With his previous books The House of Morgan, which won the National Book Award, and the critically acclaimed The Warburgs, Ron Chernow has proved himself a first-rate biographer as well as an astute chronicler of business and social history. Chernow's new book, Titan, is the first full-length biography of the epic figure John D. Rockefeller to draw upon the recently opened Rockefeller papers. These papers include letters, business correspondence, journals, office ledgers, and numerous other documents that have never been published. But the crown jewel in these papers is a 1,700-page transcript of reminiscences Rockefeller recorded for an authorized biography that was never written.
Born the son of a 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 business, Standard Oil. The company grew so large it was viewed by many as a monopoly -- at its zenith, 90 percent of the oil produced in America was connected to Standard Oil. Rockefeller was considered the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics claimed that his empire was built through unscrupulous tactics like wholesale bribery of political officials, collusion with the railroads, industrial espionage, and more. And the titan spent more than 30 years dodging investigation until finally, Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring down Standard Oil.
With abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow nevertheless discards the stereotype of the monster and provides a human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. Rockefeller gave money to more philanthropies than any other person before him. Titan provides a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man who lived through family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes, many of which have never before come to light.
In light of the rise of Bill Gates, Chernow could not have picked a more appropriate time to write about this industrial giant. He has written a brilliant portrait of a titan living in a pivotal moment in American history.
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About the Author
Ron Chernow's first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award and the Ambassador Award for the year's best study of American culture. His second book, The Warburgs, won the Eccles Prize as the Best Business Book of 1993 and was also selected by the American Library Association as one of that year's best nonfiction books. In reviewing his recent collection of essays, The Death of the Banker, The New York Times called the author "as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we've seen in decades and chose the paperback original as one of the year's Notable Books.
ABOUT THE READER
George Plimpton is the founding editor of The Paris Review and a special contributor to Sports Illustrated and Esquire. He is the author of such books as Truman Capote and The X Factor.
Date of Birth:March 3, 1949
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, NY
Education:Yale University; Cambridge University
Read an Excerpt
The Flimflam Man
In the early 1900s, as Rockefeller vied with Andrew Carnegie for the title of the world's richest man, a spirited rivalry arose between France and Germany, with each claiming to be Rockefeller's ancestral land. Assorted genealogists stood ready, for a sizable fee, to manufacture a splendid royal lineage for the oilman. "I have no desire to trace myself back to the nobility," he said honestly. "I am satisfied with my good old American stock."
The most ambitious search for Rockefeller's roots traced them back to a ninth-century French family, the Roquefeuilles, who supposedly inhabited a Languedoc chbteau. The clan's departure from France is much better documented than its origins. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenot family fled from religious persecution and emigrated to Sagendorf, near the Rhenish town of Koblenz, and Germanized their surname to Rockefeller.
Around 1723, Johann Peter Rockefeller, a miller, gathered up his wife and five children, set sail for Philadelphia, and settled on a farm in Somerville and then Amwell, New Jersey, where he evidently flourished and acquired large landholdings. More than a decade later, his cousin Diell Rockefeller left southwest Germany and moved to Germantown, New York.
Diell's granddaughter Christina married her distant relative William, one of Johann's grandsons. (Never particularly sentimental about his European forebears, John D. Rockefeller did erect a monument to the patriarch, Johann Peter, at his burial site in Flemington, New Jersey.) The marriage of William and Christina produced a son named Godfrey Rockefeller, who was
the grandfather of the oil titanand a most unlikely progenitor of the clan. In 1806, Godfrey married Lucy Avery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, despite the grave qualms of her family.
Establishing a pattern that would be replicated by Rockefeller's own mother, Lucy had, in her family's disparaging view, married down. Her ancestors had emigrated from Devon, England, to Salem, Massachusetts, around 1630, forming part of the Puritan tide. As they became settled and gentrified, the versatile Averys spawned ministers, soldiers, civic leaders, explorers, and traders, not to mention a bold clutch of Indian fighters. During the American Revolution, eleven Averys perished gloriously in the battle of Groton.
