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

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

by Ron Chernow

Paperback(2nd ed.)

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National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
From the acclaimed, award-winning author of Alexander Hamilton: here is the essential, endlessly engrossing biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—the Jekyll-and-Hyde of American capitalism. In the course of his nearly 98 years, Rockefeller was known as both a rapacious robber baron, whose Standard Oil Company rode roughshod over an industry, and a philanthropist who donated money lavishly to universities and medical centers. He was the terror of his competitors, the bogeyman of reformers, the delight of caricaturists—and an utter enigma.
Drawing on unprecedented access to Rockefeller’s private papers, Chernow reconstructs his subjects’ troubled origins (his father was a swindler and a bigamist) and his single-minded pursuit of wealth. But he also uncovers the profound religiosity that drove him “to give all I could”; his devotion to his father; and the wry sense of humor that made him the country’s most colorful codger. Titan is a magnificent biography—balanced, revelatory, elegantly written.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400077304
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/27/2004
Edition description: 2nd ed.
Pages: 832
Sales rank: 15,901
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.02(h) x 1.65(d)

About the Author

Ron Chernow’s bestselling books include The House of Morgan, winner of the National Book Award; The Warburgs, which won the George S. Eccles Prize; The Death of the Banker; Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Washington: A Life, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and Alexander Hamilton, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and adapted into the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton. Chernow has served as president of PEN American Center and has received seven honorary doctoral degrees. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Brooklyn, NY

Date of Birth:

March 3, 1949

Place of Birth:

Brooklyn, NY


Yale University; Cambridge University

Read an Excerpt


The Flimflam Man

In the early 1900s, as Rockefeller vied with Andrew Carnegie for the title of the world's richest man, a spirited rivalry arose between France and Germany, with each claiming to be Rockefeller's ancestral land. Assorted genealogists stood ready, for a sizable fee, to manufacture a splendid royal lineage for the oilman. "I have no desire to trace myself back to the nobility," he said honestly. "I am satisfied with my good old American stock." The most ambitious search for Rockefeller's roots traced them back to a ninth-century French family, the Roquefeuilles, who supposedly inhabited a Languedoc château-a charming story that unfortunately has been refuted by recent findings. In contrast, the Rockefellers' German lineage has been clearly established in the Rhine valley dating back to at least the early 1600s.

Around 1723, Johann Peter Rockefeller, a miller, gathered up his wife and five children, set sail for Philadelphia, and settled on a farm in Somerville and then Amwell, New Jersey, where he evidently flourished and acquired large landholdings. More than a decade later, his cousin Diell Rockefeller left southwest Germany and moved to Germantown, New York. Diell's granddaughter Christina married her distant relative William, one of Johann's grandsons. (Never particularly sentimental about his European forebears, John D. Rockefeller did erect a monument to the patriarch, Johann Peter, at his burial site in Flemington, New Jersey.) The marriage of William and Christina produced a son named Godfrey Rockefeller, who was the grandfather of the oil titan and a most unlikely progenitor of the clan. In 1806, Godfrey married Lucy Avery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, despite the grave qualms of her family.

Establishing a pattern that would be replicated by Rockefeller's own mother, Lucy had, in her family's disparaging view, married down. Her ancestors had emigrated from Devon, England, to Salem, Massachusetts, around 1630, forming part of the Puritan tide. As they became settled and gentrified, the versatile Averys spawned ministers, soldiers, civic leaders, explorers, and traders, not to mention a bold clutch of Indian fighters. During the American Revolution, eleven Averys perished gloriously in the battle of Groton. While the Rockefellers' "noble" roots required some poetic license and liberal embellishment, Lucy could justly claim descent from Edmund Ironside, the English king, who was crowned in 1016.

Godfrey Rockefeller was sadly mismatched with his enterprising wife. He had a stunted, impoverished look and a hangdog air of perpetual defeat. Taller than her husband, a fiery Baptist of commanding presence, Lucy was rawboned and confident, with a vigorous step and alert blue eyes. A former schoolteacher, she was better educated than Godfrey. Even John D., never given to invidious comments about relatives, tactfully conceded, "My grandmother was a brave woman. Her husband was not so brave as she." If Godfrey contributed the Rockefeller coloring-bluish gray eyes, light brown hair-Lucy introduced the rangy frame later notable among the men. Enjoying robust energy and buoyant health, Lucy had ten children, with the third, William Avery Rockefeller, born in Granger, New York, in 1810. While it is easy enough to date the birth of Rockefeller's father, teams of frazzled reporters would one day exhaust themselves trying to establish the date of his death.

