Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Another traveling companion remembered the Rockefellers sitting at a private dining room in a Roman hotel as the paterfamilias dissected the weekly bill, trying to ascertain whether they had really consumed two whole chickens, as these slippery foreigners alleged: Mr. Rockefeller listened for a while to the discussion, and then said quietly: “I can settle that very easily. John, did you have a chicken leg?” “Yes.” “Alta, did you have a chicken leg?” “Yes.” “Well, Mother, I think I remember that you had one. Is that right?” “Yes,” said the mother. “I know that I had one, and no chicken has 3 legs. The bill is correct.” I can still see the faces of that family group and hear the tone of Mr. Rockefeller’s voice as he so quietly and so uniquely settled that dispute.59 As he grew older, Junior was deputized to handle tips and bills, which he later cited as excellent business training.

As to why God had singled out John D. Rockefeller for such spectacular bounty, Rockefeller always adverted to his own adherence to the doctrine of stewardship—the notion of the wealthy man as a mere instrument of God, a temporary trustee of his money, who devoted it to good causes. “It has seemed as if I was favored and got increase because the Lord knew that I was going to turn around and give it back.”73

At another point, they met an old man in the roadway whom John so sedulously drained of local lore that the latter finally pleaded with weary resignation, “For God’s sake if you will go with me over to that barn yonder, I will start and tell you everything I ever knew.”72 This was the same monotonously inquisitive young man who was known as “the Sponge” in the Oil Regions.

At a time when moguls vied to impress people with their possessions, Rockefeller preferred comfort to refinement. His house was bare of hunting trophies, shelves of richly bound but unread books, or other signs of conspicuous consumption. Rockefeller molded his house for his own use, not to awe strangers. As he wrote of the Forest Hill fireplaces in 1877: “I have seen a good many fireplaces here [and] don’t think the character of our rooms will warrant going into the expenditures for fancy tiling and all that sort of thing that we find in some of the extravagant houses here. What we want is a sensible, plain arrangement in keeping with our rooms.”3 It took time for the family to adjust to Forest Hill. The house had been built as a hotel, and it showed: It had an office to the left of the front door, a dining room with small tables straight ahead, upstairs corridors lined with cubicle-sized rooms, and porches wrapped around each floor. The verandas, also decorated in resort style, were cluttered with bamboo furniture. It was perhaps this arrangement that tempted John and Cettie to run Forest Hill as a paying club for friends, and they got a dozen to come and stay during the summer of 1877. This venture proved no less of a debacle than the proposed sanatorium. As “club guests,” many visitors expected Cettie to function as their unlikely hostess. Some didn’t know they were in a commercial establishment and were shocked upon returning home to receive bills for their stay.

At home, Rockefeller created a make-believe market economy, calling Cettie the “general manager” and requiring the children to keep careful account books.16They earned pocket money by performing chores and received two cents for killing flies, ten cents for sharpening pencils, five cents per hour for practicing their musical instruments, and a dollar for repairing vases. They were given two cents per day for abstaining from candy and a dime bonus for each consecutive day of abstinence. Each toiled in a separate patch of the vegetable garden, earning a penny for every ten weeds they pulled up. John Jr. got fifteen cents an hour for chopping wood and ten cents per day for superintending paths. Rockefeller took pride in training his children as miniature household workers. Years later, riding on a train with his thirteen-year-old daughter, he told a traveling companion, “This little girl is earning money already. You never could imagine how she does it. I have learned what my gas bills should average when the gas is managed with care, and I have told her that she can have for pin money all that she will save every month on this amount, so she goes around every night and keeps the gas turned down where it is not needed.

At one point, Bill suggested that if John didn’t find work he might have to return to the country; the thought of such dependence upon his father made “a cold chill” run down his spine, Rockefeller later said.27 Because he approached his job hunt devoid of any doubt or self-pity, he could stare down all discouragement. “I was working every day at my business—the business of looking for work. I put in my full time at this every day.

Convinced that struggle was the crucible of character, Rockefeller faced a delicate task in raising his children. He wanted to accumulate wealth while inculcating in them the values of his threadbare boyhood. The first step in saving them from extravagance was keeping them ignorant of their father’s affluence. Until they were adults, Rockefeller’s children never visited his office or refineries, and even then they were accompanied by company officials, never Father. At home, Rockefeller created a make-believe market economy, calling Cettie the “general manager” and requiring the children to keep careful account books.16They earned pocket money by performing chores and received two cents for killing flies, ten cents for sharpening pencils, five cents per hour for practicing their musical instruments, and a dollar for repairing vases. They were given two cents per day for abstaining from candy and a dime bonus for each consecutive day of abstinence. Each toiled in a separate patch of the vegetable garden, earning a penny for every ten weeds they pulled up. John Jr. got fifteen cents an hour for chopping wood and ten cents per day for superintending paths. Rockefeller took pride in training his children as miniature household workers. Years later, riding on a train with his thirteen-year-old daughter, he told a traveling companion, “This little girl is earning money already. You never could imagine how she does it. I have learned what my gas bills should average when the gas is managed with care, and I have told her that she can have for pin money all that she will save every month on this amount, so she goes around every night and keeps the gas turned down where it is not needed.”17 Rockefeller never tired of preaching economy and whenever a package arrived at home, he made a point of saving the paper and string. Cettie was equally vigilant. When the children clamored for bicycles, John suggested buying one for each child. “No,” said Cettie, “we will buy just one for all of them.” “But, my dear,” John protested, “tricycles do not cost much.” “That is true,” she replied. “It is not the cost. But if they have just one they will learn to give up to one another.”18 So the children shared a single bicycle. Amazingly enough, the four children probably grew up with a level of creature comforts not that far above what Rockefeller had known as a boy.

