on October 10, 1999
As a frequent visitor to New York, I'd often wondered who the "Rockefeller" of the Rockefeller Plaza was, and how he made his fortune. I bought this book with an air of caution, as biographies of highly successfull people can be biased either towards patronising hero-worship, or venomous character assasination. I needn't have worried, as Ron Chernow's extensive, thorough and even-handed book portrays not only JDR's progress through and beyond his 98 years, but also America's consequent development.
The personal conflict between hard-edged business practices and religious ethics are deftly portrayed, and left for the reader to decide wether or not Rockefeller was trying to bring stability and structure to a highly unpredictable market place, or being an un-controllable corporate steam-roller.
The book is not just a study of the incredible business career of John D Rockefeller. To take us some of the way towards understanding the individual, Ron Chernow allows time to give a fascinating look at the early days of not only the parents and grandparents, but also the life styles and factors from before his birth that would so influence the life of JDR. The book covers the years of philanthropy showing how a vast fortune in the right hands can be used effectively.
It's an excellent book, well researched and well written. I learned a great deal from it, and have a tremendous respect for not only the subject of the book, but also the author. I'd recommend "TITAN" to everyone.
on October 11, 2000
While John Rockefeller is one of the most famous and influential men in American history, he has nonetheless come down to Americans in caricature: steely-faced, secretive, greedy, crafty, and ruthless. He was certainly all these, but Ron Chernow has in this book laid bare for us the rest of the story, which is complex, exhilarating, quirky, and rich in paradox. A business genius, Rockefeller was a pivotal figure in developing the modern corporation as the organizational vehicle for controlling massive capital-intensive operations. Recognizing early on that an empire of the scale he envisioned could not be run effectively in the autocratic style still common in his day, he rarely made important decisions without seeking debate and achieving a common mind among his key associates, foreshadowing the "consensus-management" style typical of large-scale enterprise today. His most flagrant sin, and the one that fueled the political backlash against Standard Oil, was the ruthlessness with which he crushed competitors. However, even here he played by the cold-blooded rules as he saw them and was rarely vindictive. When advantageous to himself, as it often was, he extended the olive branch to vanquished rivals, buying out their companies and drawing them into his organization, making at least some of them richer than they could have been on their own. This was not generosity but the inexorable mechanism whereby he expanded Standard Oil into a monopoly. Nevertheless, generosity - paradoxical as it seems - was in fact central to Rockefeller's life. Chernow traces Rockefeller's philanthropy back to his deepest roots as the dutiful son of an intensely religious Baptist mother. We seem him tithing to his church and devoting his time and attention to charity and "good works" already at the start of his career when he was a salaried bookkeeper struggling to put food on his family's table. He made his fortune relatively early in what proved to be a very long life, and he gradually backed away from active management of his company, focusing his colossal energies for most of his mature years on his philanthropic enterprises. There is a wealth of personal material in this book that makes Rockefeller very human, albeit eccentric. His passion as an old man for golf, for example, was almost comical. He despised high-society and ostentation, and socialized mostly with business cronies, family members and people from the smallish Baptist church he was devoted to his entire life. One of the more fascinating threads concerns his ne'er-do-well father, an itinerant huckster and small-time swindler who largely abandoned his family to near-poverty, but had a habit of re-appearing at odd times througout his son's life. Chernow leads us to speculate that the fanatical discipline and devotion to duty which drove Rockefeller might have been a reaction formation against his irresponsible paterfamilias. Who knows? Like all biographies, even the best ones, this book in the end fails to "explain" it's subject, and if anything Rockefeller emerges from it more enigmatic than ever. But the book brings him alive and left me with the desire to know more about him, always the mark of a top-notch biography. That's what this one is and I highly recommend it.
on December 7, 1999
I am in awe of Ron Chernow for writing a long and thorough biography that I absolutely could not put down. Rarely have I finished such a long book in such a short period of time. Chernow manages to show how complex Rockefeller's personality and motives, were, and he helps us to avoid the all-too-easy cliches about the rich and powerful. Yet while revealing the complexity, he is never boring, didactic, or long-winded.
I found it interesting to compare Rockefeller and Standard Oil to Bill Gates and Microsoft. Both men are powerful, rich, misunderstood, certain that their actions are ethical and good for their country and the economy, and dedicated to helping those who are less fortunate. Both men vow(ed) to give away most of their fortune. Both have been attacked by their own government, and villified in the press. Both dominate media coverage of business. And, like Rockefeller, Gates is a brilliant strategist who defies easy cliches and shallow descriptions. You can see goodness in either man, and you can also see evil. The beauty of Chernow's biography is that he allows us to see both sides of Rockefeller, without ever landing on either side himself.