While the Rockefellers' "noble" roots required some poetic license and liberal embellishment, Lucy could justly claim
descent from Edmund Ironside, the English king, who was crowned in 1016. Godfrey Rockefeller was sadly mismatched with his enterprising wife. He had a stunted, impoverished look and a hangdog air of perpetual defeat. Taller than her husband, a fiery Baptist of commanding presence, Lucy was rawboned and confident, with a vigorous step and alert blue eyes. A former schoolteacher, she was better educated than Godfrey. Even John D., never given to invidious comments about relatives, tactfully conceded, "My
grandmother was a brave woman. Her husband was not so brave as she."
If Godfrey contributed the Rockefeller coloring-bluish gray eyes, light brown hair-Lucy introduced the rangy frame later notable among the men. Enjoying robust energy and buoyant health, Lucy had ten children, with the third, William Avery Rockefeller, born in Granger, New York, in 1810. While it is easy enough to date the birth of Rockefeller's father, teams of frazzled reporters would one day exhaust themselves trying to establish the date of his death.
As a farmer and businessman, Godfrey enjoyed checkered success, and his aborted business ventures exposed his family to an insecure, peripatetic life. They were forced to move to Granger and Ancram, New York, then to Great Barrington, before doubling back to Livingston, New York. John D. Rockefeller's upbringing would be fertile with cautionary figures of weak
men gone astray. Godfrey must have been invoked frequently as a model to be avoided. By all accounts, Grandpa was a jovial, good-natured man but feckless and addicted to drink, producing in Lucy an everlasting hatred of liquor that she must have drummed into her grandson. Grandpa Godfrey was the first to establish in John D.'s mind an enduring equation between bonhomie and lax character, making the latter prefer the society of sober, tight-lipped men in full command of their emotions.
The Rockefeller records offer various scenarios of why Godfrey and Lucy packed their belongings into an overloaded Conestoga wagon and headed west between 1832 and 1834. By one account, the Rockefellers, along with several neighbors, were dispossessed of their land in a heated title dispute with some English investors. Another account has an unscrupulous businessman gulling Godfrey into swapping his farm for allegedly richer turf in Tioga County. (If this claim was in fact made, it proved a cruel hoax.) Some
relatives later said that Michigan was Godfrey's real destination but that Lucy vetoed such a drastic relocation, preferring the New England culture of upstate New York to the wilds of Michigan.
Whatever the reason, the Rockefellers reenacted the primordial American rite of setting out in search of fresh opportunity. In the 1830s, many settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut were swarming excitedly into wilderness areas of western New York, a migration that Alexis de Tocqueville described as "a game of chance" pursued for "the emotions it excites, as much as for the gain it procures."
The construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s had lured many settlers to the area. Godfrey and Lucy heaped up their worldly possessions in a canvas-topped prairie schooner, drawn by oxen, and headed toward the sparsely settled territory.
For two weeks, they traveled along the dusty Albany-Catskill turnpike, creeping through forests as darkly forbidding as
the setting of a Grimms' fairy tale. With much baggage and little passenger space, the Rockefellers had to walk for much of the journey, with Lucy and the children (except William, who did not accompany them) taking turns sitting in the wagon whenever they grew weary. As they finally reached their destination, Richford, New York, the last three and a half miles were especially arduous, and the oxen negotiated the stony, rutted path with difficulty. At the end, they had to lash their exhausted team up a nearly
vertical hillside to possess their virgin sixty acres. As family legend has it, Godfrey got out, tramped to the property's peak, inspected the vista, and said mournfully, "This is as close as we shall ever get to Michigan."
So, in a memorial to dashed hopes, the spot would forever bear the melancholy name of Michigan Hill.
Even today scarcely more than a crossroads, Richford was then a stagecoach stop in the wooded country southeast of Ithaca and northwest of Binghamton. The area's original inhabitants, the Iroquois, had been chased out after the American Revolution and replaced by revolutionary army veterans. Still an uncouth frontier when the Rockefellers arrived, this backwater had
recently attained township status, its village square dating from 1821. Civilization had taken only a tenuous hold. The dense forests on all sides teemed with game-bear, deer, panther, wild turkey, and cottontail rabbit-and people carried flaring torches at night to frighten away the roaming packs of wolves.
By the time that John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839, Richford was acquiring the amenities of a small town. It had some nascent
industries-sawmills, gristmills, and a whiskey distillery-plus a schoolhouse and a church. Most inhabitants scratched out a living from hardscrabble farming, yet these newcomers were hopeful and enterprising.
