Chernow's 'Titan' - the original Rockefeller, writ very large

May 31, 1998|By Jonathan R. Cohen | Jonathan R. Cohen,Special to the sun

"Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.," by Ron Chernow. Random House. 731 pages. $30.

Ron Chernow, prize -- winning biographer of J.P. Morgan and chronicler of the Warburg banking dynasty, writes best selling, highbrow, popular histories about the very wealthy. Now comes his magnum opus, a biography of the truly fascinating John D. Rockefeller Sr., rendered here in exhaustive and, it must be said, exhausting detail. Reader beware: This book is twice the length it needs to be. But what a tale it tells.

It begins in the early part of the 19th century in a forgotten part of America Chernow calls "upstate New York." Really it is the state's southern tier, stretching west from Binghamton to Jamestown, and south from the tips of the Finger Lakes to the Pennsylvania line.

Traveling through this hardscrabble region by car today, one can manage a spectral glimpse of the strange mix of American gothic, New England puritan and Appalachian hillbilly cultures that generated many transforming forces in our national life, including the spiritualist movement, the Suffragettes, the Mormon church and the Rockefellers.

John D. Rockefeller was born and reared in this region, in the towns of Richford, Moravia and Owego. His father, William "Doc" Rockefeller, used it as a base of operations for his life of womanizing, confiding get-rich-quick schemes and hawking fraudulent patent medicines to frontier bumpkins, leaving John, his six siblings and their pious mother to fend for themselves.

By the time the family moved to Cleveland, John was a teen-ager and, as head of the household by necessity, mature beyond his years. It was there, in the Baptist Church on Euclid Avenue, and as a clerk in the shipping offices down by the Cuyahoga River in a district still known as "the Flats," that he began his climb to supreme wealth.

Tormented by his family's poverty and his father's bigamy, the young, parsimonious accountant dedicated his life to church-going, moneymaking and from early on, charity. He made his first small fortune as a grocery wholesaler in the years before the Civil War. Through shrewdness, timely borrowing and considerable luck, he parlayed his warehouse business into the Standard Oil Company.

Before it was all over, Standard Oil would spawn 34 separate companies including Mobil, Chevron and Exxon, giving Rockefeller an annual income of nearly $1 billion and a net worth of $13 billion by 1913. Along the way Rockefeller made huge fortunes in iron, steel and on Wall Street, while showering millions upon millions in philanthropic gifts on institutions that continue to play leading roles in American life today, including Spellman College, the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others.

Chernow's aim is to balance Rockefeller the churchman and philanthropist with Rockefeller the rapacious robber baron. "Seldom," he writes, "has history produced such a contradictory figure. We are almost forced to posit, in helpless confusion, at least two Rockefellers: the good, religious man and the renegade businessman, driven by baser motives."

The reader is treated to a thorough tour of the mental landscape that generated this dualistic personality, as well as its manifestations in the strange, debilitating illnesses that plagued Rockefeller, his wife and his children. But somehow Chernow never fully brings together the loose strands of social history that alternately shaped and was influenced by Rockefeller's life.

Chernow relates a good deal about how the Baptist Church served as Rockefeller's social world and shaped his moral views. But we don't, unfortunately, get the full flavor of what distinguished Rockefeller's "high" Baptists from other denominations or how they came to be so remarkably influential in the spheres of education and charitable work.

Most disappointing is Chernow's failure to explore the long-term consequences of Rockefeller's philanthropy. In truth, Rockefeller'sactivities on this front matched and in some ways surpassed what he accomplished in the world of commerce. More than Carnegie or Ford, Rockefeller's decisions forged American philanthropy's lasting attitudes about funding programs in social welfare, medical science and education. Some would argue that the results have been more corrosive in American life than anything done by Standard Oil.

In balancing the contradictions of Rockefeller's life, Chernow has written a book for those aging baby boomers seeking to reconcile an earlier desire to "change the world" with a current obsession for making money.

Standard Oil ruthlessly beat down its competitors by rigging railroad prices, buying off politicians and swallowing up rivals. But it also produced the cleanest and cheapest illuminate available before the advent of the electric light.

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