BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ron Chernow,
author of "Titan: The Life of John D.
Rockefeller, Sr.," how would you
Mr. RON CHERNOW, AUTHOR, "TITAN: THE LIFE OF JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, SR.": Rockefeller, I think, was described by
William James as the most strongly bad and strongly good
human being he had ever met. I think that probably expresses
it as well as anyone has ever expressed it. He was a man of
such profound and baffling contradictions, a man who is
simultaneously the most ferocious of the robber barons and
the most farsighted of the philanthropists. And these two
seemingly disparate human beings were rolled up inside one
body and one mind. And that was really my task, as the
biographer, to try to make sense of the two halves of this
LAMB: What relationship is John D. Rockefeller Sr. to Senator
Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia?
Mr. CHERNOW: Great-grandfather. OK. John D. Sr. was the
father of John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose sons were David,
Nelson, et al, and then John D. Rockefeller III, who is the
oldest grandson of John D. Rockefeller, is the father of Jay
LAMB: And what, in our society, would not be here without
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, I think the significant thing about the
Rockefellers is that they were great institution builders.
The--John D. Rockefeller not only created Standard Oil, which
was the largest business empire on Earth, but he created the
most-extensive philanthropic empire that includes what is
today the University of Chicago, Spelman College, Rockefeller
Universit--University, Rockefeller Foundation. And I think that
he has cast such a long shadow because he created these
permanent corporate forms, both in the business world and
the philanthropic world.
And I should say, Brian, that in terms of the business empire,
although the Standard Oil trust was broken up by the
Supreme Court in 1911, to give you some idea of the size of
that trust, when it was dismantled in 1911, the heirs include
what are today Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Conoco, ARCO,
BP America, Chesebrough-Pond's and two dozen other
companies. So I don't know that the business world has ever
seen an agglomeration of wealth and power on the scale of
LAMB: This is the last picture you have in the book.
Mr. CHERNOW: People are fascinated by Rockefeller's face.
You can see there how seamed and lined and--and--and
leathery it--it was, and you can also see in that photo that
he was a--a m--a more thoughtful man than people realized,
a more philosophic man. This was one of the real surprises for
me, doing the book, that he was the most mysterious and
reclusive of the--the robber barons.
But I found, in going through his papers, that he had spent an
enormous amount of time analyzing what he was doing,
squaring his behavior--often his bad behavior, which he, of
course, didn't see as bad behavior--squaring it with his
conscience and his Creator and elaborating a theory of
monopoly that enabled him to do what he did, filled with a
messianic and self-righteous sense of--of certitude.
LAMB: There's a photo here with the former governor of New
York, Nelson Rockefeller. Who else is in that photo?
Mr. CHERNOW: OK. Nelson is holding his eldest son, Rodman.
In the middle, you have John D. Rockefeller Sr., to the left,
John D. Rockefeller Jr. Nelson--Nelson was the first of the
grandchildren to have a--a son. And Nelson very much
identified with his grandfather. He revered his grandfather,
and so he felt that he was very much the standard bearer in
that generation of the family, even though he was the--the
second son. He had a way of kind of nudging his older brother
out of the limelight.
I--incidentally, Nelson and JDR Sr. were born on the same
day, which Nelson took as a very important sign of the fact
that he was destined to carry on the family tradition.
LAMB: How old was Rockefeller Sr.--John D. Rockefeller--when
Mr. CHERNOW: He was nearly 98. And, in fact, in the early
1900s, he announced that he planned to live to the age of
100. And one thing about John D. Rockefeller, when he set his
mind to doing something, he had an extraordinary ability to
focus his mind on goals and he almost always achieved them.
So that--he was nearly 98 when he died, so he very nearly
made good on his boast that he would live to 100. And he
became something of a New Age health fanatic, and he had all
sorts of theories, in terms of how he could prolong his life.
For instance, this was the bane of his luncheon companions,
but he used to chew food 10 times before swallowing. And
guests who observed him closely said that even when he
ha--had liquid in his mouth, he would swirl or sift it 10 times
before swallowing. And what it meant was that people who
were absolutely thrilled to be invited to the luncheon table of
the world's richest man found themselves, after 20 minutes,
finished with their own food and for the next hour watching
John D. finish his. Well, maybe there was something to this
masticating of the--of the food because he very nearly lived
LAMB: You know, in the--one of the earlier books we did with
Linda Simon on William James, who you mentioned early in
your remarks, he fashioned something that William Gladstone
had done, chewing food 32 times every time he ate. What is
this business of counting the number of times you chew in
that time of the world?
Mr. CHERNOW: Actually, I think that there was kind of an old
wives' tale at the time; that th--that the more you
masticated the--the food and soaked it with saliva, that the
easier it would be to--to digest. Rockefeller, when he was in
his early 50s, after he had created this global oil monopoly,
had a kind of breakdown. It was both a physical and a
nervous breakdown of sorts, and he had terrible digestive
It's very, very interesting because the source of that
breakdown, when he was in his early 50s was not, as one
might imagine, the stress and strain of creating Standard Oil.
It was the strain of his charitable commitments,
particularly--he was creating the University of Chicago at the
time. So he began a diet of bread and crackers in order to
cure these digestive problems. What happened was that there
was a whole very pernicious mythology for the rest of his life
that he could only survive on mother's milk. I mean, this was
part of this vampirish image of Rockefeller that he was such a
ghoulish character that he needed mother's milk in order to
Rockefeller, who had very little concern for public opinion,
really never bothered to disabuse the public or the--the press
of the fact that he ate normally and he ate whatever he
wanted. But throughout his life, he ate very sparingly, which
is one reason that people remember him not as this rather
rangy young man who created Standard Oil, but this spindly,
wizened little guy hopping around on the golf course or
mugging in front of the--the newsreel cameras. He finally
weighed around 90 pounds by the time he died.
