Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
By Ron Chernow
Random House; 774 pages; $30
Press mavens wring their hands when news organizations are caught being brutal or irresponsible. But the truth is that newspapers were at their ballsiest and most outrageous 100 years ago. Anything they dared to print today would seem panty-waisted in comparison. Newspapers that once policed corporations have been absorbed by the same corporations and have lost the taste for bare-fisted combat. In some places, stories that might threaten advertisers no longer see the light of day. Reporters, once cast as ink-stained paladins, have morphed into banker look-alikes and celebrities. As news organizations have waned, the corporations have waxed, hiring fleets of workers who shape the news, often by spoon-feeding lazy reporters.
This scenario owes a great deal to John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937), sire of the Standard Oil monopoly, patron saint of the modern corporation and, in his time, the most detested man in the United States. Rockefeller hired one of the first corporate flacks to counteract the blistering hostility generated by the muckraking journalist Ida Minerva Tarbell, who laid out in detail how Standard conspired to help its allies and ruin its competitors. Rockefeller’s flack did a yeoman’s job of placing warm stories about this scourge of the corporate high seas. But the irony that emerges from Ron Chernow’s hefty new biography, Titan, is that Rockefeller helped create the modern corporate relations department too late to help himself. After three years of fire from McClure’s magazine, Tarbell had painted a bull’s-eye on Standard’s back. By the time the flack was in place, hordes of attorneys general and trustbusters were closing in for the kill.
Why did Rockefeller wait so long to return Tarbell’s fire? The first reason is that he underestimated America’s hatred of his corporate octopus, Standard Oil. The second and most illuminating reason is that he thought God was on his side. If you’ve got God, why on earth would you need a public relations man?
Inside every fat book is a slender one struggling to get out. The fat book here surveys the hundreds of books and articles already written about Rockefeller and re-examines transactions, business partners, and supporting characters in skillful–though excessive–detail. The slender book dispersed throughout the fat one is a fascinating meditation on the monopoly capitalist’s moral life–and the role that evangelical Christianity played in it. Rockefeller’s harsh Baptist upbringing made him the perfect instrument of the marketplace, but it also set up a tortured cycle inside him. He coveted cash as his God-given right; felt sinful about wanting it so badly; and was desperately compelled to give it to charity, which he did with anguish. In wealth, as elsewhere, religion was his staff and his scourge.
The Protestant Reformation provided divine sanction for making money, earning profits, and engaging in commerce. Rockefeller extended this sanction to collusion, secret agreements, corporate spying, bribery, and extortion. Simply put, rivals were told that if they did not sell out to Rockefeller, Standard would bankrupt them with a pricing war. “The Standard,” as he called it, used this strategy first in the “Cleveland Massacre” of 1872, wielding a contract with the railroads that promised preferential rates and taking over 22 of 26 competitors in the blink of an eye. Then it marched like Sherman through the rest of nation. Before he was 40, Rockefeller controlled all but a pittance of the country’s oil. His brutality and success led directly to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which was created specifically to dismember the Standard system of interlocking corporations that disallowed genuine competition. Standard resisted until 1911, when the Supreme Court approved the government’s plan.
As usual, Rockefeller laughed last. The stock soared when the company’s newly created subsidiaries appeared on the market, making the richest man in the world that much richer. The deluge of cash angered President Teddy Roosevelt, who had hoped the break-up would bring the monopolists only pain. But it is a testament to Rockefeller’s skills both as an industrialist and as a deal maker that Standard’s offspring dominated both U.S. and world oil for the rest of the century. The offspring’s names, by the way, are Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Sun, and Conoco.
The Titan saw nothing wrong with bankrupting companies that resisted his advances. He viewed the process of smothering the weakest companies and swallowing those that remained as a thoroughly Christian activity. While trustbusters called him the devil, Rockefeller looked upon himself as a saver of corporate souls who consolidated an unruly business and did away with redundancy. This was true of the kerosene market, where Rockefeller turned a crappy, unreliable product into one that was consistently good–and cheaper, to boot. But in so doing, of course, he drove his competitors out of business.