As a farmer and businessman, Godfrey enjoyed checkered success, and his aborted business ventures exposed his family to an insecure, peripatetic life. They were forced to move to Granger and Ancram, New York, then to Great Barrington, before doubling back to Livingston, New York. John D. Rockefeller's upbringing would be fertile with cautionary figures of weak men gone astray. Godfrey must have been invoked frequently as a model to be avoided. By all accounts, Grandpa was a jovial, good-natured man but feckless and addicted to drink, producing in Lucy an everlasting hatred of liquor that she must have drummed into her grandson. Grandpa Godfrey was the first to establish in John D.'s mind an enduring equation between bonhomie and lax character, making the latter prefer the society of sober, tight-lipped men in full command of their emotions.

The Rockefeller records offer various scenarios of why Godfrey and Lucy packed their belongings into an overloaded Conestoga wagon and headed west between 1832 and 1834. By one account, the Rockefellers, along with several neighbors, were dispossessed of their land in a heated title dispute with some English investors. Another account has an unscrupulous businessman gulling Godfrey into swapping his farm for allegedly richer turf in Tioga County. (If this claim was in fact made, it proved a cruel hoax.) Some relatives later said that Michigan was Godfrey's real destination but that Lucy vetoed such a drastic relocation, preferring the New England culture of upstate New York to the wilds of Michigan.

Whatever the reason, the Rockefellers reenacted the primordial American rite of setting out in search of fresh opportunity. In the 1830s, many settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut were swarming excitedly into wilderness areas of western New York, a migration that Alexis de Tocqueville described as "a game of chance" pursued for "the emotions it excites, as much as for the gain it procures." The construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s had lured many settlers to the area. Godfrey and Lucy heaped up their worldly possessions in a canvas-topped prairie schooner, drawn by oxen, and headed toward the sparsely settled territory. For two weeks, they traveled along the dusty Albany-Catskill turnpike, creeping through forests as darkly forbidding as the setting of a Grimms' fairy tale. With much baggage and little passenger space, the Rockefellers had to walk for much of the journey, with Lucy and the children (except William, who did not accompany them) taking turns sitting in the wagon whenever they grew weary. As they finally reached their destination, Richford, New York, the last three and a half miles were especially arduous, and the oxen negotiated the stony, rutted path with difficulty. At the end, they had to lash their exhausted team up a nearly vertical hillside to possess their virgin sixty acres. As family legend has it, Godfrey got out, tramped to the property's peak, inspected the vista, and said mournfully, "This is as close as we shall ever get to Michigan." So, in a memorial to dashed hopes, the spot would forever bear the melancholy name of Michigan Hill.

Even today scarcely more than a crossroads, Richford was then a stagecoach stop in the wooded country southeast of Ithaca and northwest of Binghamton. The area's original inhabitants, the Iroquois, had been chased out after the American Revolution and replaced by revolutionary army veterans. Still an uncouth frontier when the Rockefellers arrived, this backwater had recently attained township status, its village square dating from 1821. Civilization had taken only a tenuous hold. The dense forests on all sides teemed with game-bear, deer, panther, wild turkey, and cottontail rabbit-and people carried flaring torches at night to frighten away the roaming packs of wolves.

By the time that John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839, Richford was acquiring the amenities of a small town. It had some nascent industries-sawmills, gristmills, and a whiskey distillery-plus a schoolhouse and a church. Most inhabitants scratched out a living from hardscrabble farming, yet these newcomers were hopeful and enterprising. Notwithstanding their frontier trappings, they had carried with them the frugal culture of Puritan New England, which John D. Rockefeller would come to exemplify.

The Rockfellers' steep property provided a sweeping panorama of a fertile valley. The vernal slopes were spattered with wildflowers, and chestnuts and berries abounded in the fall. Amid this sylvan beauty, the Rockfellers had to struggle with a spartan life. They occupied a small, plain house, twenty-two feet deep and sixteen feet across, fashioned with hand-hewn beams and timbers. The thin soil was so rocky that it required heroic exertions just to hack a clearing through the underbrush and across thickly forested slopes of pine, hemlock, oak, and maple.

As best we can gauge from a handful of surviving anecdotes, Lucy ably managed both family and farm and never shirked heavy toil. Assisted by a pair of steers, she laid an entire stone wall by herself and had the quick-witted cunning and cool resourcefulness that would reappear in her grandson. John D. delighted in telling how she pounced upon a grain thief in their dark barn one night. Unable to discern the intruder's face, she had the mental composure to snip a piece of fabric from his coat sleeve. When she later spotted the man's frayed coat, she confronted the flabbergasted thief with the missing swatch; having silently made her point, she never pressed charges. One last item about Lucy deserves mention: She had great interest in herbal medicines and home-brewed remedies prepared from a "physic bush" in the backyard. Many years later, her curious grandson sent specimens of this bush to a laboratory to see whether they possessed genuine medicinal value. Perhaps it was from Lucy that he inherited the fascination with medicine that ran through his life, right up to his creation of the world's preeminent medical-research institute.

