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The Gentlewoman And The Robber Baron
When Ida Tarbell set out to probe the operations of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, it seemed like David against Goliath all over again
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
One wintry morning in 1902 a prim, resolute spinster presented herself at 26 Broadway in New York City, bastion of the powerful Standard Oil organization. Promptly she was ushered through a maze of empty corridors to a reception room facing an open courtyard. As she waited, she became aware that a man in a nearby window was observing her stealthily.
Over the next two years this unlikely visitor paid many calls to one of the most awesome addresses in the American financial world. Each time she saw only the clerks who guided her, a secretary, and Henry H. Rogers, vice president of Standard Oil. But always she noticed the same shadowy figure watching her from the window. Was John D. Rockefeller, master of the oil industry, peeping at Ida Minerva Tarbell, lady journalist?
If so, Ida’s turn to peep came one Sunday in 1903 when she visited the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland. Feeling a little guilty about it, she had invaded Rockefeller’s church for a firsthand look at the man whose business practices she dared to castigate. Her quarry soon appeared. At sixty-four Rockefeller exuded power, but Ida observed that his big head had a wet look, his nose resembled a sharp thorn, and his lips were thin slits. Constantly, uneasily, Rockefeller peered around the familiar congregation, but if he recognized the stranger in its midst, he gave no sign.
Although the nation’s richest man and his most persistent critic never met, their confrontation in the pages of McClure’s Magazine enthralled thousands of Americans. Safe within their Victorian mansions, well-bred ladies shuddered at the audacity of one of their sex who had the spunk to describe the legendary Rockefeller as cold, ruthless, and unethical.
For eighteen installments—from November, 1902, to April, 1904—Ida’s monumental “History of the Standard Oil Company” fired the indignation of middle-aged and middle-class citizens caught up in the rebellious mood of Progressivism. Politicians from statehouse legislators to Teddy Roosevelt at the White House took note of the furor. Its echoes eventually penetrated even the remote chambers of the Supreme Court.
Readers of McClure’s , turning through their October, 1902, issue, were introduced to the sensational serial by a full-page photograph of Ida. The magazine’s star writer wore a severe, high-collared white dress adorned with tucks and embroidery, and her dark hair was piled high on her head. She looked away from the camera with an air of cool detachment. Miss Tarbell, McClure’s announced, had completed her long study of “the most perfectly developed trust in existence.” Her account would begin the following month.
S. S. McClure, impulsive and mercurial, boasted that the founding of McClure’s and the discovery of Ida Tarbell were his proudest achievements. In Paris in 1892 he had bounded up four flights of steps to an apartment to meet the little-known American writer. After pouring out his plans for McClure’s , S. S. borrowed forty dollars and left. “I’ll never see that money,” Ida lamented, but to her relief the forty dollars was promptly repaid. Two years later Ida, serious, purposeful, and thirty-seven, joined the staff of McClure’s in New York.
S. S. soon had reason to congratulate himself. Ida was an immediate hit with readers, who paid ten cents a copy for his lively magazine. They liked her biography of Napoleon, produced “on the gallop” in six weeks. They followed with avid interest her series on Abraham Lincoln, written after four years of painstaking research in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.
As thousands of new subscribers joined his circulation lists, McClure gave Ida most of the credit. The life of Lincoln, he said, “told on our circulation as nothing ever had before.” By 1900 McClure’s was reaching 350,000 homes and was second in circulation only to its bitter rival, Munsey’s . If McClure liked an idea, he bragged, then millions of readers would like it, too. “There’s only one better editor than I am,” he admitted, “and that’s Frank Munsey. If he likes a thing, then everybody will like it.”
Alert to the mood of his readers, McClure sensed their concern about social and political reform. Lincoln Steffens, therefore, must check into corruption in the big cities. Ray Stannard Baker must investigate labor unions and the coal strike then going on in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania (see “The Coal Kings Come to Judgment” in the April, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). As for Ida, why not a study of one of the monopolies that frightened small businessmen? Why not, in fact, the prototype of them all? “Out with you!” S. S. commanded his talented staff. “Look, see, report.”
“Don’t do it, Ida,” her father pleaded. “They will ruin the magazine.” Others warned her of the “all-seeing eye and the all-powerful reach” of Standard Oil. If McClure’s persisted, friends predicted, “they’ll get you in the end.”