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John D. Rockefeller Jr.: An Exchange

To the Editors:

A couple of comments about the review of David Rockefeller’s Memoirs by the usually exemplary Russell Baker [NYR, June 12, 2003]. My concern is confined to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who Baker sees as the “dark figure” at the center of David’s description of family life. And again, as “a dark presence in the Rockefeller saga.”

In both book and review we read of “Father’s Calvinist zeal.” For Father, “life was a test contrived by an easily angered God to determine who was fit for admission to heaven,” to quote Baker. Father pounded the children “in the scriptural rigors.” Bluntly put, Father comes across as a Baptist fundamentalist joined with a Puritan Calvinist, a sinner in the hands of an Angry God. This portrait is unfair and untrue.

J.D.R. Jr. (in the following cited as John rather than Junior) was certainly the child of a pious mother, but his father, “The Founding Rockefeller,” also left his imprint. After all, he funded the church of Walter Rauschenbusch, the leading prophet of the liberal Social Gospel movement. He also brought into being in the 1890s the great University of Chicago, soon becoming in fundamentalists’ eyes a “hot-bed of heresy” where the students sung the Doxology thusly: “Praise John from whom oil blessings flow/Praise him oil creatures here below/Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but above all praise John most.” The son’s religious journey ended far from the stern faith of his mother as he supported with money and service the liberal pastors at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church and then the Park Avenue Baptist Church. In 1918 John was the principal benefactor of the colossal Interchurch World Movement, a grandiose enterprise of the liberal Protestant establishment. When it failed fundamentalists of all denominations praised the Lord’s just judgment on it. Still, John saw that its debts were honorably paid and he supported the movement’s devastating inquiry into the Great Steel Strike of 1919 and conditions in the mills, personally visiting Big Steel’s Frick and Clay in their offices to seek the end of the brutal twelve-hour working day. (They told him to mind his own business.)

John further funded the new Institute of Social and Religious Research and gave gifts totaling more than $1,000,000 to Union Theological Seminary in New York, then, like Chicago, considered an abomination by fundamentalists. A score or more instances of his nourishing liberal Protestantism could be cited, but the transcendent illustration is the support he gave for a half-century to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s career, and the friendship they formed was about as deep and warm as either man ever permitted. Fosdick’s younger brother Raymond served as a major Rockefeller adviser for decades culminating with the presidency of the Rockefeller Foundation, 1936–1948. With his warmth, wit, urbanity, and religious agnosticism (chucking completely his Baptist heritage) he unbuttoned both his brother and his boss and served to further bond a close Rockefeller–Fosdick relationship. (On one occasion Ray was at the piano playing a medley of mildly bawdy songs to John’s growing delight. “Teach me the lyrics,” he begged.)

On May 21, 1922, Fosdick, a Baptist, preached a sermon entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church, certainly one of the most significant sermons in American history. John authorized his public relations man Ivy Lee to distribute at his expense the sermon to every ordained Protestant minister in the nation. There followed in 1925 Fosdick’s call to the Park Avenue Baptist Church to the understandable horror of conservatives. Fosdick and Rockefeller were flayed and when on November 20, 1927, the cornerstone was laid for the Riverside Church in Morningside Heights the worst fears of conservative Baptists were realized. Both men had betrayed their Baptist heritage and were advised to name their new cathedral “SOCONY”—the Standard Oil Church of New York. The Riverside Church continues to honor the dreams of Fosdick and Rockefeller. In his lifetime John contributed to Riverside $32,462,187. More impressive are the hours, perhaps several thousand, he gave to nurturing the church’s weal.

A personal word. I devoted twelve years to writing the biography of Fosdick, published by Oxford University Press. I came away with considerable respect for Rockefeller for he seemed to be a guy who cared. Far from being a fundamentalist, I found his faith at once sincere and sanguine, idealistic and practical, open and experiential, and socially conscious. Not surprisingly, considering his unspeculative cast of mind, the amount of theology and doctrine in this simple faith could be put in a flea’s navel with enough room left over for two aspirins and an acorn (to steal from Fred Allen). He was in fact more liberal, alas!, than Fosdick.

In both book and review John is not cruel or even unkind to his children, but he is depicted as being “stiff to the point of being inhuman” and “repressed, insecure, joyless, pious”—pretty close to Mencken’s jibe about the sour-visaged killjoy haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere might be happy. Since David was the son and I was not, I suppose his memories should not be challenged. Nevertheless, in fairness to the father several questions need to be raised.

John urged his children not to drink or smoke and bribed them to refrain until they reached maturity. So what? So did his mother. So did my parents, although in time all four children knocked back booze and puffed smokes (though for my brother John and myself the cheap or free ciga-rettes provided by the Marines in the war didn’t help stem our addiction). We children made our own dumb decisions and did not think of our parents as “puritanical”—as indeed they were not. The Rockefeller children were expected to give 10 percent of their allowances to church and charity. Daughter Babs refused to give a cent. So what? Why should this be an illustration of her father’s faults? My allowance was 25 cents: 15 for a movie and candy; 5 to save; 5 to my Presbyterian Sunday school for the starving children of China. Babs must have had her good reasons from her estrangement from her father, but surely this allowance business cannot be one. She smoked up a storm to vex her father, too. When John gathered the kids together mornings for Bible study the mother preferred “to stay comfortably in bed reading the newspaper.” Abby, the mother, of course was a liberated woman and should not be faulted for her decision. Still, why should the father be questioned for the “heavy duty” he imposed on the children? Let us hope that this “heavy duty” was not one of the reasons that David dedicated Memoirs to his wife and mother, leaving poor father unrecognized. John did not ban the kids from riding, swimming, golfing, roller skating, playing tennis (even on Sunday thanks to Fosdick’s intercession), dancing, sailing (in a racing sloop the father bought for them though he did not sail), going to movies and plays, and for all I know a lot of other good stuff.

In his early thirties John had a “nervous collapse” forcing him to seek recovery in the south of France for six months followed by six months of near seclusion in his New York home. Maybe not too much need be made of this frightening experience as a revelation of his “insecurity” and

repression.” Did this harrowing ordeal determine the course of his future life? Perhaps not. As it happens, while a divinity student at Union Fosdick was felled by a depression so severe as to lead to an attempted suicide requiring confinement in a sanitarium and a convalescent trip to England. But this terrifying smashup did not blight his long ministry and indeed it added wisdom to his pastoral counseling.

Abby is rightly honored for her role in founding the Museum of Modern Art while John is lampooned for his bewildered dislike of the art found in it. But he was not a Babbitt and his love for and worldwide support of art forms from antiquity to beyond the Middle Ages is legendary. Witness the Cloisters.

My take on John D. Rockefeller Jr. is that he was a decent man who was responsible for a hundred noble deeds of global philanthropy. Considering the odds, he and Abby did not do such a bad job in raising their six children. After all, America’s most beloved couple today, John and Abigail Adams, batted only 50 percent and even John Quincy and Nappy were, like Wellington’s description of Waterloo, damned near run things.

Robert Moats Miller
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Russell Baker replies:

It is a lucky father who can have six children and remain a hero to them all, for aging children tend to pass merciless and unforgiving judgment on the long-ago offenses of parents. David Rockefeller’s memoir is hardly merciless on his father, but it is anything but loving. That John D. Rockefeller Jr. was warm, humane, and of generous spirit in church matters seems entirely likely. Within his private family world, nevertheless, he was clearly a “dark figure” to his youngest son, and David’s candor about this in his memoir is valuable to an understanding of this remarkable family.

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