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TITAN by Ron Chernow Kirkus Star


The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

by Ron Chernow

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-43808-4
Publisher: Random House

The archetypal American institution-builder—in industry, philanthropy, and the family dynasty bearing his name—is etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace by National Book Award—winning business historian Chernow (The Death of the Banker, 1997, etc.). “Silence, mystery, and evasion” perpetually enveloped the founder of the world’s first great industrial trust, enabling him to crush rivals to his Standard Oil Co. The same cocoon presented daunting obstacles to earlier chroniclers of John D. Rockefeller Sr., both detractors (crusading muckraker Ida Tarbell) and supporters (Allan Nevins). Greater access to family archives, including a 1,700-page interview given by Rockefeller in retirement, enable Chernow to tear at this membrance of artifice and to offer as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have. Chernow traces Rockefeller’s contradictory impulses toward greed and godliness to his parents. His father, who abandoned the family for years at a time to ply rustic innocents with patent medicines, left him with shameful secrets (e.g., bigamy and a rape indictment) and acquisitive instincts; his mother instilled a devotion to the Baptist faith that manifested itself in philanthropy. Chernow is careful to deny some of the hoariest myths of Rockefeller demonology, to detail his managerial gifts, and to underscore his crimes (his alliance with railroads in the shell organization the South Improvement Company involved rebates, insider intelligence, and “grand-scale collusion such as American industry had never witnessed”). Above all, he offers a figure abounding in paradox: the prototypical monopolist who sought to eliminate what he saw as wasteful competition, only to spark an antitrust suit that forced the dissolution of his company; a homeopathy advocate who funded medical research that marginalized this form of medicine; and a tightly wound, self-possessed, despised businessman who in his 40-year retirement displayed a joy in play and a talent for charming reporters, winning the affection of the world. Business biography on a grand scale.