THE ROCKEFELLER CENTURY by John Ensor & Peter J. Johnson Harr


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A narrowly focused but lengthy tribute to the philanthropies of three generations of John D. Rockefellers. The authors (both former Rockefeller minions) had access to diaries, personal financial records, and other private papers, plus the cooperation of surviving family members. The result of their labors is a deadly earnest, largely uncritical, and oddly skewed account of the dynasty's benefactions over about a 60-year span that ends with the early 1950's, when JDR, Jr., retired. Despite their self-assigned task of explaining why as well as how the Rockefeller men acted as they did, the authors provide more detail than insight. Still, even a short list of family-sponsored projects is impressive. By force of alms, the founding father took away much of the curse of his robber-baron notoriety well before he died in 1937 at nearly 98; the beneficiaries of his largesse included the Univ. of Chicago; the Rockefeller Institute (now University), a medical-research organization that dates back to 1901; and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913). JDR, Jr., also put the Standard Oil fortune to a wealth of socioeconomic uses, e.g., funding the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, donating the site for UN headquarters in N.Y.C., and launching Rockefeller Center in mid-Manhattan during the Depression. As a young man, he was a civic reformer who applied himself zealously to eradicating prostitution and other forms of urban vice. Also a world-class supporter of worthy causes, JDR III had a particular interest in strengthening America's cultural ties with Asia; he was active as well in the development of N.Y.C.'s landmark Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the United Negro College Fund. Beyond positing a sense of stewardship, Harr and Johnson don't identify, let alone clarify, what impelled three successive Rockefellers to embrace good works. Nor do they offer enough perspectives on the times in which their subjects lived for readers to draw their own conclusions. Equally exasperating is the authors' failure to put the Rockefellers' charitable activities in context vis-á-vis those of their contemporaries. Not without interest, then, but an audit that commemorates rather than illuminates. The published text will have 70 halftones (not seen).

Pub Date: June 1st, 1988
Publisher: Scribners