Friday Book: His money earned no interest

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The Independent Culture


DURING 90-SOME years of relentless prosperity, John D Rockefeller proved to the world that even notoriously successful robber barons can live really boring lives. A devout Baptist who disdained alcohol, tobacco, and any sign of excessive partying, he spoke almost entirely in religious aphorisms, attended daily prayer vigils and church services, and even dropped out of school in his early teens to help support his family. And when he wasn't keeping meticulous accounts of personal expenditure, he was turning each day into a series of unalterable routines - eating, exercising, and even dispatching charitable contributions at prearranged times like a sort of human clock. John D Rockefeller was the sort of man who never did anything to excess - except, of course, make money.

Born in Richford, New York in 1839, Rockefeller's pedigree was quintessentially American. His mother was a hard-working frontier housewife who got along with everybody, including her husband's mistresses. And his father was none other than Doc Rockefeller, aka Big Bill, a handsome con-man who sold diuretics as cancer cures and taught schoolchildren how to deal from the bottom of the deck for five bucks a pop. "Never trust anyone completely," Big Bill once told his son, "not even me." It was a lesson JD took to heart. Then he went out and taught it to the rest of the world.

Rockefeller learned the rules of the post-Civil War industrial boom more quickly than anybody. Purchasing his first Cleveland refinery in 1862, he soon created one of the first multinational corporations, Standard Oil, by never simply rising to the challenge of competitors. Instead, he priced them out of business or bought them.

His "secret" pact with the railroads made sure that nobody could distribute product cheaper than he could. And whenever a rival oil pipeline was in the works, he quickly laid down an intervening pipeline of his own. "The power to make money is a gift from God," Rockefeller once said. And just because God does good things doesn't mean he has to be a nice guy.

For Rockefeller, money wasn't simply a luxury; it was a lesson in lifestyle management. At his first job as a Cleveland accountant in 1855, Rockefeller earned 50 cents a day, and donated 6 per cent to charity. As his income skyrocketed to 50-plus million per year, Rockefeller's charity increased proportionately. He built the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Atlanta's Spellman College (one of the first centres of higher education for black women), the Rockefeller Foundation, and the International Health Commission, which helped eliminate boll weevils and hookworm from much of the South. "He gives with two hands, but he robs with many," one virulent critic contended. But then two Rockefeller hands could cover a lot of ground.

While Rockefeller was busy making money, everybody left him alone. Once he retired, in the early 1900s, he attracted the fierce invective of America's muckraking journalists, especially his fellow Baptist Ida Minerva Tarbell, whose series of exposes prompted decades of anti-trust legislation. But no matter how cruelly he was reviled, Rockefeller always wore a stern poker-face, and never let anybody know what he was feeling. Even his eventual court fine of $29.24 million could not interrupt his daily round of golf, or agitate his low pulse-rate.

Like any good snake-oil salesman, the successful capitalist does not sell goods so much as confidence. And confidence was one thing Rockefeller possessed in abundance. "I have ways of making money you know nothing about," he once confided to a rival, and certainly he viewed prosperity as something more significant than figures in a ledger. It was a way of testing one's interior strength and determination. It proved you were a better person than everybody else.

Chernow's biography is a terrific piece of history, but the main problem with reading it from cover to cover is that Rockefeller, despite his accomplishments, seems to have been an exceptionally dull man. Like most inordinately successful people (capitalists, artists, serial killers), he wasn't brilliant; he was simply more narrow in his interests, and obsessive about pursuing them, than anybody else. As a result, throughout this densely researched book, very few memorable human moments stand out.

There was the time Rockefeller took secret golf lessons in order to surprise his wife, say. Or his insistence that his children record every expenditure on candy and gum. Or the years he surrounded his mansion with guards in order to evade an endless series of process servers. But outside these occasional glimpses into the heart of a formidable businessman, Rockefeller never really comes to life. And this may have nothing to do with the quality of Chernow's intelligent and well-written book.