Titan, p.1Ron Chernow
Table of Contents
PRELUDE: - POISON TONGUE
CHAPTER 1 - The Flimflam Man
CHAPTER 2 - Fires of Revival
CHAPTER 3 - Bound to Be Rich
CHAPTER 4 - Baptism in Business
CHAPTER 5 - The Auction
CHAPTER 6 - The Poetry of the Age
CHAPTER 7 - Millionaires’ Row
CHAPTER 8 - Conspirators
CHAPTER 9 - The New Monarch
CHAPTER 10 - Sphinx
CHAPTER 11 - The Holy Family
CHAPTER 12 - Insurrection in the Oil Fields
CHAPTER 13 - Seat of Empire
CHAPTER 14 - The Puppeteer
CHAPTER 15 - Widow’s Funeral
CHAPTER 16 - A Matter of Trust
CHAPTER 17 - Captains of Erudition
CHAPTER 18 - Nemesis
CHAPTER 19 - The Dauphin
CHAPTER 20 - The Standard Oil Crowd
CHAPTER 21 - The Enthusiast
CHAPTER 22 - Avenging Angel
CHAPTER 23 - Faith of Fools
CHAPTER 24 - The Millionaires’ Special
CHAPTER 25 - The Codger
CHAPTER 26 - The World’s Richest Fugitive
CHAPTER 27 - Judgment Day
CHAPTER 28 - Benevolent Trust
CHAPTER 29 - Massacre
CHAPTER 30 - Introvert and Extrovert
CHAPTER 31 - Confessional
CHAPTER 32 - Dynastic Succession
CHAPTER 33 - Past, Present, Future
CHAPTER 34 - Heirs
CHAPTER 35 - See You in Heaven
About the Author
ALSO BY RON CHERNOW
To my brother, Dr. Bart Chernow,
who pulled me back, at the last moment, from the brink,
and to the lovely Valerie
Two men have been supreme in creating the modern world: Rockefeller and Bismarck. One in economics, the other in politics, refuted the liberal dream of universal happiness through individual competition, substituting monopoly and the corporate state, or at least movements toward them.
—BERTRAND RUSSELL Freedom Versus Organization, 1814 to 1914
Something in the nature of J. D. Rockefeller had to occur in America, and it is all to the good of the world that he was tight-lipped, consistent and amazingly free from vulgar vanity, sensuality and quarrelsomeness. His cold persistence and ruthlessness may arouse something like horror, but for all that he was a forward-moving force, a constructive power.
—H. G. WELLS The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind
When history passes its final verdict on John D. Rockefeller, it may well be that his endowment of research will be recognized as a milestone in the progress of the race. . . . Science today owes as much to the rich men of generosity and discernment as the art of the Renaissance owes to the patronage of Popes and Princes. Of these rich men, John D. Rockefeller is the supreme type.
—WINSTON CHURCHILL St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 8, 1936
Rockefeller, you know, is reputed the richest man in the world, and he certainly is the most powerfully suggestive personality I have ever seen. A man 10 stories deep, and to me quite unfathomable. Physionomie de Pierrot (not a spear of hair on head or face) flexible, cunning, quakerish, superficially suggestive of naught but goodness and conscientiousness, yet accused of being the greatest villain in business whom our country has produced.
—WILLIAM JAMES in a letter to Henry James January 29, 1904
Acclaim for RON CHERNOW’s TITAN
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
A Business Week Best Business Book of the Year
A Time Magazine Book of the Year
An Economist Best Biography of the Year
“Splendid . . . a blue chip biography.” —Newsweek
“Ron Chernow’s portrait of Rockefeller, an eccentric on a heroic scale as well as a genius, is convincing. . . . This is the best biography of the man so far.” —The Washington Post Book World
“What a story! An outstanding business biography.” —The New York Observer
“A triumph of research, understanding and elegant writing.” —Houston Chronicle
“With uncanny timing, Ron Chernow has written a captivating biography of one of the most famous men in American business history. . . . Business needs more books like Titan. —Newsday
“Good biographies are hard to find and great ones even rarer. . . . A thoughtful and balanced approach to one of the most significant and controversial lives of the past century . . . spellbinding.” —The Seattle Times
“A masterful synthesis of research and writing . . . an extraordinary achievement in biography.” —The New Republicc
“It’s a thrill to read a biography as good as this one! Ron Chernow’s Titan is a triumph, a brilliant, riveting, and monumental portrait of a fascinating human being and his age.” —Robert A. Caro
“Chernow has written the definitive biographies of two other legendary financial dynasties. . . . Now, with his Rockefeller biography, he has completed an extraordinary trilogy about the towering figures of twentieth century commerce.” —Vanity Fair
“By the time Chernow is finished, the old guy seems utterly human . . . and oddly appealing. . . . A timeless parable of our civilization.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“You can read the book as a sympathetic portrait of a complex man, a business history, a legal battle, or simply as a great yarn.” —Business Week
“It is hard to imagine a better biography of Rockefeller being written. . . . An enthralling biography of an enthralling person.” —Chicago Tribune
“A monumental and mesmerizing biography . . . a fascinating yarn, capturing a man who insisted he could serve God and Mammon.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune
“A richly textured and engagingly lively portrait. . . . It is a remarkable story and Chernow tells it with confidence and clarity . . . probably the last word on a genuine titan.” —Daily News
“Rockefeller lived one of the great American lives, and Chernow has provided him with one of the great American biographies.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“In this splendid biography, justice is finally done to [Rockefeller’s] memory.” —The Plain Dealer