Notwithstanding their frontier trappings, they had carried with them the frugal culture of Puritan New England, which John D. Rockefeller would come to exemplify.
The Rockfellers' steep property provided a sweeping panorama of a fertile valley. The vernal slopes were spattered with wildflowers, and chestnuts and berries abounded in the fall. Amid this sylvan beauty, the Rockfellers had to struggle with a spartan life. They occupied a small, plain house, twenty-two feet deep and sixteen feet across, fashioned with hand-hewn beams and timbers. The thin soil was so rocky that it required heroic exertions just to hack a clearing through the underbrush and across thickly
forested slopes of pine, hemlock, oak, and maple. As best we can gauge from a handful of surviving anecdotes, Lucy ably
managed both family and farm and never shirked heavy toil. Assisted by a pair of steers, she laid an entire stone wall by herself and had the quick-witted cunning and cool resourcefulness that would reappear in her grandson. John D. delighted in telling how she pounced upon a grain thief in their dark barn one night. Unable to discern the intruder's face, she had the mental composure to snip a piece of fabric from his coat sleeve.
When she later spotted the man's frayed coat, she confronted the flabbergasted thief with the missing swatch; having silently made her point, she never pressed charges. One last item about Lucy deserves mention: She had great interest in herbal medicines and home-brewed remedies prepared from a "physic bush" in the backyard. Many years later, her curious grandson sent specimens of this bush to a laboratory to see whether they possessed genuine medicinal value. Perhaps it was from Lucy that he inherited the fascination with medicine that ran through his life, right up to his creation of the world's preeminent medical-research
By the time he was in his twenties, William Avery Rockefeller was already a sworn foe of conventional morality who had opted for a vagabond existence. Even as an adolescent, he disappeared on long trips in midwinter, providing no clues as to his whereabouts. Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks-he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a
pugnacious jaw-that people were instantly beguiled by him. This appealing fagade, at least for a while, lulled skeptics and disarmed critics. It wasn't surprising that this nomad did not accompany his parents on their westward trek to Richford but instead drifted into the area around 1835 in his own inimitable fashion. When he first appeared in a neighboring hamlet, he quickly impressed the locals with his unorthodox style. Posing as a deaf-mute peddler selling cheap novelties, he kept a small slate with the
words "I am deaf and dumb" chalked across it tied by a string to his buttonhole. On this slate, he conversed with the locals and later boasted how he exploited this ruse to flush out all the town secrets. To win the confidence of strangers and soften them up for the hard sell, he toted along a kaleidoscope, inviting people to peer into it.
During his long career as a confidence man, Big Bill always risked reprisals from people who might suddenly unmask his deceptions, and he narrowly escaped detection at the home of a Deacon Wells. The deacon and his daughter, a Mrs. Smith, pitied the poor peddler who knocked on their door one Saturday and sheltered him in their home that night. The next morning, when they invited him to church, Big Bill had to resort to some fancy footwork, for he always shied away from crowds where somebody might recognize him and expose his imposture. "Billy told [the deacon] in writing that he liked to go to church, but that his infirmity caused him to be stared at, so that he was abashed and would not go," recalled a townsman. "He really feared that he might be exposed by someone."
Seven months later, after the deacon and Big Bill had both moved to Richford, Mrs. Smith spotted the erstwhile deaf-mute at a social gathering and marveled at his miraculous recovery of speech. "I see that you can talk better than when I saw you last," she said. Big Bill smiled, unfazed, his bravado intact. "Yes, I'm somewhat improved."
When he arrived in Richford, the local citizens immediately got a taste of his fakery, for he wordlessly flashed a slate with the scribbled query, "Where is the house of Godfrey Rockefeller?"
Since he usually presented false claims about himself and his products, Bill worked a large territory to elude the law. He was roving more than thirty miles northwest of Richford, in the vicinity of Niles and Moravia, when he first met his future wife, Eliza Davison, at her father's farmhouse. With a flair for showmanship and self-promotion, he always wore brocaded vests or other brightly colored duds that must have dazzled a sheltered farm girl like Eliza. Like many itinerant vendors in rural places, he was a smooth-talking purveyor of dreams along with tawdry trinkets, and Eliza responded to this romantic wanderer. She was sufficiently taken in by his deaf-and-dumb humbug that she involuntarily exclaimed in his presence, "I'd marry that man if he were not deaf and
Whatever tacit doubts she might have harbored when she discovered his deceit, she soon succumbed, as did other women, to his mesmerizing charm.