LAMB: What got you interested in this subject?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, actually, Random House asked me to
write about John D. Rockefeller after I finished my book on
the--"The Warburgs." And I must confess, to my
embarrassment, I thought it was an absolutely ghastly idea
because I had done these family sagas and I was very eager
to do a pure biography, which I thought would be more
com--compact and cohesive. And I told my editor at Random
House, Ann Godoff, that I thought that Rockefeller was the
worst subject imaginable. I th--that he just seemed to me,
cold, wooden, mechanical, ruthless, a man without any
interior life that I could see. And she suggested that I visit a
place called the Rockefeller Archive Center that was set up by
the family, which is run by a team of independent archivists.
And it was a strange day that I spent there because I was
almost trying to wriggle out of the--the project. And I told
the archive director that I really was not interested in
Rockefeller because he had no voice. He didn't seem to have
an inner life. And I said to him, `I don't hear the music of his
mind, so how can I write a biography about him?' And with
that, he produced an interview that had been privately
conducted with Rockefeller between 1917 and 1920. It was
part of what was supposed to be an official biography that
was never finally published.
So, suddenly, here was this man who had no voice, who
was--who was so reclusive and secretive, and I have a
1,700-page transcript where he is giving a blow-by-blow
account of every major twist and turn of his career. And I
suddenly, at that point, encountered a personality that I
hadn't encountered in any of the previous Rockefeller
biographies. Rather than this cold, mute, reserved figure, here
was someone who was fiery, he was often funny, he was
amazingly analytical. In fact, he was quite brilliant.
Now it--I hasten to say he was often sanctimonious. I can
see that there was a lot of self-delusion and rationalization.
He evaded a lot of questions about the most controversial
aspects of his life. But I saw just how much time he had
privately invested into analyzing what he had done. And
having written, for instance, about J.P. Morgan, who, at most,
could concentrate on something for five minutes, here was
somebody who had spent decades analyzing what he was
doing, who had a brilliant strategic sense of the--of the oil
industry. And I said to myself, `Here is the fiery titan whom I
had suspected must be s--lurking somewhere inside
Rockefeller, but whom I did not know for a certainty existed,'
because I had never seen any evidence of it in the
biographies that had been written about him.
LAMB: Now the transcript you talk about and the interview
was William Inglis?
Mr. CHERNOW: William Inglis, right, from---and every morning,
before Rockefeller golfed--Rockefeller was someone who did
the exact same things at the exact same times every day. So
right before they went out on the golf course every day,
Inglis would interview Rockefeller for half an hour to an hour.
Rockefeller would recline on a couch with his eyes closed.
Very often, as Inglis was reading the question to him,
Rockefeller appeared to be dozing and then Rockefeller would
suddenly snap his eyes open and give a very precise answer.
The structure to that interview must be unique in American
economic history, if not history as general, because what
Inglis did, he took the writings of Rockefeller's two most
famous muckraking critics, Henry Demarest Lloyd and, most
notably, Ida Tarbell, and actually read paragraph by paragraph
to--to Rockefeller the most scathing charges against him. So
this was a fascinating document, having him actually confront
his most severe critics. And it--it was an extraordinary
As soon as I saw that, I knew that I wanted to write the
book, and I knew that this was a rare historical opportunity of
taking someone who was seemingly so familiar to the public
and saying to them, `He's completely unfamiliar. You really
don't know what he was like at all because he didn't want to
share it with anybody.'
LAMB: And go back to the wh--why did--we'll go
back--we'll--what I want you to do is go back to the--the
Tarbell articles that she wrote--Was it in McClure's Magazine?
Mr. CHERNOW: McClure's Magazine, from 1902 to 1905, right.
LAMB: Because in your book, you basically suggest that those
magazines--the articles led to the breakup of Standard Oil or
to the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Mr. CHERNOW: They had a powerful impact. The m--the
articles were coming out in--in serial form, which meant that
each issue of McClure's had a larger circulation. It kept
jumping from issue to issue; also, because it extended over
such a long period of time. With each new installment, more
Rockefeller critics, more Rockefeller haters, would come out of
the woodwork, you know, so that the circle of sources kept
growing with each issue.
And by an extraordinary historical coincidence, Ida Tarbell was
publishing this series, just as the man in the White House,
Teddy Roosevelt, was looking to single out a single notorious
trust for an antitrust case in order to make an example of it.
And it was really Ida Tarbell who turned John D. Rockefeller
into the most-hated man at the c--of--in the country and
really brought all of the evils of the Standard Oil trust to
public attention, just at the moment when Teddy Roosevelt
was not only looking for, you know, a big, brutal, rich,
unrepentant trust, but one that the public felt strongly about.
LAMB: We have a picture from the book, and I'd ask you,
'cause you've got a lot of pictures in here, where this comes
from. But this is Ida Tarbell...
Mr. CHERNOW: Sure.
LAMB: ...in your book. How old was she? Do you know
when--when this picture was taken?
Mr. CHERNOW: Yeah, this picture she was--she would have
been about 40 years old. She's sitting in the offices of
McClure's Magazine. You can see that she was not only a
rather attractive person, but that she had a tremendous
dignity. You could actually see the--the self-possession of
the woman there. And it took tremendous courage to take on
Standard Oil. In fact, her father, who had been an
independent oilman crushed by Standard Oil, warned her that
she would--that her life would be in danger if she took on
The strange thing was, Brian, that, you know, far from being
crushed by Standard Oil, as she was researching it, this lady
kept taking shots at Standard Oil over a three-year period and
didn't take any fire in return. What Rockefeller missed was
really the two major things that were going on in American
life. One was the power of the press because Ida Tarbell was
able to take on a subject much more complicated--slice open
Standard Oil, dissect it, give an accurate chronology of it. No
previous generation of reporters had been able to tackle such
And Rockefeller also did not realize that with Teddy Roosevelt,
power was migrating from the legislative to the executive
branch and that, for the first time, the federal government
felt that it had the--both the right and the power to take on
the largest corporations in the--in the country, and--so that
there was a very powerful dialectic at work between Teddy
Roosevelt and the muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell. And
the combination overwhelmed Rockefeller, who felt that he
didn't need to dignify the series with any response, and it was
a fatal mistake.