Reviewers of Titan have found it impossible to speak of Rockefeller without referring to the Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates, especially since the U.S. Justice Department began scrutinizing charges that Microsoft employs predatory practices to maintain its monopoly on computer operating systems and to push its own Internet browser. The government’s questions are legitimate, but the comparisons between Rockefeller and Gates are less precise than they could be. Rockefeller cornered the market on a natural resource simply by wrenching it out of other people’s hands. Gates and Microsoft are selling intellectual products that they thought up and that could eventually be eclipsed by others. The two men are similar, however, in that both severely misjudged public sentiment. Like Rockefeller 100 years ago, Gates came to the national attention with a pugnacious, imperial style that irritated government lawyers who needed no provocation to do what they were hired to do.
I n later years, when Rockefeller was rebuked for his tyrannies, he sang the monopolist’s equivalent of “Onward Christian Soldiers”: “It was right before me and my God. … If I had to do it tomorrow, I would do it again the same way–do it a hundred times.” This messianic corporatism originated in Rockefeller’s childhood in western New York state. His father, William Avery Rockefeller, sometimes called Devil Bill, was a flimflam man and a bigamist who left his wife and children alone for months at a time while he fleeced the populace with bogus medical cures. Rockefeller’s mother, Eliza, reacted to Devil Bill’s criminality by putting the fear of God in her threadbare children, whom she marched to church with unfailing regularity.
Rockefeller grew up ashamed of both his poverty and his ne’er-do-well father and obsessed with the twin themes of frugality and organization. He kept a personal ledger in which he recorded all the money he spent, even the $118 he paid for his wife’s engagement ring, which he listed under “Sundry Expenses.” He wanted mightily to accumulate money, but he worried constantly about breaking the moral code against covetous behavior. Worth billions, he reviewed every grocery bill and prowled the hallways turning out lights. He bit the head off a streetcar conductor who once charged him two fares thinking the distinguished gentleman was paying for his traveling partner as well.
Rockefeller was deeply conflicted about giving away money. He recognized a Christian duty to charity but was gripped by a fear that his charity would be wasted, thereby incriminating him in sin. He overcame this fear enough to give away billions (more by far than even Andrew Carnegie) and created the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, and his own foundation. But giving drove him near to nervous collapse. This story is told well in Chernow’s chapter “Captains of Erudition,” which describes the hellish wrangling between Rockefeller and the free-spending William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago. In the throes of giving, Rockefeller wrote to an associate:
I am in trouble, Mr. Gates. The pressure of these appeals for gifts has become too great for endurance. … I am so constituted as to be unable to give away money with any satisfaction until I have made the most careful inquiry as to the worthiness of the cause. These investigations are now taking more of my time and energy than the Standard Oil itself.
Chernow attributes this attitude to Rockefeller’s “uncommon respect for the dollar.” But what we see is a man caught between the Christian imperative to give generously and a near-pathological cheapness. The tension between the two drove him to distraction. Chernow attributes Rockefeller’s poor relations with Harper to the fact that the college president was a spendthrift. But building a university from scratch is far from cheap. Rockefeller wanted a great college, and he went to great trouble to lure Harper from Yale to the nascent University of Chicago. With Harper in place, one gets the sense of Rockefeller seizing up on the issue of money, eventually forbidding Harper to even discuss it in his presence. This is Rockefeller’s double bind. The sight of his money flowing liberally unnerved him deeply, even when it flowed to something he valued.
Rockefeller was caught up in this anguished giving when Avenging Angel Tarbell began to rend his flesh in McClure’s. Tarbell had grown up in the Pennsylvania oil regions and saw firsthand what happened when the Cleveland Massacre rolled east. Her religious upbringing was easily a match for Rockefeller’s, but it manifested itself in a substantially different way. Her 19-part series was an enormous undertaking that still stands as the signal work on the Standard monopoly. The series maintained an even, almost clinical tone. But a final, two-part profile was unvarnished opinion at its most brutal. Few people had seen Rockefeller up close until Tarbell ambushed him at church. She found him leprous and reptilian and saw in him “concentration, craftiness, cruelty and something indefinably repulsive.” Painting a harrowing portrait of the age-ravaged face, she wrote, “Mr. Rockefeller may have made himself the richest man in the world, but he has paid. Nothing but paying ever ploughs such lines in a man’s face, ever set his lips as such a melancholy angle.”
Chernow argues with Tarbell throughout this book, crediting her work and pointing out her mistakes and emotional lapses. Tarbell was occasionally over the top. But she was also a passionate and hard-driving journalist who spoke a sometimes crushing truth to one of the most powerful men in the world. Deal-hungry monopolists will be with us always. But with journalism fixated on gossip and entertainment, there may be no Ida Tarbells to bring them down.