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On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Anglais) Relié – 21 octobre 2014

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Smith / ON HIS OWN TERMS

One

The House That Sugar Built

I had a grandfather—­don’t jump to any conclusions; this was my mother’s father. He was the collector of art. He also happened to be a politician, which is a rather unusual combination, to be frank.

—­Nelson A. Rockefeller

1

The headlines were predictable. croesus captured. beauty to wed wealth. son of richest man in the world gives up church and goes in for dancing to win miss aldrich. Americans in the autumn of 1901 were both fascinated and repelled by the pending alliance between the world’s greatest fortune and the country’s dominant lawmaker. The site of the wedding was never in doubt. Although the bride expressed her preference for a modest ceremony in a small Warwick church, and the groom would have been perfectly happy to plight his troth before a handful of witnesses in New York’s Little Church Around the Corner, the choice didn’t rest with Abby Greene Aldrich or John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In the Aldrich household, senatorial privilege governed; unmitigated by senatorial courtesy, it reserved all questions of importance to the imperious figure popularly labeled “the General Manager of the United States.”

Virtually forgotten today, for twenty years straddling the end of the nineteenth century, Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich pulled the nation’s financial strings in tandem with Wall Street confederates like J. P. Morgan and Paul Warburg. “He was so much the man of power that he never thought about his power,” wrote Aldrich’s official biographer. “It was natural to him, like breathing air.” Much the same would be said of the senator’s grandson and namesake, who emulated his appetite for command, his chronic restlessness, and his unabashed delight in art at once spiritual and sensual. “Most people don’t know what they want!” Aldrich grumbled. This was not a criticism frequently directed at the senior senator from Rhode Island. The recent assassination of President William McKinley, long a champion of economic protectionism, may have been grim news indeed for like-­minded Republicans like Aldrich. Yet the death of a president, however untimely, could not be allowed to interfere with the wedding of Abby Aldrich four weeks later.

If anything, uncertainty about McKinley’s swashbuckling successor, Theodore Roosevelt, lent a note of urgency to the invitations Aldrich dispatched to his Capitol Hill colleagues. “Come right to Warwick and stay,” he told one. “We will have a committee [meeting] right away after. There are a number of things I want to talk to you about.” The new president, precluded by the requirements of public mourning from attending the nuptials, was nonetheless careful to solicit senatorial counsel as he composed his first, defining message to Congress. Aldrich took such deference as his due. As a child he had come to see himself among the elect, a status reinforced by his mother’s claims of descent from New England patriarchs John Winthrop and Roger Williams. While still a newcomer to the Providence City Council, Aldrich had resolved to build a great country seat on the west shore of Narragansett Bay at Warwick. Even now, architects were drawing plans for a seventy-­room château, serviced by a two-­hundred-­yard private railroad laid down to muffle the clatter of tradesmen making deliveries. The parklike setting already boasted a large stone teahouse, in the elegant ballroom of which Abby and John would exchange their vows.

None of the several hundred invited guests who made their way there on the morning of October 9, 1901, by steamer or special streetcar could fail to be impressed by the waterfront estate Aldrich called Indian Oaks and muckraking journalists made notorious as the House That Sugar Built. Its owner, the son of a millworker from Foster, Rhode Island, had traveled an improbable road in his sixty years. Before his tenth birthday, Aldrich passed up a visiting circus and, with the money saved, purchased the self-­improving volume A Tinker’s Son, or, I’ll Be Somebody Yet. At seventeen, he landed a job as a wholesale grocer’s clerk in the state capital of Providence. Attending evening lectures at a local lyceum to compensate for a meager formal education, Aldrich paid special attention to the rules of debate and parliamentary procedure. The attack on Fort Sumter interrupted his bookkeeping labors, but only briefly; a bout of typhoid fever earned him a discharge from the Tenth Rhode Island Volunteers garrisoning wartime Washington.

Sickened by the possibility that he might remain one of the “dumb driven cattle” constituting the bulk of humanity, Aldrich returned to Providence in the autumn of 1862. He began courting Abby Pearce Chapman, a Mayflower descendant to whom he confided a fierce resolution to achieve, “willingly or forcibly wrested from a selfish world Success! Counted as the mass count it, by dollars and cents!” The ambitious clerk dreaded anonymity only slightly less than the soul-­killing drudgery of the ledger book. Within a year of their 1866 marriage, Nelson and Abby welcomed a son, christened Nelson Jr. The boy’s death at the age of four devastated his parents. But it was the father who fled to the Old World, leaving Abby to console herself as he applied the healing balm of art.

At the Parthenon (“the most sublime of all temples or churches”), Aldrich was nearly overcome by the urge to prostrate himself on the marble pavement. Rejecting the stern theology of his New England fathers, Aldrich found inspiration in the parallel universe of artistic and literary expression. Denied creative talent, Aldrich was frustrated a second time when his hopes of becoming a great orator, a modern-­day Cicero, went glimmering. Politics beckoned. Elected to the Providence City Council in 1869, Aldrich served simultaneously as president of the city’s Board of Trade and the First National City Bank. After making his peace with the Republican boss of Rhode Island, General Charles Brayton, he won a seat in the state legislature. His subsequent ascent to the Speaker’s chair foreshadowed two terms in the national House of Representatives and three decades as a senatorial powerhouse.