By the time he was in his twenties, William Avery Rockefeller was already a sworn foe of conventional morality who had opted for a vagabond existence. Even as an adolescent, he disappeared on long trips in midwinter, providing no clues as to his whereabouts. Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks-he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a pugnacious jaw-that people were instantly beguiled by him. This appealing façade, at least for a while, lulled skeptics and disarmed critics. It wasn't surprising that this nomad did not accompany his parents on their westward trek to Richford but instead drifted into the area around 1835 in his own inimitable fashion. When he first appeared in a neighboring hamlet, he quickly impressed the locals with his unorthodox style. Posing as a deaf-mute peddler selling cheap novelties, he kept a small slate with the words "I am deaf and dumb" chalked across it tied by a string to his buttonhole. On this slate, he conversed with the locals and later boasted how he exploited this ruse to flush out all the town secrets. To win the confidence of strangers and soften them up for the hard sell, he toted along a kaleidoscope, inviting people to peer into it. During his long career as a confidence man, Big Bill always risked reprisals from people who might suddenly unmask his deceptions, and he narrowly escaped detection at the home of a Deacon Wells. The deacon and his daughter, a Mrs. Smith, pitied the poor peddler who knocked on their door one Saturday and sheltered him in their home that night. The next morning, when they invited him to church, Big Bill had to resort to some fancy footwork, for he always shied away from crowds where somebody might recognize him and expose his imposture. "Billy told [the deacon] in writing that he liked to go to church, but that his infirmity caused him to be stared at, so that he was abashed and would not go," recalled a townsman. "He really feared that he might be exposed by someone." Seven months later, after the deacon and Big Bill had both moved to Richford, Mrs. Smith spotted the erstwhile deaf-mute at a social gathering and marveled at his miraculous recovery of speech. "I see that you can talk better than when I saw you last," she said. Big Bill smiled, unfazed, his bravado intact. "Yes, I'm somewhat improved." When he arrived in Richford, the local citizens immediately got a taste of his fakery, for he wordlessly flashed a slate with the scribbled query, "Where is the house of Godfrey Rockefeller?"

Since he usually presented false claims about himself and his products, Bill worked a large territory to elude the law. He was roving more than thirty miles northwest of Richford, in the vicinity of Niles and Moravia, when he first met his future wife, Eliza Davison, at her father's farmhouse. With a flair for showmanship and self-promotion, he always wore brocaded vests or other brightly colored duds that must have dazzled a sheltered farm girl like Eliza. Like many itinerant vendors in rural places, he was a smooth-talking purveyor of dreams along with tawdry trinkets, and Eliza responded to this romantic wanderer. She was sufficiently taken in by his deaf-and-dumb humbug that she involuntarily exclaimed in his presence, "I'd marry that man if he were not deaf and dumb." Whatever tacit doubts she might have harbored when she discovered his deceit, she soon succumbed, as did other women, to his mesmerizing charm.

A prudent, straitlaced Baptist of Scotch-Irish descent, deeply attached to his daughter, John Davison must have sensed the world of trouble that awaited Eliza if she got mixed up with Big Bill Rockefeller, and he strongly discouraged the match. In later years, Eliza Rockefeller would seem to be a dried-up, withered spinster, but in late 1836 she was a slim, spirited young woman with flaming red hair and blue eyes. Pious and self-contained, she was the antithesis of Bill and probably found him so hypnotic for just that reason. Who knows what gloom hung around her doorstep that was dispelled by Bill's glib patter? Her mother had died when Eliza was only twelve-she had dropped dead after taking a pill dispensed by a traveling doctor-and Eliza was raised by her older sister, Mary Ann, leaving Eliza deprived of maternal counsel.

On February 18, 1837, despite the express opposition of John Davison, this most improbable couple-Bill was twenty-seven, Eliza twenty-four-were wed at the home of one of Eliza's friends. The marriage was a favorite gossip item among the Richford townspeople, who tended to spy guile on Bill's part. Compared to the Davisons, the Rockefellers were poor country folk, and it is very likely that Bill was entranced by reports of John Davison's modest wealth. As early as 1801, the frugal Davison had acquired 150 acres in Cayuga County. In John D.'s words, "My grandfather was a rich man-that is, for his time he was counted rich. In those days one who had his farm paid for and had a little money beside was counted rich. Four or five or six thousand was counted rich. My grandfather had perhaps three or four times that. He had money to lend."

