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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

3.8 47
by Ron Chernow

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May 1998

With his previous books The House of Morgan, which won the National Book Award, and the critically acclaimed The Warburgs, Ron Chernow has proved himself a first-rate biographer as well as an astute chronicler of business and social history. Chernow's new book, Titan, is the first full-length biography of the epic figure


May 1998

With his previous books The House of Morgan, which won the National Book Award, and the critically acclaimed The Warburgs, Ron Chernow has proved himself a first-rate biographer as well as an astute chronicler of business and social history. Chernow's new book, Titan, is the first full-length biography of the epic figure John D. Rockefeller to draw upon the recently opened Rockefeller papers. These papers include letters, business correspondence, journals, office ledgers, and numerous other documents that have never been published. But the crown jewel in these papers is a 1,700-page transcript of reminiscences Rockefeller recorded for an authorized biography that was never written.

Born the son of a bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world's richest man by creating America's most powerful and feared business, Standard Oil. The company grew so large it was viewed by many as a monopoly -- at its zenith, 90 percent of the oil produced in America was connected to Standard Oil. Rockefeller was considered the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics claimed that his empire was built through unscrupulous tactics like wholesale bribery of political officials, collusion with the railroads, industrial espionage, and more. And the titan spent more than 30 years dodging investigation until finally, Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring down Standard Oil.

With abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow nevertheless discards the stereotype of the monster and provides a human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. Rockefeller gave money to more philanthropies than any other person before him. Titan provides a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man who lived through family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes, many of which have never before come to light.

In light of the rise of Bill Gates, Chernow could not have picked a more appropriate time to write about this industrial giant. He has written a brilliant portrait of a titan living in a pivotal moment in American history.

Editorial Reviews

Jack Beatty
This book is a triumph of the art of biography....[it] has an eerie timeliness. -- The New York Times
A captivating biography of one the most famous men in American business history.
The New York Times
Titan has many of the best attributes of a novel…Wonderfully fluent and compelling.
Book World The Washington Post
Chernow's portrait of Rockefeller, an eccentric on a heroic scale as well as a genius, is the best biography of the man so far.
Robert Caro
A....[O]ne of the great American biographies....A triumph, a brilliant, riveting, and monumental portrait of a fascinating human being and his age.
Time Magazine
Financial Times
Chernow has confirmed his reputation as a great business historian.
Library Journal
Industry consolidation, enormous new wealth, journalistic muckraking, government antitrust. Sound familiar? Reviewers enthusiastically praised this monumental work about the founder of Standard Oil, which serves as a useful reminder that what happens today in the business world often has strong roots in the past. (LJ 3/15/98)
NY Times Book Review
A large-scale, sustained narrative portrait of the founding father, free of visible ideological predispositions.
Jackson Lears
[A] conscientious and thorough biography....the balance tips toward an emphasis on Rockefeller's benevolence....Chernow's book is a masterful synthesis of research and writing, [but] its frequently celebratory tone [comes at] a time, afer all, when CEOs pose as culture heroes....Still, Titan is...an extraordinary achievment in biography. -- The New Republic
Wall Street Journal
Important and impressive.
The Washington Post
The best biography of Rockefeller so far.
Robert A. Caro
...[O]ne of the great American biographies....A triumph, a brilliant, riveting, and monumental portrait of a fascinating human being and his age. -- Time Magazine
Time Magazine
One of the great American biographies.
Kirkus Reviews
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). '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 toeliminate 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.

From the Publisher
“A biography that has many of the best attributes of a novel. . . . Wonderfully fluent and compelling.” —The New York Times

“A triumph of the art of biography. Unflaggingly interesting, it brings John D. Rockefeller Sr. to life through sustained narrative portraiture of the large-scale, nineteenth-century kind.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Important and impressive. . . . Reveals the man behind both the mask and the myth.” —The Wall Street Journal

“One of the great American biographies. . . . [Chernow] writes with rich impartiality. He turns the machinations of Standard Oil . . . into fascinating social history.” —Time

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.23(w) x 7.98(h) x 1.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Flimflam Man

In the early 1900s, as Rockefeller vied with Andrew Carnegie for the title of the world's richest man, a spirited rivalry arose between France and Germany, with each claiming to be Rockefeller's ancestral land. Assorted genealogists stood ready, for a sizable fee, to manufacture a splendid royal lineage for the oilman. "I have no desire to trace myself back to the nobility," he said honestly. "I am satisfied with my good old American stock."


