Kennedy.

Proceeding on the understandable but politically dubious premise that he didn’t have to answer to any constituency for the conduct of his private life, Rockefeller plunged into New Hampshire and campaigned hard there for four weeks, only to find himself an also-ran in the primary, beaten by an absentee write-in candidate, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., whose main recommendation seemed to be that he was none-of-the-above, neither the suspiciously prodigal Rockefeller nor Barry Goldwater, the stalwart Arizona conservative who pledged to scale back big government programs embraced by the New Yorker. (Goldwater wanted to expand, not cut, Pentagon programs; Rockefeller too. A case can be made that the fictitious “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, promoted as an issue by Kennedy in the 1960 race, had its origin in a study Rockefeller funded.)


The weekend before the climactic California primary in 1964, Happy Rockefeller gave birth to a son, Nelson Jr. Rockefeller’s campaign manager, Stuart Spencer, urged him to suppress news of the delivery until the votes were counted. “You’re a Rockefeller, you can do something,” he said, recommending Wednesday as a good day for the birth. Rockefeller’s New York advisers disagreed. They thought a new baby could be an electoral fillip. So, according to this exhaustively researched, occasionally exhausting, mostly absorbing biography, the birth may have been induced. Rockefeller lost California narrowly and withdrew from the race.

In 1968, he’d again be prey to divided impulses and counsels, pulling out of that race “unequivocally” in March, only to reenter it in April after Lyndon Johnson removed himself from the running. By August it was obvious to everyone that the reborn Nixon, marketed as a “new Nixon,” had a majority of Republican convention delegates; obvious to everyone, that is, but Rockefeller who “seemed impervious to the lengthening odds on his candidacy.” Up to the roll call, we’re told, the governor had an aide working on his acceptance speech.

Richard Norton Smith is a seasoned, independent biographer with an unusual vocation. He resurrects Republicans who lost out in runs for the presidency. His previous subjects include Herbert Hoover and Thomas E. Dewey; perhaps Mitt Romney will be next. He worked on this one for a dozen years, delving deep into archives and interviewing numerous Rockefellers and former aides.

Despite its considerable length, his book shows signs of having been winnowed down from an even longer manuscript. (Here and there, a reader stumbles on passages that seem to be second references to incidents for which there’s no obvious antecedent.) But Smith can mostly be relied upon to write with verve and authority when he comes to the most arresting portions of Nelson Rockefeller’s crowded life and career: his role in commissioning a fresco by Diego Rivera for the lobby of the RCA building that his father ordered taken down after the artist refused to chip out a beatified image of Lenin; his marriages, affairs, and political campaigns; the loss in Papua New Guinea of his son Michael, falling on the weekend his parents’ divorce was announced; the savagely vindictive suppression of the 1971 revolt at Attica state prison; his accumulation of grievances over snubs from Rumsfeld, Cheney & Co. in two years as vice-president during the Ford interregnum; his sometimes strained relations with his siblings and the next generation of Rockefellers over management of family investments and philanthropies.

Not least, he gives an account of the former vice-president’s notorious demise at the age of seventy-one in the course of an intimate rendez-vous with a member of his staff described here, perhaps unfairly, as “a Rubenesque young woman adept at flattery and acquisition.” Megan Marshack’s silence, maintained now for thirty-five years, over what took place on the evening of January 26, 1979—and in the relationship that led up to it—isn’t broken in the pages of this book.

There’s enough here for a good fat roman à clef; too much, maybe, for a well-shaped, thematically consistent biography. Nelson Rockefeller is more fascinating, finally, as a character—an embodiment of Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted dictum that the “very rich” are different—than he ever managed to be as a force in national politics.

Due to no obvious fault of the author, the narrative tends to drag in its dutiful attempt to lend weight to the peripheral role played by the young Nelson in the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations, in short stints that mostly ended with him in conflict with more senior officials. The same can be said of Smith’s conscientious, ongoing effort to instill some life into old Albany matters that may have had some sizzle for New Yorkers long ago—successive legislative sessions, state budgets, bond issues, scandals, and feuds—but now, a half-century more or less in the past, tend in all their mustiness to anesthetize. The New York City garbage strike of 1968—an inescapable chapter in the prolonged grudge match between the governor and the city’s ambitious showboat of a mayor, John Lindsay—isn’t spellbinding on this revisit (even if one credits the memory of a Rockefeller aide who recalls the mayor ending a key exchange with the governor with the smack of an unmitigated “fuck you”).


No one would want to read a longer biography of Nelson Rockefeller, but there are aspects of his life and personality that might well have been given more attention here. One is his passion for art, inherited from his doting mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a founder of the Museum of Modern Art, of which Nelson served two terms as president. (“We could have such good times going about together and if you start to cultivate your taste and eye so young,” she wrote when he was still a Dartmouth undergraduate, “you ought to be good at it by the time you can afford to collect much.”) Another is his lifelong condition of dyslexia, which got in the way of letter-writing and made it an ordeal for him—and often his audience—when this dynamic campaigner, with a zest for glad-handing encounters, had to read a speech. Smith shrewdly suggests that the two subjects are linked, that “art offered a language of the emotions in place of conventional, often treacherous, patterns of speech.”