His reliance on government as an engine of democratic capitalism placed Aldrich in the nationalistic camp of Alexander Hamilton, a financial wizard rejected by the very people whose democratic experiment he capitalized. Hamilton believed that only by linking the interests of the state “in an intimate connection” with citizens of great wealth could the success of the young republic be assured. For Nelson Aldrich, the line demarking self-­interest from the public good was indistinct, if not invisible. From an early age, Aldrich the self-­made aristocrat entertained visions of grandeur centered on Warwick Neck. Lacking the cash to realize them, the freshman senator and his growing family made do with a suite of rooms in a Washington hotel, supplemented by rented houses in Providence. Eventually there would be eleven Aldrich children, eight of whom survived infancy. These included a daughter born in October 1874 and named for her mother. As the elder Abby faded under the strain of repeated pregnancies and the physical and emotional distance imposed by Nelson’s political pursuits, the second Abby came to fill the void in her father’s life. Belying his reactionary image, Nelson Aldrich was a thoroughgoing progressive when it came to educating women. Thus his daughter began her formal schooling with a Quaker governess, precursor to Miss Abbott’s School for Young Ladies in Providence, at which modern languages, ancient history, and art lent ballast to the traditional curriculum of dancing, gymnastics, and edifying verse.

Young Abby became a voracious reader, with a versatility extending far beyond the classroom. She enjoyed baseball as much as needlework. Tutored by her father, who entered the Senate when she was seven years old, Abby became proficient at poker, bridge, and games played for much higher stakes. She observed his quiet domination of the Philosophy Club, a powerful quartet of senators that convened on the front porch in Warwick to deal cards and determine the national agenda. In modern parlance a workhorse, not a show horse, even as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Aldrich held no press conferences, published no manifestos, submitted to no interviews. Trained observers like the painter Anders Zorn found him inscrutable. “Of all the sitters I ever had Senator Aldrich is the most difficult because of the expression of his eyes,” said Zorn. “It is so hard to get.”

By his stubborn refusal to concede public accountability, as in his social Darwinist preference for the strong over the weak, Aldrich mirrored his closemouthed counterpart in business John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (who famously declined to answer critics by muttering, “Let the world wag”). Each man had escaped youthful poverty with the aid of a motivating mother and his own towering ambition. Each invited caricature at odds with his complex motivations and personal magnetism. Certainly Aldrich, a muscular six-­footer with dark hunter’s eyes and a florid mustache, cut an imposing figure in Capitol Hill cloakrooms, where a brisk nod or sidelong glance could fix the fate of legislation. At home in the shadows, according to one lobbyist, “He made no noise . . . but when we saw him moving about, and whispering to Senator Allison, and just giving a wink to Senator Hale and Senator Platt of Connecticut, we knew our cake was dough.”

Aldrich’s domestic table was less amply furnished, his official salary of $5,000 being insufficient to maintain two residences and raise eight children. Too proud to live off his wife’s money, in 1892 the senator announced his retirement from politics. A group of Rhode Island businessmen, grateful for his help in consolidating a tangle of rival street railway companies in Providence, offered to make him president of the United Traction and Electric Company. This set off boardroom alarms in the American Sugar Refining Company, the so-­called Sugar Trust, whose economic interests had never been far from the senator’s heart. Now Big Sugar filled the Aldrich wallet, beginning with $100,000 from chief lobbyist John E. Searles, Jr. As events would demonstrate, this was a mere down payment on Aldrich’s continued services. All thoughts of resignation from the Senate were buried under $5 million of Searles’s money, used by Aldrich to capitalize the fledgling transit company. This, in turn, laid the foundation for a personal fortune exceeding $15 million. His sudden prosperity enabled Aldrich to purchase a mansion in the elegant College Hill neighborhood of Providence and to realize his boyish dream of possessing an estate grand enough for the Philosophy Club, if less garish than the oceanside palaces of Newport.

Each summer, the Aldriches gathered at Warwick Neck to bask in nautical breezes and navigate the choppy currents of Narragansett Bay. Besides sailing lessons, the patriarch imparted to Abby his unconcealed joy in acquiring European masters, Persian rugs, and Chippendale chairs. (One of the senator’s proudest legislative achievements was the elimination of import duties on art and antiquities, thereby accelerating the Yankee plunder of Old World collectibles.) By the time she made her social debut in the autumn of 1893, nineteen-­year-­old Abby Aldrich was a beguiling compound of majesty and mirth. Tall and bosomy, her Gibson girl figure topped by luxuriant chestnut hair, she was outgoing, free of prejudice, and exuberantly original, with a low, slightly nasal voice that erupted in frequent laughter. Her square jaw and thick blade of a nose marked Abby as a true Aldrich. If these rendered her appearance more vivid than beautiful, they did nothing to diminish the line of suitors who bestowed on her no fewer than fifty-­two bouquets. Nor was it difficult to see why: boasting confidence to spare, Abby exuded the intuitive sympathy and warmth that make a man feel more of a man.

