Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow

Nine stars

The life and times of John D. Rockefeller (Senior) are in good hands with Ron Chernow at the helm. While many will know the Rockefeller name as synonymous with money and American business acumen, Chernow seeks to provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the man, his beliefs, and how he started a multi-generational familial investment in business and political power. In this wonderfully researched biography, Chernow explores John D Rockefeller from three primary perspectives: the grounded family man, the business giant, and the philanthropic juggernaut. Using many sources and a detailed narrative, Chernow brings to life the Rockefeller name and argues that it was not a silver spoon wedged in the man’s mouth throughout life, but a fierce determination to succeed at all he tried running through his veins.

Chernow masterfully offers up a perspective of Rockefeller that includes a deeply-rooted family life. Spanning back to early childhood, Chernow weaves a tale of Rockefeller’s upbringing, with a doting mother and an absent father. The latter parent is presented throughout as one who chose the bottle, live for over five decades as a polygamist, and presented himself as two personas, one of which was a snake oil salesman of sorts. This left Rockefeller without the quintessential role model that any young man needs in his formative years. However, with this familial impediment, Rockefeller did not repeat the faults he witnessed, choosing a life of independent motivation that created a passion for self-improvement, both in business and as a man. In adulthood, he learned the keen trait of loving others, growing to cherish the love he had to offer, marrying Laura Spelman “Cettie” Rockefeller and beginning a family. While he was without paternal guidance in his own youth, Rockefeller fostered a wonderful ability to parent and his children grew to respect him, as the elder Rockefeller instilled virtues in them, while respecting their independent ideas. Chernow shows how Rockefeller used his amassed wealth to offer his children a better life, but did not let them ride on his coat tails and live off his blood and sweat, keeping them on financial leashes while supporting their life choices. That is not to say that Rockefeller did not seek to steer his children along the path he thought best, weeding out those from his children’s (and grandchildren’s) lives who might not be best suited for them. Chernow offers vignettes of Rockefeller’s compassionate side, while contrasting this with a determined push to ensure future Rockefellers made their mark on history and kept the family name from any taint. Unfortunately, Rockefeller’s hands-off approach to his children in their adulthood left at least one daughter, Edith, whose lavish lifestyle clashed with that of her wealthy father, to falter repeatedly and with some significance. That John D. Rockefeller was a family man cannot be disputed throughout this book, though Chernow does not shy away from showing a man who expected much from his offspring. 

Rockefeller’s business acumen is likely what has made him and his subsequent generations well-known to the general public. Chernow does not shy away from promoting this throughout, but through his paced narrative, the slow and continual rise of Rockefeller’s fortune can be exemplified. From his childhood understanding of resale value (by purchasing a pound of candy, dividing it, and selling it to siblings for a substantial mark-up) through to his capitalization of new and emerging markets in oil refineries, Rockefeller carved a niche out for himself in order to amass substantial wealth in a shorter period of time. Rockefeller used his gut intuition and significant risk-based trust in the market to forge into unchartered territory. This trust reaped many rewards, both by cementing the Rockefeller name in the business world and with copious amounts of money, on which Rockefeller could continue to build his empire. At the centre of this empire was Standard Oil, whose importance pulses through Chernow’s book, both the increase in its prominence in America and the monopoly that it became, which turned the federal government against him. Rockefeller’s shrewd business sense, based not on an educational background in the area, helped vilify him in the eyes of many, but did not impede him from seeking more with significant financial investment in a market rife for expansion. Beginning his business life in Cleveland of all places, Rockefeller went to where the commodity could be found, rather than sitting in an ivory tower on Wall Street and pulling strings in his three-piece suit. Chernow does explore in a thorough manner the business sense that Rockefeller undertook, as well as the hunger for an increased footprint in the economic and business worlds of a burgeoning America, at times to the point of excess. When the courts began dismantling his empire, through poignant rulings based on Congress’s numerous bills limiting monopolies and putting the millionaire in the crosshairs of anti-trust legislation, Rockefeller remained calm, choosing to focus on his success rather than those who sought to dismantle him. Even when his competitors and the US Government sought to break him, Rockefeller did not act with malice, taking things in stride and forging on. With a passion for business and the nuances of industrial development in America, John D. Rockefeller sought to become a business tycoon, but never forgot those who needed assistance.

