Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

by Ron Chernow

Hardcover, 1998

Call number




Random House (1998), Edition: 1st, 800 pages


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 National Book Award-winning biographer Ron Chernow gives us a detailed and insightful history of the mogul. Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller's rich trove of papers. Full of startling revelations, the book indelibly alters our image of this most enigmatic capitalist. 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 evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettably human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously 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 never before revealed. 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. P. 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member heathweaver
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Ron Chernow is a master of the subjects that he writes about.
LibraryThing member nealbozeman
Chernow's writing style is fluid and insightful. An excellent depiction of Rockefeller's rise, his philosophies, and often, his rather puritanical family life.
LibraryThing member Bonford
Brilliant book--brings out the humanity behind a so-called Robber Baron without glossing over his rougher edges. Absolutely fascinating--couldn't be more highly recommended from this reader.
LibraryThing member uncultured
Thorough and surprisingly gripping, Chernow shows how Rockefeller could at once be a ruthless business tycoon while simultaneously attending prayer meetings and churches side-to-side with the most Puritanical New Englanders. Guest starring Teddy Roosevelt, muckraker Ida Tarbell (who won 1st Place
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in the My Name Sounds Like a 19th Century Cliche contest), Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, and Rockefeller's no-good father, who sold snake oil and other medical delights.
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LibraryThing member gaeta
Ron Chernow states at the beginning of the book that he balked when he was approached to write a book about Rockefeller, declaring that he viewed his potential subject only as a nickel-giving golf-playing codger; only a tape-recorded interview revealing the tycoon to have a dry wit changed his
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mind. I'm not sure how well the author succeeded in revealing the "real" Rockefeller....unless the man really was rather dull. He had none of the neurosis of Carnegie nor the flamboyance of Flager. He wasn't even particularly a visionary (he had retired from active participation from Standard Oil before the automobile became crucial to American society) as he created his fortune through a ruthless undercutting of his opponents in kerosene oil distribution early in his career. His wife, initially a vibrant woman, declined into what seemed all-too typical Victorian neurasthenia; his son was dutiful to the point of being stupefying. (The author makes repeated jabs at just how dull Junior was.) Really, only Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Junior's wife and his grandson Nelson ( making an all too brief an appearance late in the book) liven things up. The details on starting up the University of Chicago are interesting, as are the chapters on his foundation's emphasis on medicine. And of course, it is a fascinating portrait of the "wild-west" days of early Big Business. In the end, however, the book goes on far too long on John D's golf playing days and his obsession to reach 100...but I'm not sure that the author could have done much about that.. Nor can he really answer the central question; did Rockefeller's refusal to change his parsimonious ways revel a man of steadfast character....or one with a cramped soul?
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LibraryThing member jmatson
This tome (almost 700 pages) attempts to reveal the life of John D. Rockefeller. Lots of interesting early stuff on Standard Oil and the onset of the oil age ala Pennsylvania and the family history, but little on the underhanded business practices on Mr. Rockefeller and the oil company he founded.
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Some tidbits, but no in depth information. I found it somewhat of a valentine to the oil mogul. All in all a good read, though.
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LibraryThing member ddjohnson1
An interesting read. The author perhaps comes down a little too hard on Rockefeller's business practices, though some may think not hard enough. He gave the country cheap and abundant oil and gasoline, thereby growing rich. That, and not his later philanthropies, was his greatest gift to the world.
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Of course his great wealth made him a target of the envious.
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LibraryThing member pjsullivan
Biased in favor of Rockefeller, but thorough and interesting.
LibraryThing member ibkennedy
Fascinating person and great story telling by a wonderful biographer. Ron Chernow makes me love history.
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
This is the long life of Rockefeller. He got into the oil business in 1865, and by the early 1880s - a mere 15 years or so later - he owned 90% of the industry. The book rightly focuses on this early period. It also focuses on 1905-1911 when he retired and was the subject of the Ida Tarbell muck
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racking, and family dramas. These are the two most interesting parts because they were the great storms of his life - professional and personal - through which he steered a passage and transformation.

Rockefeller has a single-minded drive to make money, which lasts until the 1920s when he starts to loosen up and become more human suggesting an inner character development. In the 1870s, his upright religious persona bolstered his credibility with bankers allowing him to raise cash to consolidate the industry rapidly; at the same time he was gaming the system to his advantage. Put kindly, the mark of a great man is the ability to hold contradicting ideas at the same time. Not so kindly, he was more greedy and hypocritical then the rest.

I knew little about Rockefeller, and am glad to have learned so much. In balance, most of the money was put to good use - parks, health care, arts - that is the best we can hope for. Near the end, Chernow describes a scene with Rockefeller seeing no interest in yachts but weeping over the beauty of a rainstorm. Chernow didn't intend it but it's poignant - climate change will be his legacy for thousands or even millions of years.
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LibraryThing member willszal
A few years ago I read Chernow's "House of Morgan" and absolutely loved it. In looking for something similar, I came across this.

Commentators have evoked parallels between the Gilded Age and our current time—both are times of growing wealth inequality and monopolistic behavior. For these reasons,
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now is a fitting time to study the life of the most prominent Robber Baron.

This book methodically covers more than a century of American history—starting with John's father Bill, and ending with his grandchildren. Rockefeller has been considered the wealthiest person in modern history (with an estimated wealth of $300 - $400 billion).