He did not hire--that is, Standard Oil did not hire--its first
publicist until 1906, the year after the Ida Tarbell series
ended. Today, a corporate executive in a similar situation
would probably have a team of 30 or 40 public-relations
people working around the clock.
LAMB: Ida Tarbell--the name comes up all through the Lincoln
books. I mean, she wrote a Lincoln book that's often quoted
in all the books we've done here. Who was she, and how did
she get interested in Standard Oil and John Rockefeller?
Mr. CHERNOW: She grew up in--in western Pennsylvania in
the 1860s and 1870s, at exactly the moment when Standard
Oil was taking over, first the refining industry, then the
pipelines, then the marketing. And so John D. Rockefeller, in
her childhood, was a legendary figure, was really a bogeyman.
All of her--her neighbors, she felt, had been ruined by
Standard Oil, particularly her father, so that this was a--a--a
woman who had a score to settle with--with Standard Oil.
She went to work for McClure's in the 1890s. As you said, she
did the--a--a biographical series on Lincoln that was very
good and one on Napoleon. That was significant because
when she came to do the Standard Oil series, which she
started working on in 1901, she was already accustomed to a
kind of great-man approach to history, which meant that
although her series was nominally entitled The History of the
Standard Oil Company, Standard Oil in the series, is
synonymous with John D. Rockefeller.
Now Rockefeller, there's no question, was the mastermind, so
he was the right one to focus on, but Rockefeller operated by
consensus. He had very, very powerful lieutenants, like Henry
Flagler and John D. Archibald; you know, men who were quite
tough and--and--and corrupt, who got off, really, scot-free in
the Tarbell series because, having done Lincoln and--and
Napoleon, she realized that it had a very powerful
psychological effect on readers to focus on one figure.
And particularly, when you're dealing with this gigantic,
amorphous cartel called Standard Oil, it makes the whole story
so much more compelling and dramatic to focus on one man,
so that there's remarkably little about Rockefeller's very
powerful colleagues in the--in the series, so that all of the
public animosity that was aroused by Ida Tarbell was directed
at one man and that was John D. Rockefeller Sr.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write this?
Mr. CHERNOW: It took about four or five years to--to do it,
which is longer than I had worked on the--the previous books.
You know, in my naivete, since I was doing a biography--my
previous books had been family sagas--I thought that this
would be more compact and quicker. What I quickly
discovered is that when you're writing about John D.
Rockefeller, you don't feel like you're writing about a--a
human being; you feel like you're writing about a sovereign
state. I mean, I had millions of documents to use.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Mr. CHERNOW: Live in Brooklyn Heights, which is just across
the East River from the lower Manhattan skyline, within view
of the--the Morgan bank, which was the subject of my first
book. And we live in a--a historic brownstone from the 1840s,
which had actually been a rooming house during the Civil War;
has a long and rich history, and we occupy the upper duplex
of the brownstone.
LAMB: Were you able to interview any living Rockefellers?
Mr. CHERNOW: I did. I had a couple of very nice
conversations with--with David Rockefeller. The--the--the
family was guarded but cordial.
LAMB: What's his relationship to John D. Sr.?
Mr. CHERNOW: Grandson. In fact, really an adored grandson.
And because John D. Sr. lived so long, David, Nelson,
Laurance and all the rest were--had graduated from college.
They had married. They had started in their business careers.
And--but David Rockefeller said to me--he said, `Gee, there
are so many things I wish that I had asked Grandpa.' I think
what he didn't realize is that Grandpa studiously avoided
certain topics. In fact, when Nelson was a senior at
Dartmouth, Nelson wanted to do his senior thesis on Standard
Oil and--and vindicate Grandpa against his critics. He wrote to
his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., saying, `I so admire
Grandfather. Do you think you c--you could arrange for me to
speak to him?'
Now most grandfathers would leap at the opportunity to tell
war stories about their business career. A few weeks later, a
letter comes back from his father saying that `Grandfather
has no desire to talk about Standard Oil.' And I make much of
this in the book because in most families, there's a very rich
oral history, whereas the Rockefeller family is a family that's
riddled by strange silences and taboos.
And I speculate in the book--and I'm almost certain I'm right
about this--that John D. Rockefeller Jr. stimulated this
three-year interview that William O. Inglis did with his father, I
think, because William O. Inglis, reading aloud Henry Demarest
Lloyd, reading aloud Ida Tarbell, was able to ask his father,
that is John D. Sr., all the questions that John D. Jr. had
never been able to ask because the whole subject was too
And you could see John D. Rockefeller Jr. actually monitoring
and secretly reading the transcripts from this interview.
'Cause when Tar--Tarbell was exposing John D. Rockefeller, he
didn't sit down with his family and say, `Let me give you my
version of events so that you know what happened or what I
want you to think happened.' He just left this family in a very
uncomfortable silence, where they were supposed to believe
in Father's integrity, really, as an article of faith.
LAMB: What is a trust?
Mr. CHERNOW: A trust actually--a--a t--a trust became
synonymous with a monopoly and--and is almost used as a
shorthand for it today. What happened during the era of John
D. Rockefeller Sr. was that a corporation that was located in
one state was not able to buy the stock in the
corporation--in a corporation located in another state. So it
was very difficult to conduct an interstate business, which is
why there was a Standard Oil of New York and there was a
Standard Oil of New Jersey, etc., etc.
The way that Standard Oil was able to operate nationally was
that the individual shareholders would pass on their stock to a
group of trustees, who would then return to them trust
certificates. So the trust was a way for them to circumvent
these legal restrictions on operating interstate. It was a way
of consolidating all the companies in an industry and, hence,
became synonymous with monopoly itself, which is why it's
called the Sherman Antitrust Act. We still--the--the term still
survives, and the term `antitrust.'
