Clare Crawford
February 17, 1975 12:00 PM

From the very beginning of her publicity-splashed marriage to Nelson Rockefeller, Margaretta Fitler Murphy Rockefeller has shrunk from the limelight whenever she could. Even last summer, on the day President Ford nominated her husband to be his Vice-President, Happy Rockefeller did not appear at the White House for the formal announcement but remained at the family’s New England seaside retreat. Later, after mastectomies were performed following the discovery of cancerous lesions in both breasts, she avoided most public appearances and made only fleeting visits with her husband to Washington.

Recently, however, Happy Rockefeller has been tentatively testing the social waters. While maintaining her customary assiduous silence on political matters, she hosted a luncheon last month at the Kennedy Center for the wife of visiting British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Then, that evening, she turned up at the White House looking radiant for the state dinner.

Remarkably, she shows no sign of her recent illness, nor is she obliged to undergo sometimes painful physical or chemical therapy. Only a few days ago, during a visit to Admiral’s House, the official vice-presidential residence now being renovated, she pirouetted like a schoolgirl for a photographer friend and later posed impishly beside a window. “The real me,” she confided cheerfully.

Not long before that, she also enthusiastically led a swarm of some 100 reporters and cameramen on an exploratory tour of the residence. Located on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, Admiral’s House is a turreted Victorian hulk that until last June was the home of the Chief of Naval Operations. Although the Rockefellers would obviously prefer to live in their own elegant dwelling on Foxhall Road in Washington, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts, Mrs. Rockefeller seems determined to make Admiral’s House a home. She has been through the 82-year-old mansion three times since her husband’s December swearing-in, and consults regularly with the Rockefeller architect, Peter Ogden, who is supervising the renovation. The Rockefellers will be the first vice-presidential family installed in Admiral’s House and she is intrigued by the fresh possibilities. “I just want everybody to feel they can have a very good time here,” she says, “and put their feet up and relax.”

A warm, unaffected woman whose radiant smile dispels an initial impression of wistfulness, Mrs. Rockefeller showed polish and poise in her debut before the Washington press corps. Leading the impatient horde up and down narrow stairways and into the mansion’s various rooms, she was gracious but always firmly in charge. She bantered easily with television crews who had to shoulder their heavy equipment and even prolonged the tour at one point by insisting on an excursion to the downstairs kitchen—a stop that hadn’t been on the original itinerary. It was only when reporters began to ask personal questions that she gently turned away. When one asked who had designed her dress, Mrs. Rockefeller replied offhandedly, “Oh, somebody made it for me.” “Who?” the reporter persisted. Mrs. Rockefeller moved on without answering.

Although she has already made plans to begin moving in some family belongings, including several of the Vice-President’s early American prints and a selection of antique furniture, it seems doubtful that Mrs. Rockefeller will actually spend much time in Washington. Admiral’s House won’t be ready for occupancy until early summer at best, and the Rockefellers retain many ties far from the capital. Apart from their ranch in Venezuela and their summer house in Maine, they have a spacious Fifth Avenue duplex and a country estate at Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where they spend weekends. Mrs. Rockefeller and the Rockefellers’ two sons, Nelson Jr., 10, and Mark, 8, now live in Manhattan, where the boys attend private day schools.

The Vice-President commutes—either by private jet or a rented military plane—leaving for Washington Sunday night or Monday morning and returning the following weekend. Nonetheless, the Rockefellers seem determined to become a Washington presence, socially as well as politically. The Vice-President has already plunged into a succession of marathon workdays. Happy Rockefeller is finding her own niche, while preserving an important measure of privacy. Even the two young Rockefellers have indicated a willingness to give Admiral’s House a try: after casing the layout, the two boys staked their claim to a room in the turret.

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