Rockefeller, last of the golden Gatsbys who gave away a billion dollars
AS a child, his family were not merely wealthy. Along with Midas and Croesus, the Rockefellers were a byword for riches beyond comprehension. And David Rockefeller, who has died aged 101, was the last of the line to experience the family fortune at its zenith. He would also give away a vast chunk of it during a long life in which he befriended world leaders, despots, saints and sinners.
He ran his family’s business and charitable interests long into his nineties, along with his art collection valued at half a billion dollars. But with his passing goes the last living connection to the extraordinary era of the Great Gatsby and the golden age of America’s great industrial dynasties. Compared to this lot, the Kennedy clan, so often described as America’s royal family, are very much at the Poundland end of the plutocratic spectrum.
David Rockefeller was ten when F. Scott Fitzgerald published Gatsby, the classic tale of social division and decadence among America’s super-rich during the Roaring Twenties. Just two years later, Irving Berlin wrote his immortal hit song along similar lines: ‘Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts – puttin’ on the Ritz.’
Everyone associated the Rockefellers and the marginally less wealthy Carnegies and Vanderbilts with enormous privilege.
David’s childhood was divided between the largest private residence in New York (with the family art gallery in an adjacent building), a country estate, a seaside ‘cottage’ in Maine with 107 rooms and various holiday homes which all dwarf Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Florida bolthole.
His grandfather was John Davison Rockefeller, a man described as the wealthiest individual in history, having amassed a fortune of somewhere in the region of half a trillion dollars in modern values. A former grocer, he went on to found Standard Oil. But throughout his life, inspired by his mother Eliza, a devout Baptist, he donated 10 per cent of every pay cheque to charity.
By the time he died in 1937, he had given away so much that he is also believed to have been the single greatest benefactor of medical research and education in history.
But that still left billions for his only son, John D. Rockefeller Junior. He found his fortune a burden and insisted his six children, of whom David was the youngest, were raised with a strong work ethic and sense of public duty.
SO, at the age of seven, David had a holiday job raking leaves for eight hours a day on the family’s 3,400-acre Westchester estate.
On another occasion, he was put on weeding duties at the family’s holiday home in Maine earning a cent per weed. However, the trappings of wealth were always close at hand. David and three of his brothers were fond of roller-skating down New York’s Fifth Avenue but would be followed by a chauffeur-driven limousine in case they became tired. Young David’s real passion, however, was insects. During a summer holiday in Maine, he used an illuminated bedsheet to gather up 40,000 insects.
Even towards the end of his life, David would not leave home without a jar to gather up any interesting beetles. And it was a source of immense pride when a rare scarab beetle was named after him – diplotaxis rockefelleri. After graduating from Harvard in 1936, David spent a year at the London School of Economics and went on to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago. He was genuinely bright.
In that same year, 1940, he married Margaret McGrath, by whom he had six children. But that sense of public duty kicked during the Second World War. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, David enlisted and was posted to North Africa and latterly France – his fluency in French led to a post as an intelligence officer.
After the war, he joined the family bank, Chase Manhattan, and would rise to be chairman and chief executive. Two of his brothers pursued political careers – Nelson became governor of New York and US vice- president, Winthrop became governor of Arkansas.
As much a networker as a financier, David was twice offered the role of US treasury secretary.
Yet he preferred to act alone as a private diplomat-cum-dealmaker.
His network of contacts became legendary with more than 150,000 names logged in a Rolodex filing system so large it occupied a special office next to his own.
Through Rockefeller’s friendships with men like Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev, Chase – now JPMorgan Chase & Co – was the first American bank to open in the Soviet Union and China. In 1974, it was the first to open an office in Egypt since the 1956 Suez crisis.
Among the estimated 200 world leaders whose company – and telephone numbers – he enjoyed in later life was Nelson Mandela. One friendship led to particularly vehement criticism. It was Rockefeller and the statesman Henry Kissinger who encouraged President Jimmy Carter to admit the ailing and deposed Shah of Iran to the US for cancer treatment in 1979.
THE move led to the invasion of the US embassy in Tehran and the 13month hostage crisis which, ultimately, brought down the Carter administration.
Throughout his life, Rockefeller remained an ardent defender of his family and birthright. ‘Ameri- can capitalism has brought more benefits to more people than any other system in any part of the world at any time in history,’ he said. He is believed to have given away at least 900 million dollars (£730million) to good causes in his lifetime and took a dim view of tax avoidance schemes.
But he might just occasionally use his enormous influence for personal ends. He was gratified when he moved the family bank to the lower end of Manhattan and it sparked a building boom there during the Sixties and Seventies.
He was less pleased when a project called the World Trade Center threatened to obstruct his view of the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty. According to Wall Street folklore, he called his brother Nelson, then governor of New York, and asked: ‘Can’t you just move it over a few feet?’ His view remained undisturbed.
Family man: David Rockefeller with bride Margaret McGrath