The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> United States >> Early 20th Century >> Biography, A-Z
Nelson Rockefeller

Governor of New York, Vice-President of the United States

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, on July 8, 1908. He was educated at the prestigious Lincoln School of Teachers' College at Columbia University, 1917-1926, and graduated from Dartmouth College with a B.A. in economics in 1930.

Early Business and Philanthropic Career

After college, Rockefeller engaged in various family oil, real estate, and banking businesses. After working at the London and Paris branches of the Chase National Bank in 1931, he became an employee of Rockefeller Center. He successively served as a member of the board of directors, president and then chairman before moving on to other interests in 1958. He also served as director of Creole Petroleum Company, 1935-1940.

An avid supporter of the arts, Rockefeller was a major contributor to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as a trustee, treasurer, president, and chairman of the board. In 1954 he established the Museum of Primitive Art in New York City.

With his siblings he founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1940, and served as a trustee in 1940-1975 and 1977-1979. In 1946 he helped establish the American International Association for Economic Development. In 1947 he helped establish the International Basic Economy Corporation to aid developing nations through educational and training programs.

Early Political Career

Rockefeller began his political career as a member of the Westchester County (NY) Board of Health, 1933-1953, and as a member of the Mayor's Business Advisory Committee (NYC), 1940-1947.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rockefeller served as director of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, 1940-1944; and as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin-American Affairs, 1944-1945, in which capacity he played a key role in hemispheric policy at the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. He was fired from the latter position by President Harry Truman in order to settle a dispute within the State Department.

Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Rockefeller served on the President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization, 1953-1958; as chairman of the Special Committee on Defense Organization, 1953; as Under-Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1953-1954; and as Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs, 1954-1955.

Other positions in which Rockefeller served during this period included: chairman, Inter-American Development Commission, 1940-1947; member, Mexican-American Commission for Economic Cooperation, 1943-1945; member, Mayor's Committee for the United Nations (NYC), 1946, in which capacity he was responsible for bringing the UN to New York; chairman, International Development Advisory Board, 1950-1951; chairman, Special Studies Project of the Rockefeller Brothers Fun, 1956-1958; chairman, Temporary New York State Commission on the Constitutional Convention, 1956-1958; consultant to Secretary of Defense on Organization of the Department of Defense, 1958; chairman, Special Legislative Committee on the Revision and Simplification of the New York State Constitution, 1958.

Governor of New York

In 1958, Rockefeller decided to run for Governor of New York against the popular Democratic incumbent Averell Harriman. Although many other Republicans across the country lost their respective elections that year, Rockefeller was successful in his bid, and took office in 1959. He was subsequently re-elected three times, and finally resigned from office in 1973 to give his long-serving Lieutenant-Governor, Malcolm Wilson, a chance to run as the incumbent.

Rockefeller feeds cake to a guest at a Coffee and Cake with Rockefeller party during his campaign for Governor of New York
running for Governor

Nelson and Mary Rockefeller celebrate his 1958 election as Governor of New York
celebrating victory

As Governor, Rockefeller vastly increased the state's role in education, environmental protection, transportation, housing, welfare, and the arts. The state's highway system was greatly improved, the university system was expanded, and a vast new complex of state office buildings was erected in Albany.

A popular Governor throughout most of his tenure, Rockefeller lost some support during the Attica Prison Riots of 1971, when he authorized the state police to retake the prison by force. The incident resulted in the deaths of 10 hostages and 29 inmates.

While Governor, Rockefeller served as an adviser to two Presidents. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson he served on the President's Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1965-1969. Under President Richard Nixon he was a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which oversaw CIA activities, 1969-1974, and headed the Presidential Mission to Latin America as President Nixon's envoy in 1969.

Vice-President of the United States

Having been an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, 1968, and 1972, Rockefeller was prepared to give up his ambition for national office when President Gerald R. Ford asked him to be his Vice-President. Although initially reluctant to take a position which has little traditional responsibility, assurances by Ford that he would be an integral part of his administration led him to change his mind, and he ultimately accepted the offer. After a prolonged confirmation battle in Congress, he finally took the oath of office on December 19, 1974.

Despite the President's promises to the contrary, Vice-President Rockefeller ultimately failed in his bid to play a major part in Ford's administration. Ford's advisers suggested that he had a better chance of being re-elected without Rockefeller on the ticket, so Rockefeller "voluntarily declined" a chance at another term.

Later Career

After leaving office, Rockefeller returned to his philanthropic activities and worked extensively on his private art collection in New York City. In 1978 he established The Nelson Rockefeller Collection, Inc., an art reproduction business. He was working in his New York City office when he died of a heart attack, on January 26, 1979. His cremains are interred at the family estate in Pocantico Hills, New York.


Nelson Rockefeller married Mary Todhunter Clark on June 23, 1930. The couple divorced in 1962. On May 4, 1963, he married Margaretta Fitler "Happy" Murphy, in Pocantico Hills, New York. His son, Nelson Jr., was born to this second union.

Nelson and Margaretta Rockefeller soon after their marriage.
Nelson and Margaretta Rockefeller


Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
The Rockefeller Archive Center
U.S. Senate Art and History

See Also

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Harry Truman
State Department
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
New York
President Lyndon B. Johnson
President Richard Nixon
President Gerald R. Ford

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> United States >> Early 20th Century >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on December 31, 2018.