What have these stars in common with Nelson Rockefeller?
Suicide. Political suicide. The world was stunned, shocked. Even The New York Times ran a banner headline announcing that the thirty-one-year marriage of Nelson Rockefeller and Mary Todhunter Clark was over. The news shook the Republican party to its roots. Party leaders remembered all too well what had happened to Adlai Stevenson in his tries for the presidency. What was it that one of Stevenson’s party workers had told a reporter? “I worked for Stevenson in both his campaigns. And both times I got hundreds of letters, from the South especially, asking how I could work for a divorced man. That hurt him, all right, his being divorced. And now I don’t envy Rockefeller if he goes through with this . . . it’s not easy for a divorced man in politics, believe me.” Republican party leaders knew this. Rockefeller knew it. But what he didn’t know when his separation from Mary was announced was that his trouble, his suffering, had only begun. The worst was yet to come.
He’d been riding in a giant bubble that knew only one direction—up. His career in politics was fantastic. His own wife once said that if it were up to the women voters alone, he would have no trouble winning any election. And the men of the country looked up to him, too. He was admired, imitated, respected. A matinee idol to women, a hero to men. And now, suddenly, everything exploded. Among the millions who watched the explosion, there were eight people for whom it had special meaning. Arthur Godfrey was one.
Arthur, like Rockefeller, had done some- thing which he felt was right—but which the public would not—could not—accept.
In 1957, Godfrey was on top of the biggest wave of popularity that people in radio and television had ever seen.
Then he fired Julius LaRosa, publicly, on the air—and suddenly, the wave slipped out from under him.
Then. one by one. he fired almost all of his “friends.”
The public watched and listened, waiting for the ax to fail on some new performer’s head. They listened and watched—but they did not buy his products, and their letters, when they wrote to him at all were not the type that even Arthur Godfrey would read on the air.
Ingrid Bergman is also well aware of the price a human being must pay to do something in which he or she believes. She broke up what the world considered a “happy home.” Her marriage to Peter Lindstrom (her first date, her first love, her first marriage) seemed ideal: they loved each other and their daughter Pia. Then, without warning, Ingrid left Hollywood, Peter and Pia. She flew off to Italy and into the arms of Roberto Rossellini. Months later, still married to Peter, she gave birth to Roberto’s illegitimate child. (She was condemned in every corner of our country—even on the Senate floor.)
Another celebrity who must surely have winced when he heard about Rockefeller’s plans for divorce is William Talman, the underdog district attorney on TV’s “Perry Mason.” He, too, has known the sting of public venom. One night policemen raided a party he was attending and arrested him on a charge of lewd conduct and claimed there was marijuana in the apartment. The next day he was painted as black as the rottenest villain he had ever prosecuted on TV. No longer a sympathetic underdog, in the public eye he was was just a dog. “The women won’t like this at all.” predicted TV higher-ups.
They were right—letters began to pour in demanding that he be fired—and he was. Acceptance by the women of the country is vital—both to men in politics and in Hollywood.
Robert Mitchum knows this from firsthand experience. He had been the idol of millions of women until he made one mistake they would not forgive: He was arrested in a marijuana raid which resulted in his being sentenced to do time on a road gang.
The women who had once flocked to see his movies stayed at home. Some even wrote long, vicious letters to his studio.
Would the women stop waiting in line to see Rockefeller now? Would they stop lingering after his speeches for a chance to shake his hand or shout words of encouragement? His advisors wondered.
In any case, the divorce would be filed out of New York State and with a minimum of publicity, quite different from the scandal and furor that errupted when Susan Hayward and Jess Barker exposed their dirty marital linen to a divorce court, a judge—and to the world.
Their marriage, too, seemed “perfect.” Her career was booming—she’d been nominated for an Academy Award for her acting in “Smash-Up,” and her private life appeared to be one of the happiest in Hollywood. But the divorce proceedings were messy. She charged cruelty, asserting that Jess had blackened her eye and pushed her into the swimming pool. He hurled hack counter-charges and demanded half of their community property.
Susan won her freedom but she lost the respect and support of the public. And the gossips had a field day.