“I like strong, simple painting without a message,” Rockefeller himself said. Early on he “got” abstract expressionism, in two senses of the word. We’re led to believe that he relied on his own emotional response in judging a work of art. “In art, if not in politics,” Smith writes, “instinct would always be Nelson’s guide.” But in two glancing references, the author also mentions the “profound” influence of his “resident art expert,” a MoMA curator, Dorothy Miller. Nothing more is said about this relationship. It would be enlightening to know how it worked. Did she lead him to Jackson Pollock? Did she help him distinguish one Pollock from another? At what point did his own instincts and perceptions take over? “There’s not enough money in the world for Nelson to buy what he would like to own,” Miller is quoted as saying. What we learn about his lifetime preoccupation is, basically, that his appetite for art was voracious. The quality of his connoisseurship, how discriminating he was as a collector, remains indistinct. Nor are we told what became of the vast collection, how much of it wound up in museums or on the market, or what pieces, if any, had pride of place.

The pursuits of the politician were fired by similar instincts. His appetite for public projects and programs was also voracious. When it outstripped available revenues and the willingness of the legislature to seek more, he turned to unsecured “moral obligation” bonds that brought in billions more. Here too he depended on the guidance of a “resident expert.” That was crafty John Mitchell, later Richard Nixon’s attorney general and, still later, a federal inmate on Watergate conspiracy charges.

It would help to know more about his dyslexia, its extent, and his ability over time to work around it. Mostly the disability was covered up but Smith manages to give some examples of how he operated. As an executive, we’re told, he “neither read incoming letters nor dictated answers” but relied on secretaries “to brief him on the contents of each missive and to translate his verbal instructions into serviceable prose.” Yet Smith also quotes handwritten letters he sent his mother and others over the years that seem well expressed. We’re left to wonder how he managed that.

He worked hard enough to make Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth, but it’s not clear that he ever read a book cover to cover. “The best way to read a book is to get the author to tell you about it,” he once said. This became a modus operandi. At every turning point in his public career, over a period of three decades, he summoned study groups involving certified experts by the dozens and commissioned reports, often paid for by his own funds. The resulting studies were then offered up under portentous titles—Prospect for America or Critical Choices—and drawn on for campaign platforms with Rockefeller, the prime mover, absorbing their contents in meetings with his experts that ran on for hours. “The governor loved meetings,” a secretary said.

In his first year as governor, we’re told, he convened some forty study groups, and sat in on many of them. One was called the Special Task Force on Protection from Radioactive Fallout, which led to a campaign for making fallout shelters compulsory in all residences. An adequate national program, he estimated, would cost $20 billion. (That’s 1960 dollars, which would come to more than $150 billion today.) Neither the legislature nor John Kennedy would go that far. Rockefeller—whose readiness to contemplate limited nuclear war derived from his (and Kissinger’s) rejection of John Foster Dulles’s doctrine of “massive retaliation”—remained an enthusiast for shelters, ordering their construction under each of his residences and later, in the Ford years, proposing that a spur be built from the Washington subway then in construction so a shelter could be installed deep under the White House.

“If I’m not caught up in an enthusiasm, I’m not any good,” he said. He was the first to say that his enthusiasm was for attacking problems. He attacked them with money as he had all his life.

His addiction to study groups, Smith writes, “contributed to the appearance of a candidate with more ideas than convictions.” In the same critical spirit, he speaks of Rockefeller’s “unending quest for intellectual silver bullets.” Sometimes the results were bizarre, for instance, a proposal that the United States purchase Greenland from Denmark, or the idea of New York buying the Queen Mary from Cunard as a dormitory for narcotics offenders. Sometimes they were enlightened. His biographer lists the expansion of the State University of New York (SUNY), the establishment of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and a land use program for the vast Adirondack Mountain State Park as accomplishments of lasting value.

Among the coldest of cold warriors, Rockefeller opposed grain sales to the Soviet Union in the Eisenhower years and the nuclear test ban treaty signed by Kennedy, whom he accused of “appeasement” on Cuba—for discontinuing support for anti-Castro fighters after the Bay of Pigs. These were conventional positions for a Republican with national ambitions. At the same time he assailed Kennedy for being passive on civil rights. His resistance to pandering on racial issues, central to his party’s expansion into the South, helped make him an outlier. During his first term, when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Albany, the governor brushed aside an aide’s comment that it might be politically risky to be seen with his fellow Baptist. His response was to introduce King at a rally, have him to dinner at the Executive Mansion, then lend him a plane. Later he’d give a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church and underwrite the restoration of its stained-glass windows. When King was murdered in Memphis, he instantly dispatched aides to handle the arrangements and costs of the funeral, with no fanfare.

Except before Republican audiences, he didn’t shrink from the word “liberal.” Not infrequently, talking to Democrats and journalists, he identified himself as a disciple of Franklin Roosevelt.