The most ambitious search for Rockefeller's roots traced them back to a ninth-century French family, the Roquefeuilles, who supposedly inhabited a Languedoc chbteau. The clan's departure from France is much better documented than its origins. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenot family fled from religious persecution and emigrated to Sagendorf, near the Rhenish town of Koblenz, and Germanized their surname to Rockefeller.

Around 1723, Johann Peter Rockefeller, a miller, gathered up his wife and five children, set sail for Philadelphia, and settled on a farm in Somerville and then Amwell, New Jersey, where he evidently flourished and acquired large landholdings. More than a decade later, his cousin Diell Rockefeller left southwest Germany and moved to Germantown, New York.

Diell's granddaughter Christina married her distant relative William, one of Johann's grandsons. (Never particularly sentimental about his European forebears, John D. Rockefeller did erect a monument to the patriarch, Johann Peter, at his burial site in Flemington, New Jersey.) The marriage of William and Christina produced a son named Godfrey Rockefeller, who was
the grandfather of the oil titanand a most unlikely progenitor of the clan. In 1806, Godfrey married Lucy Avery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, despite the grave qualms of her family.

Establishing a pattern that would be replicated by Rockefeller's own mother, Lucy had, in her family's disparaging view, married down. Her ancestors had emigrated from Devon, England, to Salem, Massachusetts, around 1630, forming part of the Puritan tide. As they became settled and gentrified, the versatile Averys spawned ministers, soldiers, civic leaders, explorers, and traders, not to mention a bold clutch of Indian fighters. During the American Revolution, eleven Averys perished gloriously in the battle of Groton.

While the Rockefellers' "noble" roots required some poetic license and liberal embellishment, Lucy could justly claim
descent from Edmund Ironside, the English king, who was crowned in 1016. Godfrey Rockefeller was sadly mismatched with his enterprising wife. He had a stunted, impoverished look and a hangdog air of perpetual defeat. Taller than her husband, a fiery Baptist of commanding presence, Lucy was rawboned and confident, with a vigorous step and alert blue eyes. A former schoolteacher, she was better educated than Godfrey. Even John D., never given to invidious comments about relatives, tactfully conceded, "My
grandmother was a brave woman. Her husband was not so brave as she."


If Godfrey contributed the Rockefeller coloring-bluish gray eyes, light brown hair-Lucy introduced the rangy frame later notable among the men. Enjoying robust energy and buoyant health, Lucy had ten children, with the third, William Avery Rockefeller, born in Granger, New York, in 1810. While it is easy enough to date the birth of Rockefeller's father, teams of frazzled reporters would one day exhaust themselves trying to establish the date of his death.

As a farmer and businessman, Godfrey enjoyed checkered success, and his aborted business ventures exposed his family to an insecure, peripatetic life. They were forced to move to Granger and Ancram, New York, then to Great Barrington, before doubling back to Livingston, New York. John D. Rockefeller's upbringing would be fertile with cautionary figures of weak
men gone astray. Godfrey must have been invoked frequently as a model to be avoided. By all accounts, Grandpa was a jovial, good-natured man but feckless and addicted to drink, producing in Lucy an everlasting hatred of liquor that she must have drummed into her grandson. Grandpa Godfrey was the first to establish in John D.'s mind an enduring equation between bonhomie and lax character, making the latter prefer the society of sober, tight-lipped men in full command of their emotions.

The Rockefeller records offer various scenarios of why Godfrey and Lucy packed their belongings into an overloaded Conestoga wagon and headed west between 1832 and 1834. By one account, the Rockefellers, along with several neighbors, were dispossessed of their land in a heated title dispute with some English investors. Another account has an unscrupulous businessman gulling Godfrey into swapping his farm for allegedly richer turf in Tioga County. (If this claim was in fact made, it proved a cruel hoax.) Some
relatives later said that Michigan was Godfrey's real destination but that Lucy vetoed such a drastic relocation, preferring the New England culture of upstate New York to the wilds of Michigan.