Rockefeller’s philanthropic gestures are scattered throughout the biography, showing that the man had little interest in amassing wealth and sitting on it. While Rockefeller did want to give back, never forgetting the degree of poverty from which he came, he could be quite selective in his charitable ventures. Rockefeller valued the importance of a dollar and use of one’s mind to advance in life. His endowments to such places as the founding of the University of Chicago and other post-secondary institutions fuelled the belief that Rockefeller sought the betterment of man (and woman) through learning. Growing up and coming to maturity during the Civil War, he saw the importance of removing the barriers between the races, as well as the sexes, and would actively promote the idea of women and minorities in the colleges he supported. Additional philanthropic ventures included support for the Protestant churches throughout America, tapping into the memory of his Baptist upbringing. Rockefeller sought not only to donate money into projects, but use his investments to churn out results that could benefit the largest segment of the population. As Chernow explores in some detail, Rockefeller’s underlying charitable focus was not only the advancement of the person, but their health and well-being. Medical advancements and monies to promote medical research began a lifelong interest in helping those who looked to help others. However, one caveat that Rockefeller appeared to instil in his acts was to offer foundational support rather than continuous or ‘expected’ funding, whereby the organisation would lean on Rockefeller’s kindness and become a ‘tin cup beggar’. By the time he retired, he had taught his children, specifically John D. Rockefeller Jr. the importance of divesting himself of the money he had in his business operations to help those in need.

In an era when business in America was growing and those with money saw their fortunes flourish exponentially, Rockefeller was not the miser that many may presume he must have been. Compared to the likes of Andrew Mellon, JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller may have seemed happy to amass outrageous sums of money, in the upwards of billions in today’s dollar. However, he never lost touch with the humble beginnings from which he came, while always wanting to offer new and innovative ideas for America to explore, keeping it on pace with worldwide industrial innovation. Chernow offers a biography that is both easy to read and thorough in its presentation of the man, which offers modern readers a better understanding of a time when a true philanthropic nature was not only recognised but somewhat expected. While the name of Gates, Buffett and even Bono are bandied about, without the limelight or 24-hour news cycle, it is hard to believe that these men would understand the true meaning of amassing wealth and sharing their profits with those who need it. Be he a villain, lifesaver, or somewhere in between, Chernow pulls no punches as he leaves a well-crafted biography in the hands of readers to make the final decision for themselves.

Kudos, Mr. Chernow for providing me with this comprehensive piece on which I can base my own opinions. I knew so little about the man, the family, or the mark left on early American business life, but feel so enriched with what you had to offer. As always a stellar biographical piece.

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https://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/The life and times of John D. Rockefeller (Senior) are in good hands with Ron Chernow at the helm. While many will know the Rockefeller name as synonymous with money and American business acumen, Chernow seeks to provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the man, his beliefs, and how he started a multi-generational familial investment in business and political power. In this wonderfully researched biography, Chernow explores John D Rockefeller from three primary perspectives: the grounded family man, the business giant, and the philanthropic juggernaut. Using many sources and a detailed narrative, Chernow brings to life the Rockefeller name and argues that it was not a silver spoon wedged in the man’s mouth throughout life, but a fierce determination to succeed at all he tried running through his veins.

Chernow masterfully offers up a perspective of Rockefeller that includes a deeply-rooted family life. Spanning back to early childhood, Chernow weaves a tale of Rockefeller’s upbringing, with a doting mother and an absent father. The latter parent is presented throughout as one who chose the bottle, live for over five decades as a polygamist, and presented himself as two personas, one of which was a snake oil salesman of sorts. This left Rockefeller without the quintessential role model that any young man needs in his formative years. However, with this familial impediment, Rockefeller did not repeat the faults he witnessed, choosing a life of independent motivation that created a passion for self-improvement, both in business and as a man. In adulthood, he learned the keen trait of loving others, growing to cherish the love he had to offer, marrying Laura Spelman “Cettie” Rockefeller and beginning a family. While he was without paternal guidance in his own youth, Rockefeller fostered a wonderful ability to parent and his children grew to respect him, as the elder Rockefeller instilled virtues in them, while respecting their independent ideas. Chernow shows how Rockefeller used his amassed wealth to offer his children a better life, but did not let them ride on his coat tails and live off his blood and sweat, keeping them on financial leashes while supporting their life choices. That is not to say that Rockefeller did not seek to steer his children along the path he thought best, weeding out those from his children’s (and grandchildren’s) lives who might not be best suited for them. Chernow offers vignettes of Rockefeller’s compassionate side, while contrasting this with a determined push to ensure future Rockefellers made their mark on history and kept the family name from any taint. Unfortunately, Rockefeller’s hands-off approach to his children in their adulthood left at least one daughter, Edith, whose lavish lifestyle clashed with that of her wealthy father, to falter repeatedly and with some significance. That John D. Rockefeller was a family man cannot be disputed throughout this book, though Chernow does not shy away from showing a man who expected much from his offspring. 

