Rockefeller, last of the golden Gats­bys who gave away a bil­lion dol­lars

Daily Mail - - News - by Robert Hard­man

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

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