Whatever the reason, the Rockefellers reenacted the primordial American rite of setting out in search of fresh opportunity. In the 1830s, many settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut were swarming excitedly into wilderness areas of western New York, a migration that Alexis de Tocqueville described as "a game of chance" pursued for "the emotions it excites, as much as for the gain it procures."


The construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s had lured many settlers to the area. Godfrey and Lucy heaped up their worldly possessions in a canvas-topped prairie schooner, drawn by oxen, and headed toward the sparsely settled territory.

For two weeks, they traveled along the dusty Albany-Catskill turnpike, creeping through forests as darkly forbidding as
the setting of a Grimms' fairy tale. With much baggage and little passenger space, the Rockefellers had to walk for much of the journey, with Lucy and the children (except William, who did not accompany them) taking turns sitting in the wagon whenever they grew weary. As they finally reached their destination, Richford, New York, the last three and a half miles were especially arduous, and the oxen negotiated the stony, rutted path with difficulty. At the end, they had to lash their exhausted team up a nearly
vertical hillside to possess their virgin sixty acres. As family legend has it, Godfrey got out, tramped to the property's peak, inspected the vista, and said mournfully, "This is as close as we shall ever get to Michigan."

So, in a memorial to dashed hopes, the spot would forever bear the melancholy name of Michigan Hill.
Even today scarcely more than a crossroads, Richford was then a stagecoach stop in the wooded country southeast of Ithaca and northwest of Binghamton. The area's original inhabitants, the Iroquois, had been chased out after the American Revolution and replaced by revolutionary army veterans. Still an uncouth frontier when the Rockefellers arrived, this backwater had
recently attained township status, its village square dating from 1821. Civilization had taken only a tenuous hold. The dense forests on all sides teemed with game-bear, deer, panther, wild turkey, and cottontail rabbit-and people carried flaring torches at night to frighten away the roaming packs of wolves.

By the time that John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839, Richford was acquiring the amenities of a small town. It had some nascent
industries-sawmills, gristmills, and a whiskey distillery-plus a schoolhouse and a church. Most inhabitants scratched out a living from hardscrabble farming, yet these newcomers were hopeful and enterprising.

Notwithstanding their frontier trappings, they had carried with them the frugal culture of Puritan New England, which John D. Rockefeller would come to exemplify.

The Rockfellers' steep property provided a sweeping panorama of a fertile valley. The vernal slopes were spattered with wildflowers, and chestnuts and berries abounded in the fall. Amid this sylvan beauty, the Rockfellers had to struggle with a spartan life. They occupied a small, plain house, twenty-two feet deep and sixteen feet across, fashioned with hand-hewn beams and timbers. The thin soil was so rocky that it required heroic exertions just to hack a clearing through the underbrush and across thickly
forested slopes of pine, hemlock, oak, and maple. As best we can gauge from a handful of surviving anecdotes, Lucy ably
managed both family and farm and never shirked heavy toil. Assisted by a pair of steers, she laid an entire stone wall by herself and had the quick-witted cunning and cool resourcefulness that would reappear in her grandson. John D. delighted in telling how she pounced upon a grain thief in their dark barn one night. Unable to discern the intruder's face, she had the mental composure to snip a piece of fabric from his coat sleeve.

When she later spotted the man's frayed coat, she confronted the flabbergasted thief with the missing swatch; having silently made her point, she never pressed charges. One last item about Lucy deserves mention: She had great interest in herbal medicines and home-brewed remedies prepared from a "physic bush" in the backyard. Many years later, her curious grandson sent specimens of this bush to a laboratory to see whether they possessed genuine medicinal value. Perhaps it was from Lucy that he inherited the fascination with medicine that ran through his life, right up to his creation of the world's preeminent medical-research

