84 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2006
Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. is a powerhouse from beginning to end. Chernow is fast becoming one of my favorite biographers after reading Alexander Hamilton and now this. In both books, he is able to keep you turning the page while, at the same time, building carefully rendered portraits of these complex historical figures.
In Titan, he is at his best, describing Rockefeller as both a great philanthropist and also a man possessed by greed. Chernow's Rockefeller can be as consumed by creating a great Baptist University [University of Chicago] as building tactical alliances that will squeeze out any hope of competition for his company, Standard Oil.
With his first brush stroke, Chernow paints the picture of Rockefeller's father a mountebank, philanderer and a bigamist. From meager beginnings, it is amazing to see the determination with which Rockefeller builds himself up. Rockefeller's ability to move so rapidly from a life of destitution and failure to one of unparallelled wealth and success is built with clear precision though at a dizzying pace.
Chernow's decision to focus so heavily on Rockefeller's father in the beginning of the book is important because the man Rockefeller becomes is a repudiation of everything his father stood for. The son in this case knew what a scoundrel his father was and acted in every way to become everything he was not. The father was a philnaderer, while the son remained devoted to his one wife even when he had become wildly successful. As the father placed his own interests ahead of his family's needs, the son put his family ahead of everything else. And in the realm of business, the father had become a complete failure, while the son achieved successes beyond the wildest expectations of anyone to that point.
But, for all of his success and his blindess to the fact, Rockefeller grew up to be much like his father. His father's ability to con his way out of any situation at any cost was a built in feature of Rockefeller's personality. No matter how much good he did in the world and how much he evolved as a man, he was his father's son. This was no more evident than in the way Rockefeller did business as the leader of Standard Oil. He removed any and all competition at any cost.
For all of his achievements, Rockefeller was never able to completely remove that original strain of human frailness that his father gave him. This was what eventually led to the downfall of Standard Oil and which made Rockefeller Sr. such a complex figure both beloved and hated by those who knew him or of him.
Despite his profound understanding of the mechanics and psychology of the business world, it is Chernow's ability to develop strong character studies that make his books so admirable. During many of the best parts of Titan, Chernow is developing a colorful hybrid of supporting characters every bit as interesting as Rockefeller himself. What makes it all the more impressive is that Chernow does so while carefully tying everything in to build the theme within Rockefeller's life. You get the idea from reading Chernow that you are witnessing the actual motivations of the characters he writes about.
128 of 143 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2004
Read this book before reading "Great Fortune."
"Great Fortune" is the story of the building of Rockefeller Center, and inevitably discusses the leadership influence of John D. Rockefeller jr. and Nelson Rockefeller.
However, the man who sired "junior" was John D. Sr., of course, and he was the one who created the values and assumptions which his family took into the 21st century.
I read this book because I had been simply curious about the mechanics of "the robber barons." Exactly how, and under what circumstances, were a few men in our history able to amass huge concentrations of money and thus profoundly direct our nation's affairs? And what were their personalities and values, too.
More so than any history book, Chernow's work in this area sheds needed light onto these questions. And, in learning Rockefeller's story, the reader also gains some understanding of contemporary titans like Bill Gates and - well - Jeff Bezos.
It's not Horatio Alger, exactly. That said, when you read Chernow's thorough and objective study, you realize that certain qualities are timeless:
1. Commitment to hard work.
2. Insight into meta-forces beyond the day to day.
3. Incredible drive and focus.
4. Ruthlessness in competition.
5. Sublime confidence in your own rectitude and success.
This is a great book with lessons well beyond its era.
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
I have to be honest, I did not pick up and read Ron Chernow's Titan because I was burning to read a biography about John D. Rockefeller. I read Titan because I had just recently finished reading Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton. In reading Titan, I hoped I would be getting a work similar to Alexander Hamilton, namely the quality of Chernow's prose and the rendering of his subject. Titan exceeded my expectations on all counts.
Chernow has an incredible ability to not only tell the story of a man, but to also tell the story of the times in which the man lived and, in so doing, place his subject squarely within his time. In telling the story of Rockefeller, Chernow is telling the story of America for the nearly 100 years Rockefeller was alive and living in America.
In rendering Rockefeller, Chernow gives us a full portrait of the man - both good and bad and never delivers a verdict on either. Instead, Chernow leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusion on the man. In so doing, the reader is forced to confront the legacy left by Rockerfeller the Robber Barron with the legacy left by Rockefeller the philanthropist.
One conclusion though, that is implied in the text (if not overtly stated) is that had Rockefeller died during the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust in 1911, the judgement of history probably would have ignored Rockefeller's charitable contributions and condemned him outright. Instead, Rockefeller lived until 1937 during which time he garnered acclaim for his philanthropy. It also certainly did not hurt that Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. would do so much to secure his father's place as America's foremost philanthopists as well as rehabilitate his father's Robber Barron image.