Denied access to power by a society that placed women on pedestals to avoid dealing with them as equals, Abby channeled her political energies into such respectable substitutes as the Providence Day Nursery and the Dorrance Home for Aged Colored Women. She enjoyed an active social life. No dinner of the period was complete without a Welsh rarebit; in her diary, each was “the best I have ever tasted in all my life.” On foreign travels, everything was “marvelous . . . I simply can’t understand it,” Abby wrote of her less impressionable companions. “They just don’t enjoy anything so much as I do.” (An indiscriminate use of superlatives, topped by the all-­purpose “Faa-­bu-­lous,” would reappear in the speech of her son Nelson.)

One evening in November 1894, Abby went to a party at the home of a friend whose father was a trustee of Brown University. There she met a shy, socially awkward Brown sophomore who had never been to a “round dance” out of fear it might offend his deeply religious mother. Simply attending the party was, for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., an act of muffled rebellion. He did not ask Abby to dance, fearing that he might slip and fall on the highly polished dance floor. Miss Aldrich compensated for his timidity. Distilling the pattern of their lives together, John would recall, “She treated me as if I had all the savoir faire in the world, and her confidence did me a lot of good.”

2

If Abby Aldrich was her father’s daughter, the youth Brown classmates called Johnny Rock was emphatically his mother’s son. All his life he insisted that there could be but one John D. Rockefeller; to the end of his days he was known as Junior, Mr. Junior to family retainers. The struggle for self, intensified by spiritual perfectionism, left him physically vulnerable and emotionally stunted. Such was the inheritance bequeathed her only son by Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the deacon’s daughter with the blood of New England abolitionists in her veins. An early advocate of equal rights for black Americans, she was just as outspoken in promoting education and votes for women. At Cleveland High School, her valedictorian’s address was entitled “I Can Paddle My Own Canoe.”

After 1859, Laura taught school and let herself be courted by John D. Rockefeller, a stone-­faced high school classmate staked to the commission merchant business with $1,000 of personal savings and an equal amount advanced him—­at 10 percent interest—­by his hedonistic father, William Avery Rockefeller. The elder Rockefeller had first appeared in the countryside around Richford, New York, in 1835, displaying a slate chalked with the statement “I am deaf and dumb.” Among those taken in by his act was red-­haired Eliza Davison, who in twenty-­four unremarkable years had never done an imprudent deed—­until she defied her father and wed the charismatic peddler in February 1837. Economic uncertainty, sexual fecklessness, and public humiliation were her reward. Cayuga (“Land of Superior Cunning”) County seemed tailor-­made for “Devil Bill” Rockefeller, a charming scoundrel and self-­styled “botanic physician,” whose phony cancer cures were less embarrassing to Eliza than his habit of impregnating housemaids.

After installing a girlfriend named Nancy Brown as his “housekeeper,” in two years the con man fathered four children between his emotionally battered wife and his mistress. In 1849, a hired girl in nearby Moravia accused him of rape. The case never went to court. Instead, Rockefeller moved his legitimate family to the village of Owego. Then he took to the road. Abandoned for months at a time, Eliza and her youngsters lived precariously on credit extended by sympathetic merchants. Youthful insecurity bred in her second child, John Davison, an adult need, bordering on compulsion, to control his circumstances and environment. John’s father, superfluously, instructed the boy to “never trust anyone completely, even me.” When trading with his three sons, bragged the elder Rockefeller, “I . . . skin ’em and I just beat ’em every time I can. I want to make ’em sharp.”

In this, Devil Bill succeeded beyond even his gaudy imagination. As a child, John sold turkeys to neighbors and candy to his siblings. By the age of twelve, he was profitably lending money to farmers in the hardscrabble region between Binghamton and Ithaca. His father promised him $5 if the boy read the Bible clear through. Religion supplied a different kind of solace to Eliza, who trained her children to be everything her irresponsible husband was not. According to John’s biographer Ron Chernow, the disastrous mismatch “left both her and her eldest son with a lifelong suspicion of volatile people and rash actions.” In the autumn of 1853, the Rockefellers departed western New York for Cleveland, where John attended high school for two years, excelling at mathematics and debate. He dropped out about the time his father entered into a clandestine marriage with a New York girl half his age.

