Strong father not necessary prerequisite for successful son

June 20, 1999|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

IF JOHN D. Rockefeller and J. Pierpont Morgan were alive, how would they celebrate Father's Day? Or, perhaps more to the point, would they be celebrating it at all?

Splendid new biographies of those storied moguls of the Gilded Age assign their fathers leading but contrasting roles in the emergence of their famous sons to positions of enormous power. Offshoots of Rockefeller's Standard Oil empire, Exxon and Mobil, are in the process of merging again into the world's largest oil company. J.P. Morgan & Co. ranks as the nation's fourth-largest bank.

In "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.," by National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, William Avery Rockefeller emerges as just the kind of fellow a father should not be. His neighbors in hard-scrabble areas of upstate New York, Ohio and points West called him "Devil Bill" and for good reason. He was a con man, a bigamist, a quack doctor and a person whose utter shamelessness astounds even in this Clintonian era.

Soon after Devil Bill married pious, long-suffering Eliza Davison, he brought into his honeymoon cottage another woman he had been courting. There he sired two legitimate and two illegitimate offspring.

The first of these, John D., born in 1837, adored his mother and regarded his renegade, often-absent father with a cold, contemptuous silence. Forced to take on adult responsibilities at an early age, he quickly rescued his mother from poverty and with breath-taking aplomb captured control of the infant petroleum industry.

A bigamist

Devil Bill made no effort to mend his ways as a means of fostering his son's career. He was indicted for rape but was never brought to trial. He married another woman without divorcing Eliza, and proceeded to live a double life for 51 years. He borrowed freely from his disapproving son but did him no favors other than to keep out of the sight of inquiring newspapermen. And he adopted the moniker, "Levingston," while peddling snake oil and cancer cures.

As a rogue and a charmer, always flashing a wad of greenbacks, Devil Bill at least taught his son to regard commerce as a tough competitive struggle. Once enticing his son to jump to him from a table, he suddenly lowered his arms as the lad fell to the ground. "Remember, never trust anyone completely," his father lectured. "Not even me."

Biographer Chernow writes that "Rockefeller probably never forgave his father, whose erratic ways had likely set him off on his exaggerated quest for money, power and respectability." His role model was his adored, straight-arrow mother.

Junius Spencer Morgan shared nothing in common with William Avery Rockefeller, a.k.a. Levingston, other than his U.S. citizenship and estrangement from his wife. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he rose to prominence as an international banker who served as a London-based conduit for European investment in post-Civil War America.

A Shakespearean air

He was an attentive, adoring, hectoring father. Indeed, Bancroft Prize winner Jean Strouse calls him an "indefatigable Polonius" in her new biography, "Morgan: American Financier." "Never under any circumstances do an act which could be called into question if known to the whole world," Junius advised his son. He was frequently alarmed by Pierpont's penchant for aggressive, speculative dealing, and did not hesitate to express his disapproval.

But as his son enjoyed phenomenal success, often acting as a sort of privatized Alan Greenspan in managing U.S. monetary policy before the Federal Reserve was established, he came to glory in Pierpont's triumphs. Morgan banking clout came to surpass even Rothchild's and Baring's. In contrast, his mother was a neglectful and negligent influence in his life.

Like father like son is passable shorthand for the relationship between Junius and Pierpont Morgan. And not just in matters financial. Both were locked into empty marriages to chronically depressed, reclusive spouses. And both, in the manner of European royalty, rather publicly enjoyed younger, prettier, more interesting consorts.

So what kind of fathers did John D. Rockefeller and J. Pierpont Morgan turn out to be? Both had sons burdened by their fathers' fame.

Pierpont never gave his son, Jack, the attention he had received from his father. He brought him into the family business, to be sure, but Jack lacked the confidence to exert an influence consonant with his titles.

The Junior Rockefeller labored under similar handicaps but in time won Senior's long-lived approval by adopting public relations and employee relations techniques that rehabilitated the family name. He also made a success of Rockefeller Center and re-created Colonial Williamsburg. And, like Jack Morgan, he married a brilliant, socially adept woman who re-established family solidarity at least for a generation.

So, to answer the questions posed at the outset of this piece: J. Pierpont Morgan had good reason to celebrate Father's Day; John D. Rockefeller had none.

Joseph R. L. Sterne is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He was the editorial page editor of The Sun from 1972 to 1997.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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