LAMB: So if we were to find John D. Rockefeller Sr. at his
worst moment, or as defined by somebody like Ida Tarbell,
where was he--where was he located and when--what was
he doing that made everybody so mad?
Mr. CHERNOW: OK, Rockefeller was notorious from the time
that he was a--a--a young man. I mean, we have to
remember that the oil industry, like the computer industry
today, was created by young men, which is often the case of
new industries. And after Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in
Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, there was a wild, rip-roaring
gold-rush atmosphere. It wasn't the kind of thing that, you
know, old, settled people rushed off to west--western
Pennsylvania. It was all of these young guys who had just
been demobilized after the--the Civil War.
Rockefeller created Standard Oil in Cleveland in 1870. He
quickly realized that the most significant factor in the
competitive rush to dominate oil was going to be
transportation because, basically, one company's oil product
didn't differ that much from another. And so Rockefeller
created a conspiracy with the railroads called the South
Improvement Company that not only gave preferential rates
to Standard Oil, but at the same time, gave punitive rates to
When news of this leaked out in western Pennsylvania,
Rockefeller was--was burned in--in--in effigy. There were
huge torchlight parades in towns like Titusville and Oil City and
Franklin and the other centers of the--of the oil region. And
there was so much protest that this conspiracy was
What happened, though, was that during that time where the
conspiracy still seemed to be very much alive, Rockefeller took
over 22 of the 26 other refineries in--in--in Cleveland because
his competitors felt that they could not possibly compete with
Standard Oil, which was in cahoots with the--the railroad. So
it was a very significant moment. It was the first time that his
name appeared in the newspaper.
But then, even though he was controversial in the oil industry,
it was many, many years before the general public realized
that one of the 10 richest and most powerful men in the
United States was this John D. Rockefeller, who controlled the
oil-refining industry. He was a very, very shadowy and
LAMB: At what age did he find himself with lots of money?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, by the late 1870s, even before he had
reached age 40, he controlled about 90 percent of all the oil
refining in the United States.
LAMB: How old is he there?
Mr. CHERNOW: Actually, there, he's in his 40s. That's a
wonderful photo, and one of the reasons I reproduced it in the
book is that when you look in those eyes, you see this very
keen, enterprising, determined spirit. I felt that I almost had
to erase, Brian, the image of the old man with the newsreel
cameras because this was someone who had been, I mean,
just physically tall and powerful and i--i--imposing, not this,
you know, shrunken little man. And people...
LAMB: Where is this, by the way?
Mr. CHERNOW: That was a studio portrait from the 1880s, so
Rockefeller would have been in his 40s. Now...
LAMB: You can see in the photo that he's a lot taller than he
Mr. CHERNOW: Quite tall. You know, it's interesting, he
ha--he's standing there with a top hat and cane. This was a
self-made man who had grown up in rustic areas of upstate
New York. Look at how dignified and polished he looks there.
And--and you could also see the tremendously imposing
You know, people who dealt with him in a business situation
talked about these eyes, these piercing eyes that would just
drill holes through you. Hen--William James said that he was
the most suggestive and formidable personality that he had
ever met. This was someone who was a very imposing
presence. Later on, he--he becomes this sort of laughing
geezer handing out dimes. And I write about that. And he
became a rather colorful, eccentric old man, and th--and
that's fun. But...
LAMB: What's this--I didn't mean to interrupt, but I wanted
Mr. CHERNOW: Sure.
LAMB: ...the--on the eyes--you've got this on the
photo--this photo on the cover. What--how old was he here?
Mr. CHERNOW: He was in his 60s. And I love that photo,
because I think you see in the--in the eyes what a shrewd,
canny and rather enigmatic character he--he was. And he's
got some sort...
LAMB: Does he have a wig on here?
Mr. CHERNOW: He has a wig on. He had lost all of his hair. He
suffered from something called alopecia. In 1901, he lost not
only all the hair on his head; he lost all body hair. And this
was a great tragedy in his life because then Ida Tarbell came
along a year later, did this series portraying him as a monster.
And since he was hairless and suddenly looked old and--and
ghoulish, his appearance seemed to ratify what she was
saying in the series, so that the timing was particularly
unfortunate for Rockefeller.
LAMB: We've got some ph--a lot of photos that we want to
show the audience, but before we do that, how hard was it to
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, the Rockefeller Archive Center--there are
about 3,000 or 4,000 photos there--the difficulty was that
when he, later in life, learned to--to love the camera, they
have hundreds and hundreds of pictures to choose from.
During the earlier years, where he was so publicity-shy--I
mean, during his active business career, he never granted
interviews, never allowed himself to be photographed, so that,
for instance, I couldn't find a single photo of him when he was
in his 30s. I had two or three when he was in his 40s. So in
the earlier part of the book, we had to make do with the
photos there were.
LAMB: Did you pick all these yourself?
Mr. CHERNOW: Yeah, I went through all the photos. I picked
them. I a--arranged them. I consider that part of my job
as--as--as the author because it's part of the image of this
man that I'm projecting to the reader.
LAMB: Before I show the photos, are y--is this a full-time job
for you, writing these books?
Mr. CHERNOW: Yes, it is.
LAMB: How long have you done it?
Mr. CHERNOW: I've been doing it now f--since the end of
LAMB: What were you doing before that?
Mr. CHERNOW: I had a long phase--from the time that I left
school in 1973, I worked as a--a free-lance magazine and
newspaper writer for about 10 years. I worked for a think tank
called the Twentieth Century Fund for about three and a half
years, and then I started work on "The House of Morgan."
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
Mr. CHERNOW: I did a BA in English at Yale college, and then I
did an MA in English at Cambridge University in England.
LAMB: Now what is it about writing that you like?
Mr. CHERNOW: For me, writing--it's--it's--it's a--it's a sensual
pleasure, really. I--I--I think that with any writer worth his or
her salt, there's a kind of almost sublimated sexuality about it,
if I can use Freudian language. There's nothing that gives me
greater pleasure than actually stringing words together, and
I--and I think that I'm actually--and I think this is true of
most writers--that we're writing all the time, not just when
we're sitting in front of the computer screen or the typewriter
LAMB: What's your daily pattern?
