Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Ron Chernow. Random House Inc, $30 (800pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43808-3
Nearly 98 at his death in 1937, Rockefeller had retired in 1896 to be ""the Lord's fiduciary"" and gave his money away. Chernow, biographer of the Warburgs and the Morgans, has his finest subject in Rockefeller, and is able to furnish anecdotes galore from his encyclopedic research in the family archives. The earliest entrepreneur in the family was John D.'s bigamist father, ""Devil Bill,"" an itinerant mountebank and phony physician who peddled spurious elixirs. After John D., the vast family foundations run by successor generations beginning with John D. Jr., a figure of granite respectability, altered the landscape of philanthropy, especially in education and medicine. Although beset most of his life by supplicants, the elder Rockefeller invested shrewdly and used his profits benignly. The industrial magnate who pioneered the predatory multinational corporation is surrounded in Chernow's narrative by a memorable cast of friends, relatives, associates and enemies. Rather than the cunning, churchgoing hypocrite of legend who spent his Sundays piously but weekdays wrecking his rivals, Rockefeller emerges in Chernow's elegantly told biography as an enterprising monopolist who ""regarded God as an ally, a sort of honorary shareholder of Standard Oil."" Reducing the risk factor in competitive capitalism by reinventing the laws of supply and demand, Rockefeller amassed so much wealth that he had to reinvent the funding and management of benevolence. Despite the biography's length there are no dull pages. Illustrations not seen by PW. (May) FYI: A related spring title is Anne Rockefeller Roberts's The Rockefeller Family Estate Kykuit (Abbeville, $49.95 ISBN 0-7892-0220-0), with 275 photos by Mary Louise Pierson.
Reviewed on: 05/04/1998
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