Rockefeller Remembers

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Random Reminiscences of Men and Events, the autobiography of John D. Rockefeller, first appeared as a series of seven articles that ran monthly from October 1908 through April 1909 in The World’s Work, a magazine published by Doubleday, Page & Company. The autobiography has reappeared in book form many times since its original publication, but not until 1984, when the Sleepy Hollow Press of Tarrytown, New York, and the Rockefeller Archive Center brought out a handsome new edition, could readers enjoy the approximately eighty photographs from the original magazine articles.

The photographs alone are worth the price of the book ($12.95). Rockefeller lived from 1839 to 1937, and he softened as he aged—a little. If you want to see a steely gaze, take a look at him here—at age thirteen, eighteen, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-eight, or forty-five. Not once, it seems, did any photographer say, “Smile.”

Perhaps it is not a steely gaze but merely an earnest one. When not writing about business history in this column, I work as a manager at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, an institution that has benefited so greatly from the generosity of the Rockefeller family that we habitually use words like immeasurable when trying to express our gratitude. Reading Rockefeller’s reminiscences, I was struck by the explication of a philosophy of giving whose consequences stare me in the face, eighty years later, as I watch the sparkling new research laboratories named for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., rising near my office.

The editor’s note at the back of the new edition says that the autobiography grew out of meetings between Rockefeller and the publisher Frank Doubleday in Augusta, Georgia, early in 1908. “Mr. Doubleday,” the editor writes, “transcribed these interviews, which were then given to Mr. Rockefeller for correction and revision.”

The full story, as recounted in Doubleday’s Memoirs of a Publisher, is far more interesting. Doubleday describes how, after much scheming on his part, “the great oil king took notice of the insignificant publisher and invited me to play golf with him.” Then he tells an anecdote that says as much about Rockefeller—and incidentally about Andrew Carnegie—as any passage in Rockefeller’s own book: “Rockefeller’s golf was the exact reverse of Mr. Carnegie’s golf. Carnegie could not stand being beaten and would take the utmost liberties with the score. Rockefeller was strictness itself in counting every stroke. I remember that one tee at Augusta faced a little swamp. If Rockefeller had the misfortune to drive into this morass, he would stop and put on a pair of rubbers, go into the mud, and hammer at his ball, accounting for every stroke....Considering everything, he played a remarkable game, and always in strict conformity to the rules.”

After winning Rockefeller’s trust, Doubleday was invited to listen while the richest man in the world told the story of his life. Nothing yet had been said about a book. Later, on being asked by John, Jr., to put what he had heard in writing, Doubleday “sat down for three or four days and cudgeled my brains to write out this story.”

Doubleday’s role as ghostwriter does not seem to me to detract from the interest of the autobiography, especially if we accept Doubleday’s account of the care with which Rockefeller reviewed his work: “I had long sessions with Mr. Rockefeller, reading and rereading the whole story over and over again…sometimes he would make me read certain passages four or five times, and when I showed that I was rather tired of it, he would say, ‘We will get this right, then we need never think of it again.’”

This process of meticulous review meshes perfectly with everything I have read about Rockefeller. In its punctilious tone, too, the book rings true. Doubleday relates one incident that proves he did his job well. Rockefeller, brought into court to testify about the activities of Standard Oil, “put in as his evidence the complete contents of this book, and said that he was willing to swear by that and make it his statement of the case.”

In the book, Rockefeller defends Standard Oil against several persistent attacks. First he answers critics who said that the company’s size alone made it dangerous. Rockefeller admits that “the power conferred by combination may be abused,” but he does not concede that the potential abuse of power outweighs the economic advantages that size makes possible. “This fact,” he says, “is no more of an argument against combinations than the fact that steam may explode is an argument against steam.”

Rockefeller also answers critics who were disturbed by rebates—discounts that Standard Oil received from railroads on its freight shipments. Here he makes the argument that rebates were a natural outcome of unfettered competition: “The reason for rebates was that such was the railroad’s method of business....the railroads…were competing with the facilities and rates offered by the boats on lake and canal and by the pipelines. All these means of transporting oil cut into the business of the railroads,” which then began to offer rebates in an effort to ensure shipping volume.