A prudent, straitlaced Baptist of Scotch-Irish descent, deeply attached to his daughter, John Davison must have sensed the world of trouble that awaited Eliza if she got mixed up with Big Bill Rockefeller, and he strongly discouraged the match. In later years, Eliza Rockefeller would seem to be a dried-up, withered spinster, but in late 1836 she was a slim, spirited young woman with flaming red hair and blue eyes. Pious and self-contained, she was the antithesis of Bill and probably found him so hypnotic for just that reason. Who knows what gloom hung around her doorstep that was dispelled by Bill's glib patter? Her mother had died when
Eliza was only twelve-she had dropped dead after taking a pill dispensed by a traveling doctor-and Eliza was raised by her older sister, Mary Ann, leaving Eliza deprived of maternal counsel.
From the Audio Cassette edition.
What People are Saying About This
"Chernow is a writer who's well familiar with the outsize characters of early 20th-century capitalism. He has written the definitive biographies of two other legendary financial dynasties. Now, with the Rockefeller biography, Chernow has completed an extraordinary trilogy." --Vanity Fair
On Tuesday, May 26th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Ron Chernow to discuss TITAN.
Moderator: Welcome, Ron Chernow! We are pleased you could join us this evening to discuss TITAN, a biography of John D. Rockefeller Sr. How are you doing this evening?
Ron Chernow: Very well, and it is nice to congregate with everybody in cyberspace. Welcome.
Mike from MMuntz@yahoo.com: I truly enjoyed your book THE HOUSE OF MORGAN. Why did you decide to choose Rockefeller as the subject of your latest?
Ron Chernow: Actually the subject was chosen for me by Random House, and at first I violently objected. My image of Rockefeller was of a mean man. I had always wanted to write a pure bio rather than family saga, and I was looking for somebody who had an inner life, and I didn't see this inner life in Rockefeller. I tried to wriggle out of doing this book, but my editor was very insistent, so I visited the Rockefeller Archive Center in New York. His papers, amazingly enough, had been sitting there open to the public since 1975, and nobody had bothered to use them. So the curators there were not about to let me leave without a fight -- they were dying for people to come and use the materials they had.
I made the mistake of telling the director of the archive that I couldn't write about somebody unless I heard the music of the person's mind -- that is, unless I felt that I heard that inner monologue that we carry on as we move through the day. With Rockefeller I didn't hear that private voice. In fact, I didn't hear any voice at all, so in order to call my bluff, the director showed me the transcript of an interview that had been privately conducted with Rockefeller between 1917 and 1920 but had never been made public. This was 17-page transcript in which he recounted blow by blow every aspect of his career. I was utterly fascinated by this interview, because I thought of him as somebody so closed and mysterious, and the person that I encountered in this interview was somebody I had never encountered in any of the previous bios. He was fiery, articulate, often funny, and amazingly analytical. There were many things that I instantly disliked about him: There was a sanctimonious tone; he denigrated his critic automatically; and he had a chilling capacity to rationalize his behavior. But compared to the cold-blooded monster of myth, this was a much more human and interesting figure. I immediately realized that I had an extraordinary opportunity to take a major figure who on the surface seemed so familiar to all of us but who was really an unknown entity, so I saw that I could present a fresh portrait, and I decided on the spot to do the book.
Eric from Irvington, NY: Can you please explain to me how these Rockefeller papers became available? Were they only available to you through his family or are they available to the general public?
Ron Chernow: The Rockefeller family opened the Archive Center to the public in the mid-1970s. The papers are available to anybody with a bona fide project; that is, if you are writing a book, article, a school paper, a dissertation, or any other project. The Archive Center is run by professional archivists, not by the family -- they transferred all the literary rights to this team of archivists -- so the center is not devoted to his glorification. It is devoted to deepening the understanding of the man and institutions that he created. I encountered many writers during the course of my research who were there trying to expose the Rockefeller family in one way or another, and they were shown the same courtesy as everybody else, so I think it is to the credit of the Rockefeller family that they have enough confidence in their place in American society that they are willing to open the papers to public scrutiny in this way. I can't think of any other prominent family that has done this. Usually when you write the history of a family, you go through a long struggle with family members to attain access to the papers, and very often the author's relations with the families become very complicated and sticky as a result. This was a nice clean situation in which the Rockefeller family didn't have to approve or disapprove my project; they had cut loose from their own history.