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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Father_of_5_Boys More than 1 year ago
A great book about an intriguing individual. I've read a lot about the Civil War and this book helped connect that time period with the 20th century and the Industrial Revolution. If you're a capitalist at heart and feel that free markets should be left to work on their own (like I do), then this book will make you rethink that and help you understand that some government regulation is necessary. Being the founder of a non-profit charitable organization myself, it also gave me a lot of insights into the field of charities. It's amazing to think of the wide ranging influence that John D. Rockefeller had in shaping business, charity, and many other aspects of American life and how many of these influences can still be seen today.
International_Banker More than 1 year ago
I was very skeptical about picking this book up due to the fact that there were so many bad write ups going around abut this man. People would slander his name almost everywhere. From the first page, I was hooked. The outline of this mans life was to the T. It was very balanced and honest. The read was in depth and talked about the more elegant side of Mr. Rockefeller that know one know. I will read this over again with more cigars to smoke.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed reading this book and go back to it from time to time. It reveals a life that up until now has only been written about by authors whom disliked him. To find out that he was a religious man with high morals was enlightening. This book really gives you insite to his business practices and the history of the Standard Oil Company.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an enjoyable read and for the most part, a well-balanced look at the man, his life, his family and many other aspects of his existence that shaped who he was and how he lived. I enjoyed it so much I will be reading it a second time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Extremely well written. It answered all my questions I had about John Sr. I wish he would have given more pages to the ending of his life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, I felt like I knew Rockerfeller, Sr. personally. This is a most excellent book for those who want to know more about John D. Rockerfeller.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For someone who is not a big fan of biographies or autobiographies, I find Titan a very interesting read. The book is well written and beautifully designed. It cuts through all the myth and mystery behind one of Americas most loved and hated business men. Showing both his ruthless nature and his religous fervor. It just goes to show you that no matter how crazy you are, you can still make it to the top.....Only in America!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In his excellent biography of John D. Rockfeller Sr., Ron Chernow goes beyond the myths surrounding one of the greatest capitalists that the world has ever known. Chernow gives a well-balanced portrait of a paradoxical man who perceived unbridled competition as nefarious to the development of the nascent oil industry and by extension his Standard Oil. Although John D. Rockfeller Sr. was a ruthless, efficient businessman, he progressively came to the insight that God had given him not only a gift to make a lot of money but also the responsibility to dedicate a significant part of his fortune to philanthropy in order to foster the well being of the society at large. Unlike most 'robber barons', John D. Rockfeller Sr. did not feel the compulsion to be too ostentatious. He led a quite modest life for a man who could afford everything he wanted. The recent development of industry-led consortia such as Covisint and Exostar presents a striking similarity to the emergence of trusts such as the Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel at the end of the 19th century. Unlike a trust, an industry-led consortium is created by major competitors within one industry. Industry-led consortia are under close scrutiny of the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. Their success is built on both liquidity (i.e. traded volume) and value generated through the supply chain of a specific industry. Because success feeds success, there is a high probability that an industry-led consortium will one day dominate an industry at the expense of independent exchanges, private exchanges, and any other consortia on one continent and eventually on a global basis. Will the major players of an industry belonging to an industry-led consortium be able to resist the Demon of monopoly power that proved so alluring to John D. Rockfeller Sr. and his Standard Oil?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found out many interasting things about him and it was a well written book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although Titan portrayed Rockerfeller's life magnificently in a contemporary environment, I felt the author didn't compare and contrast the life of John D. with the lives of his fellow entrepreneurs in the late twentieth century. John D.'s magnificence as both a man and a businessman have been shallowed by the author and I was disappointed by the effort.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Titan reads like a Novel and gives the reader a picture of America in Rockefellers time. This biography covers everything. It is the definitive text on Rockefellers life. I've even given it to two friends and they have both loved the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Best biography I have read in years. Terrific insights into business issues both historical and current. I would recommend this book to any history buff, business person, or student of management science. Superb piece of writing, entertaining on every page.
ibkennedy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating person and great story telling by a wonderful biographer. Ron Chernow makes me love history.
gaeta on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 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?
uncultured on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 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.
Bonford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
heathweaver on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Ron Chernow is a master of the subjects that he writes about.
nealbozeman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Chernow's writing style is fluid and insightful. An excellent depiction of Rockefeller's rise, his philosophies, and often, his rather puritanical family life.
pjsullivan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Biased in favor of Rockefeller, but thorough and interesting.
jmatson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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. 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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