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The Two Faces Of John D. Rockefeller Make One Compelling Portrait in "Titan."

By James Jay

OCTOBER 12, 1998: 

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

AUGUST 24, 1998: By the beginning of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller had given more than $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 that his philanthropic efforts increased, ironically, his unscrupulous business tactics as the founder and manager of Standard Oil, which had earned 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. The substance of these inquests were his secret alliances with railroads to transport his oil for cheaper rates (the railroads being the lifelines of the oil business), and his armies of cronies to strong-arm competitors and bribe politicians.

Whether for charitable or courtroom appearances, John D. Rockefeller was the most sought after man in America. Despite the intense focus upon him, Rockefeller managed to remain mysterious and reclusive, hiding his personal history from all who sought him, as benefactor and criminal alike. His personal motivations and desires were simplified into caricatures by his followers, who held him up as a saint without flaw--or his adversaries, who painted him as the devil incarnate.

Of the numerous biographies available, few delve into the complexities and nuances of the baron. Instead, they focus upon the immediate: either his business practices or philanthropy, and whether to condone, vilify, champion, or attack them. In Titan, however, Chernow breaks through Rockefeller's veil of secrecy. Through intensely wrought research--including a 1,700-page interview transcript authorized by Rockefeller yet never published--and an insistence upon detail, the author plunges into the Rockefeller's intimacies. The result is a masterful account of one of the most important men of 20th-century America, presenting both his ruthless business practices and his incredible feats of philanthropy; each extreme is handled with precision.

Chernow frames Rockefeller's 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--the devout Baptist counterpart to her wandering, scoundrel husband. Split between these extremes, Rockefeller emerges to redeem his family from the controversy of his youth.

Titan offers insight into not only how Rockefeller zealously charged into business and the church with equal passion and conviction at an early age, but also why. The drive for wealth and redemption spawned a business tycoon with a highly selective memory, and an outwardly contradictory world view. The apparent split between family man and philanthropist and ruthless, monopolistic businessman seems to have been indistinguishable to Rockefeller's mind.

Another unique contribution to the whole are the chapters devoted to Rockefeller's retirement, and the passage of his legacy to his son John D. Jr., who would also be plagued by controversy. The latter would give away $537 million directly, and later suffer a nervous breakdown from the pressure of making sure those donations were well placed, and his guilt over the unfortunate and violent steel-workers strike in Colorado (the Ludlow Massacre), attributed to his neglectful business practices and naiveté.

Chernow titles the third chapter, "Bound to Be Rich," a prophetic phrase borrowed from one of Rockefeller's friends. It works well to demonstrate the dilemma that Rockefeller faced. He was a genius in industry, boldly entering the business community to compensate for his absent father and create financial security for his family. His drive and acumen would bring him immense wealth; yet they would also bind him to a path of seeking ever more, serving both as his ultimate sin and salvation. 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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