An American Family

Memoirs

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

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 …

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