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

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John D. Rockefeller, Sr.--history's first billionaire and the patriarch of America's most famous dynasty--is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul "etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . a John D. Rockefeller, Sr.--history's first billionaire and the patriarch of America's most famous dynasty--is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul "etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have" (Kirkus Reviews). Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller's exceptionally rich trove of papers. A landmark publication full of startling revelations, the book will indelibly alter our image of this most enigmatic capitalist.         Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world's richest man by creating America's most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded "the Octopus" by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.         Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.         While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettably human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously--his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University--than anyone before him. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.         John D. Rockefeller's story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. Pierpont Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller's life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow's signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves. From the Hardcover edition.


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John D. Rockefeller, Sr.--history's first billionaire and the patriarch of America's most famous dynasty--is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul "etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . a John D. Rockefeller, Sr.--history's first billionaire and the patriarch of America's most famous dynasty--is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul "etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have" (Kirkus Reviews). Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller's exceptionally rich trove of papers. A landmark publication full of startling revelations, the book will indelibly alter our image of this most enigmatic capitalist.         Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world's richest man by creating America's most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded "the Octopus" by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.         Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.         While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettably human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously--his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University--than anyone before him. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.         John D. Rockefeller's story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. Pierpont Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller's life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow's signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves. From the Hardcover edition.

30 review for Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

  1. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Without doubt this book deserves five stars. Those five stars mean quite simply that I loved every minute spent with the book. This is my favorite by Ron Chernow. In this book there is so much more to relate to personally than when you read about an American President from a bygone era. The book covers with great depth John D. Rockefeller, Sr.'s parents, siblings, wife, children, grandchildren and all the in-laws. You follow how Sr. made his money - all those with whom he ran Standard Oil, all t Without doubt this book deserves five stars. Those five stars mean quite simply that I loved every minute spent with the book. This is my favorite by Ron Chernow. In this book there is so much more to relate to personally than when you read about an American President from a bygone era. The book covers with great depth John D. Rockefeller, Sr.'s parents, siblings, wife, children, grandchildren and all the in-laws. You follow how Sr. made his money - all those with whom he ran Standard Oil, all those who criticized his methods. Every action is viewed from multiple points of view. You get not only corrupt business but also immense philanthropic beneficence. It is utterly fascinating to watch how the world and the family change. You can read this for history. You can read it for study of familial relationships. Religion, art, psychology, corporate management, in fact everything that changed the world from the America of the 1800s to the interwar years is reflected here in one family. I simply cannot summarize adequately all the diverse subjects touched upon. The most important point to stress is that every topic is presented in such a way that you want to know more and more and more. You do not want it to stop. Chernow presents the facts clearly. He presents the facts with humor. He has a quote of Mark Twain that is deliciously salacious. So damn funny! Chernow gives you both sides, and not just at one moment in time but over many years. Ida Tarbell and Frederick Taylor Gates and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (who started MoMa) and Carl Gustav Jung - just four of the many who are so wonderfully portrayed. In naming four, I simply feel that I do injustice to the book for not naming all the others equally well portrayed. It is almost impossible to write an adequate review of such an excellent book. …….. except to say I adored it. Probably because it gave me history that I could relate to and understand, in addition to a study of how people behave and interact. Real people, people who have good qualities and bad. You constantly are thinking, "Why did he/she do that?!" You do understand, even if you yourself would do otherwise. The audiobook narration by Grover Gardner was absolutely superb. Perfect speed. Easy to follow. Zero complaints!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Gwern

    Fascinating account of a Gilded Age titan much worse known than Carnegie. His charming but scheming wandering bigamist con-artist father reminds me of my old observation that a lot of very successful people seem to be high but not too high on the psychopathy continuum and have had difficult or abusive childhoods; while we tend to think of psychopathy as all negative, aspects of it, like its heritability, are consistent with it being a lifecycle strategy under balancing selection, indicating advanta Fascinating account of a Gilded Age titan much worse known than Carnegie. His charming but scheming wandering bigamist con-artist father reminds me of my old observation that a lot of very successful people seem to be high but not too high on the psychopathy continuum and have had difficult or abusive childhoods; while we tend to think of psychopathy as all negative, aspects of it, like its heritability, are consistent with it being a lifecycle strategy under balancing selection, indicating advantages to the social skills, fearlessness etc. The benign end of psychopathy may give us great leaders and businessmen and heroes like firefighters. Rockefeller's puritanism and obsession with accounting & ledgers renders his early life unpromising. I suspect Rockefeller may've been a bit influenced by Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Although the virtues of accounting no longer appeal quite as much - for example, one thing Rockefeller was famous for later on was giving children shiny new dimes and then lecturing them about the virtues of savings and how a dime was the annual interest on a dollar in a savings account, 10%. This is no longer quite as compelling today when your bank's annual CD pays 0.5% or less, which hardly even covers your time in filling out paperwork. This clerkish fixation on details and pennies makes his subsequent ability, after some modest success in trading & transporting goods, to risk his entire fortune and career going deeply into debt on visionary speculation in the nascent Pennsylvania oil fields all the more extraordinary and inexplicable to me. Why did he do it? How did he know that oil wasn't some temporary Pennsylvanian oddity which would run out soon, ending a quaint era of rustics slopping wooden vats of crude oil in horse-carts, but would be found worldwide and power the future, becoming one of the defining industries & resources of the 1800s-2000s? Rockefeller, in Chernow's telling, keeps his own counsel. It is the pivotal moment of Rockefeller's life, and thoroughly unsatisfactorily described. I am left to wonder if it is another selection effect and what I've noted elsewhere, like my review of The Media Lab: we often assume millionaires and billionaires must have deep wisdom ("if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"), when they may actually be deeply irrational, risk-seeking, and little more than lottery winners of timing & chance. (Several competitors to Rockefeller which Chernow mentions could easily have taken his place, and the post hoc explanations of why they were 'visionaries' and 'business geniuses' would also have been as easy to write.) Having somehow seen the future and figured out that the refineries, sitting squarely in the middle between the raw oil of the Pennsylvania derricks and the end product of refined kerosene sitting in cans in customers' homes after being transported on railroad to their city, were the strategic point, he began buying up the Cleveland refineries to play off and balance the railroads (who otherwise would be propelled into ruinous competition) against his own cashflow needs and pipelines and the oil fields' smalltimers. This was a house of cards on par with Elon Musk's empire, as Rockefeller had to keep going deeper and deeper into debt, but somehow, it all held together and paid off enormously in the end. (It all sounds like it would make a great board game in the German vein where players compete to control geographical routes of railroads/pipelines/refineries and cooperate until the exact right moment to stab another player in the back and take them over. I checked, but while there are 2 or 3 existing oil-themed board games, they either are about off-shore drilling or take a much more abstracted macroeconomics point of view.) Rockefeller's second career as a philanthropist is equally interesting and Chernow gives it plenty of space. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Rockefeller was one of the first Effective Altruists, in caring deeply that his money was spent as carefully and sustainably and effectively as possible. Indeed, some of his favored projects like the deworming of the American South have echoes in modern EA projects - deworming being a particular focus of GiveWell! Rockefeller was a complex man trying to be simple: he knew many of the criticisms of him were true but tried to delude himself to the end; he was a devout Baptist, who was intelligent and worldly enough to see the problems there and how the wicked flourished; he loved homeopathy, but his funding of medical research and the Flexner Report would kill the last shreds of legitimacy it had. The philanthropy transitions into an account of Rockefeller Junior, as he is entrusted with it, who emerges as diligent and effective, but not the man his father was. Senior attempted to replicate his own upbringing (without the - well-intentioned, intended to raise them properly without being corrupted by wealth - abusiveness), but as so often in dynasties, the founder's extreme qualities do not fully carry over to his offspring, who regress to the mean. The lesson I take away from Senior's other, even more disappointing offspring (variously mediocre, wastrel, neurotic, or gullible) is that if you want to build a family empire, you must have a lot of offspring so the surviving maximum may be adequate, and also be willing to go outside direct descent or even adopt outsiders (eg the Romans or Japanese); this is the only way to keep a family business going for centuries. We just don't know how to raise kids in a way which prevents them from easily turning out mediocre, dumb, insane, or unmotivated, once all the basics are provided for. Anyone who claims otherwise, like the Polgar sisters, is fooling themselves, and ignoring the vast legions of 'prodigies' whose parents took the credit but who accomplished nothing (eg Norbert Weiner's child prodigy peers at Harvard, since forgotten), because they simply regressed to their adult mean, as expected, since there is no secret sauce. It's mostly genes and randomness. The strategy of the rich, putting all their eggs into 1 or 2 baskets, is hopelessly fragile and a hostage to the slightest bit of bad luck. (Consider the Kennedys!) Why do so few of the rich & powerful not realize this and maximize their family size? I have to wonder. Perhaps it's the selection effect again: if so many people think that Rockefeller would have reliably become rich in many possible worlds due to his own perspicacity & hard work, why should we expect Rockefeller to think any less of himself or believe less that he could mold his children into worthy successors? (Live by the sword, die by the sword.) Or perhaps it's peer effects and nurture illusions: having more kids is what poor people do, a good rich parent has two children and makes sure they both get into Harvard by getting into elite pre-k and summer schools.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    "Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law." - Ron Chernow, Titan One of the great truths about America "Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law." - Ron Chernow, Titan One of the great truths about America is the paradoxes built into it, almost from the beginning. It was the land of the free, but built largely on the backs of slaves. It has all the bunting of freedom, but often can act like an adolescent empire. Those same paradoxes are also found within American Capitalism AND some of America's greatest men. Rockefeller is one of those men, known for both good and evil, where it is very hard to write a biography without carrying into it A LOT of bias. Standard Oil, in some ways, is the perfect example of many of the virtues of capitalism (and the Protestant work ethic). It also contains within it, many of the vices. Chernow is able to explore the life of Rockefeller without turning the book into a hagiography (Rockefeller paid for plenty of those) or Devil's dictionary (there were plenty of those too). He examines Rockefeller as a man, faults and brilliance combined. This isn't a perfect biography, but is definitely top shelf. It isn't even Chernow's best. I'd rank this one under Alexander Hamilton, but over Washington: A Life (Since I haven't read The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Financeor The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family, I'll decide later where it fits among those two). The biggest weakness, in my opinion, of this biography was the end. Chernow wanted a cradle to grave biography and delivered it. I just feel he could have cut about 100 pages from the last 15 years of Rockefeller's life. The biography became a bit less compelling after the chapters on the Rockefeller Foundation. While I think his time in Florida, giving out dimes and nickels, needed a few lines -- it just wandered a bit at the end (thus my four stars, not five). Some of what I loved the most from this book, however, were the bits about minor satellites to Rockefeller. I loved the discussions concerning such fascinating figures as Ida Tarbell (the Jane Mayer of the early 20th Century), Frederick T. Gates (who helped Rockefeller give his money away, and invest it later in his life), JR (a whole book can be written on the relationship between Rockefeller Sr & Rockefeller Jr), the Baptists (another whole book could be written on the relationship between the Rockefellers and religion), etc. These asides alone were worth the entire price of admission. I kept thinking as I read this of Jane Mayer's book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. It was amazing how much power Rockefeller really had. It was also amazing at how bad both the Rockefellers and Standard Oil were at public relations and politics. It seems in some ways the Kochs have learned from the mistakes of previous billionaires, but it also seems like the more things change with oil, money, and politics - the more they stay the same. *** Finally, Chernow writes primarily about banking families and American biographies: Chernow's Banking Dynasties: 1. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. - ★★★★ 2. The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance - ★★★★ 3. The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family - ★★★★ Chernow's American Political Biographies: 1. Alexander Hamilton - ★★★★★ 2. Washington: A Life - ★★★★★ 3. Grant - ★★★★★ Upon reviewing my reviews, I'm convinced Chernow does slightly better at writing histories of individuals rather than families; politics rather than finance. However, I should note, I've enjoyed ALL of his books and he's a master at his craft.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Arminius

