Weekly Wire
The Music of Secrecy

An Interview with Ron Chernow

By James Jay

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Ron Chernow is the nationally acclaimed author of The House of Morgan and The Warburgs. Winner of the National Book Award, the Ambassador Award, and the Eccles Prize, his latest book is Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Random House, New York, 1998).

In the foreword of Titan you write that you would do the Rockefeller biography only if you could hear "the music of his mind." What did you mean by that phrase?

The inner voice. I was very reluctant to do the biography of Rockefeller because I felt that in order to do a proper biography you have to understand the interior life as well as the public life of a person. Rockefeller seemed like such a closed and even impenetrable personality I did not know whether I could get inside his mind or his emotion because this was a very, very tight lipped and reclusive man. Our image of Rockefeller is very much colored by the newsreel footage showing him handing out dimes late in life, where he looks like this benign shriveled up little man and he's quite an exhibitionist and even a ham actor. But when he was actually creating or running Standard Oil he was the most reclusive businessman in America who scarcely gave interviews and never allowed himself to be photographed in any business situation. So I knew he was going to be a very tough nut to crack. And he was.

At what point in your research did Rockefeller become more than his reputation or characterizations and become personal?

The initial turning point was finding that Inglis interview and realizing we had Rockefeller recounting blow by blow, over 1700 pages of transcript, all of the major events of his career. So suddenly the voiceless man had a voice. There was certainly much in that interview that was sanctimonious and self serving, but he was also fiery. He was articulate. He was funny. He was clearly a much more complicated human being, and that's when I decided to do the book.

But then, as I got into the research, the first year was intensely frustrating, to put it mildly, because I had access to these hundreds of thousands of letters that Rockefeller had written and, usually people use letters for the purpose of expression and self revelation, where as Rockefeller had mastered the art of writing letters in this quite mysterious and indirect style. The typical Rockefeller business letter would be "Dear Sir, Received yours of the 25th. Would recommend to proceed with all due caution. Signed John D. Rockefeller." So that he was directing thousands of subordinates who understood what he was saying, but he would never specify what he was talking about. And he wrote every letter in his career as if it might someday fall into the hands of a prosecuting attorney. And God knows his paranoia was not entirely unwarranted, since he was controversial since almost the earliest days of Standard Oil. As early as 1872, two years after the creation of Standard Oil. There were already calls for investigation.

So really the breakthrough came because there was a maddening situation. Here I had access to all of his papers, that in the Rockefeller Archive Center were filed separately from the papers he was responding to. Sometimes when you do historical research the letters and the responses to the letters are all in sequence, it's almost like reading an epistolary novel, it's wonderful, fascinating. In Rockefeller's case there was this mass of hundreds of thousands of letters stored on microfiche, and they were apart from the letters that triggered those responses. I had about 20 or 30 thousand letters that had been written to Rockefeller by his subordinates, and unlike Rockefeller, his underlings were not shy about what they were doing, whether forging secret alliances with the railroad or strong arming competing marketers or bribing state legislatures. They would go on in great lengths about different machinations of Standard Oil. Then Rockefeller would write in response this very brief and rather elliptical response. He would not refer to the actual thing the person was doing, but simply instruct them in general terms as to how to proceed. So then the whole thing became fascinating. Here was this master puppeteer pulling all of these strings, yet he had mastered this art of what we today call deniability. He was able to claim that these things hadn't happened or he didn't know about them. When it's clear that he had created an elaborate intelligence system so that he was minutely informed of everything that was going on. Rather impressive the way he managed to create and control this vast machinery by sending out these little hints and queues to his various colleagues around the world. It was important for him to preserve his own image that he was a virtuous man. It was one of his tricks that he used to convince himself that everything that he did was righteous and upstanding. So it was absolutely fascinating to unravel this story.

It's fascinating that he could run things so efficiently with such minimal directions.

There was a genius to it, and sometimes a diabolical genius to it. He was a master of achieving maximum affect through minimal means. In fact, he would rewrite every letter five or six times, and he would squeeze out every superfluous syllable so that the letters were very compact and told only as much as he needed to tell.

