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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Author(s):Chernow, Ron
Reviewer(s):Goldin, Milton

Published by and EH.Net (June, 1998)

Ron Chernow. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Random House, 1998. xxii + 749 pp. Photographs, notes, bibliography, and index. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-679-43808-4. Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Milton Goldin , National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS)

Ron Chernow did much of his research for Titan at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Pocantico Hills, Sleepy Hollow, New York, earlier the home of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his second wife, Martha Baird. Just beyond the elegant staircase in the entrance hall is a portrait of John D. seated before his rolltop desk. The richest man in the world (he pulled ahead of Andrew Carnegie sometime during the early 1900s) gazes not so much at you as through you. And the symbolism of the rolltop desk, with its dozens of drawers into which papers can be filed, hidden, quickly retrieved, quickly refilled, and quickly rehidden, should not go unnoticed. The overall impression is of a man without illusions, organized and purposeful, a man fully in control of himself and events.

The problem is that, like almost everything else about John D.’s extraordinary life, this impression is simultaneously accurate and inaccurate. As Chernow makes clear, John D. was a titan with remarkable needs and equally remarkable abilities to mask his real self. For nearly every characteristic of his that we know to be true, there is another, countervailing characteristic that we also know to be true.

Chernow tells us that John D.’s philanthropic gifts financed theoretical (and many practical) bases of modern health care in America. Yet, when he became ill, Rockefeller frequently relied on folk remedies, such as smoking mullein leaves in a pipe. He insisted that “the best men must be had” as faculty members for the University of Chicago, which came into existence thanks largely to his munificence. But Chernow notes that “To some extent, Rockefeller sent out conflicting messages and was partly to blame for [President William Rainey] Harper’s profligacy. It was Rockefeller, after all, who urged Harper to pay top dollar for America’s best academic minds.” And it was also Rockefeller, a true believer in capitalist enterprise, who fumed because Harper sought to earn as much as he could from other assignments while he headed the university. “It was an odd situation,” comments Chernow, with “the world’s richest man chastising a biblical scholar for unseemly materialism”(p. 318).

John D., Jr. had to dissuade his father from ringing the family compound in (then) Tarrytown, New York, with barbed wire. Yet, throughout his life, John D. happily joined fellow Baptists–black or white, it made little difference to him–to prepare for Judgement Day. And, like the ordinary true believer he claimed to be, he swept Cleveland’s Erie Street Baptist Mission (which became the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church) without complaint. “Even in later years, when huge swarms of people congregated at the church door to glimpse the world’s richest man, he would still clasp people’s hands and bask in the glow of familial warmth,” writes Chernow (p. 53).

But John D.’s humility never prevented him from driving competitors into poverty or caused him to worry about the fates of their wives and children. Chernow describes 1872, two years after Standard Oil was incorporated, as the “annus mirabilis” of the titan’s life: “The year revealed both his finest and most problematic qualities as a businessman: his visionary leadership, his courageous persistence, his capacity to think in strategic terms, but also his lust for domination, his messianic self-righteousness, and his contempt for those shortsighted mortals who made the mistake of standing in his way” (p. 133).

In his search for the essential John D.–that is, to identify the characteristics that took precedence over other characteristics–Chernow acknowledges his intellectual debt to Allan Nevins, the first writer to attempt a biography of the titan reasonably free of the categorical judgements of muckrakers, who were determined that the evil John D. must predominate in the public mind. Nevins’s two-volume Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller: Industrialist and Philanthropist was published in 1953. Dozens of books about the Rockefeller family, with sections on John D., appeared after Nevin’s; but Chernow notes that no full biographies followed, except for David Freeman Hawke’s monograph-length John D.: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers (1980).

A major reason for this situation was that the Rockefeller family would not permit files to be opened. Given John D.’s appalling reputation during his lifetime (made worse by writers during the Great Depression) and Chernow’s access to the closed files, Titan was awaited with great anticipation. What would the author tell us that was new, how would he reinterpret what was already known, and, most important, to what extent could he reveal the essential John D. Rockefeller?

Briefly put, Titan is more a filling out of a portrait than it is revelations on the nature of John D. We have long known, for example, about the convoluted relationship between John D.’s father, William, “Big Bill,” and his mother, Eliza Davison. But the full extent of Big Bill’s unsavory behavior–he was a mountebank hustler of “cancer cures” and a womanizer and bigamist who literally brought a mistress into his home and sequentially impregnated both his wife and his mistress–has never been drawn more clearly. Eliza, a devoutly religious woman, accepted the burdens of their life together without complaint. Chernow concludes, “Bill had been her sole chance, her crazily squandered bid to escape from rural tedium, and the misbegotten marriage left both her and her eldest son [John D.] with a lifelong suspicion of volatile people and rash actions” (p. 59).

Chernow leaves no doubt, however, it was from his father that John D. inherited his sheer love of money. (“After he had made his gargantuan fortune, he said admiringly of his father, `He made a practice of never carrying less than $1000, and he kept it in his pocket'”[p. 24].) From his mother came not only his deep religious beliefs but his sincere reverence for women. (To his great credit, John D. endowed a college for black women in Georgia, when neither blacks nor women were generally considered worthy of receiving any education, let alone a higher education. Chernow describes the creation of Spelman College with praiseworthy conciseness and comprehension on pages 240-42.)