Daring in design, cautious in execution—it was a formula he made his own throughout his career.

Despite incessant disappointment, he doggedly pursued a position. Each morning, he left his boardinghouse at eight o’clock, clothed in a dark suit with a high collar and black tie, to make his rounds of appointed firms. This grimly determined trek went on each day—six days a week for six consecutive weeks—until late in the afternoon. The streets were so hot and hard that he grew footsore from pacing them. His perseverance surely owed something to his desire to end his reliance upon his fickle father. At one point, Bill suggested that if John didn’t find work he might have to return to the country; the thought of such dependence upon his father made “a cold chill” run down his spine, Rockefeller later said.27 Because he approached his job hunt devoid of any doubt or self-pity, he could stare down all discouragement. “I was working every day at my business—the business of looking for work. I put in my full time at this every day.”28 He was a confirmed exponent of positive thinking.

For this boy destined to be the world’s greatest heir, money was so omnipresent as to be invisible—something “there, like air or food or any other element,” he later said—yet it was never easily attainable.11 As if he were a poor, rural boy, he earned pocket change by mending vases and broken fountain pens or by sharpening pencils. Aware of the rich children spoiled by their parents, Senior seized every opportunity to teach his son the value of money. Once, while Rockefeller was being shaved at Forest Hill, Junior entered with a plan to give away his Sunday-school money in one lump sum, for a fixed period, and be done with it. “Let’s figure it out first,” Rockefeller advised and made Junior run through calculations that showed he would lose eleven cents interest while the Sunday school gained nothing in return. Afterward, Rockefeller told his barber, “I don’t care about the boy giving his money in that way. I want him to give it. But I also want him to learn the lesson of being careful of the little things.

For this reason, I have stressed his evangelical Baptism as the passkey that unlocks many mysteries of his life.

Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties, he developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life.

Has anyone given you the law of these offices? No? It is this: nobody does anything if he can get anybody else to do it.… As soon as you can, get some one whom you can rely on, train him in the work, sit down, cock up your heels, and think out some way for the Standard Oil to make some money.”25

He had a great general’s ability to focus on his goals and brush aside obstacles as petty distractions. “You can abuse me, you can strike me,” Rockefeller said, “so long as you let me have my own way.

He made a cryptic statement to Hewitt that entered into Rockefeller folklore: “I have ways of making money you know nothing about.

His victory over the Cleveland refiners would be the first but also the most controversial campaign of his career.

If those who ‘gain all they can’ and ‘save all they can,’ will likewise ‘give all they can,’ then the more they will grow in grace.

In his early days in business, Rockefeller often suffered from severe neck pains that might have indicated stress on the job, and he turned to horses as a therapeutic diversion. “I would leave my office in the afternoon and drive a pair of fast horses as hard as they could go: trot, break, gallop—everything.”4

In time, the government redefined the rules of the capitalist game to tame trusts and preserve competition, but as John D. Rockefeller set about building his fortune, the absence of clear-cut rules probably aided, at first, the creative vigor of the new industrial economy.

Oh how blessed the young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and a beginning in life. I shall never cease to be grateful for the three and a half years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all the way along.

One of Rockefeller’s favorite stories reveals her coolheaded response to danger: Mother had whooping cough and was staying in her room so that we should not catch it. When she heard thieves trying to get at the back of the house and remembered that there was no man to protect us, she softly opened the window and began to sing some old Negro melody, just as if the family were up and about. The robbers turned away from the house, crossed the road to the carriage house, stole a set of harness and went down the hill to their boat at the shore.18 From such early experiences, John D. took away a deep, abiding respect for women; unlike other moguls of the Gilded Age, he never saw them in purely ornamental terms.

Packard and Giles entreated Rockefeller for a donation to secure the school on a permanent footing: “Give it a name; let it if you please be called Rockefeller College, or if you prefer let it take your good wife’s Maiden name or any other which suits you.”68 Although Rockefeller retired the $5,000 debt, he humbly declined to use his own name. Instead, in a fitting tribute to his in-laws, he opted for the Spelman name, thus giving birth to Spelman Seminary, renamed Spelman College in 1924. It developed into one of America’s most respected schools for black women, counting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mother and grandmother among its many prominent alumnae.

Rockefeller equated silence with strength: Weak men had loose tongues and blabbed to reporters, while prudent businessmen kept their own counsel.

Rockefeller was sensitive about adults who behaved in a high-handed fashion toward him. Having assumed so much responsibility at home, he now thought of himself as a mature person.

She liked to quote the maxim, “To be a good wife and mother is the highest and hardest privilege of woman.”27

Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed” and “A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.

The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee,” he once said, “and I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.

Throughout his life, Rockefeller was wounded deeply by accusations that he was a cold, malignant personality.

To ensure that he won, he submitted to games only where he could dictate the rules.

Willful waste makes woeful want.