It is early evening in Washington as Nancy Kissinger, tall and elegant in a wine-colored Bill Blass gown, slips into a seventh-floor office in the State Department. Henry Kissinger is at the White House with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and President Ford, sparring over the Mideast, strategic arms and a wheat agreement. The desk phone rings. “Hi, sweetie,” Nancy greets the Secretary of State. He is calling to tell her he will be late. Forty-five minutes later he walks in with a smile of undisguised fondness and nods approvingly at her gown. The Kissingers are heading out for another evening of the diplomatic socializing that is so important in Washington. Since their marriage 18 months ago, Henry, 52, has grown to depend upon 41-year-old Nancy not only as wife and intellectual soul mate, but as a coolly adept ambassadress-at-large.
At first hesitant in her new role, she has adjusted so remarkably to the rigors of Washington that she is no longer troubled by the ulcer she acquired last year from fatigue. “All the surprises come in getting married,” says Nancy. “When you are single as long as I was, that requires more of an adjustment than being the wife of the Secretary of State.”
“Nancy stands aloof from day-to-day trivialities,” explains her close friend Bette Lord, a writer and the wife of a Kissinger aide. “The constant taking of people’s blood pressure that is so much a part of Washington is not a part of her life.”
Though she is artfully controlled, Mrs. Kissinger exerts a relaxing influence on her sometimes brutally intense husband. During the latest round of Middle East negotiations, her humor and sense of priorities helped to keep frayed nerves to a minimum. On one hectic day of diplomatic shuttle flights between Alexandria and Tel Aviv, a harried Kissinger was rushing to schedule another airborne briefing when Nancy quietly broke in. No one had yet eaten dinner, she pointed out. Henry Kissinger ordered the meal served.
If, occasionally, Kissinger appears to be taking himself too seriously, Nancy knows how to deflate him—graciously. “She obviously adores Henry,” says a friend, “and if he gets a little pompous, she pops the balloon by laughing at him.” (Kissinger, too, has been known to disarm his wife with humor. “Whenever you start getting sad or angry about something,” she explains, “he knows he can have you in hysterics in two minutes and he always does. The problem is that some people don’t know when he is kidding.”)
In remarkable contrast to the hubbub that accompanies Kissinger’s travels is the relative tranquillity of his home life. Nancy’s idea of a relaxing evening is dinner with her husband in their rented Georgetown three-story home anytime between 9 p.m. and midnight. “My schedule becomes more involved when we have foreign visitors, but it’s generally calm because Henry doesn’t accept a lot of invitations,” she says. The Kissingers rarely schedule dinners for more than eight people, “so everybody can take part in the conversation,” explains Nancy. “There’s no room in the house for large parties or servants. The Secret Service, close family guests, Tyler (the Kissingers’ yellow Labrador retriever puppy, currently recuperating from hip surgery), and us—that’s it.”
A laundress and a cleaning lady come in twice a week, but Mrs. Kissinger prefers to do her own cooking, usually French or American dishes. “Even though they are Henry’s favorite, I can’t do German dishes,” she admits. “He loves Wiener schnitzel, but I’ve never attempted it.”
The Kissingers see a great deal of Vice-President and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller, says Nancy, but there is little entertaining within the Ford Administration. “There is a professional atmosphere,” she explains. “Everyone is pretty busy and wants to go home at night and see their own families.”
Other Kissinger intimates include columnist Tom Braden and his wife Joan, Joseph and Susan Mary Alsop (though divorced, they still dine together at the Kissingers), U.S. Ambassador to NATO David Bruce, and Washington Post publisher Kay Graham. In New York, actress Kitty Carlisle is a close friend, as is Harvard Professor Guido Goldman.
Instinctively a private person, Mrs. Kissinger grants few interviews, refuses to have her home photographed, and turns down hundreds of requests to lend her name to charities, committees and social events. The only major project she has agreed to sponsor this year is a Bicentennial exhibition dealing with the role of American women in the Revolutionary era. A foreign policy specialist by training (she is a director of Rockefeller’s Commission on Critical Choices), Mrs. Kissinger takes a keen interest in her husband’s public life, but deliberately remains unobtrusive. She often reads and criticizes the Secretary’s speeches before he delivers them, but claims to have no inside knowledge of State Department secrets, and does not read diplomatic cables. “I like to see what evolves in a negotiation,” she says. “I’ll ask somebody what’s happening, and he’ll say it’s all going fine. Another person will say it’s going terribly, and a third says the situation is not clear.” Nancy listens and makes up her own mind.
Happily for domestic tranquillity, her own realpolitik approach to foreign policy meshes neatly with that of her husband. She supported his Vietnam policies, and did not oppose the bombing of Hanoi. “I just have the instinctive, gut reaction that if you get into a war, it is much less complicated if you win it than if you lose it,” she says. “Vietnam was incredibly mismanaged. It was easier to get into than to get out of.”
While Nancy keeps an eye on her husband’s diplomatic maneuverings, Kissinger carefully scrutinizes her wardrobe. “He doesn’t shop with me,” she reports, “but he will say, ‘I’m so sick of that evening dress—please go out and get another one.’ He comments on absolutely everything I wear.”
Kissinger is openly envious of Nancy’s improbable diet. A chronic smoker, and junk food addict, she shamelessly indulges herself with potato chips, Clark Bars, white fudge and See’s candy, a California sweet made without preservatives. Despite it all, she remains impeccably slender.
She is a less adaptable traveler than the secretary, who thrives on only four or five hours sleep a night, and can doze off at will on a plane. Nancy has found she needs a full eight hours, and while in flight wakes up with “every bump.” She especially enjoys touring the U.S. with her husband. “Henry draws strength from the trips,” she observes. “He worships the United States in a way none of us who was born here can.” She is looking forward, though, to a time when he will no longer be the Secretary of State. “I wouldn’t like Henry to have four more years,” she says thoughtfully. “The exercise of power, which seems so full of fun and games on the outside, is full of planning, agonizing decisions and working all hours of the day and night. Eight years, I think, is enough for anyone. People can age 20 years in that time.”
When Kissinger does leave government, Nancy does not expect him to return to the academic life. “For people as energetic as Henry, the more responsibility and the more work, the happier they are,” she says. “They are workhorses by nature.” Nor is she at all sure he will write that often talked about memoir. “When people leave pressurized jobs like Henry’s they can’t sit down and write a book,” she says. “They are too restless. And it isn’t Henry’s nature. He thinks about things for a long time. He’s never had a planned career. Everything has happened by chance.”