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An American Family

Memoirs

by David Rockefeller
Random House, 517 pp., $35.00

1.

David Rockefeller has good reasons to leave memoir-writing to others. He has been a successful banker, turned down presidents who wanted him to be secretary of the Treasury, met a mind-numbing horde of celebrated people, been happily married, is gloriously rich, and is now well into his eighties. At this age trying to master the literary craft must feel like heavy lifting, but, not content with so many blessings, he has written a memoir anyhow.

One cannot help wondering why. Memoirs are commonly written by former presidents and similar fading human monuments who need money, entertainment celebrities who need money and an ego massage, and people who have an irresistible compulsion to write but haven’t the creative power to write fiction.

Now and then a good book emerges. Ulysses S. Grant, who did it because he needed money, discovered that he liked writing, did it surpassingly well, and produced an American literary classic. On the other end of the spectrum lie the scores of Hollywood libido ticklers struggling to rise to the standards of Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways.

Nowadays the best memoirs come from unfamous people who tell wonderful stories. Angela’s Ashes, one of the best, was written by Frank McCourt, a New York City high school English teacher in his sixties. The Road from Coorain, equally fine, is by Jill Ker Conway, the scholar-daughter of an Australian sheep farmer.

Rockefeller, too, has a wonderful story to tell: a family saga, and the family is not just another run-of-the-mill saga-type family either, but one of the world’s richest, a family said to be rooted in infamy—or were those evil deeds unjustly imputed to Grandfather?—a family torn by sibling jealousy, scarred by religious repression, scandalized by a dynamic son’s sexual hunger and ambition for power…and so on.

For years material like this has kept journeyman novelists high on best-seller lists. David Rockefeller, alas, is not up to handling it, for the storytelling gift has not been granted him. Apparently he never learned its basic rule—“Show, don’t tell.” For nearly five hundred pages he persists in telling too little while showing even less. His book is all bones and no flesh, no blood, or tears, or even cheap sentimentality.

Glimpses of a fascinating tale can be caught now and then, and even a hint of passion, as near the end when he suddenly, surprisingly reveals a sense of disgust for his brother Nelson. He is too much the banker—or is it too much the Rockefeller?—to provide many such moments. As a result, the reader must constantly read between the lines, always a treacherous place to look for truths.

The heart of the tale, if told directly, would seem to be the conflicts within the Rockefeller family over a century and a half. What a cast of characters to write about! How reluctant David Rockefeller is to let them shine.

His great-grandfather, William Avery Rockefeller, for example, flits across page seven and is never heard of again after being described as “something of an absentee parent” who “had a shady past.” Anyone curious about that “shady past” may turn to Ron Chernow’s 1998 book Titan and learn that Great-Grandfather was a medical quack and snake-oil salesman, and that “something of an absentee parent” is David’s way of saying he was a bigamist.

This typifies a stultifying diplomatic style in passages where one yearns for plain talk, passion, and humor. When the style is not State Department genteel it often lapses into the narcotic prose of the stockholder’s report, leaving the reader with a sense that the most interesting piece of the story is being left out. Reticence about the customers is probably vital to success in banking, but it does not make for lively reading.

The chapters devoted to the author’s banking career can be slow going for those not well versed in The Wall Street Journal. Though the lives of great international bankers are reputed to be glamorous, romantic, and filled with intrigue, nothing here supports the idea that it is much more thrilling than the loan officer’s at the corner bank branch. Rockefeller travels the world tirelessly and meets a huge assortment of movers and shakers, but seems never to suspect that many may be scoundrels and swine.

He wages a ten-year struggle with George Champion for mastery of the Chase bank. Champion is eleven years older, has devoted his life to Chase, and is widely admired in the industry. Reading between the lines, we suspect he considers himself the natural and entitled successor to retiring CEO John McCloy and views young Rockefeller as a whippersnapper whose main qualification for his job is his name. Champion would not have to be paranoid to think so. There is a story going around that Nelson Rockefeller told McCloy the Rockefellers used their family influence to make him chairman and one of his jobs is to make sure David succeeds him. It is “quite possible” that Nelson, who “could be quite high-handed,” did say some such thing, David concedes, but neither he nor the family ever took such a tack.

In any event, Chase’s board is in a pickle when David says he will resign if Champion is made CEO with “unchecked authority.” Its bizarre solution: make Champion the bank’s chairman, David its president, and make the two of them co-chief executive officers, thus insuring endless conflict. Reading between the lines, we suspect Champion must have despised David for spoiling the prize of the chairmanship. Even David senses that since Champion was “never allowed to run the bank entirely on his own,” he might justifiably have felt some bitterness.