Mr. CHERNOW: My daily pattern is really--I'm really kind of a
dull boy. I wake up, I have breakfast, I exercise to music or
National Public Radio, pour a cup of coffee, get--get a jolt of
caffeine, flip on the word processor and usually work until
around 4:30. And if the phone doesn't ring, I'm in absolute
heaven, but it usually rings many times during the day.
LAMB: Do you get block at all?
Mr. CHERNOW: No, you know, I've never suffered from--from
writer's block. It--it--it's really not in--in my lexicon, because
I figured out early on my own trick for getting out of it, which
is as follows: I--if I can't write something, I suddenly imagine
myself explaining it to a reasonably intelligent friend. If that
doesn't work, I imagine arguing the point with a passionate
adversary. That usually gets the juices flowing, so I start
pacing my office and carrying on this imaginary debate with
someone whom I picture is very hostile and skeptical about
what I'm saying, and then the words, with that anger, begin
LAMB: What does it say about both John D. Rockefeller and
Henry Flagler that they paid $300 to substitutes so they didn't
have to fight in the Civil War?
Mr. CHERNOW: This is an interesting story. It wasn't unusual
for--you know, for well-to-do men--and John D. was
well-to-do in his 20s. It was--it wasn't unusual for people to
pay a substitute. J.P. Morgan did it and Teddy Roosevelt's
father did it. I think Grover Cleveland did. There are a lot of
different cases. Rockefeller claimed--and I think that he was
right--that he had, you know, paid and outfitted 20 or 30
different people to--to fight.
What's interesting is that, given the fact that, you know, he
was so money-mad, he marries into a family called the
Spelmans, who--a wonderful family. They were a--not only
ardent temperance activists, but they were ardent
abolitionists who had been conductors on the Underground
Railroad. They'd had Sojourner Truth in the house. And then
Rockefeller goes on to found Spelman College to educate
freed female slaves. And so there's no question that he felt
deeply about abolitionism. It may well have been that he
couldn't restrain these moneymaking impulses.
But another important thing that I explain in the book is that
when he was in his 20s, his father, who was a--a bigamist
and had abandoned the family, that John D. has to
single-handedly support his brothers and sisters and his
mother. There you can see the parents; on the--on the left,
William Avery Rockefeller, colorful, raffish mountebank, who
even in John's childhood would disappear for weeks or months
at a time, out on the road selling snake oil. John's--John D.'s
cunning side, the rascality, clearly c--comes from his father.
On the right, his mother, Eliza, s--a very strict, very pious,
and all the thrift, discipline, industry, religiosity come from the
mother. So here you have the product of these crazily
mismatched parents, who then produce, quite logically, a
crazily contradictory son.
LAMB: The father, you say, had two different names, two
different wives, two different families?
Mr. CHERNOW: That's right. Around 1855, he abandons the
family. He will reappear throughout their lives every year out
of the blue, but he marries a much younger woman who knows
him as Dr. William Livingston. They're married for approximately
50 years, Brian, and only during the last two years of that
50-year marriage does Margaret Allen Livingston learn that for
decades, she has been married to the father of the richest
man in the world. I keep telling people if a novelist had
invented this, people would say it was too preposterous a plot
twist and get rid of it. Nobody will believe it. I was able to
completely reconstruct this whole implausible story in terms of
not only what happened to the father with this second
marriage, but also what his relationship was with John.
LAMB: We also have the--I--I guess a sister an--and a
brother here of John D.
Mr. CHERNOW: Right. Here he's with hi--with his elder--with
his y--younger brother and sister.
LAMB: He's on the right?
Mr. CHERNOW: He's on the right, and then brother William,
who became a Standard Oil executive, is on the--o--on--on
the left. What's interesting about this photo is that the
children look very, very grim and--and somber in a way that I
think can't be completely explained by the photographic
methods of the day.
LAMB: When was this taken?
Mr. CHERNOW: This was taken in--it would have been around
1852, because John was--on the right there--was 13 years
old. What's interesting is that, from the photos, we can see
that he had this rather grim and somber childhood, but in later
years, when he reminisced, it was this golden, idyllic time. The
value of photographs--because very often, people tend to
sentimentalize or idealize their--their childhood, and so
the--the ph--the photographic record speaks often with a
kind of objectivity that the subjects don't.
LAMB: Who's this lady?
Mr. CHERNOW: This lady is Laura Celestia Spelman at the time
that she married John D. Rockefeller. Her nickname was Cetti.
This was 1864 when they got married. She was about 25
years old. She was a very bright, lively, intelligent young
woman, a kind of bluestocking. She was a schoolteacher. She
went to college at a time when that was extremely rare. She
believed strongly in abolitionism and a--an--and temperance.
She then--later on, as the years went by, she became an
almost suffocatingly pious young lady. She loses a lot of this
intellectual vitality that you see early on. And one thing that
many people have speculated--and I tend to--to suspect that
it's true--is that, as the drumbeat of criticism against
Standard Oil grew louder, that she took refuge in the church,
so that she becomes a kind of unreal and otherworldly person
who talks in a very high-flown religious rhetoric. And it's
strange that John D., who is accused of being the greatest
corporate criminal of the age, goes home to this household
that is drenched in Baptist piety and feels no discontinuity
whatsoever between what he's doing at the office and the
home atmosphere that he returns to.
LAMB: What would you say that--did--well, let me ask you
this way: Did he do anything illegal in his life?
Mr. CHERNOW: He did. A lot of the things that he did were
certainly unfair. I uncovered a lot of correspondence where he
was directly paying off different politicians, and at the time,
to directly pay off a politician to kill a piece of legislation was
illegal. Sometimes they used different subterfuges and would
hire somebody as a--as legal counsel.
