- Historic Sites
The Grand Acquisitor
When it was raining porridge, Lucy Rockefeller said, John D.’s dish was always right side up
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
The incredibly shrunken face of an animate mummy, grotesque behind enormous blackrimmed glasses; the old boy tottering around the golf course, benign and imperturbable, distributing his famous dimes; the huge foundation with its medical triumphs; the lingering memory of the great trust and the awed contemplation of the even greater company; and over all, the smell of oil, endlessly pumping out of the earth, each drop adding its bit to the largest exaction ever levied on any society by a private indiviclual—with such associations it is no wonder that the name has sunk into the American mind to an extraordinary degree. From his earliest days the spendthrih schoolboy is brought to his senses with: “Who do you think you are, John D. Rockefeller?”
Yet for all the vivid associations, the man himself remains a shadowy presence. Carnegie, Morgan, or Ford may not have entered so decisively into the American parlance, but they are full-blooded figures in our memory: Carnegie, brash, bustling, proselytizing; Morgan, imperious, choleric, aloof; Ford, shrewd, small-town, thing-minded. But what is John D. Rockefeller, aside from the paper silhouettes of very old age and the aura of immense wealth?
Even his contemporaries did not seem to have a very clear impression of Rockefeller as a human being. For forty years of his active career, he was commonly regarded as an arch economic malefactor—La Follette called him the greatest criminal of the age—and for twenty years, as a great benefactor—John Singer Sargent, painting his portrait, declared himself in the presence of a medieval saint—but neither judgment tells us much about the man. Nor do Ida Tarbell or Henry Demarest Lloyd, both so skillful in portraying the company, succeed in bringing to life its central figure; he lurks in the background, the Captain Nemo of Standard Oil. Similarly, in the reminiscences of his associates we catch only the glimmer of a person—a polite, reserved man, mild in manner, a bit of a stickler for exactitude, totally unremarkable for anything he says or for any particular style of saying it. Surely there must be more to John D. than this! What sort of man was this greatest of all acquisitors? What was the secret of his incredible success?
His mother came of a prosperous Scottish farming family, devout, strait-laced, uncompromising. She springs out at us from her photographs: a tired, plain face, deep-set eyes, and a straight, severe mouth announce Eliza Davison Rockefeller’s tired, straight, severe personality. Rockefeller later recalled an instance when he was being whipped by her and finally managed to convince her that he was innocent of a supposed misdemeanor. “Never mind,” she said, “we have started in on this whipping and it will do for the next time.” lier approach to HTc made an indelible impression—even in his old age Rockefeller could hear lier voire enjoining: “Willful waste makes woeful want.”
His father, William Avery Rockefeller, was cut from a different bolt of cloth Big, robust, and roistering, he treated his sons with a curious mixture of alfcction and contempt. “I trade with the boys,” he boasted to a neighbor, “and skin ’em and I just beat ’em every time I can. I want to make ’em sharp.” Sharp himself, he was in and out of a dozen businesses in John s youth and, we have reason to suspect, as many beds. Later, when his son was already a prominent businessman, we can still follow his father’s erratic career, now as “Doctor” William A. Rockefeller, “the Celebrated Cancer Specialist,” peddling his cures on the circuit. Still later, when John D. had become a great eminence in New York, the father drops into obscurity—only to materialize from time to time in the city, where he is shown around by an embarrassed Standard Oil underling. At the very end he simply disappears. Joseph Pulitzer at one time offered a prize of $8,000 for news of his whereabouts, and the rumor spread that for thirty-five years old William had led a double life, with a second wife in Illinois. No one knows.
It was an unpleasantly polarized family situation, and it helps us understand the quiet, sober-sided boy who emerged. His schoolmates called John “Old pleased-because-I’m-sad,” from the title of a school declamation that fitted him to perfection; typically, when the boys played baseball, he kept score. Yet, if it was subdued, it was not an unhappy boyhood. At home he milked the cow and drove the horse and did the household chores that were expected of a boy in upstate New York, but after hours he indulged with his brothers, William and Frank, in the usual boyhood escapades and adventures. A favorite pastime, especially savored since it was forbidden, was to go skating at night on the Susquchanna. Un one occasion William and John saved a neighbor’s boy from drowning, whereupon their evening’s sally had to be admitted. Eliza Rockefeller praised their courage—and whipped them soundly for their disobedience.
Always in the Rockefeller home there was the stress on gainful work. Their father may have worked to make them sharp, but their mother worked to make them industiious. John was encouraged to raise turkeys, and he kept the money from their sale in a little box on the mantel until he had accumulated the sum of $50. A neighboring farmer asked to borrow the amount at seven per cent for a year, and his mother approved. During that summer John dug potatoes at thirty-seven and a half cents a day. When the farmer repaid the loan with $3.50 in interest, the lesson was not lost on John: the earning power of capital was much to be preferred to that of labor.