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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Paperback – March 30, 2004
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“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
From the Inside Flap
John D. Rockefeller, Sr.--history's first billionaire and the patriarch of America's most famous dynasty--is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul "etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have" (Kirkus Reviews). Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller's exceptionally rich trove of papers. A landmark publication full of startling revelations, the book will indelibly alter our image of this most enigmatic capitalist.
Born the son of a flamboyant, 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 monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded "the Octopus" by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.
Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.
While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettablyhuman portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously--his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University--than anyone before him. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.
John D. Rockefeller's story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. Pierpont Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller's life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow's signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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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.
- It is not really a chronology. It's more of a topicology. It covers topics in a range of times. This means it jumps around a little in an area that can be a little confusing. For instance, it will cover his investments in the University of Chicago for a timeframe then go backward to cover another topic during that time frame.
- There are huge gaps in coverage of his mother and family. Maybe I missed something but I don't even remember a mention of his sister Mary.
- Rockefeller lived at one of the most exciting times in this nations history. He saw the invention of the car and of the airplane. It's hard to imagine he wasn't more than a little interested in what the Wright Brothers were doing.
- It's very hard to get a sense of his wealth. The numbers in the books seem a little inconsistent at times.
In general, I found the story of Rockefeller's life fascinating. There was nothing especially exceptional about him and yet he became the wealthiest man in the history of the world. While there is debate about this I have no doubt. Unlike today's wealthy who are paper rich (stock) Rockefeller was taking in all of his wealth in the form of untaxed dividends. At one point he was taking in the equivalent of more than $1B a year. While today's rich promise to give their money away when they die Rockefeller spent half of his life giving away as much as he could. While he got vilified throughout life I'm actually amazed at how reserved and content he was. With all of his money he theoretically could have taken over everything. He had enough money to control nearly every major industry if he wanted.
If I could have one major criticism of him it would be the way he was with his wife. She clearly had issues for a great portion of her life and yet Rockefeller still pretty much did as he wished. Perhaps that is what she wanted or perhaps it was either that or he just sat around the house and withered away too. In any, case it seems odd how much time he spends away from her during all of her troubles.
On the other hand it's absolutely remarkable the restraint he shows in dealing with his brother and children. It's amazing that the most powerful man in the world just sits by as his daughter lives in Europe and refuses to even come home for her mother's funeral.
I highly recommend this book.
Rockefeller was a fervent Baptist; he neither drank nor smoked and danced rarely - the latter usually after signing a "deal" - these "jigs" at the office celebrating the crushing of a competitor. This religious foundation is critical in understanding Rockefeller's personality, motivations and behavior, for he unabashedly claimed, "God made me my money." Rockefeller truly believed that the Almighty was on his side and therefore he was the only man capable of running the oil industry. To say he had "control issues" comes nowhere near the reality.
While building his empire, John D. used any and all means necessary to succeed; taking vertical integration to an art form. He monopolized the oil refinery business - at times controlling 90 % of it - by manipulating the railroad industry, who transported his valuable and vast cargo - in Rockefeller owned oil cars - controlled the expansion of oil pipelines and even monopolized the retail business; his sales and marketing force seemingly everywhere his "product" was needed. Along the way he used price-fixing, "managed" the supply of refined oil - initially kerosene by the way - and bribed politicians. Anyone who stood in his way was either bought out or run out of business.
Rockefeller didn't just manipulate the system - he thoroughly dominated it. For those of us who believe in "free-markets", Rockefeller is the quintessential example that regulation - at times and for certain individuals - is not only necessary, but mandatory. Rockefeller's years long struggle with both state and federal authorities - and continued "bad press" - culminating in the break-up of the Standard Oil trust in 1911. (Ironically Rockefeller's personal wealth grew astronomically after this Supreme Court decision.) John D. also mastered the Mr. Magoo/Ronald Reagan-esque innocent bumbling when on the stand and questioned about his "dealings" - begging the question as to how such a sweet old man could be capable of such cut-throat behavior, (Remember Ken Lay of Enron?).
On the flip-side Rockefeller redefined philanthropy - "charity" a core belief of his - both in scope, (surpassing Carnegie's donations), and in mechanism; with the help of a few trusted advisors "inventing" a Rockefeller philanthropic infrastructure. John D. literally had the "problem" of making more money than he knew what to do with.
An interesting side-note, the Rockefeller women - his mother, wife and daughters - led dismal existences with a multitude of physical and psychological maladies - enough to fill a medical text-book and a fascinating by-product of "living with" John D. (One quick quote concerning his wife's view on the "joy" of motherhood, "I am so glad my son told me what he wants for Christmas, so now it can be denied him." - Happy Holidays indeed.)
Also the story of Rockefeller's bigamist father is fascinating - a "story" I knew nothing about.
Titan is a big book - and the smallish print only compounds the reading task. This is not a one or two flight read, but a serious time commitment - the book rich in detail, business dealings, economics and anecdotes - and I've only touched on what is chronicled here. Yet it is well worth the effort - Highly recommended.