“Of all the lessons John absorbed from his father, perhaps none surpassed in importance that of keeping meticulous accounts,” Chernow adds (p. 25). But from neither parent did he evidently inherit his incredible determination not only to always know exactly what was happening in his business but to plan strategically on the basis of state-of-the-art information. The titan had to know to the last pipe, to the last oil storage tank at each of his refineries, to the last Standard Oil tanker at sea, to the last penny in Standard Oil’s Accounts Receivable, and to the last of whatever else he could think of in his business, where everything was, how the item or person served his purposes, and their exact value. Chernow tells us that John D. even calculated the exact number of chews it took–ten–to properly masticate food; family and dinner guests who allocated fewer chews when taking nourishment simply had to await his completion of the task.

From the beginning of his career, when he worked as a bookkeeper, John D. liked everything about business (he originally took on the job because Big Bill would not provide money for him to attend college: “About to enter into his second [and bigamous] marriage, Bill must have been drastically scaling back on first-family expenditures, albeit without disclosing the reason for the sudden urgency,”[43]). He liked making entries in ledgers, he liked “all the method and system of the office,” he delighted in negotiating secret rebate agreements, and he positively reveled in consolidating control over the oil business. His mother had taught him that “willful waste makes woeful want,” and he could not bear to waste a minute on any task, no matter how much he might have enjoyed it. Blotting his signature took valuable time and energy, so he hired a man to blot for him.

Such super-activity led to nervous disorders. Chernow writes, “Starting in early 1889, Rockefeller had complained continually of fatigue and depression. For several decades, he had expended superhuman energy in the creation of Standard Oil, mastering myriad details; all the while, pressure had built steadily beneath the surface repose…” (p. 319). And yet he died just two years short of a hundred.

Chernow deals at length with the “myriad details” of how and why Standard Oil came into existence and how John D. managed the corporation. In broad outline, his observations do not tell us a great deal more than does Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, published in 1991. But how Chernow’s particulars not only fill out the picture but disprove Nevins’s claim that Rockefeller’s fortune was an “historical accident!”

To illustrate how Rockefeller would make informed gambles–but gambles, nonetheless–Chernow describes the way John D. used the disastrous June 1893 stock market crash to finally consolidate his empire: “As the [Pittsburgh] Mellons emerged as a worrisome threat in the export market, Rockefeller feared they might strike an alliance with the French Rothschilds. In August 1895, having borrowed heavily against Pittsburgh real estate to build their budding oil empire, the Mellons were forced to sell their Crescent Pipe Line Company and other properties to Standard–a huge windfall that yielded 14,000 acres and 135 producing wells. It now seemed that Standard Oil owned the entire industry, lock, stock, and barrel” (p. 335). But had the market recovered earlier or had the Mellons held out longer, John D., along with his competitors, might have found themselves overextended.

Chernow makes clear that John D.’s philanthropic giving was as strategic as his business activities. As a lowly-paid bookkeeper, he had purchased an inexpensive ledger to record how every cent of his salary was spent, including a regular dime to charity. For the most part, before he moved his family to the Tarrytown compound, he gave as he earned, secretly. He liked to sit in church, scan the congregation for needy but deserving brethren, and place cash in deserving hands.

But whether the gift was a dime or in the millions, he had to be persuaded that his charity would do some good. He wanted results, not just to give handouts, and he sought the best counsel he could obtain on giving money from Frederick Taylor Gates, a former Baptist minister who became a member of his staff. Gates had to convince him in detail of the advisability of what would come to be called “scientific philanthropy.” And what sold John D. was that this systematic approach to giving would accomplish a nationwide and even worldwide reordering of mankind’s current status.

At Gates’s urging, Rockefeller’s first major gift went to establish a Baptist institution of higher learning, the University of Chicago. Grateful students celebrated his generosity by singing, “John D. Rockefeller, wonderful man is he/Gives all his spare change to the U. of C.” But the University did not receive the bulk of his gifts; the bulk went to a startling variety of causes ranging from Spelman College to public-private partnerships in the South, to massive health care initiatives.

Meanwhile, Congress, like the majority of newspaper editors and reporters, distrusted him. In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act became law, and for five years, until the Standard Oil trust was dissolved, Washington hounded him. What Washington and the editors clearly missed, however, was that “Rockefeller was a unique hybrid in American business: both the instinctive, first-generation entrepreneur who founds a company and the analytic second-generation manager who extends and develops it. He wasn’t the sort of rugged, self-made mogul who quickly becomes irrelevant to his own organization. For that reason, his career anticipates the managerial capitalism of the twentieth century” (pp. 227-8).

John D. spent his last days worshiping among blacks (he was the only white congregant) of the Union Baptist Church in Ormond Beach, Florida. The day before he died, he paid off the mortgage of the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church. His body was interred in Cleveland, where he began his career and where even a glimpse of the building in which he began as a bookkeeper moved him deeply.

At the family compound, John D. had had a flag unfurled to mark various anniversaries in his life. Today, no one remembers the anniversaries, and nearly all his great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren have moved away. Chernow notes that “Although Junior moved into Kykuit [John D.’s home at the compound] after Rockefeller’s death, he knew that his father was inimitable, and so he decided to retain the Jr. after his name. As he was often heard to say in later years, ‘There was only one John D. Rockefeller'” (p. 676).

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII