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Arkansas Arts’ First Lady: Jeannette Katherine Edris Rockefeller (First Lady, 1967-1971)

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Inaugural dress worn by Jeanette RockefellerIn her first 38 years, Jeannette Katherine Edris travelled a life journey that few women would have imagined or aspired to, including the women who resided in the place that she would begin to call home in 1956. It was then that she won the heart of the man that was considered at that time Arkansas’s most eligible bachelor: Winthrop Rockefeller.

Seattle born and bred, and part of a family prominent in shipping and high finance, she was strongly influenced by her grandmother after her mother’s death when she was five. Beginning at a young age, she travelled widely with her grandmother and other family members. From age 12, she was a growing figure in Seattle society, constantly under the increasing scrutiny of the society writers of the Seattle Daily Times.

After sojourns in Europe and New York City, where she attended Fitch College, she returned to her home state and enrolled at the University of Washington. In the late 1940s, while in New York City, she began charity work with troubled adolescents in the city’s roughest neighborhoods. A few years later, she met the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil fortune. Within five years, she would join her new husband on an estate atop a picturesque mountain in rural central Arkansas, and would fall in love with her adopted state much as her husband, who had arrived three years earlier, had done.

Jeanette RockefellerIn 1959, she was asked to become involved in plans for a new art museum in Little Rock, and she became a vocal advocate and fundraiser for the new Arkansas Arts Center. She served on its Board of Trustees for eight years. She would oversee the planning, construction and opening of the building, as well as the hiring of Townsend Wolfe as the first director. She also was active in organizations such as the National Association of Mental Health, the Florence Crittendon Home, the Urban League, and Philander Smith College.

 

When her husband was elected Governor in 1966, she came into a Governor’s Mansion badly in need of renovation. Jeanette and her daughter, Anne Bartley, took personal day-to-day charge of the work with the aim of making the mansion’s public rooms “comfortable and usable.”

Governor Rockefeller and Jeanette were divorced shortly after leaving office. Relocating to Palm Springs, California, she retained an interest in Arkansas. In 1975, Jeanette’s daughter Anne was appointed as the first director of the newly-created Department of Arkansas Natural and Cultural Heritage (now the Department of Arkansas Heritage). Jeanette continued an active retirement in California until her death in 1997.