Remembering Happy Rockefeller, an Early Breast Cancer Advocate

Illustration for article titled Remembering Happy Rockefeller, an Early Breast Cancer Advocate

Ah, midcentury America, where everyone lived by traditional family values in an I Love Lucy haze and nobody did anything scandalous until those goddamn hippies and their Woodstock. If you ignore stories like that of Nelson and Happy Rockefeller, of course.


Mrs. Rockefeller died earlier this week at 88, and news outlets are filling up with obituaries. She originally became a household name when she tied the knot with the Rockefeller scion in 1963, which unleashed a massive uproar because he was running for president at the time. They’d both been married to other people, and she gave up custody of her own children to secure her divorce. The press and public pretty much flipped shit. The New York Times says:

“Only a few weeks ago Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller was far out in front,” The Philadelphia Inquirer said. “Now, abruptly, the picture has changed. The Rockefeller image has been damaged.”

Mr. Rockefeller faced the divorce issue squarely by taking his new wife on the campaign trail. She handled the glare of publicity well, gamely greeting crowds, even donning maternity clothes as the campaign, and her pregnancy, progressed. Some advisers opposed her involvement, but she was an unexpected hit, with many voters responding warmly to what they called her cheerful, artless charm.

“One look at this wholesome, dimple-chinned woman, and the most critical matron is apt to remark: ‘She doesn’t strike me as a femme fatale,’” admitted the New York Herald Tribune. Nevertheless, the scandal probably helped hand the GOP nomination to Barry Goldwater.

Women’s Wear Daily remembers her style, quoting designer Norman Norell: “She has that good family, Ivy League look. She will always look right — never gussied up, never silly. She is not interested in excitement for excitement’s sake.” But the Washington Post suggests the role of politician’s wife wasn’t always an easy fit:

She was modest, often appearing without eye makeup or a professionally done hairdo. Her friends called her “shy” and “private.” She rarely spoke to the news media and, when she did, became anxious. “I’ve seen her turn to Nelson and say, ‘What should I say? What should I do?’” a friend told People magazine in 1974. “The trouble is, she doesn’t know her own charm.” On the other hand, some said, her “lack of eagerness” was refreshing.

Rockefeller continued as governor of New York and would eventually serve as Vice President. As “Second Lady,” Happy used her role to help raise early awareness of breast cancer. Via the Times:

In 1974, as her husband awaited Senate confirmation as vice president, Mrs. Rockefeller learned she had breast cancer and had two mastectomies, five weeks apart. Weeks earlier, President Ford’s wife, Betty, also had a mastectomy. They and Shirley Temple Black were among the first to announce mastectomies publicly and were widely credited with raising national awareness for the early detection of breast cancer.


“She went through it with dignity and was one of the first role models,” friend Richard Parsons told the Associated Press.

Photo via AP Images.

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Interesting tidbit from her New York Times obit:

Former Senator Prescott S. Bush, a Connecticut Republican and a longtime Rockefeller supporter (and the father of one future president and the grandfather of another), declared: “Have we come to the point where a governor can desert his wife and children, and persuade a young woman to abandon her four children and husband? Have we come to the point where one of the two great parties will confer its greatest honor on such a one? I venture to hope not.”

Little did Prescott know that his beloved Republican party would soon elect the only (to date) divorced President in U.S. history (Reagan).