Mark Gannon from Pittsburgh, PA: What were some things that led to such antipress sentiment towards Rockefeller? If this was 1998, I am sure he would have a publicist. Do you agree?
Ron Chernow: Fascinating question. Everybody remembers Rockefeller as a dried-up little man handing out dimes in front of the newsreel cameras; in his later years he gave many press interviews and became a ham actor for the cameras. But he was quite a different personality when he was a young man creating Standard Oil. During his active career, he almost never granted interviews and never allowed himself to be photographed in any business situation. He was somebody whose name was known by everybody but who had seldom been seen by anybody. He was the mysterious wizard of this vast global oil monopoly. Rockefeller did not retain a publicist until the age of 67, in 1906. It was no coincidence that that year the government filed an antitrust suit to break up Standard Oil.
At that point, Rockefeller began to play gold with reporters, and it turned out that he had a great knack for charming and seducing the press. He belatedly learned the power of public relations. It is amazing that during the nearly three-year period in which Ida Tarbell exposed Rockefeller in the pages of McClure's Magazine, Rockefeller never deigned to reply to his articles. She committed several errors in the series, damaging errors, and if Rockefeller had PR people, they could probably have done some serious harm to her reputation. Nowadays, the chief executives in a comparable situation would field a small army of publicists. I have read, for example, that Bill Gates as he goes through his troubles with the Justice Department has no fewer than 30 publicists to advise him. Quite a difference from the old days! But nowadays, any corporate executive recognizes that PR is inseparable from commercial success and a good reputation.
Melanie from Williamsburg, VA: You write that Rockefeller developed a system of institutionalized philanthropy. Can you explain this further? How exactly did he choose where he would give charity money? I live near Colonial Williamsburg, the 18th-century history museum which was founded on Rockefeller money.
Ron Chernow: Williamsburg was a project of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of John D. Rockefeller Sr., who had no interest whatsoever in that type of restoration project. John Jr. said that his father showed no interest in Colonial Williamsburg, and I think this wounded Junior, because he devoted more love and time to this than to any other project he was involved with.
To return to John Sr.: In the 19th century, most rich people gave away money in a very personal, haphazard, or sentimental fashion. Rich people typically gave money to a local school, hospital, or orphanage. Giving was very personal, direct, and often local in nature. John D. Rockefeller Sr. decided that because of the colossal scale of his wealth, he had to pioneer a whole new philanthropy. He would either create large institutions or use existing institutional channels to distribute large amounts of money. Instead of building buildings that bore the Rockefeller name, he established as his two top priorities medicine and education. He tried to fund things that would benefit all of society rather than one group within society, so he founded in the 1880s Spelman College, to educate emancipated female slaves and their daughters. It was a very daring and visionary thing for a man in his early 40s to do in the early 1880s. In the early 1890s, he created the University of Chicago and turned it overnight into a school on par with the Ivy League schools. The first president of the school had a virtual blank check to raid the Ivy Leagues for professors, prompting yells out outrage from Yale, Cornell, and other schools.
In the early 1900s, he established the first institute devoted purely to medical research. It was originally called the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and today is known as the Rockefeller University. At the time it was considered revolutionary and even somewhat eccentric to think that you could hire grown-ups to sit around and daydream about scientific discoveries. In fact, within years of opening, it developed a system for treating meningitis and curing other diseases.
Another example of the scientific approach of the Rockefellers was the General Education Board. Rockefeller's advisers had noticed that many southern states lacked the extensive high school system of the northern states, and many children of well-to-do southerners went to private academies rather than high schools. Another philanthropist would have decided to build a few high schools in the South. Rockefeller decided to hire education professors in each southern state who would then lobby local communities and state government to finance public schools. As a result of the work of the General Education Board, 800 high schools came into existence in the South. I hope that answers your question.
Joe from Maryland: Good evening, Mr. Chernow. If Rockefeller was a product of this era, what influences do you think he would have on the financial markets of today?
