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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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]