    Titan is another Ron Chernow masterpiece. Titan refers to John D. Rockefeller the oil tycoon and philanthropist. He had two qualities that may have been responsible for his great business acumen. The first was that he was a deeply religious Baptist. His belief that God would always take care of him allowed him to make, what some would consider, considerable gambles. The second quality was his reverence for money. He valued money so much that he recorded each expenditure in his personal ledger. H Titan is another Ron Chernow masterpiece. Titan refers to John D. Rockefeller the oil tycoon and philanthropist. He had two qualities that may have been responsible for his great business acumen. The first was that he was a deeply religious Baptist. His belief that God would always take care of him allowed him to make, what some would consider, considerable gambles. The second quality was his reverence for money. He valued money so much that he recorded each expenditure in his personal ledger. He always looked at saving. He felt that money should not sit still so he always made sure his money was being paid interest. He obtained his religious convictions from his devout mother and his love of money from his often absent flim-flam father who earned money as a traveling medicine man. When oil was discovered in western Pennsylvania Rockefeller quickly realized its value. He however lived in Cleveland where there was no oil. He would not move to the oil fields around Titusville, PA because the rowdy drillers appalled his religious convictions. So he borrowed money with another bright man named Henry Flagler and they started Standard Oil. Standard imported oil to refine and resold it as mainly as kerosene for lighting lamp posts from their offices in Cleveland. Some of Rockefeller’s brilliance shows how he manipulated railroads by buying up rivals and threatening not to use a particular railroad without receiving a discount. He also guaranteed to the railroads that he would fill every car. This act ensured the railroad would receive a profit because most refiners at the time could not fill all the cars leaving empty space on the train. He also built pipelines that encouraged greater rebates from railroads. Oil at the time was only used for kerosene to light lamps and as lubricating oil. By the 1890’s Thomas Edison was promoting his electric light which threatened and eventually would take over kerosene’s need as an illuminant. But God would save oil because at the same time various automobile makers were cranking out cars which needed oil to run. This would perpetuate John D and some of his clan from the super rich to the ultra-super rich. As the world got wind of his riches John D. was swamped with donation requests. He gave plenty away because he was not only frugal but generous as well. But as he gave away money there was still venom thrown at him for his unfair business practices and his extraordinary wealth. And with this came investigations. When he was called to congress he gave calm non-information to the committee members so well that his lawyer said that he was the best client he could ever hope for. As he began to age he started to work less and retreat to his New York house as well as vacation in Florida. At the same time his business partner Henry Flagler became less interested in Standard Oil and was instead envisioning the potential in developing swamp ridden Florida. His son John D. Jr. was entering college. They decided on Brown University because it was a long standing Baptist College. Jr. did well and met and married Abbey Aldrich the daughter of a powerful Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich. Jr. was a bit reclusive and had been taught by his devout mother that dancing was immoral. Abby, on the other hand, was outgoing and had been taught the art of dancing. Jr. worked at Standard Oil but Standard Oil executive John Archibald w ran it when John D. retired. Although John D. retired he still owned controlling stock and was still seen as the owner by outsiders. However, after John D’s retirement he received tons of lawsuits. Also a bright reporter named Ida Tarbell, while harboring a grudge against him, began a series of negative stories about John D in a (just starting out) magazine called McClure’s. She exposed some true and some false stories but whatever she wrote sold magazines. One topic that she uncovered was that John D’s father, the flim-flam man, was still alive but no one knew where he was living. This set off a massive man-hunt by eager reporters looking for “sure to sell” stories about the finding of the “Titan’s” elusive father. However, the flim-flam man died before he was caught. As the Titan received barbarous insults thrown at him he just ignored them. And at the same time he engaged in philanthropic activities of such proportion that it boggles the mind. He developed and funded medical research schools based on the newly used scientific method while he himself believed in and practiced the homeopathic medical method. On the business side, Standard Oil was brought before the Ohio Supreme Court in 1911. It ruled that Standard was a trust and needed to be broken up. So as his great company broke into many independent pieces, God must have kept smiling on his devoted child. The reason is because as he no longer owned the companies he still held large sums of stock in each. And as each stock price rose he became richer and richer. The author goes into the interesting story of the “Titan’s” youngest daughter, Edith. She married another wealthy man named Harold McCormick son of the inventor of the farming reaper. However, Edith slid into deep depression and agoraphobia. So the couple ventured to Europe as a recuperative vacation. They wind up meeting Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, who agreed to treat Edith. Her father believed Jung was a quack but Edith became enthralled with him. She used her money to fund Jung’s practice while he drug her treatments on for eight years. Her husband became involved with Jung as well. Finally she ended her affiliation with Jung and her marriage as well. She moved back to the U.S. and lived as a wealthy eccentric. John D. decided to spend most of the rest of his life in his Florida retreat in Ormand,. He oddly reverted in many ways to a childhood that he missed by being so serious as a youngster. He played golf constantly and had a chauffeur drive him around town where he picked up strangers just for conversation. He came to like picking up women supposedly where he would cover their laps with a blanket and let his hands roam. I do not believe this entirely because he never did this sort of thing in the past. I neglected to mention that his wife Cettie had died long before John D.’s Florida escapades. She was not a large part of the story because she feared crowds, suffered from agoraphobia (like her daughter) and was bedridden and sickly a lot of her life. She was, however, a devout Christian and very nice woman. John D’s goal was to reach 100 years of age. As he made it into his 90’s he began to weaken and he gave up his passion - golf. But he still rode a stationary exercise bike to gain needed strength. He died at the age 97 just six weeks short of his ninety-eighth birthday. There has been no greater contributor to society than John D. Rockefeller. He started colleges and medical universities, funded research to stop malaria and hook worm and gave millions to needy people. His son Jr. paid for and developed Colonial Williamsburg and the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    He played golf assiduously, always alone, matching his record on one day against his record on another; just what the saints do when they daily examine their conscience... Such was probably also the interest dominating Rockefeller's chase after millions. He was beyond comparing himself with his competitors; he compared himself with himself. —George Santayana As a child of Sleepy Hollow, I have almost literally grown up in Rockefeller’s shadow. The best walking paths in the area are in the Rockefeller S He played golf assiduously, always alone, matching his record on one day against his record on another; just what the saints do when they daily examine their conscience... Such was probably also the interest dominating Rockefeller's chase after millions. He was beyond comparing himself with his competitors; he compared himself with himself. —George Santayana As a child of Sleepy Hollow, I have almost literally grown up in Rockefeller’s shadow. The best walking paths in the area are in the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, an expansive and beautiful slice of forest made from a part of Rockefeller’s former estate. I can also walk to Rockwood, a park with a gorgeous view of the Hudson River, where John’s brother William had his mansion (since demolished). John D. Rockefeller’s own mansion, Kykuit, sits atop the nearby Pocantico Hills, and is a popular tourist destination. And yet, aside from his reputation as an ultra-rich monopolist, I knew almost nothing about the man. Thus I turned to Ron Chernow, and I am glad I did. For Rockefeller presents a challenging subject for would-be biographers. A private, reserved, and even a secretive man, John D. Rockefeller was a beguiling mixture of avarice and piety; and throughout his life he has provoked both passionate praise and vicious criticism. Since Rockefeller himself was so guarded during his lifetime, never spontaneous or candid, while achieving such historical importance, it is hard to resist the urge to simplify his character—merely to fill up the lacunae he left. Luckily, Chernow’s patience and sensitivity allow him to paint a convincing and unforgettable portrait of this evasive figure. As Chernow himself says, Rockefeller was the walking embodiment of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. He was actuated by a faith which told him that it was his holy duty to work zealously, and which taught him to see his own success as divine favor and his rivals’ failure as divine retribution. This faith in his mission and his rectitude gave him a purpose and a justification, pushing him to work more devotedly than his colleagues, and to feel no pangs of remorse for those he bruised along the way. His outstanding strengths were his iron will and his extreme deliberation. He kept to a rigid schedule, never acted impulsively, tabulated all of his personal expenses in a little booklet, and even showed up to work on his wedding day. This was a man who made money with the morbid devotion of a saint. During the sections charting Rockefeller’s rise to success, I was filled with a horrified disgust with the man. Such a joyless, self-righteous hypocrite—filling his pockets with gold and wagging his fingers at the poor. I did not see anything to praise in his religion of money. Simple greed is noxious enough, but sanctimonious greed is revolting. Yet by the end of the book I found that I both liked and admired the man, or at least the man he later became. For Rockefeller, while full of his own vices, was free of many of the vices we associate with the rich. He was neither ostentatious nor profligate; and if his puritan strictness seems joyless—his hatred of drink, cards, smoking, or anything remotely racy—it at least saved him from hedonistic debauchery. And as he grew older, he became more playful, giving away dimes to strangers, riding around in sporty automobiles, and obsessively playing golf. I was surprised to learn that Rockefeller retired early from his post at the helm of Standard Oil, ceasing all regular duties in his fifties, only retaining a symbolic title. Clearly, he saw more to life than work and money. But Rockefeller’s greatest virtue was his charity. He gave profusely and generously throughout his life, even more than Andrew Carnegie. Much of this was new to me (for example, I had no idea he founded the University of Chicago); and this is no accident, since Rockefeller did not like putting his name on things. (His name was so vilified anyway it would likely have hampered his charities.) And contrary to what you might expect, Rockefeller’s philanthropic impulse was deep and genuine, something he had from the beginning of his life. According to Chernow, Rockefeller’s contributions to medical research revolutionized the field. So on a purely utilitarian tabulation of pain and pleasure inflicted, Rockefeller probably comes out positive in the end. (Rockefeller himself, of course, thought that his life had been virtuous from beginning to end, and never conceived charity as recompense.) As I hope I have made clear, Rockefeller was a complex man—or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that he continually resists attempts to stereotype him, which is always uncomfortable. And it is a testament to Chernow’s ability that he captures Rockefeller in all these aspects. Now, this was my first Chernow biography and, I admit, I was somewhat disappointed at first. Naturally, I measured this book against Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and found Chernow’s book very thin on historical background by comparison. But Chernow partially compensates for this with his fine psychological sensitivity, as sharp as a first-rate novelist. The result is a thoroughly engrossing biography, so good that I am left wishing Chernow had made it longer—specifically during Rockefeller’s early years. And you know a book is good when 700 pages does not satisfy. _____________________ (As an afterthought, I would like to note how gratifying it is when different books serendipitously overlap. I knew of Charles Strong as one of George Santayana's best friends, familiar to me from Santayana's autobiography and his letters. But I did not remember that Strong married Bessie Rockefeller, John's eldest child, who went insane and died at the age of forty. Santayana helped to look after Bessie's daughter, Margaret, and even handed her off during her wedding.)