The same gossips were on the job when it was announced that Nelson and Mary Rockefeller were calling it quits. The rumor-mongers started to besmirch their reputations: “This isn’t the first time they contemplated divorce. They almost split up once before. . . . There must be some- thing awfully wrong with that marriage to make Mary give up the chance to be the First Lady of the United States. . . . Rocky did everything to talk her out of bringing the divorce action, but once Mary makes her mind up . . .” And so it went.
Ironically enough, when Sophia Loren tried to get married and stay married, she was the victim of the same barrage of rumor, innuendo and attack. After Carlo Ponti obtained a proxy divorce from his wife Giulliana and then married Sophia in another proxy ceremony, public and official reactions were frightening. The Church declared their marriage “gravely illicit,” threatened them with excommunication and labeled them “sinners.”
The public is funny when it comes to marriage; people want their idols to fail in love and get married—once. Frank Sinatra learned this.
On Columbus Day, 1944, ten thousand patrons, mostly young girls, stretched in a line six abreast waiting to see Frankie at New York’s Paramount Theater.
Eight years later Sinatra climbed out of a plane at LaGuardia Airport to he met by a horde of photographers. He smiled. He stood for a moment in a casual pose. Not a shutter clicked.
Suddenly they pushed past him. Their celebrity had arrived. It was Gus Hail, a convicted communist leader.
Frankie learned his lesson the hard way.
But it is Liz Taylor, above all, who probably understands best what may have gone on in Rocky’s heart when he revealed that his marriage was neither “perfect” nor “happy.”
When Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for Liz, she was picketed, boycotted, slandered and hounded. She ‘was labeled a home-wrecker, a husband-stealer, a sneak and a publicity hound. She failed to receive an Oscar for her performance in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, although before the scandal broke, she was considered a shoo-in for the honor.
Liz Taylor learned then, as Nelson Rockefeller was to discover later, the horrible damage to one’s reputation and future that one news story can cause.
The Rockefeller news story broke suddenly. John Wingate, the announcer, was just about to begin a story on the likelihood of Rockefeller’s being the Republicans’ next candidate for President when he was handed the “divorce” bulletin. Wingate informed his listeners that he was going to “throw out” the political story. He read the bulletin and added that the news “obviously throws a different light on the Republican ticket in 1964.”
Not many hours after the news of the break-up was flashed to the world, news of a vastly different sort, even more tragic, was disclosed to Mr. Rockefeller.
The message came from far away and took a long time to reach him
The news was brief, confusing and ominous. His youngest son, 23-year-old Michael, was missing in the treacherous seas off the New Guinea coast.
In a moment’s time Rockefeller changed from a complicated man wrestling with the problems of his political state to a simple man—a father about to go off in search of his lost son.
That very night Rockefeller and his daughter. Mrs. Mary Strawbridge (Michael’s twin), boarded a commercial airliner and set off for Honolulu on the way to New Guinea. The Governor and his daughter were a pitiable sight as they sat side by side on the plane holding hands.
As the airliner droned through the night, the father’s thoughts were probably only of his son, Michael . . . Michael, who could have sat back and done nothing for the rest of his life, but had chosen instead to join an anthropological expedition to study the primitive culture of a little-known New Guinea tribe . . . Michael who had studied hard at Phillips Exeter Academy, but whose “raucous laugh” bothered a prep school disciplinarian so much that he removed the door to young Rockefeller’s room in order to keep an eye on him . . . Michael. who graduated cum laude from Harvard, yet worked as a supermarket clerk in Puerto Rico one summer . . . Michael, who loved art, but also had a fondness for speed which got him into trouble with the law, once in a flashy sportscar, once in an ancient Studebaker . . . Michael, who sewed in the Army after graduation, without fuss or fanfare, even though the public relations officers wanted to make a “hero” of him . . . Michael, who was an excellent swimmer and had plunged into the water of the Arajura Sea, near the mouth of the Eilander River, when the forty-foot proa—two dug out canoes lashed together and powered by an eighteen-horsepower outboard motor—capsized. He was last seen swimming towards the shore three miles away . . . Michael, who had written his father a letter in which he said. “I hope to be home for Christmas.”
Before he left New York, Rockefeller had said, “I’m going out there and I want to be there when they find him. I hope they find him before I get there—but I want to be there.” Now that they were actually on the scene flying low over the huge search area, he and Mary could see for themselves the sea and shore beneath. Worry was etched into their pale faces.