“Stunning. . . . Mr. Chernow has confirmed his reputation as a great business historian.” —The Financial Times
“A worthy biography of a truly titanic figure.” — The Economist
“Chernow’s detailed picture of this ‘implausible blend of sin and sanctity’ is a scrupulously balanced, frequently fascinating and humanizing portrait of a figure of seemingly superhuman energy and ambition.” — People
“Altogether splendid.” —American Heritage
“Sweeping. . . . Chernow lays out the [Rockefeller] conundrum superbly, delineating the forces that shaped this man and the ways he responded to them.” —USA Today
“[Ron Chernow is] America’s best business biographer.” — Fortune
“Ron Chernow’s splendid biography of John D. Rockefeller Sr. will stand out as one of the best books of the year. He again proves himself remarkably facile with a huge amount of information. . . . I’d be hard pressed to find a page that isn’t interesting. . . . Chernow succeeds brilliantly.” — Detroit Free Press
“Powerful, meticulously researched. . . . Chernow encompasses better than any writer before him the powerful contradictions and polarities in Rockefeller’s character. Titan . . . is one of the richest and most rewarding biographies of an American magnate.” —St. Petersburg Times
The life of John Davison Rockefeller, Sr., was marked to an exceptional degree by silence, mystery, and evasion. Even though he presided over the largest business and philanthropic enterprises of his day, he has remained an elusive figure. A master of disguises, he spent his life camouflaged behind multiple personae and shrouded beneath layers of mythology. Hence, he lingers in our national psyche as a series of disconnected images, ranging from the rapacious creator of Standard Oil, brilliant but bloodless, to the wizened old codger dispensing dimes and canned speeches for newsreel cameras. It is often hard to piece together the varied images into a coherent picture.
This has not been for lack of trying. Earlier in the century, Rockefeller inspired more prose than any other private citizen in America, with books about him tumbling forth at a rate of nearly one per year. As he was the most famous American of his day, his statements and actions were reported and analyzed minutely in the press. Yet even in his heyday of popular interest, he could seem maddeningly opaque, with much of his life unfolding behind the walls of his estates and the frosted-glass doors of his office.
Rockefeller often seems to be missing from his own biographies, flitting through them like a ghostly, disembodied figure. For the principal muckrakers, such as Henry Demarest Lloyd and Ida Tarbell, he served as shorthand for the Standard Oil trust, his personality submerged in its machinations. Even in the two-volume biography by Allan Nevins, who strove to vindicate Rockefeller’s reputation, Rockefeller vanishes for pages at a time amid a swirl of charges and countercharges. The attention paid to the depredations of Standard Oil has tended to overshadow everything else about Rockefeller’s life. H. G. Wells defended this biographical approach: “The life history of Rockefeller is the history of the trust; he made it, and equally it made him . . . so that apart from its story it seems hardly necessary to detail his personal life in chronological order.”1 So steadfastly have biographers clung to this dated view that we still lack an account of our foremost nineteenth-century industrialist that explores his inner and outer worlds and synthesizes them into a fully rounded portrait.
For all the ink provoked by Rockefeller, his biographies have been marred by a numbing repetition. Whatever their political slant, they have, on the whole, followed the same chronology, raked over the same disputes about his business methods, rehashed the same stale anecdotes. One has the impression of sitting through the same play over and over again, albeit from slightly different seats in the theater. Some of this derives from our shifting conception of biography. With the exception of John D., a slender volume by David Freeman Hawke published in 1980, the Rockefeller biographies were all published before mid-century and betray a Victorian reticence about private matters. Whatever their merits as business reportage, they betray minimal post-Freudian curiosity. They touch only glancingly, for instance, on the story of Rockefeller’s father, a bigamist and snake-oil salesman, who so indelibly shaped his son’s life. Even the exhaustive Nevins showed scant interest in Rockefeller’s marriage or his three daughters. The feminist concerns of our own day have recently produced two books—Bernice Kert’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Clarice Stasz’s The Rockefeller Women— that have begun to pry open this hermetically sealed family world. Rockefeller’s social life beyond the office—his friendships, hobbies, sports, et cetera—has suffered from equally conspicuous neglect. Other matters that warrant investigation include Rockefeller’s political views and theory of trusts, his attitude toward public relations, his stewardship of his investments beyond Standard Oil, his transfer of money to his children and his dynastic ambitions, his persistent fascination with medicine, and the imprint he left upon the many philanthropies he endowed. There has also been a remarkable lack of curiosity about the forty-odd years that he spent in retirement, with some biographers omitting those decades altogether. Yet it was during those decades that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., both perpetuated and radically modified his father’s legacy, a subject to which I devote considerable attention.