Determined to atone for his parent’s outrageous conduct, the sober, systematic youth completed a ten-­week course at Folsom’s Commercial College. Weeks of dogged pursuit led to employment as an assistant bookkeeper with the local firm of Hewitt & Tuttle. For the rest of his life, Rockefeller celebrated the September 26 anniversary of his hiring as Job Day. Distinguishing himself for honesty and precision, John earned rapid promotion to cashier and bookkeeper. Out of his monthly salary of $25, he squeezed contributions to a German Sunday school and a Catholic orphanage. On Sundays, he rang the bell and swept the floors of the little mission church where he had been baptized a year earlier. After two and a half years at Hewitt & Tuttle, John left to establish a commodities brokerage with Maurice B. Clark and his brother. The Civil War years were lucrative ones for commission merchants like Rockefeller and Clark. For $300, Rockefeller hired a substitute to fight for him, a practice emulated by J. P. Morgan and Grover Cleveland, among others. Profiting from the conflict he thus evaded, Rockefeller supplied Union armies with salt and mess pork, all the while drawing mental pictures of vastly greater wealth to be had in the embryonic oil industry.

Spurning the precarious existence of the wildcatter, he entered the refinery business with a transplanted English chemist named Samuel Andrews. In 1867, their partnership acquired a hard-­nosed negotiator in Henry M. Flagler. Rockefeller and Flagler developed a playful code for telegraphic communications built around the word AMELIA—­four syllables translated as “Everything is lovely and the goose hangs high.” Soon the wires hummed with news of a secret deal committing their firm to ship at least sixty daily carloads of refined oil on Jay Gould’s Erie Railroad, in return for a 75 percent rebate from the Erie. This cozy arrangement heralded the birth, in January 1870, of the Standard Oil Company, with an initial capitalization of $1 million. Henceforth Rockefeller and Flagler employed the law of the jungle to civilize a chaotic industry blind to the consequences of overproduction.

Anything but a free marketeer, Rockefeller blamed wild fluctuations in the price of oil on ruinous competition. Practicing vertical integration before the term was known, the Standard manufactured its own paint, built its own barrels, established its own depots, warehouses, and docks. Size equaled leverage, multiplied by efficiency and an infinite capacity for taking pains. By using thirty-­nine drops of solder on kerosene tins instead of forty, Rockefeller calculated, he could save “a fortune.” Such attention to detail paid off handsomely: the company’s first dividend was a whopping 40 percent. As quickly as he established local dominance, Rockefeller invaded the Oil Region of neighboring Pennsylvania. Inevitably, this brought him into contact with Pennsylvania Railroad president Thomas Scott and his South Improvement Company, a cartel of railroads and refiners designed to insulate oil prices and freight charges from market uncertainties. The scheme promised substantial rebates for the Standard, coupled with crippling surcharges, or “drawbacks,” levied on its competitors.

Rockefeller didn’t initiate the South Improvement Company. But he was at the head of the wolf pack that stood to gain from it, and he bore the brunt of popular fury when Scott’s plan became public knowledge. After the Pennsylvania legislature repealed the company charter in April 1872, Rockefeller organized in its place the Central Association of Refiners—­“the Alliance”—­to pursue consolidation with a vengeance. Where persuasion failed, Standard resorted to harsher tactics, underselling the competition, redirecting shipments to friendlier carriers, and exploiting its stranglehold over key storage tanks and pipelines. Once omnipotent railroads now cringed before customers they had recently, regularly, bilked. Few shed tears of sympathy. “Who can buy beef the cheaper?” Rockefeller demanded with relentless Darwinian logic. “The housewife for her family, the steward for a club or hotel, or the quartermaster or commissary for an army? Who is entitled to better rebates from a railroad, those who give it for transportation 5,000 barrels a day, or those who give 500 barrels—­or 50 barrels?”

3

To the public he might appear a buccaneer compelled to sleep with a revolver next to his bed, but at home Rockefeller exemplified the domestic virtues flouted by his rakish father. By all accounts, his marriage to Laura Spelman was deeply satisfying. Four daughters preceded the birth of the couple’s only son, John Jr., in January 1874. To the prayerful Laura, her children were “my precious jewels—­loaned to me for a season to be handed back when the call comes.” Fittingly, John Jr.’s first memory was of the Infant Department at the Cleveland Sunday school overseen by his parents. A picture of Junior, aged two, shows a wary, unsmiling child, clad in one of the hand-­me-­down dresses he wore until he was eight. At the time, the Rockefellers lived on Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, locally dubbed “Millionaires Row.” They also owned Forest Hill, a rambling, extravagantly ugly piece of Victorian gingerbread originally built as a homeopathic sanatorium. Senior ran it as a sort of family hotel, with a dozen friends treated as paying guests and the children working in the vegetable garden. Junior chopped wood for fifteen cents an hour.

His pleasures were solitary ones: picking strawberries, tree planting, skating on frozen ponds. The housekeeper’s son was his sole playmate. On broiling summer days, the youngsters found relief in a small lake on the estate, watching as their father swam a mile without removing the straw hat he comically donned for protection against the sun. “There were two avenues that led to whatever appreciation of beauty I have,” the adult Junior acknowledged. “One was music and the other was nature.” The former was another legacy from his mother, an accomplished singer and pianist. Indeed, music was to the Rockefellers what books were to the Aldriches. Junior began taking cello lessons when he was seven years old. In league with his siblings, he performed in a Sunday school orchestra, a brief hiatus from the rigid Calvinist doctrine pervading Forest Hill. Mornings brought pre-­breakfast prayers, with latecomers fined a penny. Friday night prayer meetings afforded more public devotionals.

