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Rockefeller Remembers

June 2024
6min read

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.

Rockefeller does not directly answer the charge that Standard benefited not merely from rebates but also from a related device called the drawback —a payment by the railroad to Standard Oil of part of the shipping charges paid by non-Standard refiners. His response, one imagines, would have been what it was in the case of rebates: Standard “made the best bargains possible....Other companies sought to do the same....All this was following in the natural laws of trade.”

A third criticism leveled at the oil company was that Standard forced its competitors to sell out at prices it dictated. Rockefeller answers in detail the charge that, in one celebrated case, he “personally robbed a defenseless widow of an extremely valuable property, paying her only a mere fraction of its worth.” His answer is persuasive, but vindication in a single case will not satisfy readers who know that dozens of other cases remain unmentioned.

Insofar as it deals with his business career, the most interesting passages in the autobiography are those that offer glimpses of Rockefeller in moments of uncertainty. In his youth Rockefeller did not know that he would one day become the richest man in the world. So, in his twenties, the young man worried, just as the head of any small business might: “… I seldom put my head upon the pillow at night without speaking a few words to myself in this wise: ‘Now a little success, soon you will fall down, soon you will be overthrown. Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head—go steady.’”

Rockefeller’s greatest gift, I think, was the ability to keep a clear head. Hope never skewed his calculations. “Look ahead,” he advises. …Be sure that you are not deceiving yourself at any time about actual conditions.” He notes that when a business begins to fail, most men hate “to study the books and face the truth.”

Rockefeller’s interest in “The Difficult Art of Getting,” as he titles Chapter 3, was balanced by an interest in “The Difficult Art of Giving.” It was not an interest he developed late in life. At eighteen Rockefeller was made a trustee of his church, the Erie Street Baptist Church in Cleveland, and he describes with obvious pride and pleasure his role in raising two thousand dollars to pay off the church’s mortgage.

“The best philanthropy,” said Rockefeller, “is constantly in…search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

As his fortune increased, requests for assistance proliferated. Rockefeller was willing to give, but he could not bear to give blindly: “About the year 1890 I was still following the haphazard fashion of giving here and there as appeals presented themselves. I investigated as I could, and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown in groping my way, without sufficient guide or chart, through this ever-widening field of philanthropic endeavor.”

What he needed, he felt, was to rationalize his philanthropy—to develop an “organized plan” based on some “underlying principles” of giving. The philanthropy that mattered most, he concluded, was philanthropy that struck at the root of fundamental problems: “To help the sick and distressed appeals to the kindhearted always, but to help the investigator who is striving successfully to attack the causes which bring about sickness and distress does not so strongly attract the giver of money....The best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

To this philosophy Rockefeller added an institutional innovation —the “Benevolent Trust” specially organized “to manage the business side of benefactions.” He founded four major philanthropic institutions in his lifetime: the Rockefeller Foundation, the General Education Board, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

As a guide for giving, the principle of attempting to “cure evils at their source” is as relevant today as it was when Rockefeller articulated it. We need not wonder, for instance, how Rockefeller would have responded to appeals for the homeless. “It is interesting,” he writes, “to follow the mental processes that some excellent souls go through to cloud their consciences when they consider what their duty actually is. For instance, one man says: ‘I do not believe in giving money to street beggars.’ I agree with him…but that is not a reason why one should be exempt from doing something to help the situation represented by the street beggar.”

In The Autobiography of American Business, a 1974 anthology of excerpts from the autobiographies of businessmen, John Brooks says that Rockefeller’s is “probably rightly forgotten.” I couldn’t disagree more. It’s true that the book contains few surprises. But even though it was ghostwritten, I think the book presents views that deserve a hearing, and, more important, it preserves Rockefeller’s voice—a voice that still fascinates.

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