For all the resources at his command, Rockefeller seemed impatient, even impoverished when it came to organizing a national campaign. “He didn’t really have the instincts for national politics,” a veteran of the 1964 campaign said. His 1968 effort, Smith writes, was “late in starting, confused in management, and thematically incoherent.” Nominations for the highest office are finally won by pursuing delegates state by state, county by county, not by firing off random proposals in all directions. A study group such as Rockefeller organized may add ballast to a campaign; it can’t run one. It didn’t help that he couldn’t remember names. “Hiya fella,” his breezy standard greeting, worked on the hustings, not in small groups of self-important party functionaries.

Rockefeller’s final years as governor are remembered for mounting state debt—quadruple what it was when he came to office—and a package of severe drug laws he rammed through the legislature, mandating the toughest penalties in the nation for nonviolent drug offenses: minimum fifteen-year sentences for possession of small amounts of hard drugs, twenty-five years to life for trafficking. A black assemblyman called it the “ghetto genocide bill.” The Governor explained his new toughness by saying that none of the previous approaches his administration had tried over the years on the advice of supposed experts had yielded the hoped-for results; only a policy of no tolerance, no plea-bargaining, it now seemed to him, could make a difference.

Billions were spent on the expansion of courts and prisons; drug wars became even more violent. Signing the new bill into law in 1973, Rockefeller assailed “political opportunists and misguided soft liners” who opposed it. When it came to criminal justice, he was now a hard-liner, a sad end for a leader who was supposed to personify the progressive tendency of his party that has since waned to the point of invisibility.

The increase in the state’s prison population in the next three decades was more than threefold; more than 90 percent of those jailed for nonviolent drug offenses were black and Hispanic. The rest of the country followed this lead.

Richard Norton Smith doesn’t go down a possible path of inquiry into these punitive attitudes: whether this shift bore any relation to the catastrophe at Attica a year and a half earlier when a tentative promise of prison reform gave way, four days into the prisoner revolt, to bloody repression and the death of thirty-two inmates and eleven guards who’d been held hostage. At first it was announced that the hostages had had their throats slit by their captors. A day later, after the smoke cleared, a medical examiner found no knife injuries; all of the dead had gunshot wounds. A motley force of National Guardsmen, state police, deputy sheriffs, and inflamed prison guards had let loose with a fusillade of two thousand rounds, firing into a prison yard that had been enveloped in clouds of CS gas dropped from helicopters. A relative of one of the slain hostages, himself a corrections officer, told me two days later that the dead man had been killed by “a bullet that had the name Rockefeller on it.”

Some of the correctional officers, it later developed, had used dum-dum bullets. Orders had been given barring prison guards from taking part in the operation. Minimal force was supposed to be used. Those orders were either not transmitted or ignored. No one, it later developed, was in overall charge. In the heat of the moment, the chain of command was replaced by vengeful mayhem. So there was no one to interfere when furious guards made the prisoners strip naked and run a gauntlet, in which they were beaten with clubs known locally as “nigger sticks.” Of the 398 guards on the prison staff, all but one were white.

The man with ultimate responsibility for the operation to take back the prison had spent the weekend at Pocantico Hills. He was in his Fifth Avenue apartment, never having visited the scene, when he gave the attack order, after having been informed that the hostages were being mutilated. Within a half-hour or so, assured over the phone that the prison had been secured with the least possible violence and casualties, his first act was to place a call to the White House. “It really was a beautiful operation,” Nelson Rockefeller told the president.

Richard Nixon asked whether the revolt had been “basically a black thing.” The governor replied that it had. He’d continue to insist that there’d been no indiscriminate firing. A year later a commission he appointed found the opposite and criticized him for keeping his distance. The governor issued a bland statement of appreciation for the commission’s “monumental job of investigation and reporting,” which would bolster “our programs for improving our system of criminal justice.” He would have no further words on the Attica unpleasantness.

The judgment rendered here by his biographer is appropriately severe: “Nelson Rockefeller was defined by his imagination. At Attica it failed him—his moral imagination most of all.” In a telling allusion, he draws a parallel to a 1914 assault by National Guardsmen in Colorado on a tent city erected by striking miners near the town of Ludlow, on a mine owned by the Rockefellers. Nelson’s father, John D. Rockefeller Jr. bore ultimate responsibility for what came to be known as “the Ludlow Massacre.” Attica, writes Smith, was the son’s “private Ludlow.”

In 1976, having been dropped as a running mate by Gerald Ford, his public career all but over, Rockefeller went on a campaign swing in upstate New York with his replacement on the Republican ticket, Bob Dole. Faced with hecklers at Binghamton, he responded with the popular middle-finger gesture sometimes called “flipping the bird.” His biographer says here that he “reciprocated their body language.” Whatever it’s called, the gesture produced an iconic news photograph of a politician cashing in his chips. A few days later, a visitor was surprised and mildly scandalized to find the vice-president, in high spirits, autographing copies of that picture. With some reluctance, Smith suggests, he allowed himself to be persuaded that signing the photos might be out of keeping with the dignity of his office. The larger truth seems to be that this scion of what Smith calls “American royalty” was teaching himself not to care.