Rockefeller Biographer Finds the Soul of a Billionaire

By Scott Holleran Special to the Daily News

Ron Chernow knows that promoting his new book about oil businessman John D. Rockefeller Sr. means answering endless questions about Microsoft founder and Department of Justice antagonist Bill Gates. He acknowledges and welcomes the comparison between the man whose company dominates the computer operating-systems market and the man whose company, Standard Oil, once controlled roughly 90 percent of the oil market.

But Chernow also knows that there’s more to the story than power. His best-selling book, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Random House, 676 pages, illustrated; $30), is the story of the world’s richest man: his life, his goals, his principles – what Chernow calls his “inner life.”

The writer is no stranger to captains of industry. He wrote about J.P. Morgan in The House of Morgan and he wrote the award-winning The Warburgs, about the famous banking family. Titan chronicles Rockefeller’s life from a childhood without security to a career with unparalleled success. “I knew these sorts of empires don’t happen automatically. I knew I had to capture his inner life. And when I started writing this book five years ago, I wasn’t sure that he had an inner life,” he said.

As part of his research, Chernow listened to lengthy interviews Rockefeller conducted with journalist William Ingliss.

“Suddenly, here’s a man with an extraordinary intelligence, a distinctive voice, a good – sometimes corny – sense of humor and tremendous analytic powers. He was very passionate.” Chernow was not the first to listen to Ingliss’ interviews; fellow Rockefeller biographers Peter Collier, David Horowitz and Allan Nevins also had access to them. However, Chernow heard a philosophy of business when he listened to the conversations. As Chernow put it: “His values, his mind, his rationalizations were infinitely more interesting to me than the facts of his life.”

The facts of his career alone qualify John D. Rockefeller Sr. as a titan. His creation of a modern, global oil industry earned him unprecedented wealth – and unmitigated attacks on his empire.

The fierce capitalist pursued wealth, eliminated competitors mercilessly – and paid employees 20 percent more than the competition while keeping the price of kerosene low. Rockefeller also violated many laws, which, though oil revenues were less than 1 percent of gross national product and the shoe industry was three times larger, led to the government’s destruction of his empire. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and a subsequent Supreme Court decision abolished Standard Oil.

“(Regulations) really forced businessmen, like Rockefeller, into all sorts of legal contrivances and machinations. If you were a forward-looking businessman, you were almost forced to figure out ways to circumvent the law,” Chernow said. “For example, there were laws that a company in California couldn’t own stock in a company in Oregon. Therefore, Standard Oil went through four or five variations of corporate forms.” When Standard Oil attracted the attention of muckraking journalists who wrote influential articles and books denouncing the oil tycoon, it was based only partly on the truth.

“Another side of the story is that there were very bad laws that did not acknowledge the reality of a national market,” Chernow said. “Businessmen could barely operate without running afoul of the regulations.”

The widely held perception that Rockefeller held a monopoly is suspect, too, according to Chernow. “There have been relatively few examples throughout history of pure monopolies, and those are usually a government franchise. The term `monopoly’ has a pejorative connotation, but there’s nothing illegal about enjoying and creating a monopoly,” he said. “And, even if you are a monopolist, the market never fully ceases to operate anyway because people can substitute other things. In other words, if Standard Oil got too greedy, people turn on light bulbs, go back to candles or purchase a competitor’s product.”

“Basically, there’s an image that the plutocrats of the Gilded Age were fat, lazy and were endlessly taking advantage of the public, and, in fact, they did not gouge the last nickel out of the customer. Rockefeller was constantly cheapening the price of kerosene and improving the product – he was an enterpriser.”

Rockefeller’s values were based on his Baptist upbringing, administered mostly by his mother. By the time he had started his career as an accountant, the son of a bigamist managed to rationalize his religion to suit his more practical approach to life. Rockefeller did not talk about Jesus Christ or an afterlife. Instead, as a Sunday school superintendent, he gave speeches about thrift. He lived as if Christianity was the great engine of capitalism, Chernow said.

As a husband and father, Chernow said, he was controlling but kindly. And, as far as Chernow knows, Rockefeller did not believe in corporal punishment or engage in extramarital affairs. But he was, Chernow said, both horrified by and incapable of spontaneity. Whether it was a golf, luncheon or business meeting, it was always structured, Chernow said. “He seemed to be afraid to be alone and have a serious discussion. He was great at banter, but deeper thoughts were always kept at bay.”

When asked if the titan was a happy man, Chernow answered without pause, “Yes. He had a sense of pleasure in creating this enterprise,” Chernow said. “He grew up in this very peculiar family, where he was very powerfully exposed to sin through his father and the Rockefeller side of the family, with these wild hillbillies drinking and philandering, and I think he found his identity in the Baptist Church and in business simultaneously. He was a man lacking in flexibility, but he was able to design his life with this clockwork precision that he moves through the day doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.”

Published on July 19, 1998 in the Los Angeles Daily News