In a formal pledge signed before his tenth birthday, Junior forswore tobacco, profanity, and alcoholic beverages. He kept an account book inspired by his father’s famous Ledger A, a meticulous rendering of personal expenditures that became a holy relic in the saga of Standard Oil. In its pages, Junior noted twenty-­five cents spent to fix a fountain pen, five dollars sent to survivors of the Johnstown flood, and two cents earned for every fly he killed. His most frequent entries were for childish charities to the houses of worship he attended with his parents. Though their spiritual roots ran deep, the Rockefellers were otherwise nomads. Senior never traveled without two books—­Optimist’s Good Morning and Optimist’s Good Night. His confidence was well-­placed. By 1879, the Standard controlled 90 percent of American oil refining and fourteen thousand miles of pipeline. As it grew in size, it mutated in administrative structure. Thirty-­nine allied companies pooled their resources to form the Standard Oil Trust, a concentration quickly dissolved by the Ohio Supreme Court and just as quickly reconstituted in the grafter’s paradise of New Jersey, whose corporate statutes held more water than a railroad’s fraudulent stock. Thereafter, dozens of seemingly autonomous units attained a unity of purpose as the first truly multinational corporation. By 1885, it has been estimated, 70 percent of Standard’s business was being done abroad.

A year earlier, JDR had paid $600,000 for a chocolate-­colored house and several lots on New York’s West Fifty-­fourth Street, a shaded thoroughfare just off cobblestoned Fifth Avenue. A few doors away lived his brother William, part of a Standard colony that regularly gathered for breakfast at 4 West Fifty-­fourth. Appearing belatedly one morning, JDR asked what was on the menu.

“We have Baptist Fish, Mr. Rockefeller,” replied John D. Archbold, the sharp-­tongued minister’s son whose alcoholic thirst did not prevent him from becoming Senior’s handpicked successor.

“And what kind of fish is that?”

“That is the kind that doesn’t stay good very long after it is taken out of the water.”

Archbold’s jest hinted at the contradictions of his employer, for whom bread and milk were preferable to steak and champagne and whose ruthlessness was on a par with his piety. Senator Robert La Follette branded JDR the greatest criminal of his age. To the painter John Singer Sargent, he more nearly resembled a medieval saint. Rockefeller’s sometime golf partner William James was nearer the mark when he called the “strongly bad and strongly good” robber baron “a man 10 stories deep, and to me quite unfathomable.” One of the richest men on the planet, Rockefeller bemoaned the $300 cost of a new racing sleigh. “Very extravagant, I know,” he wired Junior early in 1888, “but the sleighing is so good could not resist the temptation to buy it and hope to get the worth of our money.” The chief patron of modern medical research sought relief by smoking mullein leaves in a pipe. He also championed osteopathy, the manipulative treatment of the joints that was to be adopted, with bone-­crushing enthusiasm, by his grandson Nelson. Rockefeller encircled his estate with barbed wire and wished to be known as “Neighbor John.” A financial mainstay of the Anti-­Saloon League, he nevertheless surrounded himself with tippling associates and inebriated butlers.

Pressed long afterward to justify his grandfather’s methods, Nelson Rockefeller denied that he was a lawbreaker. “But a lot of laws were passed because of him,” he added jauntily. This was true enough: the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 (opposed by Senator Aldrich) prohibited railroad rebates, while the Sherman Antitrust Act, enacted three years later, outlawed combinations in restraint of trade. Both were in direct response to Senior’s brand of monopoly capitalism. In 1889, Eliza Rockefeller died under her son’s West Fifty-­fourth Street roof. Conspicuously absent from her funeral was Devil Bill, then living with his polygamous second family under the pseudonym “Dr. Livingston.” On the eve of the ceremony, Senior directed the presiding minister to portray his late mother as a widow. In years to come, this habit of embroidery, evasion, or outright fabrication would goad sensation-­seeking writers into producing accounts that strayed even further from the truth yet gained wide acceptance in the face of Rockefeller’s strangely passive attitude toward public opinion.

His Midas touch presented problems of another sort. Making a fortune proved less debilitating than the flood of financial appeals lapping Rockefeller’s heels wherever he went. From childhood he had believed himself divinely sanctioned to earn as much as he could, as long as his gifts equaled his acquisitions. By the 1890s, both had grown beyond individual oversight. To preserve his sanity, and intelligently distribute “God’s gold,” Rockefeller employed yet another Baptist minister’s son, Frederick T. Gates, whose insistence on “scientific giving” directed at education, health, and social research helped to remake popular attitudes toward the Rockefellers. But not even Gates could prevent the nervous collapse that felled Senior in the winter of 1891. Under the strain of overwork, aggravated by a steady drumbeat of legal and press attacks on the Standard, JDR’s health gave way. His hair fell out; almost overnight the virile Rockefeller was transformed into the mummified wraith of his later years. At first he covered his baldness with a skullcap. This gave way to a collection of wigs customized for the golf course, the church pew, and the courtroom. He wore at least as many masks.