Below them, “the land of lapping death,” as the natives called it, was a morass of rivers and jungles. The swamp was covered with green scum where giant crocodiles, poisonous snakes and centipedes lurked, and malarial mosquitos swarmed by the millions.
The expressions on the Rockefellers’ faces revealed what they were thinking: Even if Michael were able to swim through that horrible sea, even if Michael were able to wade across that treacherous strip of mile-wide coastline mud, even if Michael were able to reach shore, how would he ever make his way safely through that spongy mass of trackless vegetation to an outpost? It seemed hopeless.
But then. almost blessedly, the Rockefellers received encouraging news. Michael’s companion, thirty-four-year-old Doctor Rene Wassing, had been found clinging to the proa about twenty-two miles out at sea. They rushed off to hear Wassing’s story from his own lips.
Wassing told them how their proa had been swamped by a huge wave. The two men had managed to crawl into the bottom of the hulls, and that’s where they spent the night. By morning they had drifted three or four miles out to sea.
Michael had suggested they dive in and swim for shore, but, Rene said, “I warned him about the crocodiles.” Nevertheless, Michael had stripped off his shoes and pants and plunged into the water. He took two gasoline cans along to help him float.
“His last words,” Wassing said, “were, ‘I think I can make it.’ I followed him with my eyes until I could see only three dots—his head and the two oil cans. Then he disappeared across my horizon. I didn’t want Mike to leave. I thought it was better to stay on the boat. But Mike had his own will and did what he wanted.”
A father hopes on. . . .
Rockefeller had new confidence. Wassing had been found. There was a good chance that Michael would be rescued, too. Australian helicopters and Dutch naval vessels were searching the area along with thousands of natives.
Rockefeller was encouraged. “I have complete confidence in Michael’s stamina and resourcefulness,” he said. “I’m still optimistic. I’ve got to find Mike.”
The second day’s search brought no results, nor the third. The natives were spurred on in their efforts by the offer of 250 pieces of tobacco—highly prized in New Guinea—to anyone who would help find Michael, but they found no trace of the boy.
On the fourth day Rockefeller, who now left the actual searching to more experienced eyes, announced, “It’s almost over. Things look bad.”
But then, on the seventh day came new hope. A six-gallon, red oil can had been picked up off the coast by a Dutch mapping vessel and was flown back for Wassing to identify. He said that he was “ninety percent sure it was one of the cans used by Mike” in his attempt to swim to shore.
The Governor called the finding of the can a “good omen” and postponed his departure.
On the eighth day there was an even better sign—a plume of smoke was spotted rising from the steamy jungle near a small village south of the Eilander River. Rockefeller asked that helicopters be immediately rushed to the area.
Two days later this hope was dashed. The smoke came from brush burning in the jungle. Even the finding of a second empty gasoline can and a water bottle didn’t help lighten the Governor’s gloom.
More than 10,000 natives and the reinforced Dutch air and sea force had been engaged in the greatest search operation ever staged in the New Guinea area. But their efforts—and Rockefeller’s prayers—were in vain.
One afternoon Michael’s father spread his son’s papers out on the lawn. He went through the notebooks and letters carefully. These were all that remained of Michael’s ambitions, dreams and work.
Before he and Mary left New Guinea, Nelson Rockefeller thanked everyone for the help they had given him, and then he added in a voice that was weary and scarcely above a whisper: “If I had to do it all over again, I would still permit Michael to make this expedition. One can’t do anything in life without some risk. He was never happier than when he was in West New Guinea. He is Creative and has a love of people. . . .”
That was the first time the Governor had used the past tense in speaking of his son.
As he left New Guinea and flew over the treacherous sea and jungle which had swallowed up his son, he said, “A miracle can happen, and perhaps it will.”
While his plane was winging its way homeward, the Governor did not know it yet, but a miracle had happened back in the United States. From President Kennedy to the man in the Street, messages of sympathy and consolation had poured into the Rockefeller home.
He was no longer the villain, a man involved in a divorce action; he was a helpless man, a father who had lost a son.
Now by a crazy twist of fate—a twist that he would have gladly given his whole political career to undo—he had regained the sympathy and support of the American people. He regained the public’s favor, but he lost his son.