What's interesting is that Rockefeller often pointed out that
his--most of his business career was played out before the
Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887,
outlawing railroad rebates, and before the Sherman Act was
passed in 1890, outlawing combinations in restraint of trade.
But what you see with Standard Oil is that even when those
two landmark pieces of legislation are enacted, the behavior
of the trust really doesn't--doesn't change at all. And you can
in see the papers, they're just trying to figure out different
ways to circumvent the--th--the law, so that basically, John
D. and his colleagues regarded government regulators as
nuisances to be bypassed wherever possible.
LAMB: You say that he gave $250,000 in 1896 to the William
McKinley campaign for president.
Mr. CHERNOW: Right.
LAMB: How much money would that be today?
Mr. CHERNOW: Oh, that would be several million dollars today.
He didn't like politicians. He felt that politicians were basically
parasites who would shake down businessmen. I mean, all of
this bribery he saw as extortion; that is, the politicians
shaking him down, rather than his paying off the--the
politicians, so that he had very little interest in conventional
politics. I think that he regarded these payments as a--really
as a business expense. He was never somebody, aside from
writing a check, who would ever get involved in a political
You know, and it's interesting, I think, Brian, that in--if you
look at the late 19th century, the people who were really
building up the country were the--the businessmen and--and
not the--the politicians. You know, if someone were to ask
you whether you would rather read a biography of John D.
Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, let's say, rather than
Rutherford B. Hayes or Benjamin Harrison, or, you know, which
two were--were more important, I think we would all say
Rockefeller and--and Carnegie rather than Harrison and--and
So you go through a period in the late 19th century that is
one of tremendous political squalor, partly caused by the
business interests themselves. So there's also not an
atmosphere that was likely to generate a tremendous amount
of respect in the--in the business community, to the extent
that the business community was not directly responsible for
a lot of the squalor.
LAMB: Now I remember tripping across his grave one day
when I was at the James Garfield grave in Cleveland...
Mr. CHERNOW: That's right.
LAMB: ...and he's right across the street there from him.
What's he doing being buried in Cleveland when most of the
other family's in New York?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, it's interesting--you know, it's interesting
that a lot of people in Cleveland are not aware that John D.
moved there as a teen-ager, started in business as a
teen-age clerk in Cleveland in the 1850s, started Standard Oil
there in 1870, and not only--even after he moved to New
York in the early 1880s, retained an estate in Cleveland until
the late 1900s--I'm sorry, late 19--teens.
He transferred a lot of his affection to New York. He felt that
he was treated better by politicians and the press in New
York. Cleveland really mishandled Rockefeller because today,
New York City has The Cloisters, the Museum of Modern Art,
Riverside Church, Rockefeller University, all of these
Rockefeller institutions that might have gone to Cleveland if
he felt that he had been treated better by politicians and
press in his own home--hometown.
And so the family grave site was in--in Cleveland, but,
certainly, his son was--John D. Rockefeller Jr. was born in
1874. And so when he's five or six years old, the family moved
to New York. So it's not surprising that by that generation,
they feel themselves New Yorkers. But for John D., Cleveland
was always like an unrequited love affair with this city.
LAMB: What did he do about giving his money away?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, you know, th--the image of John D. is
that he--that he made a pile during his career and then gave
away a pile afterwards. If that had been the case--you know,
that's a cliche; the businessman, you know, makes a--a
bundle and then sanitizes the fortune by giving it to good
works. What makes John D. so much more fascinating and
enigmatic and compelling a character is that he was making
money as fast as he could from the time he was a teen-ager
and giving it away as fast as he could. He was a Baptist. He
was tithing as a teen-ager.
By the time he's in his early 40s, Brian, he's creating Spelman
College in Atlanta, then Spelman Seminary to educate
emancipated female slaves. By the time he's in his early 50s,
he's single-handedly creating the University of Chicago. By
the time he's in his early 60s, he is single-handedly creating
the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, today
Rockefeller University, first major medical research institute in
the United States. He's creating General Education, world's
largest educational foundation in the country. He's creating
huge, philanthropic institutions throughout his career, not
publicizing them. And it's clear from his papers that, if
anything, he found it very distasteful, the idea of publicizing
what he was doing.
An--and, frankly, for selfish reasons he didn't want to
publicize it because when there would be in the newspaper an
article about one of his large bequests, he would receive, on
average, 50,000 letters soliciting money within the 30-day
period after the appearance of such articles. His philanthropic
adviser, Frederick T. Gates, said, `Mr. Rockefeller was stalked
and hounded like a wild animal.' Everywhere he went,
everybody, from the most noble to the most ignoble, were
soliciting him for money.
LAMB: How about his children? How did he deal with money
with the kids?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, you know, it's interesting, he--being a
very puritanical sort, he was haunted by the corrupting
influence of wealth, so that even though the children grew up
on these estates, in certain cases of several thousand acres,
he had them on very strict allowances. One of the most
interesting details that I discovered during the research was
that John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was the only son, the
youngest of four children, said that until the age of eight, he
wore only female clothes.
And in the interview--this was a private interview--the
interviewer said to him, `Oh, you only wore female clothes?
Was that just because the style of the time was that little
boys, you know, wore dresses?' He said, `Oh, no, no, you
don't understand. We all wore hand-me-downs, and the three
older siblings were all girls, and so the hand-me-downs that
were coming down to me were all, you know, dresses
This is how frugally they were brought up, so that John D.
tried to re-create his own threadbare childhood with the
children, even though he was en route to becoming the
richest man in the world, because he wanted them to learn
the value of a dollar, you know? And he looked at all these
other children of the--the ga--grandees of the gilded age,
and he saw them, you know, becoming philanderers and
alcoholics and everything else. And he was determined that
these children were going to be thrifty and responsible. And to
a remarkable extent, he succeeded because you see a lot of
famous families burn out after a generation or two. The
Rockefellers have managed to--to go on being a significant
force in business, politics and philanthropy in this country.
LAMB: What's the story of the Widow Backus?