4

As his father edged toward retirement, Junior reached adolescence keenly aware of public hostility toward his family and, by extension, himself. Mail addressed to 26 Broadway, the iconic address of Standard Oil popularly known by its initials as the SOB, brought a daily quota of crank letters. Some begged, others threatened. Senior took an odd satisfaction in reading them aloud to Laura and the children at the breakfast table. For JDR’s namesake, a frail youngster who attended a succession of private schools, academic success was purchased at the cost of nervous exhaustion. Choosing a college touched off a fresh crisis of confidence in the boy. “I do not make friends readily,” Junior conceded in the spring of 1893. Under the circumstances, Brown, smaller if less exclusive, seemed preferable to worldly Yale.

That fall, young Rockefeller arrived in Providence, a millionaire’s son on an annual allowance of $1,200. His frugality became the stuff of legend, the new college man hemming dish towels as casually as he trimmed ragged shirt cuffs with a pair of scissors. Young ladies in Providence were amused when the heir to the Standard fortune treated them to a soda, before carefully noting the cost of such hospitality in his ubiquitous ledger. Though his entertaining was limited to chocolate parties in his quarters at Slater Hall, to Laura it appeared that her son was leading a life “largely given over to pleasure.” Rather than sulk, “Old Ice Wagon” took stock of his situation. “Somewhere during the middle of my sophomore year I made up my mind that I had to conquer my shyness,” he said afterward. “I had to get a measure of social ease if I was going to obtain any satisfaction out of my college course.”

Attending the party at which he met Abby Aldrich whetted his appetite for human contact. Junior pledged a fraternity, learned the art of ballroom dancing, and developed a passion for the theater. Without surrendering his ideals, he became more tolerant of dissenters. Elected class president, he professed delight over the traditional stag cruise to Newport, boasting afterward, “Only three men had to be helped aboard. About fifteen were jolly but not unmanageable . . . when we landed at 2 a.m., again headed by the band, we marched up the hill, every man on his own feet and without aid—­a thing which has never been true of a Junior Celebration before.” Increasingly, the name of Abby Aldrich figured in his correspondence. He recounted visits to Warwick, “a charming spot a few miles down the bay,” its charms considerably enhanced by the presence of the senator’s daughter. Together they attended church and the theater, explored the Rhode Island countryside on a tandem bicycle, and canoed the nearby Ten Mile River.

Junior’s election to Phi Beta Kappa helped soothe the finality of graduation. The ceremonies concluded, he repaired to Warwick for a visit with Abby and her family. Putting aside thoughts of a world tour followed by law school, the freshly minted graduate instead answered a call from 26 Broadway, which his father had all but ceased to visit. No formal announcement of Senior’s retirement was issued, however, an oversight with profound consequences for JDR’s reputation and Junior’s peace of mind. Rockefeller père was equally silent in providing guidance to a son embarking on a career for which he had scant aptitude and less training. Maintaining a brave front, Junior assured his mother, “I am not afraid to work or do whatever is required of me, and with God’s help I will do my best.”

5

Among the greetings tendered the newest recruit to 26 Broadway, none carried more weight than the cautionary words of Frederick Gates, Senior’s philanthropic gatekeeper. “In this business you have to live the life of a recluse,” the older man admonished Junior. “Never make friends. Don’t join clubs. Avoid knowing people intimately. Never put yourself in a position where your judgment is swayed by unconscious motives.” The practical effect of this advice was to extend Junior’s innate wariness of strangers to include presumed friends. One day, a Brown classmate appeared in the drab ninth-­floor suite Rockefeller shared with other “associates” answerable to Gates. After a few minutes of amiable chatter, Junior inquired sharply, “Tom, why did you come in to see me?” The friend replied that he had just dropped by to see how his fraternity brother liked his new responsibilities.

“Do you know,” said a visibly relieved Junior, “you are the first man to come in here to see me in two months who hasn’t had an axe to grind?”

His menial responsibilities offered Junior little in compensatory satisfaction. During his first weeks at the SOB, the apprentice filled inkwells, chose a tombstone for the family plot in Cleveland, and selected wallpaper for a pink sitting room. Eager to prove himself on his father’s turf, in the autumn of 1899 Junior fell under the spell of a Wall Street scam artist named David Lamar. Before he was through, the greenhorn investor had squandered almost $1 million of Senior’s money. “I would rather have had my right hand cut off than to have caused you this anxiety,” a mortified Junior told his father. JDR quietly paid his son’s debts, in the process obligating still greater emotional ones. Even as he entered, with halting step, into his inheritance, Junior experienced financial and emotional manipulation that would one day be revisited on his own children. To work off churning emotions, he regularly reduced twenty-­foot logs to firewood with a cross-­buck saw, before running several miles from his father’s stable to the Rockefeller home on West Fifty-­fourth Street.

