Former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller Dies Mysteriously

Nelson A. Rockefeller, former U.S. vice president and four-term New York State governor, was found dead in his townhouse suite of an apparent heart attack. Present with Rockefeller when emergency medical personnel arrived was Rockefeller’s twenty-six-year-old assistant, Megan Marshak, furthering speculation of a romantic affair between the two. The reason for Rockefeller’s death remains a mystery.

Summary of Event

By the mid-twentieth century, Nelson A. Rockefeller was one of the towering figures in U.S. politics and public life. Born in 1908, he was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of the vast Standard Oil fortune, and Nelson Aldrich, an influential Republican senator from Rhode Island. These twin heritages of wealth and politics, along with patronage of the arts, were lifelong keynotes of Rockefeller’s life. His foremost interest was politics. [kw]Rockefeller Dies Mysteriously, Former Vice President Nelson (Jan. 26, 1979)
Marshak, Megan
Rockefeller, Nelson A.
Marshak, Megan
Rockefeller, Nelson A.
[g]United States;Jan. 26, 1979: Former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller Dies Mysteriously[01770]
[c]Sex;Jan. 26, 1979: Former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller Dies Mysteriously[01770]
[c]Politics;Jan. 26, 1979: Former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller Dies Mysteriously[01770]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Jan. 26, 1979: Former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller Dies Mysteriously[01770]
Pierce, Ponchitta

Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1964.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

When Vice President Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R.
[p]Ford, Gerald R.;and Nelson Rockefeller[Rockefeller] became the thirty-eighth president of the United States in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, he nominated Rockefeller to be vice president. Ford was focused on healing the country after the Watergate scandal. As a centrist, Rockefeller seemed an obvious choice, but he first had to be confirmed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The process took an unexpectedly long four months, with hearings that probed Rockefeller’s financial holdings. He was sworn in on December 19, 1974.

Rockefeller had served, in some capacity, every U.S. president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Gerald R. Ford, except one, and had been an accomplished four-term governor of New York. More than most politicians, however, his ultimate ambitions were focused on the presidency. In addition to his wealth and having a panel of knowledgeable advisers, he was energetic and charismatic and had many contacts on the international scene. From all accounts, he felt he was a “natural” for the office, yet in his three serious tries for the presidency—in 1960, 1964, and 1968—he was unable to win his party’s nomination.

After becoming vice president, Rockefeller found the office’s round of ceremonial duties boring. His protégé, Kissinger, Henry Henry Kissinger, was largely steering foreign policy, and Rockefeller expected to have a similarly large voice in shaping domestic policy. President Ford had his own ideas to the contrary, and so did his chief of staff, an ambitious forty-two-year-old, Donald Rumsfeld. During Rockefeller’s last year as vice president, he added a young journalist, Marshak, Megan Megan Marshak, to his staff. Marshak was in her early twenties; Rockefeller was sixty-eight years old. After she was on staff, Marshak was promoted rapidly and was often at Rockefeller’s side.

Megan Marshak, alleged lover of former vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

When Rockefeller left office at the end of Ford’s term in January, 1977, Marshak was one of the few staff members who continued to work for him in private life. Upon leaving politics, Rockefeller announced that his political ambitions were over. He planned to devote his energies to two projects related to his vast collection of original art: marketing good reproductions of his collection and writing a book about the holdings. Marshak worked closely with him on these projects and seemed genuinely interested in the art collection. In public she had a respectful demeanor, but it was inevitable that rumors would arise about a romantic or sexual relationship between her and Rockefeller.

Rockefeller had a private town house apartment on Fifty-fourth Street in Manhattan. It was connected to a suite of offices next door. On the evening of Friday, January 26, 1979, emergency medical technicians were summoned to the town house. Present when they arrived were Rockefeller, unconscious and probably dead from a heart attack, and Marshak. Rockefeller was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital. His wife, Happy, and his brother, Laurence, were called in. Also called were his physician, Ernest Esakof, and a Rockefeller family spokesperson, Hugh Morrow. Esakof announced Rockefeller’s death at 12:20 a.m. Marshak accompanied Rockefeller in the ambulance and held his oxygen bottle. She, too, was at the hospital but soon got out of the family’s way.

Soon, the press arrived. Morrow issued several different versions of what had happened. First, he had announced that Rockefeller died at his desk, alone except for a bodyguard. This story was soon dismissed after the press found out that Marshak was with Rockefeller when he died. Reports leaked out that she had been wearing a black caftan and Rockefeller had been wearing a suit and tie. The time factors, too, failed to add up. The time of the heart attack was placed at 10:15 p.m., but the emergency call was not made until one hour later. It was later discovered that Marshak did not make the 911 call. By her own account, the call was made by Marshak’s friend and neighbor, journalist Ponchitta Pierce, whom Marshak called to help when Rockefeller collapsed. Pierce made the phone call then left the apartment.

The Rockefeller family abhorred scandal and, after the flurry of conflicting reports by Morrow, said nothing further about the circumstances of Rockefeller’s death. No autopsy was performed; thus, it remains unclear what caused his death. It remains unknown as well whether he died while having sex with Marshak, although this scenario, to many, seems likely. Marshak has never spoken publicly about the death of her boss.

The scanty facts available only added to the salacious speculation surrounding Rockefeller’s death. Besides the common assumption that he and Marshak were having an affair, others claim that Marshak’s presence was a cover for a liaison Rockefeller was conducting with someone else, possibly Pierce.


Rockefeller’s death came at the cusp of a sea change in the press’s coverage of prominent politicians’ sexual behavior. Until this point, unless a public figure did something outrageous in public—such as the 1974 scandal involving Congressman Wilbur D. Mills and a stripper—journalists kept silent. The facts in the death of the former vice president were scanty, but the circumstances could not be ignored, and the press covered them accordingly. Within a decade, the press was relentless in its coverage of political sex scandals. Marshak, Megan
Rockefeller, Nelson A.

Further Reading

  • Apostolidis, Paul, and Juliet A. Williams, eds. Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. A study of politics and political culture in the context of sex scandals.
  • Persico, Joseph E. The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. A highly readable biography of Rockefeller that is generally sympathetic but not uncritical. Persico’s study remains a reliable and relevant source.
  • Reich, Cary. The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller. New York: Doubleday, 1996. An excellent biography of Rockefeller. Based on solid research, Reich’s interpretation is comprehensive and laudatory but still critical.
  • Roberts, Sam. “Serving as Ford’s No. 2, Rockefeller Never Took His Eye Off Top Job.” The New York Times, December 31, 2006. Insights, in the light of later events, into Rockefeller’s frustrations as vice president.
  • Rockefeller, David. David Rockefeller’s Memoirs. New York: Random House, 2002. A comprehensive memoir by Nelson Rockefeller’s brother, David. Includes valuable insights on Nelson’s early years and his impact as governor of New York and vice president of the United States.

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