In Titan you spend a lot of time describing his father. Is he a major influence on this secrecy?

I think that's the key to the secrecy. It's very difficult to do a psychohistory of John D. Rockefeller because he came from a pre-Freudian age, and he was not an introspective man, nor was he surrounded by people of a particularly psychoanalytical stint. One has to make educated guesses, and my best educated guess is that this whole personality complex was created in reaction to his father. In the earlier biographies there are a few lines that the father was a snake oil salesman and he was a bigamist and he deserted the family when John D. was a teenager. Where I immediately suspected from a psychological standpoint that the major part of the story was the father.

John D. was a devout Baptist. He was very sincere in his religious beliefs. When he was a teenager he joined the struggling Baptist mission church, and the Baptist church completely defined his private life. And my experience in life, when I have met people who have become born again Christians or religious fundamentalists, very often people whose lives are defined in religion that way have been exposed to sin when they were very young and that there is something central and terrible that has traumatized them. That they then found sanctuary in the church, which not only provided answers for what was troubling them, but also shielded them from temptations and unruly emotions. So even though John D. may have been denounced as the great corporate criminal of the age, in his private life, and even he thought in his business life, he always presented himself as this extremely moralistic personality. So I asked myself what was the sin that he had been exposed to that forced him to find refuge in the Baptist church.

And it was clear that the answer was his father's behavior. When he was a boy his father sired two illegitimate children, or at least only two that we know of, and his father was accused of everything from horse theft to rape. John D. would have certainly known about the rape charge and that his father abandoned their family. And by the time he was in his twenties he and his brother knew about this bigamist second marriage, although his mother did not. So you can see that he would become very secretive or closed because his father was always the most notorious figure in town. People were always gossiping about Big Bill Rockefeller. There must have been a lot of shame that accompanied that. He developed this very hard shell because he was constantly exposed to this malicious gossip about his father.

Also his father had taught him to be very suspicious of people. They had a little game where John D. as a child used to jump out of his chair into his father's arms, and one day he jumps out of the chair and at the last minute his father drops his arms, and John crashes to the floor, and his father tells him to not ever trust anyone completely, not even me.

At one point you state that Rockefeller's retirement began to assume the nature of a Greek tragedy. Do you see him finally as a tragic figure?

I do see him in certain ways as a tragic figure. I know that sounds like a comical thing to say about somebody who amassed the largest fortune in history. But I see it as a tragedy in a couple of ways. One, this was a man who was such a brilliant and determined businessman I think that he could have succeeded without resorting to unscrupulous methods. He was that good at what he did. But he didn't want to leave anything to chance, and as a result he ended up perfecting all of these anti-competitive practices that tied his competitors up in knots. He didn't need to do them in order to succeed. So that was a tragic flaw.

The other way, and more significant way, in which the structure of the story has the makings of Greek tragedy is that John D. Rockefeller does something unusual in the late 1890s, when he's in his fifties, he retires. Most of the moguls of that era died in harness. They were workaholics who could never leave behind their business empire. And here Rockefeller does something that is rather sane and balanced; he decides he's going to retire, devote himself to having some fun working on his philanthropies, playing golf, singing hymns. And just when he imagines he is going to shut the door on his past and put this whole turbulent and controversial history behind him along comes this remarkable journalist in Ida Tarbell who opens the door and reconstructs his entire career. As she is doing that, suddenly there's this young trust-busting president, Teddy Roosevelt, who is looking for a big bad trust to make an example of and Ida Tarbell focuses the spotlight on Standard Oil, making it highly likely that Standard Oil would become the big test case of government policy, which it did. So it has the making of a Greek tragedy in just as a man thinks he is about to put behind him this controversial past, this controversial past suddenly reemerges to haunt him for the next fifteen years, even though as I pointed out in the book, he made more money as a result of losing the antitrust case than he had made by making Standard Oil. Still, in all, it was a great public repudiation of his business methods. He had always claimed that what he had done had preceded the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. He claimed Standard Oil's behavior had changed as the laws changed. But in 1911 the government claimed that this wasn't the case, and it was a tremendous rebuke to his career.

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