Romantic complications added to his turmoil. Fearing solitude less than an unhappy marriage, the young man prayed over his feelings for Abby Aldrich every day for four years. According to Abby’s biographer Bernice Kert, he sought more practical direction in the pages of such frankly modern volumes as Sane Sex Life and What a Young Husband Ought to Know. In the spring of 1901, he submitted to a six-­month trial separation from the woman he loved. Refocusing his energies on work, Junior stared down J. P. Morgan and negotiated a $50 million profit on the sale of his father’s iron ore holdings in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range. Senior rejoiced in this unexpected victory over the lordly financier nicknamed Jupiter. “Great Caesar, but John is a trump!” he exclaimed. Laura took the occasion to remind her son that “control of self wins the battle, for it means control of others.”

But what of the emotional battlefield? In a wrenching soliloquy beside the lake at Forest Hill, Junior all but begged his mother for release from his self-­imposed isolation. “Of course you want Miss Aldrich,” she responded. “Why don’t you go and get her?” On August 21, 1901, he telegraphed a request to see Abby. Two days later came news of their betrothal, though not before Junior, oblivious to the humor of the situation, dutifully assured Senator Aldrich that he could provide for his daughter’s financial security. “I can’t believe that it is really true, that all this sacred joy, this holy trust is mine,” an ecstatic Junior told Laura. Less elevated sentiments filled the nation’s press. “Miss Abbie [sic] is not pretty, but she is bright, attractive, and fond of society,” hissed Town Topics. The New York Telegraph wryly noted, “It is altogether probable that the young couple will have sufficient means to keep them from actual hunger even at first.”

In the first week of October, an occupying force of the nation’s social and political elite filled three floors of the Narragansett Hotel in Providence. Reporters described Junior’s bachelor dinner, washed down with six different brands of water served at the teetotaling groom’s behest, as the costliest in Rhode Island history. Wednesday, October 9, dawned warm and mellow. Shortly after ten o’clock, most of the three dozen guests invited to the private ceremony boarded the Aldrich yacht Wild Duck, shadowed by fifteen Pinkerton guards on Senior’s payroll. Laura Spelman Rockefeller remained in her suite at the Narragansett, confined to her bed by colitis. On reaching the Aldrich dock, passengers strode past rows of trees dressed in their autumn livery of orange and crimson, from which Indian Oaks took its name. Scarcely less colorful were the rustling silks and glittering jewels assembled at this plutocratic gathering of the clans. Outside the estate gates, reporters for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World jostled with rubberneckers straining for a glimpse of the arriving guests.

Junior kept his eyes fixed on Abby, stunning in an ivory satin gown and veil trimmed with orange blossoms. Shortly before noon, John and Abby were married in a seven-­minute ceremony performed by the same Congregational minister who had united Nelson and Abby Pearce Aldrich thirty-­five years earlier to the day. Following the exchange of vows, the wedding party left the teahouse for a nearby marquee, where hundreds of guests waited beneath a suspended garden for a wedding breakfast catered by Louis Sherry. Plainclothes detectives mingled in the crowd, gawking at gold plates from the William Rockefellers, their brazen splendor rivaled by elegant china, cut glass, Empire mirrors, and valuable paintings and engravings lavished on the newlyweds. From the Henry Osborne Havemeyers—­his American Sugar Refining Company controlled half the nation’s supply—­came a rare ostrich fan. Senior and Laura gave Abby a set of matched pearls. Junior presented his bride with $1,000, which she immediately turned over to the Providence YMCA.

That afternoon, John and Abby returned to New York City. They spent the first night of their married life at the Plaza before embarking on a four-­week honeymoon at Pocantico Hills, a tiny hamlet thirty miles north of the city, whose scenic acreage Senior had been accumulating for several years. Spurred by the arrival of the New York City and Northern Railroad in 1881, the unincorporated village between the Saw Mill and Hudson rivers appealed to the elder Rockefeller as a place “where we can live simply and quietly.” Lured by the promises of an aggressive land developer (“No ferries. No tunnels. No fogs. No swamps. No mosquitoes”), Rockefeller took for his summer home the Parsons-­Wentworth House, a dowdy frame dwelling of three stories near the summit of Kykuit—­Dutch for “lookout”—­Hill. From his spacious porch, Senior could gaze at the Tappan Zee and the anchorage where Henry Hudson had moored his Half Moon in September 1609.