  6. 5 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    Truly magisterial. I came away from Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America with a thirst for more on early US industrial magnates and their corrupt shenanigans, operating in an age free of regulation, tax or indeed any interference by government, really. Is it surprising to find that under such circumstances the market does not necessarily regulate itself, and what insinuates itself into every nook and cranny is a massive all-embracing monopoly, that kills competition through Truly magisterial. I came away from Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America with a thirst for more on early US industrial magnates and their corrupt shenanigans, operating in an age free of regulation, tax or indeed any interference by government, really. Is it surprising to find that under such circumstances the market does not necessarily regulate itself, and what insinuates itself into every nook and cranny is a massive all-embracing monopoly, that kills competition through takeovers and destructive pricing? Perhaps not, but what is amazing is how Chernow manages to persuade us that John D. Rockefeller's main motivation was not sheer brazen acquisitiveness, but an obsessive need for order and the utter conviction that he was the best person to run the whole of the oil industry, including its transport, pipelines, refineries and financial services. Chernow portrays Rockefeller senior as a mass of contradictions, and yet manages to pull them all together into a coherent whole human being, who survived long enough to be remembered for his benign philanthropy rather than for the distant dubious business practices of his youth. I know it's impossible to judge at such distance and on such flimsy evidence, but I'm going to do it anyway (didn't you just know I would): I do get the distinct impression that women who existed within the rarefied atmosphere of fabulous wealth, alongside obsessive patriarchs who came out of a puritan Baptist tradition that saw enjoyment as sinful, tended to have nothing left to do in life except cultivate refined and ladylike diseases. Maybe they were genuinely ill, but it felt distinctly psychosomatic. Not just the women either, Junior and at least one of the grandsons too. Abby did better: in defiance of her husband (Junior) who couldn't see the point of modern art, and her f-i-l who probably thought Cézanne was the right hand of the devil, she threw herself into helping to create MoMa. There's my Calvinistic upbringing popping up to the surface, you see. I obviously have great faith in the health-giving power of hard work. Or maybe it's more to do with finding something that gives sense and value to your life. Doesn't always have to be work. (Although it does in my mother's case. And yes, I am my mother's daughter. Ah shoot).

  7. 4 out of 5

    11811 (Eleven)

    It's only March but I suspect this will end up being my favorite book of the year. I listened to the audio - 35 hours in less than a week. That's unheard of for me, unless I'm on an obscenely long road trip but this book was exceptional. I'm not sure if I kept listening because I couldn't sleep or if I couldn't sleep because I kept listening. Rockefeller has always been an inspiration to me in both business and personal life although we have little in common, like the fact that he was It's only March but I suspect this will end up being my favorite book of the year. I listened to the audio - 35 hours in less than a week. That's unheard of for me, unless I'm on an obscenely long road trip but this book was exceptional. I'm not sure if I kept listening because I couldn't sleep or if I couldn't sleep because I kept listening. Rockefeller has always been an inspiration to me in both business and personal life although we have little in common, like the fact that he was richer than God. Speaking of God, he was also a fervent Baptist and his religion seems to have guided nearly every decision he made. He wasn't in the business of saving souls though; he was in the business of doing what he was good at - accumulating wealth - and then giving away shitloads of that wealth to people who needed it for practical reasons regardless of the recipient's belief system. I'm not a religious dude but I respect that. A lot. I first read about Rockefeller in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power which ended up being my favorite history book. Standard Oil obviously played a huge role in that account. This could very well be my favorite biography, every bit as good or better than the author's more recent book on Alexander Hamilton. This paints a mostly positive impression of Rockefeller in contrast to his initial biographer, Ida Tarbell, who comes across as a bit of a bitch but I walked away with that impression after reading The Prize too. Opinions will differ on that depending on the reader's views of capitalism in general. Some people equate wealthy with evil and I don't expect to change anyone's mind. It was interesting that Rockefeller was a vocal opponent of the income tax when it was introduced with the top rate being 6%. He'd probably drop dead of shock to see how that tax has evolved today. Opinions will differ on that as well depending on whether it's the government's role to confiscate personal earnings. For the past century or so that seems to be the case. I don't want to start a tax debate. I'm just a fan of watching history unfold. I highly recommend this one for both its entertainment and informative value. Very few biographies qualify as "page turners" but this is one of them.

  8. 5 out of 5

    aPriL does feral sometimes

    Ron Chernow, a National Book award-winning author, has written a well-researched biography of the richest man in history America ever had - John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) - ‘Titan’. In today’s (2016) dollars, he was worth $21 billion (in 1913 money, $900,000,000). In other words, he was worth 2% of the United States' national economy of the time by himself. Was he a good person? Depends on how one defines good. Rockefeller was extremely religious for most of his life. He was a fundam Ron Chernow, a National Book award-winning author, has written a well-researched biography of the richest man in history America ever had - John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) - ‘Titan’. In today’s (2016) dollars, he was worth $21 billion (in 1913 money, $900,000,000). In other words, he was worth 2% of the United States' national economy of the time by himself. Was he a good person? Depends on how one defines good. Rockefeller was extremely religious for most of his life. He was a fundamentalist Baptist until maybe his 70’s (he died at age 98). He seemed to relax his literal belief in the Bible in his old age after the death of his wife, Laura Celestia "Cettie" Spelman Rockefeller (1839–1915). He did not drink alcohol or smoke, never gambled on cards or wasted anything, and I mean anything, whether it was oil byproducts or a penny. But he generously tithed to his local church wherever he traveled, always attending Baptist services regularly every Sunday all of his life. In his fifties, he became a renowned philanthropist. Because of his basic genius business acumen and personal faith-based generosity, he helped establish the University of Chicago, a small Baptist college, which became a world-class institution by 1900. He also gave a grant in 1905 to help establish Central Philippine University, the first Baptist and second American university in Asia, in the Catholic Philippines. In 1884, Rockefeller provided the funds for the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in Atlanta for African-American women (Spelman College). Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Cettie Spelman Rockefeller, was dedicated to civil rights and equality for women. Rockefeller established the General Education Board in 1903. The GEB promoted education everywhere in the country. It supported many black schools in the South. Rockefeller also provided financial support to Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley and Vassar. Rockefeller became a supporter of medical science. In 1901, he started the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, which became Rockefeller University in 1965. He started the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission in 1909. This organization helped to begin the eradication of hookworm disease, which was considered accomplished by the 1920’s in rural areas of the American South. Rockefeller created the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 with $250 million to continue the work of the Sanitary Commission, which became defunct in 1915. The Rockefeller Foundation focused on public health, medical training, and the arts. The Foundation started the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, the first of its kind. The Foundation built the Peking Union Medical College in China. The Foundation helped in World War I relief charities. The John D. Rockefellers had four daughters and one son. Rockefeller loved his kids, coming home from work to eat dinner with them, enjoying their company, playing games with them. The Rockefellers never were ostentatious in private or public, practicing moderation in all things.They encouraged their kids to thrift and modesty in money, dress, behavior. The children earned pennies with daily work assigned them, along with a very small allowance. The kids growing up probably did not know how wealthy the family was. Both parents being hardcore Baptists, especially Cettie, the kids were constantly directed towards hardcore Baptist values - singing hymns, praying, to work hard in all they did, to avoid alcohol and cigarettes, never swear, to be self-sacrificing and self-reliant. Junior, for example, wore his sister's dresses as a baby and toddler, the family prudently saving the cost of new clothes for their only son. On the other hand, John D. Rockefeller was a rapacious bastard in business, especially in establishing the Standard Oil Company in 1870. Competitors and business partners were bribed, bought out, or put down and buried in Rockefeller's drive to own everything - oil companies and railroads and pipelines that transported oil. It is estimated by the end of the 1870s, Standard was refining over 90% of the oil in the U.S. By the way, the end product of the refined oil was kerosene. Kerosene was the valuable product. Gasoline was an annoying byproduct. And then it wasn't. There is no doubt John D. Rockefeller was a business genius. He seems to have possessed enormous self-control, never showing much emotion or giving anything away by loose talk or behavior. He was reputedly very much a cool customer at all times. He was a stickler for paperwork and numbers, closely scrutinizing and supervising every expenditure and activity, even to his homelife and in teaching his children to keep journals of every penny they spent of their allowance and earnings. Later, he showed a genius in hiring talent and in partnerships to do the close scrutinizing while he concentrated on policy and Wall Street stock investments. He did his homework on personalities, properties, and finance. He knew how to bide his time, wait for the right moment. And obviously, he had very few compunctions in creating a monopoly, believing it best for the country to tame the crazy boom and bust of the oil business as well as to meet his lifelong goal to be rich. He believed in social Darwinism. But he also believed in helping people help themselves. He thought socialism destroyed moral fiber. Capitalism was the cure for everything. Government was best if it stayed out of business, so he bought off officials everywhere he needed to. Why was he like this? Maybe because Rockefeller's childhood was amazing? - his dad, William Avery 'Bill' Rockefeller, was a scam artist and a bigamist, who allowed his legal wife, Eliza Davison, and his five kids (John being the second oldest) to frequently starve or wonder if they would be starving, while he roamed far all over the country, selling snake oil cures while claiming to be a doctor. Bill would return and pay off the family's debts, then go off again, never telling the family where he was or what he was doing. In contrast, Eliza, John D. Senior’s mother, was very very religious and industrious and self-sufficient, a poor fundamentalist Baptist. There was no frivolity allowed in the home except the singing of hymns. Everything was a sin, basically, especially the having of fun or enjoying oneself in doing anything. Duty, hard work, and moderation in all fleshly needs, including food and rest, was required only of good people to live correctly in the eyes of God. Apparently John completely bought into his mother's beliefs and John never doubted her Baptist theology all his life. John never lived his life without a personal rigidity, moral rules and a scheduled daily routine which rarely varied for decades. He was cold at business, warm with family, if not garrolous ever. Clearly his personality was extraordinary. I don't think his upbringing, or his shame about his father, were the only elements involved in the making of John D. Rockefeller, the richest man America ever had. Ron Chernow apparently found an enormous trove of available information about the history of Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. He uses biographies and business/political histories written by other authors about many of the other Rockefeller children as well as John D. Sr. Newspaper and magazine articles and personal letters and journals are readily found and available in libraries and private collections for credentialed academic researchers, I think. Chernow pulls it all together in a cogent story full of interesting personalities and business/family history. Many people are examined who were important in each generation of Rockefellers, beginning from the nefarious scammer Rockefeller pere down to his great grandson Nelson Rockefeller's generation, the future 41st Vice-President of the United States in President Gerald Ford's administration. The focal point, is, of course, the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Most of the early life and career of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a more timid child and insecure and less gifted than his father, more ordinary, if extraordinarily wealthy, is also included. However, Junior becomes remarkably more confident, liberal and philanthropic as a middle-aged adult, not only maintaining his father's late-in-life philanthropic legacy, but expanding it. He did not know about Senior's early decades as a heartless pirate of business for quite awhile, either, and he doesn't quite believe it when he does. The lives of the sisters and brothers of Senior and Junior are also examined. There are hypochondriacs, mental illnesses and breakdowns, and crackpots included among the Rockefeller bankers-and-politician children. Each generation is better educated and more traveled, but not necessarily smart or savvy about business. I got the feeling it is only the fact that Senior's billions have become such an enormous amount in many inherited investment portfolios of each family member no amount of screwing up or madness can diminish the inherited Rockefeller wealth. ‘Titan' is absolutely fascinating. The book is not simply a dry encyclopedia of facts, but it is instead an amazingly vivid history of business people, a family, and a big business. John D. Rockefeller Sr. and the Standard Oil Company changed the economic pace and science progress of America, the government and the rules of business with much the same impact locally as Einstein having changed the world with his theory of relativity. In the back of the book are Acknowledgments, Notes, a Bibliography and an Index - all of which are extensive, like, a hundred pages worth. Information can be rich, too...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mahlon

