June 10, 1974 12:00 PM

On board an air force 707, the U.S. Secretary of State was briefing newsmen on his way to the latest round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy. Suddenly Nancy Kissinger materialized from the secretary’s private compartment in stockinged feet, her red toenail polish showing through. She peeked at the solemn gathering and quickly disappeared back into the compartment. Kissinger had not even noticed his wife’s presence.

Arriving in Alexandria, the Kissingers went to the Egyptian presidential residence, where Anwar Sadat singled out Nancy for a particularly warm greeting: “You are part of Henry’s family here.”

Nancy Kissinger’s visibility increased a few days later when, without her husband (who by then was in Damascus), she journeyed up the Nile to see the ancient temples at Luxor. She briefly fell ill, and Egyptians commiserated over her attack of “Pharaoh’s Revenge.”

Photographers with telephoto lenses enthusiastically snapped the long, lithe Nancy in a one-piece bathing suit when the U.S. entourage moved on to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. “Two strokes,” one observer said, “and she was across the pool.” Dramatizing the extraordinary security given the Kissingers at every turn, one agent, wearing shorts and a sport shirt, leaped into the pool and swam parallel to Nancy until she had finished her dip.

Throughout the mission she behaved as if her role as tireless, inquisitive, unfailingly courteous tourist could actually help the peace negotiations. She visited the souk or old market in Damascus, chatted with an Israeli soldier wounded in the Yom Kippur War, and conversed in animated, fluent French with a Franciscan archeologist at the site of the Capernaum synagogue on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his teachings.

As the protracted diplomatic maneuvering neared its close, Nancy Kissinger drew the kind of accolade missing in U.S. diplomacy since the Kennedy years. “More people here,” Premier Golda Meir said in her farewell toast, “now talk about Nancy than Doctor Henry.”

Before her recent marriage to Washington’s most eligible bachelor, Nancy Maginnes enjoyed priceless obscurity. Even when he squired her on the town, she was merely “that tall girl” with the dynamic Henry. And though she, and only she, was seeing Kissinger steadily, it was his splashy dates with starlets that were more likely to tickle the press. That is precisely, the evidence suggests, the way the elusive Nancy preferred it. Intellectual and reserved, with a strict sense of personal privacy, she had no desire to bask in Kissinger’s limelight. But neither, as the Mideast tour so amply proved, was she destined to become that most pathetic of capital casualties, the Washington wife who can’t keep pace with her husband.

Perhaps the secret of Nancy Maginnes Kissinger’s easy adjustment is her own sense of cool independence. A mature, cultivated woman of 40, used to being taken seriously as a foreign policy professional, she is a longtime adviser to former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. She still occupies a responsible position with Rockefeller’s Commission on Critical Choices for Americans. It was while both she and Kissinger were working for Rockefeller in 1964, in fact, that they met. His first marriage had just foundered. Nancy, the daughter of an erudite, prosperous Park Avenue lawyer, had grown up with two older brothers on a 20-acre estate in suburban White Plains, N.Y. “I never had any sense of not being treated intellectually the same as my brothers,” she once told Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. “If I was one of those adorable, cute little girls, maybe I’d have been treated like one.”

Instead, tomboyish, lanky and angular—just a shade under six feet tall, she towers nearly four inches above the secretary of state—she was enrolled in the exclusive Masters School in nearby Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. There, somehow, she was spared the big girl’s painful self-consciousness. “It was a very gentle place,” she recalls with affection. “There was no competition for clothes or dates. I had no feeling I was growing so tall.” Later she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and returned to Dobbs Ferry to teach. Afterward she studied for her doctorate in history at the University of California at Berkeley, but was lured away by Rockefeller before she’d earned her degree.

For nearly a decade until their marriage last March, she and Kissinger were in and out of each other’s lives almost constantly. Even while the press delighted in styling the peripatetic Kissinger as a “swinger,” their friends had little doubt where his true allegiance lay. “All of you Episcopalians who have been picking on me so long,” he announced in a recent 40th birthday toast to his wife, “I want you to know that if I had my way, we would have been married three years ago!”

No one professes to be more delighted with the match than Washington gadfly Barbara Howar, whose own name was once linked with Kissinger’s. Normally a caustic observer of the capital social whirl, she regards the new Mrs. Kissinger with feline affection. “She’s a cool old girl,” says Mrs. Howar. “If they were making an old Frank Capra movie, Jean Arthur would play Nancy. She’ll never whine at him. She’s a complete person. She’ll just take her copy of Metternich and go into the other room.” In Washington’s jungle of jaded sophisticates, Barbara predicts, Mrs. Kissinger will be gloriously out of place. A nondrinker—”because of an ulcer,” explains Mrs. Howar—Nancy pays no heed to cocktail-circuit conventions. “She eats peanut butter sandwiches!” Mrs. Howar exclaims. “I’ve seen her at a party just piling onions on something, and Henry will come and take it out of her hand.” Mrs. Kissinger’s virtues, she finds, are old-fashioned ones—honesty, simplicity and plain common sense. “She tells him when she thinks he’s wrong. What secretary of state ever had someone that intelligent for pillow talk?”

Certainly Mrs. Howar’s praise was echoed throughout the Middle East. “I never met a more intelligent woman,” bubbled diamond merchant Moshe Schnitzer after Nancy visited his bazaar. “It is unbelievable how quickly she catches on. She poses the right questions at the right time, and if she is not happy with the answer, then she will pursue it until she is satisfied.”

Despite her curiosity and probing intelligence, however, the secretary’s wife was careful not to trespass in his affairs. Even while questioning Israeli General Haim Herzog about a whole range of Middle East issues, she rarely offered an opinion herself. “How well versed she was I don’t know,” said the general, a former head of Israeli military intelligence. “But from her questions, it was obvious she had a knowledge of the situation.”

Ultimately, however, it was Nancy Kissinger’s endurance and unflagging good humor that proved as impressive as her intellect. Only once did her patience seem to wear thin. While waiting 20 minutes for admission to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest of Islamic shrines, she was as usual chain-smoking furiously. “When you finish this cigarette, in another five minutes, we shall enter the shrine,” the Moslem keeper assured her. Mrs. Kissinger looked at him balefully. “It takes me exactly seven minutes to finish a cigarette,” she replied.

Inevitably, with Kissinger flying tirelessly back and forth between Damascus and Tel Aviv, much of his wife’s time was spent thanklessly waiting. A lesser woman might have betrayed her annoyance, but Mrs. Kissinger remained cool and unflappable. “Henry needs a rest,” she would often tell her escorts. When, finally, the secretary of state would arrive, agitated from the strain of his mission, she would stand quietly listening to him talk to reporters, her smoky eyes gazing at him with unspoken concern, her presence reassuring. Amid the urgent realities of power and politics, these were moments that would certainly gratify a Metternich.

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