Ron Chernow: First of all, Rockefeller, like many other self-made industrialists of his time, detested bankers. He thought they were wicked, which was funny, considering his closet addiction to the stock market. When he was a young man, he was the champion borrower of all time. In later years, he said his single biggest problem in creating Standard Oil was to find enough money to buy out all his rivals. In fact, when he bought out a rival refinery, he would take out his checkbook and he would very serenely say that he would be happy to write out a check or the seller could take payment in Standard Oil stock. He later admitted that he prayed that people would take Standard Oil stock, because he couldn't have paid everybody in cash. Standard Oil was founded in Cleveland in 1870; by the 1880s the monopoly was almost completely financed from retained earnings, that is, he no longer needed to borrow from any banker. Standard Oil had such immense cash reserves that when it began to deposit those balances in the National City Bank, it turned the bank almost overnight into the largest bank in America, so Standard Oil was the banker to the nation's largest bank. But Rockefeller came from an era in which industrialists distrusted financiers, and I think that he would have been disturbed by the power that financiers have in the economy today.
Niki from Sudbury, MA: How would you compare public outlook on Standard Oil versus Microsoft? What does this mean?
Ron Chernow: Interesting question. At the beginning, the attacks against Standard Oil came from Rockefeller's business rivals, the refiners and oil producers who felt squeezed by Standard Oil in the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1890s these rivals had goaded the state attorney generals into filing antitrust suits against Standard Oil on the state level. Three things happened in the early 1900s that inflamed public opinion against Standard Oil. Ida Tarbell and the muckraking press exposed may of the ruthless tactics of the trust and converted Rockefeller into America's most hated businessman. Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, was the first president to activate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which had been passed in 1890. The third part of the uproar came from consumers who were outraged by rising oil prices.
So it was the combination of the discontented business rivals, the militant state attorney generals, the muckraking press, a crusading president, and irate consumers who combined to overthrow Standard Oil. In 1906, the federal government filed an antitrust suit to break it up, and that happened in 1911. The trust was so large that the individual companies spun off in the break up include the companies that are today, Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Amoco, ARCO, Conoco, BP America, and 27 others. By the time the federal government won the 1911 antitrust case, there had been 21 separate state antitrust suits lodged against Standard Oil.
When I heard Janet Reno, the attorney general, announce that the federal government was filing an antitrust action against Microsoft along with 20 states and D.C., I saw the unparalleled comparison. One big difference between the cases is that the impetus behind the Microsoft case seems to be primarily Bill Gates's business rivals, joined by trustbusters on the federal and the state levels. Bill Gates remains generally popular among consumers, although his approval ratings have begun to drop rather sharply as a result of the antitrust case, but so far most consumers are pleased by the fact that computer prices generally continue to fall and the quality of the products continues to improve.
Also, John D. Rockefeller made his fortune in kerosene for illumination. It burned in virtually every household in the late 19th century. We have to remember that the majority of American households don't own a computer and have no access to cyberspace. We are talking in a realm that still lies beyond the means of most Americans. This will certainly change within the next few years, and I am sure that nearly every home will be wired within the next five years, but for the moment, at least half of the American public is watching the case with complete indifference or incomprehension, because they neither own nor know how to operate a computer; it is not yet a universal consumer product. This is one thing that slightly weakens the Justice Department's political support in this case. I think I will stop there because it is a very large and complicated subject.
Tony Nanez from firstname.lastname@example.org: What is the subject of your next biography?
Ron Chernow: I am open to suggestions. The question now is, Is there life after Rockefeller? I am in the position of the mounted climber who has climbed Everest.
Chad Rapson from Cleveland, OH: What lessons about business and life in general do you think can be learned from studying history and Rockefeller?
Ron Chernow: One of the big lessons that I learned from writing the book is that free markets don't exist in a state of nature. Between the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, we had a vast national experiment in completely unregulated markets, and what we discovered is that markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Rockefeller, who is a business genius, managed to figure out every conceivable anticompetitive practice, so when the first antitrust legislation was enacted in 1890, all its authors needed to do was to study his career closely, then enact legislation accordingly.
Before the antitrust laws existed, businessmen not only entered into conspiracies against the public but also worked actively to damage their opponents in ways that would seem inconceivable today. For instance, if Rockefeller wanted to eliminate a rival oil refiner, he might buy up all the existing barrels on the market so that his rival could neither store nor ship his oil. He might create an artificial shortage of tank cars so there was no way his rival could ship his product to distant markets. He might go to the local banker and urge that no loans be given to his rival. He might go the local railroad and demand that punitive freight rates be imposed upon his rival.