Mr. CHERNOW: The Widow Backus--this was a story that was
given currency by Henry Demarest Lloyd and Ida Tarbell, the
great muckraking critics, who claimed that back in the late
1870s in Cleveland--that Rockefeller had taken over a
lubricant plant owned by the Widow Backus and had cheated
her. When Ida Tarbell repeated this, this was a very trivial
episode in the history of Standard Oil, which had a global oil
monopoly, but it had a very potent appeal to the public
imagination. Imagine, Mr. Rockefeller was so sadistic and so
ruthless that he was cheating this poor widow. In fact, he
had offered her a very, very fair--fair price, and it was later
documented that, in fact, he had not cheated her.
When the time came for Rockefeller to publish his own random
reminiscences in 1908, he devoted probably more space to
the Widow Backus story than any other because this incident
had had such a hold on the popular imagination that he
himself said, `If I crushed a poor, defenseless widow, then I
really must be a very terrible human being.' And so he
spent--on what was really an almost microscopic transaction
in Standard Oil history, s--spent several pages in his book
defending his behavior. And it was one of the few things that
Ida Tarbell really got wrong. It was amazing how much she
got right, but that one, she did the disservice.
LAMB: Which one of the residence of the Rockefellers is this?
Mr. CHERNOW: This is John D. Sr.'s house called Kaiket. He
had four estates. This was on his estate in the Pocantico Hills
of Westchester, north of New York City. And that house is
today open to the public. Now it's about 40 or 50 rooms,
which sounds fairly impressive. But if one thinks of the
Newport cottages of the--the day, and these--these very,
you know, pretentious and rather elephantine places, this was
a surprisingly modest place for the world's richest man to--to
live, and it shows that he was generally an unostentatious
person. I--I think--and I should point out it was surrounded
by 3,500 acres and several dozen miles of carriage trails that
he had personally laid out, so that the grounds are beautiful.
But he was much more interested in the--in the grounds than
the interior of the--the--the house.
He was--he was a very austere, evangelical Christian. And for
him, I think it was rather pagan and idolatrous to have a lot of
expensive paintings and a big fancy house and ballroom. That
was not his style at all. He did have a nine-hole golf course.
He had his own private golf course at each of his houses.
That was arguably his greatest indulgence.
LAMB: If you were to total up everything that he was worth
today, what would that figure be?
Mr. CHERNOW: OK. Hi--hi--his net worth peaked in 1913 at
$900 million, which if you translate into contemporary dollars
is $13 billion, which does not sound like very much, but it
doesn't begin to tell the whole story, for a number of reasons.
He had $900 million in 1913. The entire federal budget in 1913
was $715 million, so he could have personally paid for every
federal employee and expense and had money left to spare.
The total accumulated national debt that year was $1.2
billion, so he could have retired three-quarters of the total
Rockefeller made the statement in 1917--he had given away
so much money, he said that if he had kept the money, by
1917, he would have been worth $3 billion, which would be
more than $30 billion today, and would put him in second
place behind Bill Gates. But Bill Gates' wealth only represents
1/2 of 1 percent of the gross national product. Rockefeller's
wealth represented 2 1/2 percent of the gross national
product, which is why people claim with some justice that
John D. Rockefeller was the richest man in American history.
LAMB: His grandson, Winthrop, went on to be governor of
Arkansas. His grandson--am I--Is there a grandson?
Mr. CHERNOW: That's right. Right. Right.
LAMB: Nelson went on to be governor of New York and vice
president of the United States. His great-grandson went on to
be a United States senator. You said he didn't like politicians.
Would any of those men been in those positions if they didn't
have his money?
Mr. CHERNOW: I don't know. It's a fair question. One--one of
the interesting things is how the Rockefeller attitude towards
politics changes because when the federal government brings
a big antitrust suit against Standard Oil at the time of Teddy
Roosevelt, Rockefeller has a very, very defiant and rather
contemptuous attitude toward government. His son, John D.
Rockefeller Jr., is very much inspired, I think, by the
atmosphere of Woodrow Wilson, is interested in public-private
partnerships. He--he buys up the Grand Tetons Valley and
gives it to the federal government for what is today, you
know, arguably, the most glorious national park in the United
States; ditto for Acadia National Park up in Maine.
And then you actually have Nelson running for office and
becoming governor of Arkansas, Winthrop becoming a
governor of--I'm sorry--Nelson became governor of New York,
Winthrop became the governor of--of Arkansas. When Nelson
first entertained the notion of becoming governor of New
York, Thomas E. Dewey said he couldn't be elected
dogcatcher in New York, the Rockefeller name was considered
that much of a liability. So that while the wealth was
enormously advantageous, the--the name itself was both a
help and a hindrance, because the Rockefeller name,
historically, had inspired a lot of hostility.
LAMB: What of this book is new? You mentioned the Inglis
interview before. What else did you find that--that hadn't
been done before?
Mr. CHERNOW: One of the things that I did is that all sorts of
things that happened at Standard Oil, which John D.
Rockefeller claimed had never been--had never happened, or
if they had happened, they had been carried out by overly
zealous underlings--I was able to directly connect him to all of
these various nefarious activities that went on at Standard
Oil. To his credit, I was able to correct--connect him much
more directly with all of his great philanthropic enterprises,
'cause a lot of people felt that he was detached from them,
whereas, in fact, he was very actively shaping and--and
I think perhaps the single most important thing that I did in
this book was that I took somebody who was considered
inhuman and turned him into a human being. He was a deeply
flawed human being, but I think that I bring him--at least I
hope I bring him to--to life on the--o--on the page, because
he had been seen as almost a kind of malevolent automaton
throughout his--his life.
And he was a very--and if you read the earlier biographies,
he's almost missing from his own biographies. He's so ghostly,
he's so elusive. So I have--in addition to a lot of analysis and
information, I introduce hundreds of anecdotes in the book
just to try to bring him alive as a person, because in his
time--and people don't know this--in his day, he was
considered not only the richest American, he was considered
one of the greatest and most original and most eccentric
personalities that the United States had ever produced, and
that fascinated me, and I hope that I catch that.