It may be cruel but it happens often, this quirk in human nature. If an American hero seems to stray from the path his public expects him to follow, he is condemned, he is ostracized. Then if he suffers, he is forgiven.
It happened to Bill Talman. When he appeared in court three months after his arrest, the case was thrown out for lack of evidence. But he didn’t get his TV job back. His wife sued him for divorce and he was in desperate financial distress. That’s when public sympathy switched in his favor. Letters flooded CBS asking to have him back, and Raymond Burr outdid Perry Mason in pleading on Talman’s behalf. Finally, after a nine-month absence—and untold suffering—Bill was restored to his job—and to public favor.
Bob Mitchum had paid his debt to society, but it wasn’t until he fought back at another charge made against him—a false charge—that he regained complete public acceptance. A scandal magazine claimed he had stripped off all his clothes at a dinner party given by Charles Laughton, sprinkled his nude body with ketchup and announced he was masquerading as a hamburger.
Mitchum lashed out. “They finally did it to me. Why that story? There’s not an ounce of truth in it.” Then he filed suit against the magazine. The fans believed Bob and showed their support by plunking down money at the box office again. Once more Mitchum was riding high.
Arthur Godfrey’s fans took him back into their hearts after an operation that nearly took his life. In a delicate five-hour operation, doctors removed a malignant tumor from Arthur’s chest. The night after this surgery was completed, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital received thousands of calls asking about his condition. He was sent 130.000 pieces of get-well mail from men, women and children all over the country.
The sufferer forgiven
Ingrid Bergman’s return to public favor began when she suffered her most severe heartbreak. She wanted her daughter Pia to visit her in Italy, and finally petitioned the Los Angeles Court for permission. But when thirteen-year old Pia was called as a witness, she told the judge, “I don’t love my mother. I like her. I love my father. I don’t want to go to Italy.”
That was the turning point for Ingrid. In her moment of deepest despair the public forgave her. The forgiveness was complete when Rossellini became involved in a love affair with Sonali Das Gupta, the Indian mother of two sons—an affair that led to his and Ingrid’s divorce. Soon after that Ingrid won an Oscar for her performance in “Anastasia.”
Susan Hayward’s moment of extreme suffering and subsequent forgiveness occurred on April 25th, 1955, when she phoned her mother in the early hours of the morning and sobbed, “Don’t worry, Mother. You’ll be well taken care of.”
Her mother called the police and they raced to the actress’ house. They broke down the door and found Susan unconscious on the floor. Upstairs they found two empty bottles of sleeping tablets. She was rushed to North Hollywood Hospital, then transferred to Cedars of Lebanon. There she regained consciousness.
Maybe the wires from her fans helped. The very people who had turned against her at the time of her divorce action now were praying for her recovery.
Sophia Loren’s acceptance by the fans took place, like Bob Mitchum’s, on the day she fought back against her tormentors. Braving a possible jail term for herself and her husband, she returned to Rome to testify at bigamy proceedings brought against them. She was there, she said, because she wanted to experience the “joy of having a baby,” the baby whose birth she and Carlo were eagerly awaiting. But shortly afterwards the final blow was struck: She lost her baby. She had been vilified. criticized, accused. Now she had lost the one thing in the world she wanted most. The whole world sympathized.
Frank Sinatra’s story? His and Ava Gardner’s loss of their child and his own near loss of his voice due to a throat hemorrhage threw public sympathy in his favor. That and the fact that he never stopped trying.
An outcast comes home
But the most dramatic reversal of public opinion in the history of show business is undoubtedly the one experienced by Liz Taylor. The public condemnation that started when she went off to Grossinger’s with Eddie Fisher continued after she and Eddie married and followed her wherever she went—England, France, Spain and back to the United States. She was always the “other woman,” the outcast.
Then it happened—the most intense suffering a human being can experience—critical illness and approaching death.
A miracle happened. Liz did live. And another miracle happened, too—the miracle of acceptance and love of the whole world.
Rejection—suffering—acceptance: the bond that unites these eight stars and Nelson Rockefeller.
That and the miracle of public sympathy and love.
A warmth and concern that may someday enable Michael’s father to become President of the United States.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MARCH 1962