In short, if you like John D. Rockefeller, read this book. If you do not like John D. Rockefeller, read this book. If you are indifferent to John D. Rockefeller, read this book. Titan is an example of biography done objectively and done well.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2007
Adjusted for inflation, John Rockefeller was by far the richest man who ever lived. He was reviled for his evil business practices (forming monopolistic trusts, forcing competitors out of business, etc) but he was also a pious, gentle man who gave more to medicine, education and other charities than anyone in history. He could be a stern, rigid man, but defying his public image, he also insisted on paying more than he needed to because he wanted to be sure a business deal was good for both the buyer and the seller.
At the peak of his wealth, Andrew Carnegie had more money than Rockefeller, but from that point on, Carnegie's wealth rapidly declined while Rockefeller's soared. Rockefeller actually made more money after he retired than in all his working years. Even more amazing, Teddy Roosevelt's "trust-busting" efforts to dismantle the Standard Oil monopoly ended up hugely benefiting Rockefeller. This was one shrewd operator!
Rockefeller attended the same small Baptist church on Euclid Avenue most of is life and when he built his first mansion on "Millionaire's Row" in Cleveland, he intentionally built the smallest, most modest home on the street to down-play his wealth. While his contemporaries showed off their wealth, he never owned a yacht, or a private rail car - the equivalent of refusing to buy his own plane and flying commercial airlines today.
Rockefeller's faith believed it was God's will for him to "make as much as he could...and give as much as he could." In the end, no one (not Carnegie who built over 3000 libraries and innumerable galleries and concert halls, not the Mellons or the Fords or the Hearsts) has had more impact on American culture. Rockefeller founded and almost single-handedly built the University of Chicago. He revolutionized medicine and education.
Most importantly for me personally, I was inspired by his personal work ethic, his discipline, and his understanding of business systems. As a young man, he worked from 6:30 in the morning, to past 10:00 at night. Later, he calmly appeared to nap during critical business meetings, conserving his energy, saying very little, but making brilliant decisions after he had listened to all the arguments. His ability to organize teams of people, delegate responsibility, tolerate mistakes and trust that good people would, in the end, make smart decisions was revolutionary in his day. Anyone in business ought to read this book!
And, the good news is that Chernow is a great writer. The book reads better than many novels. The characters come alive, the narrative flows quickly, and I couldn't put it down. If you want to excel in business (and in life) read this book. Take notes. Consider the lessons and apply them as they fit your personal situation. This is a GREAT book!
37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2005
John D. Rockefeller was the richest man ever in America. He had $900 million in 1911. Today that would be worth about $120 billion by some estimates. For this, Rockefeller was hated by journalist Ida Tarbell. Ron Chernow does not subtly avoid talking about the controversy surrounding Rockefeller, but addresses it head on and doesn't give his opinion. It is just the facts. Ron Chernow also spends time talking about Rockefeller's philanthropic efforts. He leaves the reader without any doubts that Rockefeller was the greatest philanthropists American has produced. (Bill Gates is will be close though).
This book is very detailed (that is why it is so long) and is the best biography I have ever read. It is the best not only because I am a big fan of Rockefeller, but because of the way it is written. Many people give 5 stars to average books, but this really is a 5 star book.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2004
I just finished reading "Titan", which is the story of John D. Rockefeller. This is a thick book that is 600+ pages long. I was intimidated by the book at first, but once I started, I couldn't put it down. The language was very easy to follow, and the story itself was intereresting.
I found the author a very good story teller. He starts the story before Rockefeller was born, and we gain insights to the period, and the family into which he was born. I found it fascinating to uncover various sources of influence over this very successful man, including his parents, his brothers, the general social and economical climate in Cleveland in late 1800's, and his baptist upbringing. The story is fascinating, because we are able to follow how his roots made him the man he became.
When we are following the life story of the Titan, we are also following the beginnings of industrialism in the USA. We learn how Standard Oil company started out selling kerosene to light up homes around the world. In the background there is Edison, competing for the same market. Interesting historical persons make guest appearances in the story. We learn of Roosevelt, and his fight against monopolies. We come across Carl Jung, who analyzes John D.'s daughter Edith. We meet James Joyce, who is "patronized" by Edith. When building Rockefeller center, John D.'s son junior has to deal with the controversial mural Diego Rivera lovingly paints (and that scene is covered in detail in the movie "Frida", but somehow I had forgotten that the whole event took place in Rockefeller center). We are treated to a journey to the past, of which I knew very little about.
The book is a good corporate biography, as well as a personal one. We learn how Standard Oil became a giant, how it was broken apart after violating the Sherman Act. I find that I understand the fuss about Microsoft much better after reading this book. While following Standard Oil, we learn that this company was the root from which Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil sprang. We learn a bit about the roots of Citibank and Chase Manhattan as well.