With Champion’s retirement, David is supreme at last, and when Champion uses his position as a director to make a nuisance of himself David persuades the board to lower its retirement age to sixty-eight, which was, “not coincidentally, George’s age at the time.”

Because this story is scattered piecemeal across a hundred pages of unrelated material we never hear or see what must have been a highly emotional clash of egos or feel that anything of much consequence is at stake. A drowsing reader may think longingly of the exciting novel J.P. Marquand could have extracted from this fight for power.

The dark figure at the center of David Rockefeller’s account of family life turns out to be his father, always referred to with a respectful capital “F” as Father. He is John D. Rockefeller Jr., only son and heir of the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller Sr., or Grandfather, as David calls him. Grandfather was once a very dark figure to many Americans, but he is not to David. There are photographs of baby David on Grandfather’s lap. To this day David remembers him as a sweet-tempered old man. “Often at dinner he would start to sing softly one of his favorite hymns,” David recalls. “He wasn’t singing to anyone; it was as if a feeling of peace and contentment were welling out of him.”

Ida Tarbell’s 1904 book The History of the Standard Oil Company had helped make Grandfather one of the country’s most hated men. It was unfair, David thinks. He attributes Grandfather’s low reputation to “tabloid press” accusations that he used rapacious and criminal tactics, “including murder,” to create his oil monopoly. What of charges that Standard Oil cheated widows, bombed rival refineries, and hounded competitors into ruin? All “absolute fiction,” David says, though Grandfather, who lacked the modern taste for savoring a bout of guilt, never let it upset him. In fact he read Tarbell’s book and “remarked to everyone’s consternation that he ‘rather enjoyed it.’”

What? No guilt at all?

Grandfather never breathed a sigh of remorse to my Father, his grandchildren, or anyone else about his business career. He believed Standard Oil benefited society, and he felt comfortable with his role in creating it,” David writes. He suggests that devout adherence to the tenets of the Baptist faith accounted for Grandfather’s “placid self-assurance in the face of personal attacks.” This strict Protestantism was drilled into Grandfather’s only son from his cradle, mostly by Grandmother, who dominated his childhood. Grandmother was Laura Spelman Rockefeller and may have been even more devout than Grandfather. Descended from early Massachusetts Puritans, she inherited the Puritan fear of pleasure and passed it on to her son. Her own parents had been ardent abolitionists active in the underground railroad before the Civil War, and she herself was a pioneer of the temperance movement. When young John was ten years old she had him sign a pledge to shun tobacco, vile language, and intoxicating drink. Her portraits, David says, “reveal a formidable individual not easily given to mirth.”

Religious piety clung to young Rockefeller even after he went off to Brown University, and it was destined to cling to him, often to his own children’s discomfort, for the rest of his life. Chernow says in Titan that he did not play cards, go to the theater, or read newspapers on Sunday. In a bibulous age, visitors to his room were served crackers and hot chocolate. It was a proud achievement when, as president of the junior class, he got his classmates to desist from drinking alcohol at the class dinner. Visiting England after his sophomore year he saw his first plays: two of Shakespeare’s and Charley’s Aunt, and wrote his mother that he would not have done it at home “on account of the exam-ple, but thought it not harmful in London, where I knew no one.” Here surely was a man eager for a life of holy joylessness.

In college, however, he did take up dancing, and in dancing he experienced a new kind of happiness, for it introduced him to Abby Aldrich. As John Junior is a dark presence in the Rockefeller saga, Abby Aldrich is the bringer of light. The two were married in 1901.

It was a marriage of Puritan and Cavalier. Abby had been taught to enjoy the world, John to suffer it with fortitude. To John, life was a test contrived by an easily angered God to determine who was fit for admission to heaven. To Abby it was meant to be filled with beauty and pleasure. There is a story that when she first saw the huge house she and John would occupy in Manhattan a friend asked what she could possibly do with so much space and Abby replied, “Fill it with children.”

They had six. The oldest, named Abby after Mother, was called Babs. The next five were boys: in order of birth, named John, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David. All were born in the new century’s golden years before America entered World War I.

The marriage to Abby softened and then dissolved Puritanism’s iron grip on the family. The family name might still be Rockefeller, but Abby brought with her a set of genes and a culture that would change the family character. She was the daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, a dominant Washington power at the end of the nineteenth century. Though no Rockefeller on the money scales, Aldrich could afford to live grandly. In an age when the political pickings were plentiful he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where he had been a generous friend to the nation’s richest companies. In Chernow’s indelicate phrase, he had turned public service into “a lucrative racket” which enabled him to amass $16 million, build a ninety-nine-room château on Narragansett Bay, and sail a two-hundred-foot yacht with a crew of twenty-seven.

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