Advanced Search
Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow
Titan:  The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
ISBN: 1400077303
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—history's first billionaire and the patriarch of America's most famous dynasty—is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul "etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have" (Kirkus Reviews). Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller's exceptionally rich trove of papers. A landmark publication full of startling revelations, the book will indelibly alter our image of this most enigmatic capitalist.

Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world's richest man by creating America's most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded "the Octopus" by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.

Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.

While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettably human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously—his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University—than anyone before him. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.

John D. Rockefeller's story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. Pierpont Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller's life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow's signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves.
—from the publisher's website

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Program Air Date: June 21, 1998

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ron Chernow, author of "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.," how would you describe him?
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 whole.
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 Rockefeller.
LAMB: And what, in our society, would not be here without the Rockefellers?
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 Standard Oil.
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 he died?
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 to 100.
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 problems.

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 survive.

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 document.

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: 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 Standard Oil.

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 complicated issues.

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 touchy.

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 Rockefeller's rivals.

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 disbanded.

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 secretive figure.
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 looks.
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 presence.

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 to...
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 get these?
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 1986.
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 or whatever.
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 to flow.
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 campaign.

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 Hayes.

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 and--and skirts.'

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 national debt.

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 monitoring them.

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 little girls.
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 that...
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.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.