    One of the great American Biographies. Chernow always delivers. The Narrator Grover Gardner, has a monotone type of voice that reminds one of Jack Webb, and yet it seems like exactly the type of voice the listener needs to help them slice through these large historical tomes.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Amazing biography/history lesson. This man was born to make money, obviously was good at it, but married a discrete religious woman and raised his children to be humble. 'I am so happy little John has told me what he wants for Christmas, so that I may deny him it.' Sounds harsh in our over-indulgent days, but when you see they likes of Paris Hilton and other horrifying progeny of the wealthy in the 'news', it makes you long for the days of hard work, discretion, and modesty.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kelley

    This book was interesting initially, but became more of an effort the further into it I got. Rockefeller was certainly an interesting man and his contributions to American business were highly significant. However, once the author established the type of man he was, what his contributions were, and the impact he had on society, the book became an exercise in perseverance for me. Serious students of the late industrial revolution and the rise of American and international business, may find it mo This book was interesting initially, but became more of an effort the further into it I got. Rockefeller was certainly an interesting man and his contributions to American business were highly significant. However, once the author established the type of man he was, what his contributions were, and the impact he had on society, the book became an exercise in perseverance for me. Serious students of the late industrial revolution and the rise of American and international business, may find it more engaging to the end. SPOILER ALERT... he dies in the end.

  12. 4 out of 5

    John Elliott

    The story of John D. Rockefeller raises some important questions about economic policy, financial stewardship, and business leadership. He took a lot of public heat for the way he built Standard Oil, some of which was warranted. But in my opinion, much of it was not. He paid his employees fairly, gave away nearly all of his fortune to worthwhile causes, and stayed true to his principles until the day he died, just days shy of his 98th birthday. What I expected to be a cautionary tale ended up (m The story of John D. Rockefeller raises some important questions about economic policy, financial stewardship, and business leadership. He took a lot of public heat for the way he built Standard Oil, some of which was warranted. But in my opinion, much of it was not. He paid his employees fairly, gave away nearly all of his fortune to worthwhile causes, and stayed true to his principles until the day he died, just days shy of his 98th birthday. What I expected to be a cautionary tale ended up (mostly) serving as an encouragement to work hard, stay disciplined, and steward wisely.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Chernow starts with a bang. Rockefeller's childhood was quite unusual and I found myself reading his story with a mix of intrigue and heartbreak. The crucible would forge the man, and a titan he became indeed. His business tactics elicit either ire or awe, but observed neutrally, the rise of his empire is a brilliant case study in strategy. Rockefeller retired at a relatively young age and became a reclusive philanthropist. He was frankly a bit uninteresting in his later years. For that, the boo Chernow starts with a bang. Rockefeller's childhood was quite unusual and I found myself reading his story with a mix of intrigue and heartbreak. The crucible would forge the man, and a titan he became indeed. His business tactics elicit either ire or awe, but observed neutrally, the rise of his empire is a brilliant case study in strategy. Rockefeller retired at a relatively young age and became a reclusive philanthropist. He was frankly a bit uninteresting in his later years. For that, the book became a bit of a slog. But overall it's a well-done portrait of a man comprised of seemingly irreconcilable complexities. To cite Chernow, "[Rockefeller was] an amalgam of godliness and greed, compassion and fiendish cunning."

  14. 4 out of 5

    Clif

    Titan is a titanic book about a man perfectly suited for the time at which he came to young adulthood. The discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania would have led to riches if John D. Rockefeller had not been born, but his combination of personal frugality, keen competitiveness, self-control and business acumen created a monopoly and personal wealth not matched until Bill Gates used some of the same techniques with the advent of personal computers. Rockefeller is an interesting charac Titan is a titanic book about a man perfectly suited for the time at which he came to young adulthood. The discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania would have led to riches if John D. Rockefeller had not been born, but his combination of personal frugality, keen competitiveness, self-control and business acumen created a monopoly and personal wealth not matched until Bill Gates used some of the same techniques with the advent of personal computers. Rockefeller is an interesting character and his personal development over almost a century is enough to keep the pages turning, but there is a host of relatives and associates that make Chernow's account even more delightful. Rockefeller Jr. takes up a good part of the book and rightfully so. Starting out as a diffident boy deep in his father's shadow, he takes the stern upbringing he received to a greater extreme than dad, yet finally comes into his own with the development of Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller's father, "Bill" is the antitheses of John D. leading a wandering life as a patent medicine salesman. Never around for long, he pops in and out of John D.'s life unexpectedly and marries a second wife without her suspecting he is already married. I can't forget John D.'s daughter Edith who has a fabulous mansion, Villa Turicum, built on Lake Michigan on 300 acres in 1912, furnished but left vacant. Ultimately all the lavish furnishings are auctioned off and the house itself decays into a ruin. Meanwhile, Edith is an analysand for Carl Jung in Europe and then becomes an analyst herself, but never gets over her phobia of train travel. Chernow's intriguing description of Jung made me search out a biography of him. John D. spends half his life building his fortune then the second half distributing it to worthy causes. I marveled at the many projects Roosevelt supported from Spelman College and the University of Chicago, to medical research at Johns Hopkins, and the preservation of the Grand Teton area. I wonder - is it a better use of money to have it concentrated by one person who decides how to spend it for projects that the public might never support, or is it better to more fairly distribute it for a very large number of people to use as they see fit? The combination of human foibles with great wealth is what makes the rich so fascinating to us. What does a person do when cost is no object and everything desired can be indulged? Does the wealthy person leave a trail of broken lives or inspired admirers? Whether a person thrives or is destroyed by money, controlling it or being controlled by it lifts personal life to an epic level. John D. is a paradox. Though he is driven by the desire to amass wealth, he shuns ostentation, eats and dresses modestly and never allows his young children to have expensive things. He keeps detailed account of every penny spent, but in later life he pays to have a small village of houses moved, then a railroad rerouted to keep coal ash from falling on his personal golf course. Behind the personal stories Chernow also gives us just the right amount of information on oil extraction and transport, business deals and the anti-competitive practices that made John D. loathed by any who tried to operate a company not owned or controlled by Standard Oil. There is a full account of Ida Tarbell's journalistic attack on John D. and of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado. From the years of no regulation and no taxes through the muckraking/progressive/trust busting times right on into the Great Depression, providing a look at the development of modern America.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    I know Chernow has such a great reputation as a biographer, so I don't want to be too critical. I'm also biased because I just read The Power Broker, which has to be the absolute best biography in the world and the most well-written non-fiction I've ever read. However, I was not too impressed with Chernow's writing style. He added details that were unnecessary. The Power Broker is over 1,000 pages long, but I really believe that every word served a purpose. Titan, on the other hand, seemed infla I know Chernow has such a great reputation as a biographer, so I don't want to be too critical. I'm also biased because I just read The Power Broker, which has to be the absolute best biography in the world and the most well-written non-fiction I've ever read. However, I was not too impressed with Chernow's writing style. He added details that were unnecessary. The Power Broker is over 1,000 pages long, but I really believe that every word served a purpose. Titan, on the other hand, seemed inflated with boring facts that had nothing to do with Chernow's point, which wasn't that good a point in the first place. Good editing would have helped a lot. I felt that Chernow's word choice was often inarticulate, as if he was using a thesaurus and not coming up with the word to really describe what he meant. My last criticism is that Chernow's thesis for the whole book seems to be that John D. Rockefeller isn't as bad as Ida Tarbell made everyone believe. The problem with this argument is that the author is assuming that everyone knows who Ida Tarbell is and that everyone has a negative opinion of John D. Rockefeller as a money grubbing anti-unionist. I consider myself much more informed about American history than the average person and I didn't know what he was talking about. If his whole point is to prove Tarbell wrong, he should have addressed her accusations at the beginning. Five hundred pages in, when Chernow finally tells you what Tarbel said, you've already been hearing about her in brief asides that imply anyone half educated should know who that is many, many times.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lucky

    I really enjoyed this book. Such a fascinating person. John D. was the richest man in the world of his time and the world's first billionaire. And one only reaches such heights through dubious means; including extortion, bribes, back door deals, payroll politicians, and general cruelty to all the little fish below. There are many reasons to demonize someone such as him, but what surprised me, was how I often found myself liking him. He was excessively frugal, never ostentatious, and extremely I really enjoyed this book. Such a fascinating person. John D. was the richest man in the world of his time and the world's first billionaire. And one only reaches such heights through dubious means; including extortion, bribes, back door deals, payroll politicians, and general cruelty to all the little fish below. There are many reasons to demonize someone such as him, but what surprised me, was how I often found myself liking him. He was excessively frugal, never ostentatious, and extremely charitable. He had a nice Baptist simplicity, and a pleasant air. His philanthropy revolutionized medical science and education. He also contributed to African American causes, feminist causes, and even Helen Keller, who was an outspoken socialist. I also enjoyed reading about his family; his scallywag of a father, who was a bigamist and a conman; his envious brothers, and his children, grandchildren, and in laws. Proof that inherited money can't buy happiness. I don't mean to say his good justified his bad, but it's very important to recognize the complexity and dichotomy of such powerful figures, and to take from it what you can.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Max Nova