We tend to think that the style of business competition is rough today, but even some of our most ruthless businessmen seem like passive pussycats compared to the 19th century titans of industry. And that is because we have antitrust legislation that defines the rules of competition. They are so deeply embedded in the economy that we almost forget that they exist or how they got there. A great surprise for me in doing this book was that many businessmen in the late 19th century did not believe in free markets or competition. Rockefeller saw himself as the product of a new economic order that he called cooperation and the rest of us referred to as monopoly. At the turn of the century, most American industries operated under the control of trusts or cartels; it was really government intervention under Teddy Roosevelt that introduced competition when none had previously existed.
Megan H. from Arlington, VA: Were Rockefeller's parents a great influence on him? Who were some people who influenced his business techniques?
Ron Chernow: John D. Rockefeller was the eldest son of crazily mismatched parents. His mother, Eliza, was a thrifty, sober, God-fearing woman who drilled John in hard work and introduced him to the Baptist church. Her husband, William Avery Rockefeller, was nicknamed Devil Bill, and as the name suggests, he was a colorful, fast-talking scoundrel. During John's boyhood, Bill would disappear for weeks or months at a time, peddling snake oil on the road to gullible country people. He was a very shrewd and crafty individual, if thoroughly disreputable. If John D. Rockefeller strikes us as such a contradictory figure, as both the monopolist and philanthropist; it is because he blended together traits from both parents. He combined his mother's thrift and discipline with his father's extraordinary and sometimes unscrupulous cunning.
Moderator: Mr. Chernow, thanks for leading such an interesting discussion on your book TITAN, about the legendary John D. Rockefeller. Do you have any closing comments for your audience and readers?
Ron Chernow: This is the first online interview that I have ever done, after being a professional writer for 25 years. So in its modest way, this has been a historic occasion for the historian.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great book about an intriguing individual. I've read a lot about the Civil War and this book helped connect that time period with the 20th century and the Industrial Revolution. If you're a capitalist at heart and feel that free markets should be left to work on their own (like I do), then this book will make you rethink that and help you understand that some government regulation is necessary. Being the founder of a non-profit charitable organization myself, it also gave me a lot of insights into the field of charities. It's amazing to think of the wide ranging influence that John D. Rockefeller had in shaping business, charity, and many other aspects of American life and how many of these influences can still be seen today.
I was very skeptical about picking this book up due to the fact that there were so many bad write ups going around abut this man. People would slander his name almost everywhere. From the first page, I was hooked. The outline of this mans life was to the T. It was very balanced and honest. The read was in depth and talked about the more elegant side of Mr. Rockefeller that know one know. I will read this over again with more cigars to smoke.
I very much enjoyed reading this book and go back to it from time to time. It reveals a life that up until now has only been written about by authors whom disliked him. To find out that he was a religious man with high morals was enlightening. This book really gives you insite to his business practices and the history of the Standard Oil Company.
This was an enjoyable read and for the most part, a well-balanced look at the man, his life, his family and many other aspects of his existence that shaped who he was and how he lived. I enjoyed it so much I will be reading it a second time.
Extremely well written. It answered all my questions I had about John Sr. I wish he would have given more pages to the ending of his life.
I enjoyed this book, I felt like I knew Rockerfeller, Sr. personally. This is a most excellent book for those who want to know more about John D. Rockerfeller.
For someone who is not a big fan of biographies or autobiographies, I find Titan a very interesting read. The book is well written and beautifully designed. It cuts through all the myth and mystery behind one of Americas most loved and hated business men. Showing both his ruthless nature and his religous fervor. It just goes to show you that no matter how crazy you are, you can still make it to the top.....Only in America!