It was to this idyllic spot, high above the Hudson’s broadest expanse, that Junior brought his bride. Alone except for Senior’s servants, the couple passed a “sacred month,” according to the bridegroom, notwithstanding Abby’s declaration “out of a clear sky and on an unruffled sea of bliss, that if I should ever strike her, she would leave me.” After a brief stay with Senior and Laura, the newlyweds moved into a three-­story, bow-­fronted limestone residence at 13 West Fifty-­fourth Street. This was to be their home for the next decade. JDR paid the annual rent of $9,600, later raised to $12,000 (at a time when the rent bill for an average American couple was $144 a year). In 1906, he bought the place outright, then transferred it to Junior for $1 “and other valuable considerations.” The new owner installed an Otis elevator and centralized vacuum-­cleaning system. Later he added a fourth story to accommodate his growing family.

The woman of the house, as modern as her appliances, exhibited an independent turn of mind. Allergic to sacerdotal gloom, Abby laughingly fell back on genetics to explain her irregular habits of worship. “I don’t think too much church agrees with the Aldrich family,” she said, citing as evidence a sister who had sustained a spinal injury while kneeling in prayer. It was hard to imagine the new Mrs. Rockefeller on her knees to anyone. Her husband’s casual proposal that she keep a ledger of weekly expenses met with a flat refusal. For Junior, comfortable habits proved even harder to break. Early in his marriage, he dropped by Tiffany’s. “I suppose that I shall have occasion in my lifetime to buy a good deal of jewelry,” he alerted the store manager. “I know nothing about jewelry, and I would appreciate it if you would assign somebody in your concern to talk to me about it.” It was vintage Junior—­the application of a dry, precise intelligence to impose system on impulse.

His unromantic course in precious stones contrasted sharply with the contemporaneous inquiry undertaken by the daughter of a Pennsylvania oilman for whom memories of the South Improvement Company still rankled. “The task confronting me is a monstrous one,” wrote Ida Tarbell, managing editor of McClure’s Magazine, as she contemplated the tangled history of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. “I dream of the octopus day and night and think of nothing else.”

Revue de presse

“[An] enthralling biography . . . Richard Norton Smith has written what will probably stand as a definitive Life. . . . On His Own Terms succeeds as an absorbing, deeply informative portrait of an important, complicated, semi-heroic figure who, in his approach to the limits of government and to government’s relation to the governed, belonged in every sense to another century.”The New Yorker
 
“[A] splendid biography . . . On His Own Terms is a clear-eyed, exhaustively researched account of a significant and fascinating American life.”The Wall Street Journal
 
“A compelling read . . . What makes the book fascinating for a contemporary professional is not so much any one thing that [Nelson] Rockefeller achieved, but the portrait of the world he inhabited not so very long ago.”The New York Times
 
“Richard Norton Smith spent fourteen years researching this life of Rockefeller. [On His Own Terms] has perception and scholarly authority and is immensely readable.”The Economist
 
“With a keen eye for richness of detail, a gift for recounting the sweep of his subject’s life and the mastery of a prose artist, [Richard Norton Smith] offers a complete portrait, one that neither exaggerates Rockefeller’s accomplishments nor downplays his faults. And he depicts Rockefeller—‘allergic to inactivity’ as a man whose breadth of interests and depth of determination continue to astound—in all his contradictions. . . . Inspired in conception, incisive in execution, On His Own Terms displays the artistry of its author and the significance of its subject.”Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A nightmare for political handlers, the man who claimed ‘a Democratic heart with a Republican head’ poses no small challenge for a biographer. But after a decade of exhaustive research, Smith delivers a compelling portrait of a man who defied the simplifying ideologies of his age. . . . Complete and balanced, a biography of exceptional substance.”Booklist (starred review)

“Richard Norton Smith has brought us a gripping, magisterial, deeply researched life of one of the most intriguing figures in American political history. In Smith’s vivid rendering, Nelson Rockefeller is exuberant, talented, conflicted, apparently unstoppable, and then, ultimately, poignant amid the frustration of his Ozymandian ambitions. Along with the tale of Rockefeller’s life, On His Own Terms also brings us a timely, knowing close-up view of what used to be called—at its zenith, which now seems so long ago—the ‘Rockefeller wing’ of the Republican party.”—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789–1989 and The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941–1945
 
“The amount of first-class scholarship Richard Norton Smith undertook to write about Nelson Rockefeller is utterly remarkable. This is one of the greatest cradle-to-grave biographies written in the past fifty years. It’s never dull and always joyfully lucid. Highly recommended!”—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite and The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

“No one knows more about the American presidency than Richard Norton Smith. In On His Own Terms, readers will marvel, laugh, and delight in Smith’s long-awaited biography of almost president Nelson Rockefeller. In history writing at its best, Smith’s insightful account of the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party fifty years ago sounds at many moments uncannily contemporary.”—Ronald C. White, Jr., author of A. Lincoln: A Biography
 
“Perhaps no American in public life has had as varied a career as Nelson Rockefeller—art collector, real estate developer, Latin America policy czar, presidential candidate, and governor of New York for fifteen turbulent years. Richard Norton Smith brings Rocky back to life in all his ebullience. Warning: This is, appropriately, a long book and one that’s impossible to put down.”—Michael Barone, American Enterprise Institute, senior political analyst, Washington Examiner, and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics

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