By the time he was in his twenties, William Avery Rockefeller was already a sworn foe of conventional morality who had opted for a vagabond existence. Even as an adolescent, he disappeared on long trips in midwinter, providing no clues as to his whereabouts. Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks-he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a
pugnacious jaw-that people were instantly beguiled by him. This appealing fagade, at least for a while, lulled skeptics and disarmed critics. It wasn't surprising that this nomad did not accompany his parents on their westward trek to Richford but instead drifted into the area around 1835 in his own inimitable fashion. When he first appeared in a neighboring hamlet, he quickly impressed the locals with his unorthodox style. Posing as a deaf-mute peddler selling cheap novelties, he kept a small slate with the
words "I am deaf and dumb" chalked across it tied by a string to his buttonhole. On this slate, he conversed with the locals and later boasted how he exploited this ruse to flush out all the town secrets. To win the confidence of strangers and soften them up for the hard sell, he toted along a kaleidoscope, inviting people to peer into it.


During his long career as a confidence man, Big Bill always risked reprisals from people who might suddenly unmask his deceptions, and he narrowly escaped detection at the home of a Deacon Wells. The deacon and his daughter, a Mrs. Smith, pitied the poor peddler who knocked on their door one Saturday and sheltered him in their home that night. The next morning, when they invited him to church, Big Bill had to resort to some fancy footwork, for he always shied away from crowds where somebody might recognize him and expose his imposture. "Billy told [the deacon] in writing that he liked to go to church, but that his infirmity caused him to be stared at, so that he was abashed and would not go," recalled a townsman. "He really feared that he might be exposed by someone."


Seven months later, after the deacon and Big Bill had both moved to Richford, Mrs. Smith spotted the erstwhile deaf-mute at a social gathering and marveled at his miraculous recovery of speech. "I see that you can talk better than when I saw you last," she said. Big Bill smiled, unfazed, his bravado intact. "Yes, I'm somewhat improved."


When he arrived in Richford, the local citizens immediately got a taste of his fakery, for he wordlessly flashed a slate with the scribbled query, "Where is the house of Godfrey Rockefeller?"


Since he usually presented false claims about himself and his products, Bill worked a large territory to elude the law. He was roving more than thirty miles northwest of Richford, in the vicinity of Niles and Moravia, when he first met his future wife, Eliza Davison, at her father's farmhouse. With a flair for showmanship and self-promotion, he always wore brocaded vests or other brightly colored duds that must have dazzled a sheltered farm girl like Eliza. Like many itinerant vendors in rural places, he was a smooth-talking purveyor of dreams along with tawdry trinkets, and Eliza responded to this romantic wanderer. She was sufficiently taken in by his deaf-and-dumb humbug that she involuntarily exclaimed in his presence, "I'd marry that man if he were not deaf and


Whatever tacit doubts she might have harbored when she discovered his deceit, she soon succumbed, as did other women, to his mesmerizing charm.

A prudent, straitlaced Baptist of Scotch-Irish descent, deeply attached to his daughter, John Davison must have sensed the world of trouble that awaited Eliza if she got mixed up with Big Bill Rockefeller, and he strongly discouraged the match. In later years, Eliza Rockefeller would seem to be a dried-up, withered spinster, but in late 1836 she was a slim, spirited young woman with flaming red hair and blue eyes. Pious and self-contained, she was the antithesis of Bill and probably found him so hypnotic for just that reason. Who knows what gloom hung around her doorstep that was dispelled by Bill's glib patter? Her mother had died when
Eliza was only twelve-she had dropped dead after taking a pill dispensed by a traveling doctor-and Eliza was raised by her older sister, Mary Ann, leaving Eliza deprived of maternal counsel.

From the Audio Cassette edition.

