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There is a picture of all the men in the family waiting at the Tarrytown station for the train carrying Grandfather's casket from his winter home in Ormond Beach, Florida. He died quietly in his bed on May 23, 1937, at the age of ninety-seven. While the official cause of death was sclerotic myocarditis, it would be simpler to say he died of old age. I had known him as "Grandfather," not the "robber baron" or great philanthropist of the history books. He had been a constant presence in my childhood: benign, indulgent, revered by my father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and by the family as a whole.
Looking at that picture today, I find it remarkable how well it captured our relationships with one another, where we were in life, and, perhaps, where we would all be going.
John, characteristically, stands on the periphery. Thirty-one years old, he is the oldest son, inheritor of the dynastic name. After he graduated from Princeton, Father put him on the boards of many family institutions, among them the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and Colonial Williamsburg, grooming him to be the family leader, but he is shy and uncertain of his abilities.
Nelson, also characteristically, has managed to situate himself at the exact center of the picture and stares authoritatively at the camera. At twenty-nine he will soon become president of Rockefeller Center.
Laurance, twenty-seven, the philosopher and businessman, gazes into the middle distance. He was emerging as a leading investor in the aviation industry and, with Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I Flying Ace, would soon buy a large stake in Eastern Airlines.
Winthrop is the handsomest. Somehow Mother's Aldrich features-which one might describe as having a lot of "character"-combined with the Rockefeller genes to produce almost movie-star good looks. Win is the most troubled of us and never quite fitted in. Now twenty-five, he is working as a "roughneck" in the Texas oil fields.
I am the youngest, twenty-one years old, and look very wet behind the ears. I have just completed my first year of graduate work in economics at Harvard and will leave that summer to continue my studies at the London School of Economics.
Father, beginning to show his sixty-three years, presides over us all, completely forthright, a friendly, kind face. Perhaps a little distant.
We brought Grandfather back to the mansion that he and Father had built twenty-five years earlier on the family estate at Pocantico Hills. Called Kykuit, the Dutch word for "lookout," its hilltop site commands a magnificent view of the Hudson River. The next day, with only immediate family and a few close friends present, we held a service for him. I remember it was a beautiful spring day, the French doors open to the terrace, and the Hudson River a glistening blue below us. His favorite organist, Dr. Archer Gibson, played the large pipe organ in the main hall, on which we used to pretend to perform when we were children. Harry Emerson Fosdick, senior minister of Riverside Church, which was built by Father, gave the eulogy.
After the service, as everyone milled about, Mr. Yordi, Grandfather's valet, gestured to me. Yordi, a dapper Swiss fellow, had been Grandfather's valet and constant companion for thirty years. I knew him well, but he had always been reserved in my presence. I went over to him, and he pulled me aside, into a deserted hallway. "You know, Mr. David," he began (from as early as I can remember, the staff always addressed us in that way, "Mr. Rockefeller" being too confusing with so many of us with that name, and first names would have been too familiar), "of all you brothers, your grandfather always thought you were the most like him." I must have looked very surprised. It was the last thing I expected him to say. "Yes," he said, "you were very much his favorite." I thanked him somewhat awkwardly, but he just waved his hand and said, "No, no, I just thought you should know." I didn't really know what to make of it. I thought it would have been Nelson, but I couldn't pretend I wasn't pleased.