When Random House proposed that I write the first full-length biography of Rockefeller since Allan Nevins’s in the 1950s, I frankly balked, convinced that the subject had been exhausted by writers too eager to capitalize on his fame. How could one write about a man who made such a fetish of secrecy? In the existing literature, he came across as a gifted automaton at best, a malevolent machine at worst. I couldn’t tell whether he was a hollow man, deadened by the pursuit of money, or someone of great depth and force but with eerie self-control. If the former was true, I would respectfully decline; in the unlikely case that the latter proved true—well, then I was intrigued.
To settle the matter, I spent a day at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, the repository of millions of family documents. When I told the curators of my misgivings and explained that I couldn’t write about Rockefeller unless I heard his inner voice—the “music of his mind,” as I phrased it— they brought me the transcript of an interview privately conducted with Rockefeller between 1917 and 1920. It was done by William O. Inglis, a New York newspaperman who questioned Rockefeller for an authorized biography that was never published. As I pored over this seventeen-hundred-page verbatim transcript, I was astonished: Rockefeller, stereotyped as taciturn and empty, turned out to be analytic, articulate, even fiery; he was also quite funny, with a dry midwestern wit. This wasn’t someone I had encountered in any biography. When I returned home, I told Ann Godoff, my editor at Random House, that I was now eager to do the book.
To delve into the voluminous Rockefeller papers is to excavate a lost continent. Yet even with such massive documentation, I had the frustrating sense, early in my research, that I was confronting a sphinx. Rockefeller trained himself to reveal as little as possible, even in private letters, which he wrote as if they might someday fall into the hands of a prosecuting attorney. With his instinctive secrecy, he excelled at employing strange euphemisms and elliptical phrasing. For this reason, the twenty thousand pages of letters that Rockefeller received from his more outspoken business associates proved a windfall of historic proportions. Written as early as 1877, seven years after Standard Oil’s formation, they provide a vivid portrait of the company’s byzantine dealings with oil producers, refiners, transporters, and marketers, as well as railroad chieftains, bank directors, and political bosses. This panorama of greed and guile should startle even the most jaundiced students of the Gilded Age. I was also extremely fortunate to have access to the papers of five distinguished predecessors, all of whom left behind complete research files. I combed through the abundant papers of Ida Tarbell at the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Henry Demarest Lloyd at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and Allan Nevins at Columbia University, in addition to those of William O. Inglis and Raymond B. Fosdick (the author of the official biography of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) at the Rockefeller Archive Center. These collections contain a vast number of contemporary interviews and other materials that were only partly used by their authors.
Like many moguls of the Gilded Age, Rockefeller was either glorified by partisan biographers, who could see no wrong, or vilified by vitriolic critics, who could see no right. This one-sidedness has been especially harmful in the case of Rockefeller, who was such an implausible blend of sin and sanctity. I have tried to operate in the large space between polemics and apologetics, motivated by the belief that Rockefeller’s life was of a piece and that the pious, Bible-thumping Rockefeller wasn’t simply a cunning façade for the corporate pirate. The religious and acquisitive sides of his nature were intimately related. For this reason, I have stressed his evangelical Baptism as the passkey that unlocks many mysteries of his life. Those who would like to see Rockefeller either demonized or canonized in these pages will be disappointed.
This seems an auspicious time to resurrect Rockefeller’s ghost. With the fall of trade barriers and the vogue for fre
“Reading this book brings back to my mind facts and situations that I had forgotten for years,” John D. Rockefeller mused. “It digs up things long past and dead, so that they stand before me once more alive. I am glad of it, very glad of it.”1
For months, Rockefeller had listened to his authorized biographer read aloud from Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth, a savage account of his career published in 1894. Now retired and in his late seventies, the world’s richest man had reluctantly agreed to reminisce behind closed doors. Starting in 1917, for an hour each morning, Rockefeller fielded questions while slumped in an easy chair or reclining on a lounge in his bedroom at Kykuit, a Georgian mansion set amid the woodland beauty of Westchester County’s Pocantico Hills. Serene in his conscience, convinced that God had blessed his career and that the court of history would acquit him, Rockefeller had submitted to this exercise only to please his son, who wanted to cleanse the family name of all controversy. As Rockefeller reminded his appointed Boswell, the affable William O. Inglis, a newspaperman recruited from Rockefeller’s old nemesis, the World, but “for the urgent request of my son, who is not familiar with this history . . . I would never have taken the time and the trouble to make any refutation to these questions.” 2
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