The Prodigal Fall of Nelson Rockefeller

David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Nelson Rockefeller (right) with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention, Kansas City, Missouri, 1976

In his later years the first John D. Rockefeller, known to his family as “Senior,” was said to have handed out 30,000 dimes. Adjusting to hard times when the Depression hit, the country’s richest man dispensed nickels instead. His grandson, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, adjusted to hard times in the second of his four terms as governor of New York by raising the sales tax, only to be pelted with dimes by protesters as he marched in a civic procession on Long Island. Putting the big-spending politician on the receiving end, taxpayers were reminding him that it wasn’t his money that he was pouring into ambitious state buildings, housing subsidies, and welfare programs.

The distinction sometimes seemed lost on him. The most conspicuous member of his generation of Rockefellers never felt he had to apologize for his wealth or the uses to which he put it. “Wasn’t it wonderful of Grandfather to make all this lovely money?” he remarked once over a gratifying acquisition.

His acquisitions included, by the time of his death, 16,000 works of art, distributed among various residences, including a thirty-two-room triplex apartment on Fifth Avenue that featured retractable walls, one behind another, making it possible for him to hang a little more than a modicum of the paintings and drawings in his collection; there the fireplace was framed by Matisse female figures he’d commissioned, the wall over a staircase covered by Léger. At the family’s Pocantico Hills barony in Westchester he ultimately had three houses. There was another at Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine (only twenty-one rooms), a twenty-six-acre estate on Foxhall Road in Washington (thirty rooms), a 14,000-acre ranch in Venezuela, plus other properties in Texas and Mexico. He also had a collection of vintage cars.

And blurring the line between private and public, he maintained notable collections of retainers and advisers who benefited from his largesse in the form of stipends, grants of stock, and loans supplementing their official salaries, if they were on the public payroll. His speechwriter, spokesman, chief of staff, and the chairman of the Republican state committee were on this list, plus a retinue of secretaries he appears to have treated as a harem. So, at various times, were Henry Kissinger and Wallace Harrison, his favorite architect, who had a leading part in most of his major public and private projects from Rockefeller Center to what’s now called the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany, derided as “Rocky’s pyramid,” which had taken more than a dozen years and $750 million to complete. (That was five years after he resigned as governor; he saw it in its finished form only once.)

At the end of his public career, acceding…

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