John D.'s philantrophy is also a main focus of the book. I was somewhat familiar with his connections to University of Chicago, but realized that I did not know the whole extent of it. His many charities, endowments and donations are granted good space in the book.
In terms of the writing, I have only one complaint. The author in general does a good job not taking sides. I never got the feeling that he was taking sides presenting this controversial life, and the life of Standard Oil. However, from time to time I got the feeling that the author changed his mind about John D. across passages, or led the reader to make certain assumptions about the man, but presented contradictory information later on. It is really difficult to pinpoint which exact passages contradicted each other, but it was a feeling I could not shake off.
All in all, great read. I would recommend this if you are looking for a good personal biography, a good corporate biography, or a historical account of US industrialism between 1850-1930.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2006
It's been over a year since I read Titan and it still impresses me. Only the imbalance in it, fueled by the author's obvious non-impartial admiration for Mr. Rockefeller, kept me from rating this thoroughly-researched life story a fifth star. This is much more than a character study or a "his life and times" sort of book, but I am surprised to see how many other reviewers looked on Titan as a how-to manual for getting rich themselves. Typically I don't read other reviews before I compose my own, but this was one of those rare occasions when I made an exception and am glad I did since it allows me to make the observation that I personally didn't see this book that way. Titan is not light reading but after finishing it a reader will be well-versed indeed on John D. Rockefeller Senior and Standard Oil, the age of the monopolistic trust, the downfall of trusts in the United States, and have insights into both the work ethic of Mr. Rockefeller, and the huge differences between his views on philanthropy and those of his peers, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. There are also some juicy gossipy details here and a cast of villains, Jay Gould foremost, that spice this book up. Titan is a destined for classic status in the ranks of non-fiction, and it deserves that, though bear in mind what I said at the start about a certain self-evident lack of impartiality on Mr. Chernow's part. It never affects the candor of his scholarly investigation into who John D. Rockefeller was, but it does bleed through more than it perhaps ought to.
40 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2007
Titan delves into the history and psyche of John Rockefeller, one of the most enterprising individuals in the history of business.
Chernow does an excellent job of presenting an objective view of the controversial figure, explaining his reasoning without apologizing for his actions. Rockefeller planned for philanthropy from the beginning; "I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience." He used his noble goals as an impenetrable moral shield from his critics, immediately shutting out anyone who made objections to his questionable (and now, illegal) actions.
Still, this is ultimately a very long book about an oil tycoon. If that doesn't sound interesting, you'll hate the book. It's 650 very large pages with very small type. In an effort to provide the most comprehensive view of Rockefeller possible, Chernow goes far, far beyond "verbose" to the point that it's hard to read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2007
I'm currently working my way through the list of twenty books Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett's partner) recommends in the second edition of Poor Charlie's Almanack (very highly recommended). Thus, I am reading books I frankly wouldn't otherwise be (which I'm feeling increasingly sure reflected poorly on me) and I therefore feel somewhat less certain about my opinions. For example, I've read very few biographies and so it's harder for me to compare it to others.
With that caveat, I do read a lot, and I know an excellent book when I come across one - and Titan (2nd edition, 2004, 679 pages) is first rate. The author has clearly done a staggering amount of research, writes well and clearly and is admirably even-handed in his approach (so much as one can tell without reading the background material oneself). I think these are probably the three key factors in producing a biography and it is difficult to find fault in his approach to any of them.
Rockefeller comes across as a fascinatingly strange mixture of cold hearted and genial, a hyper-religious bandit who was convinced that his was God's work even when it involved political bribery and industrial espionage on a grand scale. I found it particularly interesting that he was not considered in any way remarkable in his abilities whilst at school - it appears his success was mainly due to his utterly relentless approach and self-discipline. There are many other interesting subtexts that emerge through the book, such as the enormous difficulty in preventing great wealth from destroying family relations.
My approach to reading my way through Munger's list is to devote an hour to reading each day before I do anything else (I found that was the only way to ensure it got done). Towards the end of Titan I realised that I found it more interesting than the (good) thriller I was reading and I suspect that is the final accolade. The excerpt from the New York Times review quoted on the front of Titan describes it as `A biography that has many of the best attributes of a novel....". So this is a book where you really can have your cake and eat it: you get to learn without giving up any time from entertainment. Highly recommended.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2010
This was a five star book and about as engrossing as I've ever read. Excellent research, writing, story telling, and damn near everything else. Details are included to the nth degree, showing all facets of his incredibly complex and genius personality. I loved the selection of photos, and the inclusion of family characters. I got so into it that my jaw literally dropped when I read of him getting the telegram that his daghter had died in Europe. That takes good writing.
It is also very informative as I already knew that Mr. Rockefeller was the richest man of his era and left an enormous legacy in his philanthropy, but I had no concept of just HOW enormous. And all those details are here too.
This is a big story of one of the great American men of the 19th and 20th century and takes a bit to get through, but it's worth it.