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The Unbinding of Rockefeller

By James Jay

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., by Ron Chernow (Random House), Cloth, 832 pages, $30.

AUGUST 24, 1998:  At the beginning of the twentieth century John D. Rockefeller had given over $350 million to charities. His donations to medical research and education would lead to the eradication of hookworm and yellow fever. Charities and individuals across the nation clamored to him with their causes, and he spent endless hours conspiring as to how to give his money to worthy causes without making them dependent upon him. As Ron Chernow writes in Titan, his elaborate and extraordinary biography of the industrial giant, "Rockefeller regarded his fortune as a public trust, not as a private indulgence, and his pressure to dispose of it grew imperative in the early 1900s as his Standard Oil stock and other investments appreciated fantastically."

At the same time his philanthropic efforts increased, ironically, his unscrupulous business tactics as the founder and manager of Standard Oil, which had brought him his vast wealth, were being exposed by journalists and challenged in the courts. The fortune he was donating had been constructed by a ravenous consumption of competitors and unfair business practices. Revealed were his secret alliances with railroads to transport his oil for cheaper rates (the railroads being the lifelines of the oil business), his armies of cronies to strong-arm competitors and bribe politicians. For either charity or the courtroom, John D. Rockefeller was the most sought after man in America. Despite the intense focus upon John D. Rockefeller, he managed to remain a mystery and reclusive, hiding his personal history from both those who sought him as benefactor or criminal. The personal motivations and desires behind Rockefeller were simplified into caricatures by his followers, who held him up as a saint without flaw, or his adversaries, who saw him as the devil incarnate.

Of the numerous biographies written about Rockefeller few delve into the complexities and nuances of the baron. Rather, they often focus upon his business practices or philanthropy, either condoning and championing or vilifying and attacking. In Ron Chernow's biography of Rockefeller, he breaks through Rockefeller's veil of secrecy. Through intensely wrought research, including the use of a 1700 page transcript of an interview that Rockefeller authorized yet was never published, and an insistence to details, Chernow plunges into the intimacies. The result is a masterful account of Rockefeller that presents both his ruthless business practices, his incredible feats of charity, and handles each extreme facet of his life with precision.

Chernow frames Rockefeller's extremely dualistic nature by elaborating upon his family history. His father, William or Big Bill, was a snake oil salesman, flimflam man, bigamist, and marginal criminal (being accused of numerous crimes from horse theft to rape, yet never convicted). Rockefeller's mother is also elaborately portrayed as a devout Baptist and the opposite of her wandering scoundrel husband. Split between these extremes, John D. Rockefeller emerges to redeem his family from the controversy of his youth. One can understand not only how the young Rockefeller zealously charging into business and the church with equal passion and conviction, but why as well. This drive for wealth and redemption creates a business tycoon with a highly selective memory and range of observation from which he views his world. The apparent split between devout family man and philanthropist and ruthless, monopolistic businessman is of no distinction in Rockefeller's mind.

Also filling out a more complete portrait is the time spent on Rockefeller's retirement, and the passage of his legacy to his son John D. Jr., who would also be plagued by controversy: giving away $537 million directly and eventually suffering a nervous breakdown from the pressure of making sure these donations were well placed, yet who would be responsible, through neglect and naiveté, for the bloody steel workers strike in Colorado, the Ludlow Massacre.

Ron Chernow titles the third chapter of the book, "Bound to Be Rich," a phrase borrowed from one of Rockefeller's friends elucidating upon his intense drive for money. The phrase works well to demonstrate the dilemma that Rockefeller faced. He was possessed of business genius and boldly entered the business community to create financial security for his family in the place of his absent father. His drive and genius would bring him immense wealth, yet they would also bind him to a path of seeking ever more: his drive serving both as his salvation and his sin. Chernow writes, "What makes him so problematic - and why he continues to inspire such ambivalent reactions--is that this good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad."

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