    “Titan” by Chernow is one of the most surprising books I’ve read in a long time. From Rockefeller’s personal life (he was super religious and his dad was a bigamist?!) to Standard Oil business practices (the board made decisions only by consensus?!) and Rockefeller’s far-reaching impact on philanthropy (he pioneered rigorous philanthropy and created UChicago, Rockefeller University, Spelman, AND ELIMINATED HOOKWORM IN THE US SOUTH?!), Titan was a revelation. Chernow does a fantastic j “Titan” by Chernow is one of the most surprising books I’ve read in a long time. From Rockefeller’s personal life (he was super religious and his dad was a bigamist?!) to Standard Oil business practices (the board made decisions only by consensus?!) and Rockefeller’s far-reaching impact on philanthropy (he pioneered rigorous philanthropy and created UChicago, Rockefeller University, Spelman, AND ELIMINATED HOOKWORM IN THE US SOUTH?!), Titan was a revelation. Chernow does a fantastic job of tracing Rockefeller’s rise, the controversies and successes of Standard Oil, his family life and philanthropy, and the breakup of Standard Oil and the ruin of many of his heirs. The pacing of the story is excellent. Though long, it’s a riveting read. Chernow does come across as a bit of a Rockefeller apologist. A big theme in the book is that unfettered competition would have destroyed the refining industry because of various competitive dynamics (for example, it was often economically rational to run a refinery at a loss for a while). So Chernow claims Rockefeller saved the industry by consolidating it and rationalizing production. Rockefeller’s biography is particularly relevant in our current day. The railroad rebate scandal seems oddly reminiscent of the current net-neutrality debate. The Gilded Age of Rockefeller and the dominance of mega-corporations seems strangely familiar in our era of Walmart, P&G, and Exxon (a Standard Oil descendant). At the same time - Rockefeller blazed the philanthropic path that the great philanthropists of our age (Gates, Buffet, etc) seem to be following. Is it fair to compare Gates to Rockefeller? One of the key questions that Chernow sets up is whether Rockefeller ended up in Heaven or Hell. It’s a fascination question and provided lots of good discussion from our book club. Rockefeller straight up perjured himself by lying under oath and certainly presided over many ruthless business deals (while maintaining plausible deniability, of course). At the same time, he had an enormous positive impact through his philanthropy and his work certainly helped speed industrialization and catapult the US to great power status. And I certainly couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Rockefeller in the section on his children… despite his best efforts, hardly any of them had happy lives. Favorite quotes below ###################### Despite his slow, ponderous style, once he had thoroughly mulled over his plan of action, he had the power of quick decision. Rockefeller was fantastically charitable from boyhood. During his first year on the job, the young clerk donated about 6 percent of his wages to charity, some weeks much more. Henry Ward Beecher, calling poverty the fault of the poor, proclaimed in a sermon that “generally the proposition is true, that where you find the most religion you find the most worldly prosperity.” John D. Rockefeller was the Protestant work ethic in its purest form, leading a life so consistent with Weber’s classic essay that it reads like his spiritual biography. While he was still in his twenties, the Civil War had converted Rockefeller into a wealthy man, giving him the funds to capitalize on a new industry then flowering in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania The petroleum industry was hatched in a very modern symbiosis of business acumen and scientific ingenuity... In his landmark 1855 report, Silliman vindicated Bissell’s hunch that this oil could be distilled to produce a fine illuminant, plus a host of other useful products. It took nearly three years for Bissell’s company (which soon evolved into the Seneca Oil Company) to dispatch someone to Pennsylvania to hunt for large, marketable pools of oil. To this end, an investor in the project, a New Haven banker named Townsend, enlisted a boarder in his rooming house, Edwin Drake, to travel to Titusville in December 1857 Able to ship by water or over land, Rockefeller gained the critical leverage he needed to secure preferential rates on transportation—which was why he agonized over plant locations throughout his career. Despite the unceasing vicissitudes of the oil industry, prone to cataclysmic booms and busts, he would never experience a single year of loss. Rockefeller’s overwhelming influence on the oil industry stemmed from the conflict between his overmastering need for order and the turbulent, unruly nature of the infant industry. Searching for oil was wildly unpredictable, whereas refining seemed safe and methodical by comparison. Before too long, he realized that refining was the critical point where he could exert maximum leverage over the industry. Daring in design, cautious in execution—it was a formula he made his own throughout his career. Having discarded several older partners, the young man had no real business mentors, heroes, or role models and was beholden to no one. John D. Rockefeller was not only self-made but self-invented and already had unyielding faith in his own judgment. It is impossible to comprehend Rockefeller’s breathtaking ascent without realizing that he always moved into battle backed by abundant cash. Whether riding out downturns or coasting on booms, he kept plentiful reserves and won many bidding contests simply because his war chest was deeper. The most compelling argument against rebates was that railroads received state charters and therefore had the right of eminent domain—that is, the right to claim private property in order to lay down tracks—investing their activities with a public character. Unlike his philandering father, John D. Rockefeller remained firmly, almost prudishly, anchored in domestic life. Much like Jay Gould—who didn’t drink, smoke, or gallivant with women—Rockefeller’s harsh business tactics were counterbalanced by exemplary behavior at home where he was a sweet, respectful Victorian husband. To borrow a line from Flaubert, to be fiercely revolutionary in business, he needed to be utterly conventional at home. A surprisingly flexible, egalitarian father, Rockefeller never shrank from child care. Thus, in 1869, one year after his stellar railroad coup, Rockefeller feared that his wealth might be snatched away from him. As someone who tended toward optimism, “seeing opportunity in every disaster,” he studied the situation exhaustively instead of bemoaning his bad luck. He saw that his individual success as a refiner was now menaced by industrywide failure and that it therefore demanded a systemic solution. This was a momentous insight, pregnant with consequences. Instead of just tending to his own business, he began to conceive of the industry as a gigantic, interrelated mechanism and thought in terms of strategic alliances and long-term planning. Rockefeller cited the years 1869 and 1870 as the start of his campaign to replace competition with cooperation in the industry. Rockefeller’s supreme insight was that he could solve the oil industry’s problems by solving the railroads’ problems at the same time, creating a double cartel in oil and rails. One of Rockefeller’s strengths in bargaining situations was that he figured out what he wanted and what the other party wanted and then crafted mutually advantageous terms. It is interesting to note that Rockefeller perjured himself in an affidavit he submitted for the lawsuit brought jointly by William S. Scofield and Hanna, Baslington. Not only did he state that “but few persons who were stockholders in the Standard Oil Co. of Cleveland, Ohio were subscribers to stock in the South Improvement Company,” but he added that “P. H. Watson, Pres. of the South Improvement Co.… was not a stockholder in nor was he in any way connected with the Standard Oil Company.”80 As mentioned, Standard Oil executives controlled almost 50 percent of the SIC shares and issued five hundred shares of Standard to Watson sub rosa in the January 1872 recapitalization. Although Rockefeller professed that he never lied under oath, the claim doesn’t bear up under close examination. During his career, Rockefeller cut the unit costs of refined oil almost in half, and he never deviated from this gospel of industrial efficiency. Where Rockefeller differed most from his fellow moguls was that he wanted to be both rich and virtuous and claim divine sanction for his actions. Perhaps no other businessman in American history has felt so firmly on the side of the angels. From the outset, Standard Oil was permeated by an us-versus-them attitude that emanated from the top. At moments, Rockefeller made it sound as if he and his colleagues were a band of early Christians, misunderstood by the pagans. The creation of Standard Oil was often less a matter of stamping out competitors than of seducing them into cooperation. Had oil been found in scattered places after the Civil War, it’s unlikely that even Standard Oil could have mustered the resources to control it so thoroughly. It was the confinement of oil to a desolate corner of northwest Pennsylvania that made it susceptible to monopoly control, especially with the emergence of pipelines. Extremely punctual for all appointments, he said, “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.” Rockefeller equated silence with strength: Weak men had loose tongues and blabbed to reporters, while prudent businessmen kept their own counsel. Two of his most cherished maxims were “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.” Frequently, he stared out the window, motionless as an idol, gazing at the sky for fifteen minutes at a stretch. He once asked rhetorically, “Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things … fail because we lack concentration—the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?” Everybody noted the man’s preternatural calm. Though he had honed his will into a perfect instrument, he was even-tempered by nature. As he remarked, “You could do or say the most outrageous thing at this moment and I would not show the least sign of excitement.” He was always proud of the fact that he had an abnormally low pulse of fifty-two. Many employees said he never lost his temper, raised his voice, uttered a profane or slang word, or acted discourteously. He defied many stereotypes of the overbearing tycoon and generally received excellent reviews from employees who regarded him as fair and benevolent, free of petty temper and dictatorial airs. Rockefeller even hesitated to punish serious offenses and instead of prosecuting the occasional embezzler simply dismissed him. Taking for granted the growth of his empire, he hired talented people as found, not as needed. Far more than a technocrat, Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who exerted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills. “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.” At first, he tested them exhaustively, yet once he trusted them, he bestowed enormous power upon them and didn’t intrude unless something radically misfired. “Often the best way to develop workers—when you are sure they have character and think they have ability—is to take them to a deep place, throw them in and make them sink or swim,” he observed, recalling a method that Big Bill had used with his sons on Owasco Lake. “They will not fail.” To orchestrate such a gigantic operation, he had to delegate authority, and part of the Standard Oil gospel was to train your subordinate to do your job. As Rockefeller instructed a recruit, “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.” True to this policy, Rockefeller tried to extricate himself from the intricate web of administrative details and dedicate more of his time to broad policy decisions. While Rockefeller was responsible for policy questions and formulated the theoretical underpinnings of the trust, he didn’t introduce many technical innovations associated with Standard Oil. Rather, he was a matchless executive, an unerring monitor of the stream of proposals channeled to him daily. He had an extraordinary reactive ability, a first-rate power of judgment when presented with options. Perhaps for this reason, he resembles modern chief executives more than he does his domineering industrial contemporaries. Numbers gave Rockefeller an objective yardstick to compare his far-flung operations, enabling him to cut through the false claims of subordinates. It was the way that he extended rationality from the top of his organization down to the lowest rung: Every cost in the Standard Oil universe was computed to several decimal places. He downplayed the significance of technical knowledge in business. “I never felt the need of scientific knowledge, have never felt it. A young man who wants to succeed in business does not require chemistry or physics. He can always hire scientists.” But Standard Oil spiked all such reform efforts through the liberal application of backdoor payments to legislators. Because all ideas had to meet the supreme test of unanimous approval among strong-minded men, Standard Oil made few major missteps. As Rockefeller said, “We made sure that we were right and had planned for every contingency before we went ahead.” With employees receiving huge capital gains and dividends, they converted Standard Oil into a holy crusade. Rockefeller hoped the trust would serve as a model for a new populist capitalism, marked by employee share ownership. “I would have every man a capitalist, every man, woman and child,” he said. “I would have everyone save his earnings, not squander it; own the industries, own the railroads, own the telegraph lines.” Rockefeller was a unique hybrid in American business: both the instinctive, first-generation entrepreneur who founds a company and the analytic second-generation manager who extends and develops it. He wasn’t the sort of rugged, self-made mogul who quickly becomes irrelevant to his own organization. For that reason, his career anticipates the managerial capitalism of the twentieth century. Since he never owned more than a third of his company, he needed the cooperation of other people. By the mid-1880s, another powerful force appeared on the world oil scene. The Paris Rothschilds, led by Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, had built refineries at Rijeka and Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. In organizing the Caspian and Black Sea Petroleum Company—better known by its Russian initials, Bnito—they stood to reap a fortune from inexpensive Russian oil. No sooner had the Rothschilds entered the business than reports filtered back to Rockefeller that the Nobels, who were heavily in debt to the Rothschilds, could not meet their payments and might be forced to make common cause with the French bankers. For many years, the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and Standard Oil circled around each other, each trying to forge links with a second party to isolate the third. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” Despite its many shareholders, the Standard Oil trust was always controlled by a small clique of powerful families. “I think it is true that the Pratt family, the Payne-Whitney family (which were one, as all the stock came from Colonel Payne), the Harkness-Flagler family (which came into the Company together) and the Rockefeller family controlled a majority of the stock during all the history of the Company up to the present time,” Rockefeller commented in 1910. Because the Harkness and Payne families were sociable and intermarried with the Vanderbilts and Whitneys, they spread a great deal of Standard Oil bounty through America’s social aristocracy. Choate soon discovered that he didn’t need to worry about his client. Like many businessmen of his era, Rockefeller prided himself on his obfuscatory powers and excelled at fuzzy answers. Under oath, he turned into a vague and forgetful fellow, pleasant but slightly muddled, who wandered lost in the stupendous maze of Standard Oil. Even though Rockefeller was the Prospero who single-handedly conjured the University of Chicago into being, he didn’t allow any campus building to bear his name, and the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel was christened only after his death. It was one of Rockefeller’s proudest boasts that unlike other trusts, he had not needed a J. P. Morgan to forge his combine. Standard Oil anticipated a major feature of the twentieth-century economy: the tendency of sophisticated, cash-rich corporations to outgrow their traditional bankers and become financial-service giants in their own rights. The automobile would make John D. Rockefeller far richer in retirement than at work. When he stepped down from Standard Oil, he was probably worth about $200 million—$3.5 billion today—whereas, thanks to the internal-combustion engine, his fortune soared to $1 billion by 1913—surely history’s most lucrative retirement, and one that must have softened the sting of press vituperation. If the descendants of William Rockefeller were identified with National City, the progeny of John D. were always associated with Chase. Each Christmas, they perfunctorily exchanged gifts, Rockefeller giving Carnegie a paper vest, while Carnegie sent the teetotaler excellent whiskey. He was also insistent that his massive philanthropy paled in importance beside the good he had done in creating jobs and furnishing affordable kerosene at Standard Oil. In his memoirs, Rockefeller said that he had sought progress in six areas of life, and the choices are notable for their general, noncontroversial nature: “(1) material comforts (2) government and law (3) language and literature (4) science and philosophy (5) art and refinement (6) morality and religion.” Rockefeller reiterated his faith that cooperation, not competition, advanced the general welfare. “Probably the greatest single obstacle to the progress and happiness of the American people,” he intoned, “lies in the willingness of so many men to invest their time and money in multiplying competitive industries instead of opening up new fields, and putting their money into lines of industry and development that are needed.” It is an enduring tribute to Rockefeller that so many Standard Oil companies prospered during the remainder of the century, controlling a significant fraction of both the American and world oil industry. Rockefeller’s stepchildren would be everywhere: Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (Mobil), Standard Oil of Indiana (Amoco), Standard Oil of California (Chevron), Atlantic Refining (ARCO and eventually Sun), Continental Oil (Conoco), today a unit of DuPont, and Chesebrough-Ponds, which had begun by processing petroleum jelly. Three offspring—Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron—would belong to the Seven Sisters group that would dominate the world oil industry in the twentieth century; a fourth sister, British Petroleum, later took over Standard Oil of Ohio, then known as Sohio. It was certainly not their intention, but the trustbusters helped to preserve Rockefeller’s legacy for posterity and unquestionably made him the world’s richest man.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    The life and times of John D. Rockefeller (Senior) are in good hands with Ron Chernow at the helm. While many will know the Rockefeller name as synonymous with money and American business acumen, Chernow seeks to provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the man, his beliefs, and how he started a multi-generational familial investment in business and political power. In this wonderfully researched biography, Chernow explores John D Rockefeller from three primary perspectives: the The life and times of John D. Rockefeller (Senior) are in good hands with Ron Chernow at the helm. While many will know the Rockefeller name as synonymous with money and American business acumen, Chernow seeks to provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the man, his beliefs, and how he started a multi-generational familial investment in business and political power. In this wonderfully researched biography, Chernow explores John D Rockefeller from three primary perspectives: the grounded family man, the business giant, and the philanthropic juggernaut. Using many sources and a detailed narrative, Chernow brings to life the Rockefeller name and argues that it was not a silver spoon wedged in the man's mouth throughout life, but a fierce determination to succeed at all he tried running through his veins. Chernow masterfully offers up a perspective of Rockefeller that includes a deeply-rooted family life. Spanning back to early childhood, Chernow weaves a tale of Rockefeller's upbringing, with a doting mother and an absent father. The latter parent is presented throughout as one who chose the bottle, live for over five decades as a polygamist, and presented himself as two personas, one of which was a snake oil salesman of sorts. This left Rockefeller without the quintessential role model that any young man needs in his formative years. However, with this familial impediment, Rockefeller did not repeat the faults he witnessed, choosing a life of independent motivation that created a passion for self-improvement, both in business and as a man. In adulthood, he learned the keen trait of loving others, growing to cherish the love he had to offer, marrying Laura Spelman "Cettie" Rockefeller and beginning a family. While he was without paternal guidance in his own youth, Rockefeller fostered a wonderful ability to parent and his children grew to respect him, as the elder Rockefeller instilled virtues in them, while respecting their independent ideas. Chernow shows how Rockefeller used his amassed wealth to offer his children a better life, but did not let them ride on his coat tails and live off his blood and sweat, keeping them on financial leashes while supporting their life choices. That is not to say that Rockefeller did not seek to steer his children along the path he thought best, weeding out those from his children's (and grandchildren's) lives who might not be best suited for them. Chernow offers vignettes of Rockefeller's compassionate side, while contrasting this with a determined push to ensure future Rockefellers made their mark on history and kept the family name from any taint. Unfortunately, Rockefeller's hands-off approach to his children in their adulthood left at least one daughter, Edith, whose lavish lifestyle clashed with that of her wealthy father, to falter repeatedly and with some significance. That John D. Rockefeller was a family man cannot be disputed throughout this book, though Chernow does not shy away from showing a man who expected much from his offspring. Rockefeller's business acumen is likely what has made him and his subsequent generations well-known to the general public. Chernow does not shy away from promoting this throughout, but through his paced narrative, the slow and continual rise of Rockefeller's fortune can be exemplified. From his childhood understanding of resale value (by purchasing a pound of candy, dividing it, and selling it to siblings for a substantial mark-up) through to his capitalization of new and emerging markets in oil refineries, Rockefeller carved a niche out for himself in order to amass substantial wealth in a shorter period of time. Rockefeller used his gut intuition and significant risk-based trust in the market to forge into unchartered territory. This trust reaped many rewards, both by cementing the Rockefeller name in the business world and with copious amounts of money, on which Rockefeller could continue to build his empire. At the centre of this empire was Standard Oil, whose importance pulses through Chernow's book, both the increase in its prominence in America and the monopoly that it became, which turned the federal government against him. Rockefeller's shrewd business sense, based not on an educational background in the area, helped vilify him in the eyes of many, but did not impede him from seeking more with significant financial investment in a market rife for expansion. Beginning his business life in Cleveland of all places, Rockefeller went to where the commodity could be found, rather than sitting in an ivory tower on Wall Street and pulling strings in his three-piece suit. Chernow does explore in a thorough manner the business sense that Rockefeller undertook, as well as the hunger for an increased footprint in the economic and business worlds of a burgeoning America, at times to the point of excess. When the courts began dismantling his empire, through poignant rulings based on Congress's numerous bills limiting monopolies and putting the millionaire in the crosshairs of anti-trust legislation, Rockefeller remained calm, choosing to focus on his success rather than those who sought to dismantle him. Even when his competitors and the US Government sought to break him, Rockefeller did not act with malice, taking things in stride and forging on. With a passion for business and the nuances of industrial development in America, John D. Rockefeller sought to become a business tycoon, but never forgot those who needed assistance. Rockefeller's philanthropic gestures are scattered throughout the biography, showing that the man had little interest in amassing wealth and sitting on it. While Rockefeller did want to give back, never forgetting the degree of poverty from which he came, he could be quite selective in his charitable ventures. Rockefeller valued the importance of a dollar and use of one's mind to advance in life. His endowments to such places as the founding of the University of Chicago and other post-secondary institutions fuelled the belief that Rockefeller sought the betterment of man (and woman) through learning. Growing up and coming to maturity during the Civil War, he saw the importance of removing the barriers between the races, as well as the sexes, and would actively promote the idea of women and minorities in the colleges he supported. Additional philanthropic ventures included support for the Protestant churches throughout America, tapping into the memory of his Baptist upbringing. Rockefeller sought not only to donate money into projects, but use his investments to churn out results that could benefit the largest segment of the population. As Chernow explores in some detail, Rockefeller's underlying charitable focus was not only the advancement of the person, but their health and well-being. Medical advancements and monies to promote medical research began a lifelong interest in helping those who looked to help others. However, one caveat that Rockefeller appeared to instil in his acts was to offer foundational support rather than continuous or 'expected' funding, whereby the organisation would lean on Rockefeller's kindness and become a 'tin cup beggar'. By the time he retired, he had taught his children, specifically John D. Rockefeller Jr. the importance of divesting himself of the money he had in his business operations to help those in need. In an era when business in America was growing and those with money saw their fortunes flourish exponentially, Rockefeller was not the miser that many may presume he must have been. Compared to the likes of Andrew Mellon, JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller may have seemed happy to amass outrageous sums of money, in the upwards of billions in today's dollar. However, he never lost touch with the humble beginnings from which he came, while always wanting to offer new and innovative ideas for America to explore, keeping it on pace with worldwide industrial innovation. Chernow offers a biography that is both easy to read and thorough in its presentation of the man, which offers modern readers a better understanding of a time when a true philanthropic nature was not only recognised but somewhat expected. While the name of Gates, Buffett and even Bono are bandied about, without the limelight or 24-hour news cycle, it is hard to believe that these men would understand the true meaning of amassing wealth and sharing their profits with those who need it. Be he a villain, lifesaver, or somewhere in between, Chernow pulls no punches as he leaves a well-crafted biography in the hands of readers to make the final decision for themselves. Kudos, Mr. Chernow for providing me with this comprehensive piece on which I can base my own opinions. I knew so little about the man, the family, or the mark left on early American business life, but feel so enriched with what you had to offer. As always a stellar biographical piece. Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/