There are also many differences between the Guilded Age and our time now. Standard Oil ran a profit starting in its first year, when there are many "Unicorns" (billion dollar startups) that still haven't turned a profit. Stock valuation is now far more important than dividends in the current business paradigm. Also, Rockefeller made much of his money in an era before income tax and gift tax.

Although Standard Oil defined modern corporate law, it did so by forcing political power to shift from the state to the federal level. You could say there are parallels today with political power shifting from the national to the global level (although I hope we're not about to instate some kind of one world government).

You may have heard of the anti-trust era inspired by Standard Oil. What many don't know is that it was illegal for corporations to own assets across state lines during the late 1800s, so Standard Oil flouted the spirit of the law from the beginning. In other words, the core premise of Standard Oil's monopoly was illegal from the start—it's just that government didn't have the power to enforce these laws against such a behemoth until the early 1900s. Additionally, even with Ida Tarbell's notorious revelations, it wasn't until much more recently the full scope of Standard Oil's collusion was realized.

To get a bit into Rockefeller's biography:
* John started lending money to his dad at the age of 15
* John was an accountant, first and foremost
* His father forbid him to attend college, so he started his career at 17
* He went into business with a $1,000 loan from his father (the equivalent of somewhere in the ballpark of $1m today).
* He was a Baptist and temperance advocate
* He founded the University of Chicago, a Baptist school
* His father had a second wife/family, and had been indicted on rape charges
* He partially retired by the age of 50 to devote his life to philanthropy
* He began his giving at 6% of income per year at the age of 17, and went up from there ($550 million over his lifetime—many billions in today's dollars)
* In his 60s he lost all of his hair
* He lived to the age of 97

Rockefeller had a superiority complex that did not help his public relations efforts. He went to church every Sunday. He didn't drink, smoke, dance, or even patronize the arts. Rather than a means, in Rockefeller's cosmology, money is an end. To illustrate this point, it is worth citing the comments of a colleague; "I think you like money better than anything else in the whole world, and I do not. I like to have a little fun along with business as I go through life" (page 65).

I find a number of wealth people today still fall into similar pitfalls. Can extreme wealth inequality ever be justified? This is a core ethical question behind individuals like Rockefeller and the paradigms they perpetuate.

Rockefeller was a pioneering philanthropist and a devout Baptist, but might we have been better off if this wealth had never pooled in the first place? This gets us into questions of the concentration of power (and the reliance on power for the psychology and self-esteem of the ruling class).

Although it might come as a surprise to us today, there was massive backlash against not only Rockefeller's capitalism, but also his philanthropy. Anarchist and a different breed of left-wing populism held far more political power during the Gilded Age (which doesn't bode well for the fascist-bent of political power today).

Lastly, I'll mention Rockefeller's line that he was about "cooperation over competition." Monopolies are never cooperative. Their context is competitive; they crush their competition. Rockefeller's use of the word "cooperation" is like saying the Jews "cooperated" with the Nazis—it is deeply offensive, and relies on coercion and massive imbalances of power. Living systems are never dominated by one way of doing things. Only authoritarian approaches ever achieve 100% adoption.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Wow, this is a fabulous listen (audio book) . Never a dull moment, Chernow has done the incredible, made a tyrants long life exciting and stunning, while still showing what an absolute scum Rockefeller was. Maybe Chernow can do trump's life, he might be able to make it readable (instead of wanting
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to tear my head off).

Audiobook note :excellent narrato
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LibraryThing member starkravingmad
Among the best biographies I have read. Read it 2-3 times while reading it the first time just to be sure I picked up all the details. The man who willed and worked Standard Oil into existence was also equally well known for his philanthropy. How many new he made the initial grant to establish
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Spellman College, or the the first and ongoing large grants to establish the University of Chicago?
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Chernow has a knack for digging into the details of a person's life, personally and professionally. He took on the project of writing John D. Rockefeller Sr's life story after he studied other biographies about the man and discovered that significant parts of Rockefeller's life had either been
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glossed over or omitted altogether. Other biographers (who shall remain nameless) focused more on Rockefeller the business man than Rockefeller the person after retirement. Even though it is true that John D. Rockefeller was history's first billionaire, he had an interesting life beyond the lifelong quest for money. Never mind the fact that at a young age he did declare that someday "he was going to be the richest man in America." There was more to the man than business smarts. He was a man of great contradictions. While he was a ruthless businessman hell bent on crippling competitors, he also understood the benefits of philanthropy and gave generous to causes and people in which he believed. He continuously bailed his brother out of debt time and time again while disowning his father just as often. More on that later.
By having unrestricted access to interviews and papers and by using Rockefeller's own memoirs, Chernow was able to weave a first person voice throughout the history of the times.
Rockefeller disowned his father at a very young age, telling people his father was dead; his mother, a widow. Indeed, "Big Bill" was a bigamist, scam artist, and liar. Not someone John D. wanted to be associated with. Luckily, John's relationship with his own son, Junior, was not a contemptuous relationship.
By the end of Titan I was overwhelmed by number of projects to whom the Rockefeller name is attached: the Museum of Modern Art, the Grand Tetons, Acadia, Colonial Williamsburg, I could go on and on.
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