What People are Saying About This

Vanity Fair
"Chernow is a writer who's well familiar with the outsize characters of early 20th-century capitalism. He has written the definitive biographies of two other legendary financial dynasties. Now, with the Rockefeller biography, Chernow has completed an extraordinary trilogy." --Vanity Fair

Meet the Author

Ron Chernow’s bestselling books include The House of Morgan, winner of the National Book Award; The Warburgs, which won the George S. Eccles Prize; The Death of the Banker; Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Washington: A Life, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and Alexander Hamilton, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and adapted into the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton. Chernow has served as president of PEN American Center and has received seven honorary doctoral degrees. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Father_of_5_Boys More than 1 year ago
A great book about an intriguing individual. I've read a lot about the Civil War and this book helped connect that time period with the 20th century and the Industrial Revolution. If you're a capitalist at heart and feel that free markets should be left to work on their own (like I do), then this book will make you rethink that and help you understand that some government regulation is necessary. Being the founder of a non-profit charitable organization myself, it also gave me a lot of insights into the field of charities. It's amazing to think of the wide ranging influence that John D. Rockefeller had in shaping business, charity, and many other aspects of American life and how many of these influences can still be seen today.
International_Banker More than 1 year ago
I was very skeptical about picking this book up due to the fact that there were so many bad write ups going around abut this man. People would slander his name almost everywhere. From the first page, I was hooked. The outline of this mans life was to the T. It was very balanced and honest. The read was in depth and talked about the more elegant side of Mr. Rockefeller that know one know. I will read this over again with more cigars to smoke.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed reading this book and go back to it from time to time. It reveals a life that up until now has only been written about by authors whom disliked him. To find out that he was a religious man with high morals was enlightening. This book really gives you insite to his business practices and the history of the Standard Oil Company.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an enjoyable read and for the most part, a well-balanced look at the man, his life, his family and many other aspects of his existence that shaped who he was and how he lived. I enjoyed it so much I will be reading it a second time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Extremely well written. It answered all my questions I had about John Sr. I wish he would have given more pages to the ending of his life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, I felt like I knew Rockerfeller, Sr. personally. This is a most excellent book for those who want to know more about John D. Rockerfeller.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For someone who is not a big fan of biographies or autobiographies, I find Titan a very interesting read. The book is well written and beautifully designed. It cuts through all the myth and mystery behind one of Americas most loved and hated business men. Showing both his ruthless nature and his religous fervor. It just goes to show you that no matter how crazy you are, you can still make it to the top.....Only in America!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In his excellent biography of John D. Rockfeller Sr., Ron Chernow goes beyond the myths surrounding one of the greatest capitalists that the world has ever known. Chernow gives a well-balanced portrait of a paradoxical man who perceived unbridled competition as nefarious to the development of the nascent oil industry and by extension his Standard Oil. Although John D. Rockfeller Sr. was a ruthless, efficient businessman, he progressively came to the insight that God had given him not only a gift to make a lot of money but also the responsibility to dedicate a significant part of his fortune to philanthropy in order to foster the well being of the society at large. Unlike most 'robber barons', John D. Rockfeller Sr. did not feel the compulsion to be too ostentatious. He led a quite modest life for a man who could afford everything he wanted. The recent development of industry-led consortia such as Covisint and Exostar presents a striking similarity to the emergence of trusts such as the Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel at the end of the 19th century. Unlike a trust, an industry-led consortium is created by major competitors within one industry. Industry-led consortia are under close scrutiny of the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. Their success is built on both liquidity (i.e. traded volume) and value generated through the supply chain of a specific industry. Because success feeds success, there is a high probability that an industry-led consortium will one day dominate an industry at the expense of independent exchanges, private exchanges, and any other consortia on one continent and eventually on a global basis. Will the major players of an industry belonging to an industry-led consortium be able to resist the Demon of monopoly power that proved so alluring to John D. Rockfeller Sr. and his Standard Oil?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found out many interasting things about him and it was a well written book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although Titan portrayed Rockerfeller's life magnificently in a contemporary environment, I felt the author didn't compare and contrast the life of John D. with the lives of his fellow entrepreneurs in the late twentieth century. John D.'s magnificence as both a man and a businessman have been shallowed by the author and I was disappointed by the effort.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Titan reads like a Novel and gives the reader a picture of America in Rockefellers time. This biography covers everything. It is the definitive text on Rockefellers life. I've even given it to two friends and they have both loved the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Best biography I have read in years. Terrific insights into business issues both historical and current. I would recommend this book to any history buff, business person, or student of management science. Superb piece of writing, entertaining on every page.
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I am the leader and i am levi.
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