Rockefeller’s business acumen is likely what has made him and his subsequent generations well-known to the general public. Chernow does not shy away from promoting this throughout, but through his paced narrative, the slow and continual rise of Rockefeller’s fortune can be exemplified. From his childhood understanding of resale value (by purchasing a pound of candy, dividing it, and selling it to siblings for a substantial mark-up) through to his capitalization of new and emerging markets in oil refineries, Rockefeller carved a niche out for himself in order to amass substantial wealth in a shorter period of time. Rockefeller used his gut intuition and significant risk-based trust in the market to forge into unchartered territory. This trust reaped many rewards, both by cementing the Rockefeller name in the business world and with copious amounts of money, on which Rockefeller could continue to build his empire. At the centre of this empire was Standard Oil, whose importance pulses through Chernow’s book, both the increase in its prominence in America and the monopoly that it became, which turned the federal government against him. Rockefeller’s shrewd business sense, based not on an educational background in the area, helped vilify him in the eyes of many, but did not impede him from seeking more with significant financial investment in a market rife for expansion. Beginning his business life in Cleveland of all places, Rockefeller went to where the commodity could be found, rather than sitting in an ivory tower on Wall Street and pulling strings in his three-piece suit. Chernow does explore in a thorough manner the business sense that Rockefeller undertook, as well as the hunger for an increased footprint in the economic and business worlds of a burgeoning America, at times to the point of excess. When the courts began dismantling his empire, through poignant rulings based on Congress’s numerous bills limiting monopolies and putting the millionaire in the crosshairs of anti-trust legislation, Rockefeller remained calm, choosing to focus on his success rather than those who sought to dismantle him. Even when his competitors and the US Government sought to break him, Rockefeller did not act with malice, taking things in stride and forging on. With a passion for business and the nuances of industrial development in America, John D. Rockefeller sought to become a business tycoon, but never forgot those who needed assistance.

Rockefeller’s philanthropic gestures are scattered throughout the biography, showing that the man had little interest in amassing wealth and sitting on it. While Rockefeller did want to give back, never forgetting the degree of poverty from which he came, he could be quite selective in his charitable ventures. Rockefeller valued the importance of a dollar and use of one’s mind to advance in life. His endowments to such places as the founding of the University of Chicago and other post-secondary institutions fuelled the belief that Rockefeller sought the betterment of man (and woman) through learning. Growing up and coming to maturity during the Civil War, he saw the importance of removing the barriers between the races, as well as the sexes, and would actively promote the idea of women and minorities in the colleges he supported. Additional philanthropic ventures included support for the Protestant churches throughout America, tapping into the memory of his Baptist upbringing. Rockefeller sought not only to donate money into projects, but use his investments to churn out results that could benefit the largest segment of the population. As Chernow explores in some detail, Rockefeller’s underlying charitable focus was not only the advancement of the person, but their health and well-being. Medical advancements and monies to promote medical research began a lifelong interest in helping those who looked to help others. However, one caveat that Rockefeller appeared to instil in his acts was to offer foundational support rather than continuous or ‘expected’ funding, whereby the organisation would lean on Rockefeller’s kindness and become a ‘tin cup beggar’. By the time he retired, he had taught his children, specifically John D. Rockefeller Jr. the importance of divesting himself of the money he had in his business operations to help those in need.

In an era when business in America was growing and those with money saw their fortunes flourish exponentially, Rockefeller was not the miser that many may presume he must have been. Compared to the likes of Andrew Mellon, JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller may have seemed happy to amass outrageous sums of money, in the upwards of billions in today’s dollar. However, he never lost touch with the humble beginnings from which he came, while always wanting to offer new and innovative ideas for America to explore, keeping it on pace with worldwide industrial innovation. Chernow offers a biography that is both easy to read and thorough in its presentation of the man, which offers modern readers a better understanding of a time when a true philanthropic nature was not only recognised but somewhat expected. While the name of Gates, Buffett and even Bono are bandied about, without the limelight or 24-hour news cycle, it is hard to believe that these men would understand the true meaning of amassing wealth and sharing their profits with those who need it. Be he a villain, lifesaver, or somewhere in between, Chernow pulls no punches as he leaves a well-crafted biography in the hands of readers to make the final decision for themselves.

Kudos, Mr. Chernow for providing me with this comprehensive piece on which I can base my own opinions. I knew so little about the man, the family, or the mark left on early American business life, but feel so enriched with what you had to offer. As always a stellar biographical piece.

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