Regardless of my thoughts on the parallels, I highly recommend this bio. Four friends are receiving it as their Christmas gift from me.
on November 21, 1999
My interest in John D. Rockefeller was spawned by an interest in the theory and policy underlying antitrust law in the United States. Having read fairly extensively in the realm of academic texts on the subject, I was interested in acquiring a somewhat more human insight into an individual such as John D. Rockefeller who is often held up as an icon of the unrestrained capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Ren Chernow's book is outstanding and provides an exhaustive description of Rockefeller's background, business and philosophy to life. Having already formed my own personal opinions about monopolies, I felt Chernow provided a well-balanced assessment of Rockefeller's behaviour and avoided the pitfalls of adoration or vilification.
The book is immensely readable and you need not be a lawyer, economist or business historian to make it through any section of the work. His research is exhaustive and leaves the reader feeling that they have truly been provided with insights into what made Rockefeller tick.
I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in commerce or in the history of the United States in this period. As we enter a period in which a new multi-billionaire becomes the subject of intense debate over his business practices, it is most interesting to look back on the life of John D. Rockefeller and determine the extent to which history is actually repeating itself.
5 stars - without any hesitation whatsoever.
Ron Chernow is as good a biographer as any writing today, and he continues to produce scholarly studies at a consistent level of excellence. He has now added his study of John D. Rockefeller Sr. in the form of "Titan" to his previously exceptional works, "The House Of Morgan", and `The Warburgs". The reference I make to headlines has to do with Standard Oil and anti-trust issues, which I will come back to a bit later.
The title of the book is appropriate as Mr. Rockefeller continually redefined what it meant to be wealthy, to be powerful, a ruthless competitor, and at times a businessman that would use violence if he felt it appropriate. He operated during a time when the constraints upon business were few, and the taxation of business was non-existent compared to today. This is not to detract from what he accomplished. Were he to have started his career recently his fortune may not have been quite so grand, but this was clearly an exceptional man, driven by his insatiable desire for the consolidation of power combined with his belief that what he did was what his God meant for him to do. He was the Paternalist, chosen to accumulate his great wealth, and then distribute it as he saw fit. This sense of divine right was not something I had read before and it added a quality that was almost surreal.
Standard Oil is a name that has been in the headlines many times recently as people look to draw comparisons to the anti-trust issues that Microsoft is facing. The AT&T breakup is also mentioned, and for the reporter who digs a bit deeper, the break up of the aluminum monopoly. Every time the comparison is made to Standard Oil I get nauseated, and I believe for good reason.
Mr. Rockefeller controlled not only commodities, but controlled the process from the time the raw material came from the ground, was refined, nearly anytime it was moved, pipelines, railroads, and their owners by requiring he be paid through preferential treatment at the expense of the few competitors that were constantly being erased. And his competitors were erased with private security forces, and lethal force if necessary.
None of us can operate without oil, or its byproducts. This natural resource is unique and without it, to keep the issue local, this Country would simply stop. We went to war to ensure foreign supplies were not monopolized, the commodity is that important.
If there is a meeting that 10 people travel to, they will all use a fossil fuel to get there. Your car, their car, the airplane, none are affected by what name brand of fuel they consume. A commodity is generic. Now the 10 arrive in a conference room and open 10 laptop computers. They have 10 different operating systems none of which work with the other. Standard Oil equals Microsoft?, would you go on National Television and utter something so utterly moronic?
Disraeli said, "Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." He did not say that autobiography should be read, nor what we are now often offered, the memoir, as the latter two by definition must be suspect as to objectivity. The authorized biography is a variant that again must be suspect to the extent it must past muster with the subject or the subject's heirs.
Mr. Chernow demonstrates, like the few biographers writing at his level, how timeless the study of the individuals who "make" so much of our History is. It is unfortunate that so little History is accurately memorialized, and even worse, how those who are ignorant of the History they use, are so readily prepared to disperse it. The study of History is time consuming but almost effortless when written as well as "Titan". It is pathetic that so much of our History can be destroyed by the ill informed, the lazy, in a single sound bite.
Mr. Chernow is a great asset to all of us, I wish only that more would read such work, be enriched by it, and demand more from those who disseminate bad information, who sadly are even ignorant of how wrong they are.
on January 11, 2000
Ron Chernow may be our best current biographer. That he can write anything compelling on top of the millions of pages written about the nineteenth century's most famous tycoon is in itself amazing. That he has produced a work of such fluidity and expert precision may be nothing short of miraculous. Titan is more compelling than most works of fiction; a rarity in history books, it is a real page-turner. Like David McCullough's definitive biography of Harry Truman, Titan stands out as a book with a real sense of the human features of its subject, as well as a careful attention to historical context. Stories bind the whole work together and make it flow as if it were a novel.