LAMB: You have a picture here of him sitting with a couple
Mr. CHERNOW: Yeah. Those are
great-grand--granddaughters. He--he loved children. You
know, one of the reasons I have so many--we have 105
photos in--in the book, and one reason is that you see all the
different expressions, all the different faces, of John D.
Rockefeller. People tend to see him in a very one-dimensional
fashion when, in fact, he was a very, very complicated man.
There are no two decades of his life where he--consecutive
decades--where he looks the same. He's changing...
LAMB: This is Will Rogers here?
Mr. CHERNOW: Yeah. He was great friends with--with Will
Rogers, and Will Rogers came up with a lot of funny lines.
They used to golf together, and Will Rogers, one day, said
to--to Rockefeller--I mean, after Rockefeller beat him at golf,
Will Rogers said to him, `Gee--gee, John, I'm--I'm glad I lost
you in golf. The last time I beat you the price of gasoline
went up a dime,' which--not bad.
Another time, Will Rogers got--t--turned the tables on John
D.--there's a famous picture of Will Rogers giving John D. a
dime rather than taking one, and Rockefeller's sort of sitting
there with this comical shocked expression on his--his face.
He loved Will Rogers' humor. Will Rogers' humor--very kind of
dry, Midwestern sort of humor--it was exactly Rockefeller's
own humor, and he used to every day in the newspapers
avidly look for Will Rogers' jokes.
LAMB: Didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't swear?
Mr. CHERNOW: No. Didn't go to the theater, didn't go to
the--to--to the opera. This was the last Puritan. And on
LAMB: But you did have, though, a little s--little--well--well,
it seems out of context with everything else--that--and
here's the picture; I showed it earlier--that when he was
running around in the countryside in the car, he liked to--well,
you explain it.
Mr. CHERNOW: This is very, very interesting. Rockefeller's
wife, who had been a sort of professional invalid for the last
10 or 20 years of her life--after she dies in 1915, John D. lives
another 22 years. There's no evidence, during all the years
that his wife was an invalid, that he ever cheated on her.
He seems to have been a model husband, one of many
contradictions of--of the man--a model husband. The second
she dies--he never has shown interest in women--he's
suddenly surrounded by women. Oh, yeah, there's his--his
wife in a--in--in a wheelchair. She was confined to a
wheelchair during the--the last few years of her--of--of her
life. As soon as she dies, he develops a real roving eye.
And he has this afternoon ritual where he goes out with a
party of people in this large touring car. He always sits tightly
wedged between two buxom women on either side. He has a
blanket that he draws over their laps and up to their necks,
and his hot, itchy fingers would stray under the--the blanket.
And so Rockefeller lived his adolescence in his last years,
whereas when he's a young man he looks very old and
serious, and when he's an old man he looks rather jaunty
and--and--and young. So he seems to keep getting younger
and even slightly silly as he gets older.
LAMB: How--how did you learn that last little episode?
Mr. CHERNOW: There's a terrible--actually, there was a rather
gossipy memoir that was written by his chief gardener,
because when they would go out on these afternoon drives,
the gardener would often be driving the second car. And he
said one day, they pulled up at a stop sign, and this young
woman who was sitting next to Rockefeller leapt out of
the--the back seat and came running back to this car. And
she s--got in the car and she said, `That old rooster! I'll
never sit next to him again.' And apparently Ro--Rockefeller
had been trying to--to feel her up during the--the ride.
LAMB: One last little connecting point here that James
Thomas Flexner's father, who was on this show, is right here.
Who is he?
Mr. CHERNOW: Right. That's Simon Flexner. He was the first
director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research,
today the Rockefeller University. And when that was started
in 1901, it was a very, very novel concept. Rockefeller himself
suggested it. It was novel because there was no institute
devoted purely to medical research, and at the time, the idea
of paying scientists to sit around and just daydream and come
up with discoveries was considered something not only
brand-new but rather quixotic and even doomed to failure.
But--but Simon Flexner very quickly developed a--a
treatment--a serum for--for meningitis, and it's been one of
the great success stories, not only of the Rockefeller family
but of American medicine.
LAMB: Any plans for another book already for you?
Mr. CHERNOW: I think the next one will have to be shorter.
I'm a bit exhausted. I've done--I've published three monsters
in a 10-year period, plus one collection...
LAMB: Are they available, by the way, in paperback?
Mr. CHERNOW: "The Warburgs" and "The House of Morgan" are
still very much in--in paperback, and then I did a short
collection of essays last year called "The"--"The Death of the
Banker." So I think the next project will be something shorter
and more in the area of instant gratification.
LAMB: What was the most fun about doing this book?
Mr. CHERNOW: The most fun about doing it, I think, was just
penetrating all of his disguises. You know, there--there--there
are certain biographical subjects who seem to live for their
biographers. They record all their thoughts. And then there
are other maddening people who live in order to torment and
frustrate their biographers, and John D. was the supreme
example of this type of secretive person. And I don't know
that I penetrated all of his disguises or his mysteries, but
enough so that I felt that I really created a--a fresh portrait
of the man.
LAMB: Where'd you get the title?
Mr. CHERNOW: The title--"Titan"--well, you know, there was
a Dreiser novel called "The Titan." I like the sort of novelistic
ring of it. I also wanted a title that would suggest business
that's--or suggest the gigantic scope but would not tell you
whether it was a flattering or unflattering vision of the man,
so I was looking for something that was deliberately
ambiguous. And then also I liked, from a design standpoint,
a--a--a five-letter title; I pictured it the way it was--it--with
these sort of bold letters leaping off the page like that.
LAMB: And this is the cover of the book, "Titan: The Life of
John D. Rockefeller, Sr." Our guest has been Ron Chernow.
Thank you very much.
Mr. CHERNOW: Pleasure, Brian.
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