In his excellent biography of John D. Rockfeller Sr., Ron Chernow goes beyond the myths surrounding one of the greatest capitalists that the world has ever known. Chernow gives a well-balanced portrait of a paradoxical man who perceived unbridled competition as nefarious to the development of the nascent oil industry and by extension his Standard Oil. Although John D. Rockfeller Sr. was a ruthless, efficient businessman, he progressively came to the insight that God had given him not only a gift to make a lot of money but also the responsibility to dedicate a significant part of his fortune to philanthropy in order to foster the well being of the society at large. Unlike most 'robber barons', John D. Rockfeller Sr. did not feel the compulsion to be too ostentatious. He led a quite modest life for a man who could afford everything he wanted. The recent development of industry-led consortia such as Covisint and Exostar presents a striking similarity to the emergence of trusts such as the Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel at the end of the 19th century. Unlike a trust, an industry-led consortium is created by major competitors within one industry. Industry-led consortia are under close scrutiny of the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. Their success is built on both liquidity (i.e. traded volume) and value generated through the supply chain of a specific industry. Because success feeds success, there is a high probability that an industry-led consortium will one day dominate an industry at the expense of independent exchanges, private exchanges, and any other consortia on one continent and eventually on a global basis. Will the major players of an industry belonging to an industry-led consortium be able to resist the Demon of monopoly power that proved so alluring to John D. Rockfeller Sr. and his Standard Oil?
I found out many interasting things about him and it was a well written book!
Although Titan portrayed Rockerfeller's life magnificently in a contemporary environment, I felt the author didn't compare and contrast the life of John D. with the lives of his fellow entrepreneurs in the late twentieth century. John D.'s magnificence as both a man and a businessman have been shallowed by the author and I was disappointed by the effort.
Titan reads like a Novel and gives the reader a picture of America in Rockefellers time. This biography covers everything. It is the definitive text on Rockefellers life. I've even given it to two friends and they have both loved the book.
Best biography I have read in years. Terrific insights into business issues both historical and current. I would recommend this book to any history buff, business person, or student of management science. Superb piece of writing, entertaining on every page.
Fascinating person and great story telling by a wonderful biographer. Ron Chernow makes me love history.
Ron Chernow states at the beginning of the book that he balked when he was approached to write a book about Rockefeller, declaring that he viewed his potential subject only as a nickel-giving golf-playing codger; only a tape-recorded interview revealing the tycoon to have a dry wit changed his mind. I'm not sure how well the author succeeded in revealing the "real" Rockefeller....unless the man really was rather dull. He had none of the neurosis of Carnegie nor the flamboyance of Flager. He wasn't even particularly a visionary (he had retired from active participation from Standard Oil before the automobile became crucial to American society) as he created his fortune through a ruthless undercutting of his opponents in kerosene oil distribution early in his career. His wife, initially a vibrant woman, declined into what seemed all-too typical Victorian neurasthenia; his son was dutiful to the point of being stupefying. (The author makes repeated jabs at just how dull Junior was.) Really, only Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Junior's wife and his grandson Nelson ( making an all too brief an appearance late in the book) liven things up. The details on starting up the University of Chicago are interesting, as are the chapters on his foundation's emphasis on medicine. And of course, it is a fascinating portrait of the "wild-west" days of early Big Business. In the end, however, the book goes on far too long on John D's golf playing days and his obsession to reach 100...but I'm not sure that the author could have done much about that.. Nor can he really answer the central question; did Rockefeller's refusal to change his parsimonious ways revel a man of steadfast character....or one with a cramped soul?
Thorough and surprisingly gripping, Chernow shows how Rockefeller could at once be a ruthless business tycoon while simultaneously attending prayer meetings and churches side-to-side with the most Puritanical New Englanders. Guest starring Teddy Roosevelt, muckraker Ida Tarbell (who won 1st Place in the My Name Sounds Like a 19th Century Cliche contest), Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, and Rockefeller's no-good father, who sold snake oil and other medical delights.
Brilliant book--brings out the humanity behind a so-called Robber Baron without glossing over his rougher edges. Absolutely fascinating--couldn't be more highly recommended from this reader.
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Ron Chernow is a master of the subjects that he writes about.
Chernow's writing style is fluid and insightful. An excellent depiction of Rockefeller's rise, his philosophies, and often, his rather puritanical family life.
Biased in favor of Rockefeller, but thorough and interesting.
This tome (almost 700 pages) attempts to reveal the life of John D. Rockefeller. Lots of interesting early stuff on Standard Oil and the onset of the oil age ala Pennsylvania and the family history, but little on the underhanded business practices on Mr. Rockefeller and the oil company he founded. Some tidbits, but no in depth information. I found it somewhat of a valentine to the oil mogul. All in all a good read, though.