"THE ROCKEFELLER WOMEN: Dynasty of Piety, Privacy, and Service" by Clarice Stasz

"THE ROCKEFELLER WOMEN: Dynasty of Piety, Privacy, and Service"

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In this biographical stew, keeping the Abbys, Elsies, and Isabels straight demands a detailed menu and a hearty appetite for information about this American dynasty. Whatever their other faults and virtues, the Rockefeller women were nothing if not fecund, and in Stasz's (The Vanderbilt Women, 1991) narrative the players' identities begin to blur by the third generation (John D. Sr.'s children). Standing out from the crowd is the founding mother, Eliza Davison (b. 1813), whose wandering (and ultimately bigamous) husband was home at least long enough to father six children; of them, John Sr., and William went on to found Standard Oil and the Rockefeller family of legend. John's wife, Laura Spelman, from a family whose Ohio homes were noted stops on the Underground Railway, created a home dedicated to piety and service. The family has its share of rebels, eccentrics, and prima donnas. John D. Jr. married Abby Aldrich, whose five sons--John D. 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David--became political and economic powerhouses as well as the subjects of diverting scandal. The book's pace becomes nearly breathless with reports of this and the next generation's marriages, divorces, offspring, and charities. Stasz tries to make a case for the Rockefeller women as the power behind the family's philanthropy, but she doesn't quite succeed. Although their influence resulted in the family fortune being funneled into some of this country's most valued institutions--Spelman College, New York City's Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the YWCA, among others--the family money always remained under the firm control of the Rockefeller men. The women seemed to be best at their assigned roles: wives, mothers, and society's moral guardians. Cluttered with forgettable characters and focusing on John D. Sr. as much as his womenfolk, this is nevertheless a reminder of how the Rockefeller fortune has shaped the cultural institutions of this country.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1995
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: St. Martin's