  19. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Million

    Well-researched and fair biography that is wonderfully written by Chernow. Rockefeller lived a long time (1839-1937) and Chernow does an excellent job of chronicling how society changed over his lifetime and how Rockefeller helped to influence prevailing views of large corporations and wealthy businessmen. Throughout the book, Chernow deftly flushes out Rockefeller's often conflicting business moves and motives vs his ultra-religious private life. Chernow does not attempt to dissuade anyone from Well-researched and fair biography that is wonderfully written by Chernow. Rockefeller lived a long time (1839-1937) and Chernow does an excellent job of chronicling how society changed over his lifetime and how Rockefeller helped to influence prevailing views of large corporations and wealthy businessmen. Throughout the book, Chernow deftly flushes out Rockefeller's often conflicting business moves and motives vs his ultra-religious private life. Chernow does not attempt to dissuade anyone from thinking Rockefeller the evil genius of Standard Oil, because he was that person who was merciless and domineering where any competition was concerned. Yet, he does not make him out to be a saint for all of his charitable giving and philanthropic endeavours. As with many of us, Rockefeller was a complex person. In some ways, he was a miser - making his son John Jr. wears his older sisters' hand-me-down clothes. Or making loans to family members and charging them interest on the loans. But the man also gave away what would today be considered billions of dollars to many different institutions. Rockefeller took his money seriously - both in acquiring it and giving it away. The University of Chicago might well have never gotten off the ground had it not been for his multiple, and massive, endowments. He also tried helping fellow church members who were struggling. He had no interest in most material things such as boats or fancy clothes. Yet, he ended up with 5 different homes and, for a long period of his life, walled himself off from society. His relantionships with his family seemed more formal than friendly. Example: his wife became more or less an invalid late in her life. Yet, Rockefeller kept to his self-imposed seasonal house rotation, despite his wife being too ill to travel. The result: when she died in New York, he was in Florida. His children ended up having many different psychological problems due to the combination of their strict upbringing and the burden of Rockefeller's immense wealth. Chernow is especially good at showing how his family became somewhat dysfunctional, and also showing how Rockefeller's own childhood (his father was a bigamist and disappeared for long stretches at a time) affected him throughout his life. The last few chapters seemed to focus more on John Jr. than they did Rockefeller himself, almost to the point where I think Chernow delved too deeply into Jr's managing of the Rockefeller largesse and family name, but I understand why he included it in the book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Long, but really interesting book about the head of the Rockefeller family who earned enough money to boggle the richest person's mind. He earned billions of dollars at a time when one million would set one for life. Ably narrated by one of my favorites, Grover Gardner, this book was especially interesting to me for its venues including Ohio (Toledo and Cleveland) and New York City that I am very familiar with. The book is primarily about John D., but, as it should, gives background of Long, but really interesting book about the head of the Rockefeller family who earned enough money to boggle the richest person's mind. He earned billions of dollars at a time when one million would set one for life. Ably narrated by one of my favorites, Grover Gardner, this book was especially interesting to me for its venues including Ohio (Toledo and Cleveland) and New York City that I am very familiar with. The book is primarily about John D., but, as it should, gives background of his parents and continues through his son, known as Junior, and his grandchildren including Governors Wintrhop and Nelson and the youngest, David, who may reach his grandfather's wish of living to 100 next summer. (John D. died 6 weeks shy of his 98th.) Believe it or not, I'd like to read this sometime instead of listening to it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jig

    his rise to power as an entrepreneur and his ability to convert every crisis into opportunity until the age of 98 is a must read for enterprising individuals. i would definately want to reread his first 15 yrs as an entrepreneur -- the energy, creativity, and audacity of his decision making and maneuvering should be studied over and over again. His biography is magnitudes more critical than any textbook on business. like gates, dont conflate the philantrophist with the industrialist. read thru i his rise to power as an entrepreneur and his ability to convert every crisis into opportunity until the age of 98 is a must read for enterprising individuals. i would definately want to reread his first 15 yrs as an entrepreneur -- the energy, creativity, and audacity of his decision making and maneuvering should be studied over and over again. His biography is magnitudes more critical than any textbook on business. like gates, dont conflate the philantrophist with the industrialist. read thru it all, it's worth it!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Owen Tuleja

    Wow, this one took a lot of effort. If there's one thing this book is, it's well-researched and comprehensive. Chernow clearly spent years pouring through primary sources, conducting his own interviews, and reading the biographical attempts of other authors. You'll finish this book feeling an expert on Rockefeller, the principles that guided him, and context in which he operated. This book is not easy to get through: it's 700 pages about one person's life... I don't care how important you anotis, Wow, this one took a lot of effort. If there's one thing this book is, it's well-researched and comprehensive. Chernow clearly spent years pouring through primary sources, conducting his own interviews, and reading the biographical attempts of other authors. You'll finish this book feeling an expert on Rockefeller, the principles that guided him, and context in which he operated. This book is not easy to get through: it's 700 pages about one person's life... I don't care how important you are; there are going to be slow points. For Chernow, it's not enough to say that Rockefeller was influenced by such-and-such from his elementary school teacher. We need to be told about his teacher's upbringing and family, their religious beliefs, and why those religious beliefs saw a revival in 1840s northern Ohio. I found myself frequently interrupting by reading to fall down wikipedia holes, which may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. At times, it felt as though Chernow was including information for the sake of not wasting research. I did find Rockefeller to be an interesting figure and enjoyed following his development from ruthless businessman and idealogican puritan to a softer, more jovial philanthropist. Prior to reading the book, I had no idea the impact that Rockefeller and his descendents have had on medicine, education, and art, not to mention three of the largest oil companies in the world today (Chevron, and ExxonMobil, which I count as two because each of its constituents were children of the Standard Oil breakup). That said, I would've appreciated tighter editing, particularly in describing the personal lives of his many siblings, children, and grandchildren.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carrie Ann

    Titan was a very comprehensive biography of John D. Rockefeller - almost too comprehensive. There was a lot of repetition and approximately half the book is about the people around Rockefeller including a lot of time spent on his son and some of his business associates, but this allows for a very dynamic and complete picture of the era and Rockefeller's role in it. The most intriguing part of this book is the deftness in which Chernow handles the dichotomy of Rockefeller's character: that such a Titan was a very comprehensive biography of John D. Rockefeller - almost too comprehensive. There was a lot of repetition and approximately half the book is about the people around Rockefeller including a lot of time spent on his son and some of his business associates, but this allows for a very dynamic and complete picture of the era and Rockefeller's role in it. The most intriguing part of this book is the deftness in which Chernow handles the dichotomy of Rockefeller's character: that such a deeply religious and charitable man at the same time can be a completely unethical business man. The other interesting take away from this book is an understanding about how big business in America started and how the choices and actions of Rockefeller are still reverberating today. For as many laws that were passed to try to prevent another Rockefeller, America still cherishes and idealizes the mad rush to make money by any means necessary as the American Dream.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    Having read this, I can only assume that if Chernow lives long enough he'll write some kind of "aw shucks" bio about President Trump. I even saw parallels to modern characterizations of the Trump children as "young men" in his framing of Junior. Sure, the aspirational autocrat doesn't have the whole church fixation, but I'm sure Chernow will find some kind of "gee whiz" about him eventually. This gets 2 stars because it's quite a useful overview of how they shaped the modern world. But it lacks Having read this, I can only assume that if Chernow lives long enough he'll write some kind of "aw shucks" bio about President Trump. I even saw parallels to modern characterizations of the Trump children as "young men" in his framing of Junior. Sure, the aspirational autocrat doesn't have the whole church fixation, but I'm sure Chernow will find some kind of "gee whiz" about him eventually. This gets 2 stars because it's quite a useful overview of how they shaped the modern world. But it lacks any sort of conscience when treating its subject. Rockefeller's letter congratulating a man who ordered Pinkertons to fire on strikers is just a throwaway. It does a thoroughly insufficient job of handling the Rockefeller faults, which makes its portrayal of the virtues truly galling.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Steven Peterson

    An exceptional biography of John D. Rockefeller. This story follows the arc of his life nicely. Great detail (no surprise to those who have read other of this author's works). If interested in Rockefeller's life, this is a terrific book to read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sam S