Most readers will share the same fate as Rockefeller's biographer: near the end of the story they will be so enamored of the man's story that they will decide that many of the features of the twentieth century are due entirely to the imagination and munificence of John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller may have ponied up the money, but J.P. Morgan engineered the rescue of the stock market. John was certainly a pioneer in establishing the legitimacy of institutionalized innovation at Standard Oil, but Edison beat him to the punch by a few decades. Despite these few over-eager slips in the final chapters of the book, Chernow's work stands out as a well-balanced work in a sea of tedious biographies. It is rare to see such expert use of primary material -- the educated reader will marvel at the agility with which Chernow handles volumes of personal correspondance, interview transcripts, newspaper and magazine articles. History House feels it is a bit obvious to mention the timeliness of a good Rockefeller biography in the most recent Gilded Age, with its cast of Gates, Greenspan and the dot com billionaires. But we've never been ones for subtlety. Buy this book and set aside a week to read it. You won't put it down. [HistoryHouse.com]
Like many people, I have thought of John D. Rockefeller as a simple caricature, the ruthless business tycoon and skinflint, devoid of any moral or ethical sensibilities. This book shows that Rockefeller, like any other person, was a man of great complexity and subtlety. While ruthless in business practices, he also operated by a heightened sense of responsibility for society in general within his 19th and early 20th century context. While many would doubtless castigate him for his business practices, he was, in many respects, responsible for many advances in medicine, research and other philanthropic causes. The author presents a balanced portrait of the man and his times, neither dismissing his obvious flaws nor unduly praising the man. I found the book fast moving and fun as well as informative in delineating the shades of gray in an engaging study of a unique individual.
on August 1, 1998
Backed by an impressive research effort, Chernow presents the long life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in lucid and gripping prose. Presenting an objective, balanced portrait of the "Titan," the author convincingly refutes older biographical works that characterized Rockefeller as either wholly just (Allan Nevins) or evil incarnate (Ida Tarbell). Here is a man who exemplified the American "can-do" spirit through his creation of the modern oil industry from an initial $1800 investment. Rockefeller's Standard Oil trust produced a cheap and reliable illuminant used by tens of millions in America, Europe and Asia, providing many with what quickly became a necessity of life. His University of Chicago went from virtual nothingness to a world-class learning institute within a decade; his medical charities saved tens of thousands of lives by eliminating hookworm in the American South and yellow fever throughout the world. Chernow, however, does not gloss o! ver Rockefeller's use of political corruption and predatory business tactics to achieve these ends. Chernow concludes that Rockefeller's approach did not arise from a Jeckyl and Hyde complex, nor from a desire to use his charities as a balm to soothe his conscience. Instead, Chernow convincingly argues that Rockefeller's misdeeds and acts of kindness arose from the same peculiar source: his firm belief that both his business and his charities performed the work of God. "Titan" is an amazing work, which details not only Rockefeller's rise to power but the intricacies of his complex personality as well. A must for any fan of American history.
on September 12, 2001
I have read THE HOUSE OF MORGAN and THE WARBURGS. The TITAN is the best by far. Chernow keps getting better. His characters get developped in a more exciting and empathetic way and the drone of detail is handled much better withour disappearing.
I find this book fascinating for many reasons. First, Rockefeller is a bedeviled and unknown figure which seems to have defined the national character of the United States, not only by creating the concept of the multi-national enterprise, but much more importantly by creating and fostering a tradition of public giving. The University of Chicago and Spellman College are just tips of an iceberg of public good that he did. Not only did he not publicize his generosity, he affirmatively hid it for both financial and religious reasons.
Even more fascinating is the use of legal strategy in business. Rockefeller's contracts were drafted with care. Always fair to the other side, but also structured to help the enterprise strategically. Moreover, this multinational was created at a time when each state restricted its corporations to owning property inside the state. Thus, Standard Oil had to be cobbled together from numerous state Standard Oils, unified by being held in a trust. Both contracting and the mechanisms of administering the trust are fascinating (and, perhaps, could be covered more extensively in the book, but that is my own biased lawyerly opinion).
The book also illustrates the difficulties of growing up super-rich. We see two or three more generations of Rockefellers with some stars and some disasters. This becomes a small lesson in parenting.
on February 22, 2000
A rare book written so interestingly about Rockefellers' doings and the influences that made him what he was. The parellel bewteen Rockefeller and Bill Gates seems striking!