    I drive a lot for my job. To pass the time on the road, I've begun to listen to audio books. I bought a subscription to audible.com, which at $15/month seemed a little steep, but has turned out to be well worth the investment. The first book I downloaded is Ron Chernow's, Titan: The of Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.. I brought up the whole thing about listening to audiobooks in the car only because, knowing myself, there is no other way I would have gotten all the way through a book like Titan in anyth I drive a lot for my job. To pass the time on the road, I've begun to listen to audio books. I bought a subscription to audible.com, which at $15/month seemed a little steep, but has turned out to be well worth the investment. The first book I downloaded is Ron Chernow's, Titan: The of Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.. I brought up the whole thing about listening to audiobooks in the car only because, knowing myself, there is no other way I would have gotten all the way through a book like Titan in anything close to a short amount of time, but as a captive audience in my truck for hours at a time I was able to hear the whole thing over the course of a month or so. The quality of the audio narration, I will say, was excellent. Running more than 800 pages or 35 hours, pick your poison, Titan wrote a real doorstop of a book on a subject that most people may find not very interesting, but I am an historian by training with an interest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I am also actively involved in running a small oil company, so, in other words, this volume is right up my alley. John D. Rockefeller, of course, was the founder of Standard Oil, the Cleveland then New York-based refiner of crude oil that in the decades after the Civil War came to control national and international monopolies over the production and marketing of kerosene, lubricants, and other oil products. Rockefeller became the world's richest man, its first billionaire, and the progenitor of an American dynasty. The major strength and weakness of biography as a genre is that the reader will inevitably put themselves in the subject's shoes. There is much to criticize about Rockefeller--the biggest criticism is the seeming paradox between his personal religiosity and rapacity in business. That said, all-in-all, I came away with a favorable impression of the man and Ron Chernow's biography of him. Rather than write a detailed review, I have outlined a less than exhaustive list of things that seemed significant to me from the book. *John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839 and died in 1937. His life spans the transformation of the United States from a rural, agrarian backwater to an urban, industrial behemoth. He was both a product and an agent of the modernization of America. *John D's father William Avery Rockefeller was a nineteenth-century American rogue, con-man, and snake-oil salesmen. Every year he would disappear for months threading his way through communities on the edge of the American frontier selling patent-medicines and false cures. He was also a bigamist, and these travels allowed him to maintain another family under the false identity of William Levingston. "Big Bill" or "Doc Levingston," as he was also known, was a larger-than-life type who was a lasting influence on his famous son for his celebration of money and as an example of how not to live a life. *The secret to John D. Rockefeller's success was his fastidiousness with a ledger book. This was the tool with which he achieved the economies of scale that made the Standard Oil monopoly. *Rockefeller's first enterprise was a Commission House in Cleveland. The business was to purchase commodities wholesale and warehouse them until they could be sold on. In this way, John D. was first exposed to oil, which was first struck in western Pennsylvania in 1859. Oil proved profitable and by the end of the Civil War it was the only commodity in which Rockefeller dealt. *It should be emphasized that Standard Oil was built in the era before automobiles when gasoline was a waste product of the refining process that produced kerosene. *Standard Oil was always primarily a refiner and marketer. It did not begin to operate its own wells until the 1890s. Instead it purchased oil from independent producers, who came to loathe Standard and Rockefeller. *The Standard Oil monopoly was as much a product of Rockefeller's ability to manipulate freight rates as it was a result of the efficiency of its refineries. The only way that Standard's Cleveland refineries could compete with refineries in Pittsburgh, New York, or Philadelphia for East Coast market share was to have the lowest transportation costs. Some of the ways this was achieved--rebates, preferential rates, backroom deals--became extremely controversial. Other ways--owning all the rolling stock, barrels, and terminal infrastructure necessary for freighting oil--reveal shrewd business practice. *A corollary point is that the Standard Oil monopoly was contingent on the unique economic geography of the oil business of the 1870s and 1880s. During this time western Pennsylvania was the only source of oil in the United States. By controlling the refining of Pennsylvania oil, Standard controlled the oil industry. The discovery of oil deposits in Ohio, Southern California, Texas, and Oklahoma made the old model obsolete. By the time the Standard Oil Trust was broken up by the federal government in 1911, the emergence of hundreds of independent oil companies had already ended the monopoly. *An irony of this later history is that Standard Oil executives had written off Texas as an insignificant source of petroleum. *Standard did some genuinely unethical things that included strong arm marketing tactics, extortionate buy outs, secret deals, and bribery. Anecdote tells of one general store owner who committed sin of stocking a competitor's kerosene. In response, Standard Oil threatened to put him out of business by opening a rival store selling everything at a lower cost. *Rockefeller played the stock market his whole life. He always bought stocks in declining markets and sold in rising ones. When accumulating a position, he bought stocks each time they decline and 1/8 of a point, he sold he time they rose 1/8 of a point. *While his industrial exploits made his fortune, Rockefeller is perhaps most famous for his philanthropy. Through what would become the Rockefeller Foundation, he created the model for modern, professional philanthropic organizations. His personal generosity established Spelman University and The University of Chicago. Other major accomplishments include eradication of Hookworm from the American South. *Rockefeller was not a workaholic. He was a master delegator. Taking strategic decisions for himself and leaving the details of execution for others to carry out--a fact that allowed him a strategic ignorance of Standard Oil malfeasance. *Rockefeller was an avid gardener, landscaper, and architect. He personally designed the grounds of each of his homes and estates. On his Pocantico estate, he designed his house so that the sun's light would follow him as he made his way along the station's of his daily routine from morning to evening. *Rockefeller was very health consciousness. He took daily naps, spent time in the afternoon on outdoor activities, and was home in the evening to be with his family. Unlike the portly visages maintained by his fellow robber barons, he remained trim and lithe. He did not smoke or drink and exercised regularly, which included in later life a daily game of golf. *A teetotaler and a prude his whole adult life, it seems Rockefeller was something of a lecher in his old age. During retirement in Florida during the 1920s, he became an avid motorist, taking regular drives in the countryside with a rotating cast of companions. Rockefeller always sat himself in the middle of the back seat surrounded by others. Invariably, among the group was included an attractive young woman or two. Ostensibly to keep warm, Rockefeller would cover himself and his seat mate with a blanket, underneath which he allowed his hands to explore freely. As Chernow observes, on at least one occasion, the car stopped abruptly to let out a young lady who did not appreciate Rockefeller's advances.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Christien Hughes

    John D. Rockefeller was a truly a titan, but one who I knew very very little about and had honestly never given much thought about. I can’t compare it to other works about his life, but I will say this was very educational. Regardless of what people say about his business practices, he shaped the petroleum industry in this country and all over the world. His philanthropic endeavors were no less commendable. We owe our modern health system to him. The judgements of Rockefeller are understandable, John D. Rockefeller was a truly a titan, but one who I knew very very little about and had honestly never given much thought about. I can’t compare it to other works about his life, but I will say this was very educational. Regardless of what people say about his business practices, he shaped the petroleum industry in this country and all over the world. His philanthropic endeavors were no less commendable. We owe our modern health system to him. The judgements of Rockefeller are understandable, given the slow news cycles of his day and the fierceness with which he protected his privacy. But what seems to be a fatal flaw of human judgement is our ability to see people as the multi-faceted beings we are. Each of us has many different sides, faces, moods, personas, etc. Because we are jovial and lighthearted in one situation does not mean that we cannot be serious and stern in another one. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things, but the ultimate judgment of good and evil is up to God. There are certain people that are put on this earth for such a time to do such a thing. I believe that Rockefeller was one of those people.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Michael Huang

    Rockefeller was brought up in a family with an absentee dad. His mom gave him a lot of tasks around the house and that helped him mature quickly. When he was 16 he started to work writing letters and keeping books. He also learned the way of businesses and eventually started out on his own and co-founded what would be called an oil refinery business today. He was being shrewd in negotiating transportation costs and outcompeted and bought others. This gradually led to the Standard Oil, which grad Rockefeller was brought up in a family with an absentee dad. His mom gave him a lot of tasks around the house and that helped him mature quickly. When he was 16 he started to work writing letters and keeping books. He also learned the way of businesses and eventually started out on his own and co-founded what would be called an oil refinery business today. He was being shrewd in negotiating transportation costs and outcompeted and bought others. This gradually led to the Standard Oil, which gradually became a de facto monopoly. Despite being very rich, he’s frugal and treated employees with respect. He gave lots of money to charitable causes, include funding a medical research facility (producing 16 Nobel prizes) with a clinic that treats people for free. This is later known as the Rockefeller university. The monopolistic practices eventually got standard oil dismantled by the goverment in 1911. Interestingly, the share Rockefeller owned became more valuable as the shares of the individual companies began trading. He was effectively a billionaire almost overnight. (His wealth is about 2.5% of the GDP then. That proportion would have made him as wealthy as today’s top 6 billionaires combined.) In his retirement, he continued philanthropy, establishing high schools for southern black.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    A fascinating and surprisingly peppy biography of Rockefeller. His charming snake-oil salesman and bigamist father, Rockefeller's own duality--the cold-blooded businessman and the pious philanthropist--and the variety of characters among his children and grandchildren form a better-than-fiction cast. I picked this book up now that I live in Cleveland, to learn more about how Rockefeller got his start here and the legacies he left behind. But I found I have other connections, too: My great-grandf A fascinating and surprisingly peppy biography of Rockefeller. His charming snake-oil salesman and bigamist father, Rockefeller's own duality--the cold-blooded businessman and the pious philanthropist--and the variety of characters among his children and grandchildren form a better-than-fiction cast. I picked this book up now that I live in Cleveland, to learn more about how Rockefeller got his start here and the legacies he left behind. But I found I have other connections, too: My great-grandfather was a western Pennsylvania oilman who was president of one of the companies that Standard Oil subsumed and then spun off as a result of the antitrust suits, and there's a lot about how that came about, as well as the earlier story of the beginnings of the oil business in Pennsylvania. And who knew that my grandmother's hometown of Oil City was such a naughty hotspot in its day--so much so that the straitlaced Rockefeller avoided visits to the area. The audiobook is wonderfully performed by Grover Gardner.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Siim

    This is what I took away from John D. Rockefeller, once the richest man in America and the largest benefactor of his time. Rockefeller was an avid saver. "Save when you can, not when you have to." He donated even when he himself did not have much. But he always calculated the amount of money he could donate and gave not a penny more or less. Rockefeller was an avid lender. He always kept vast cash reserves. "The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing This is what I took away from John D. Rockefeller, once the richest man in America and the largest benefactor of his time. Rockefeller was an avid saver. "Save when you can, not when you have to." He donated even when he himself did not have much. But he always calculated the amount of money he could donate and gave not a penny more or less. Rockefeller was an avid lender. He always kept vast cash reserves. "The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let the money be my slave and not make myself a slave to money." He had a reputation for puritanism, timeliness, and honesty. "The most important thing for a young man is to establish a credit — a reputation, character." He let his body and mind rest and reserved energy where he could. "I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the hours of the waking day to the making of money for money's sake." “I attribute my good condition to my almost reckless independence in determining for myself what to do and the rigid adhering to regulations which give me the maximum of rest and quiet and leisure, and I am being richly paid for it every day.” To explain his extraordinary longevity, he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine, and exercise.”  “It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling, and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much.” He devoted ample time to reflection and deep inspection. “Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things . . . fail because we lack concentration — the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?” Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. He never wasted time on frivolities. Even his daily breaks — the midmorning snack of crackers and milk and the postprandial nap — were designed to conserve energy and help him to strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. As he remarked, “It is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time.” He was paternal to employees. When faced with mistakes he always gave the opportunity for improvement, if the employee sought it. The ethos of Standard Oil was never do work that you can delegate, and to make as much money you can. To his official written text he had the diligence to remove every extra word. If you sign something, sign as it was the last ever signature you gave. He carried a red notebook to note down improvements. And meticulously followed up on them. "Executives started sweating when that little red notebook was taken out" And he parented through example. Never told them what to do or what not to do, was one with them. No corporal punishment. Taught them to value money by putting a value on every household chore.

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