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

Updated: April 20, 2020

Ron Chernow tells the story of John D. Rockefeller, the Jekyll-and-Hyde of American capitalism.

Favorite quotes from the book:

Rockefeller trained himself to reveal as little as possible, even in private letters, which he wrote as if they might someday fall into the hands of a prosecuting attorney. With his instinctive secrecy, he excelled at employing strange euphemisms and elliptical phrasing.

And once John D. Rockefeller, Sr., set his mind to something, he brought awesome powers of concentration to bear.

"And I rejoice also that we are charitable and sweet-spirited to these jealous, small men who made it the business of their lives to try to pull us down because their vision did not extend beyond the ends of their noses."

One notes that Rockefeller's earliest memory was associated with caution and that he edited out the absentee father and inebriated grandfather while retaining the strong, enduring mother and grandmother. He always possessed an unusual, self-protective capacity to suppress unpleasant memories and keep alive those things that fortified his resolve.

In contrast to his father's disdain for manual labor, John - always a self-styled son of the common people - gloried in the rigors of country life, which, he came to believe, toughened him for later industrial struggle. His frugal boyhood hardened an already stoic nature and made him proof against later adversity.

"I was not an easy student, and I had to apply myself diligently to prepare my lessons, said Rockefeller, who described himself accurately as "reliable" but not "brilliant".

When playing checkers or chess, he showed exceptional caution, studying each move at length, working out every possible countermove in his head. "I'll move just as soon as I get it figured out," he told opponents who tried to rush him. "You don't think I'm playing to get beaten, do you?"

To ensure that he won, he submitted to games only where he could dictate the rules. Despite his slow, ponderous style, once he had thoroughly mulled over his plan of action, he had the power of quick decision.

Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties, he developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

John D. Rockefeller drew strength by simplifying reality and strongly believed that excessive reflection upon unpleasant but unalterable events only weakened one's resolve in the face of enemies.

When John was a child, Bill would urge him to leap from his high chair into his waiting arms. One day, he dropped his arms, letting his astonished son crash to the floor. "Remember," Bill lectured him, "never trust anyone completely, not even me."

"In former times when learning was confined to the monks and priests, then it was that the world stood still, and it was not until the people were educated and began to think for themselves that it progressed."

while he was persistent, he was also extremely slow; as at school, some people thought him a rather dim-witted dolt who would never rise in the world, and he had to prove himself to naysayers.

He was not especially attractive in his person and his clothes were strenuously plain and well worn. He was thought much of by these spiritual minded young women because of his goodness, his religious fervor, his earnestness and willingness in the church, and his apparent sincerity and honesty of purpose.

"Your future hangs on every day that passes," he admonished himself.

"Long before I was twenty-one men called me, 'Mr Rockefeller,' " he recalled. "Life was a serious business to me when I was young."

As part of Rockefeller's silent craft and habit of extended premeditation, he never tipped off his adversaries to his plans for revenge, preferring to spring his reprisals on them.

He drew a characteristic conclusion: The weak, immoral man was also destined to be a poor businessman.

This parting was vintage Rockefeller: He slowly and secretly laid the groundwork, then moved with electrifying speed to throw his adversaries off balance.

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.

Having emerged as his own boss, he would never again feel his advancement blocked by shortsighted, mediocre men.

John D. Rockefeller was not only self-made but self-invented and already had unyielding faith in his own judgment.

Despite her constant reluctance, Rockefeller pursued her with quiet persistence; in love as in business, he had a longer time frame, a more settled will, than other people.

Thus, by the end of the Civil War, John D. Rockefeller had established the foundations of his personal and professional life and was set to capitalize on the extraordinary opportunities beckoning him in postwar America. From this point forward, there would be no zigzags or squandered energy, only a single-minded focus on objectives that would make him both the wonder and terror of American business.

Unlike Europe, America had no tradition of political absolutism or ecclesiastic privilege to quench entrepreneurial spirits, and the weak, fragmented political system gave businessmen room to flourish.

Like Rockefeller, he advocated self-discipline and deferred gratification. As he said of his first threadbare days in Cleveland: “I wore a thin overcoat and thought how comfortable I should be when I could afford a long, thick Ulster. I carried a lunch in my pocket until I was a rich man. I trained myself in the school of self-control and self-denial. It was hard on me, but I would rather be my own tyrant than have some one else tyrannize me.”

David Harum, which said, “Do unto others as they would do unto you - and do it first.”

Cleveland's refineries were so numerous that their foul, acrid atmosphere enveloped the outskirts, tainting the beer from local breweries and souring the milk.

Twenty-nine-year-old John D. Rockefeller demanded that seventy-four-year-old Commodore Vanderbilt, the emperor of the railroad world, come to him.

This refusal to truckle, bend, or bow to others, this insistence on dealing with other people on his own terms, time, and turf, distinguished Rockefeller throughout his career.

Far from trying to parade his wealth, he wanted to blend into the scenery.

Even at home, Rockefeller was discreet and behaved as if he was concealing some secret from prying eyes.

Again, like Weber's ideal capitalist, "he avoids ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition which he receives."

One of Rockefeller's strengths in bargaining situations was that he figured out what he wanted and what the other party wanted and then crafted mutually advantageous terms. Instead of ruining the railroads, Rockefeller tried to help them prosper, albeit in a way that fortified his own position.

He had a great general's ability to focus on his goals and brush aside obstacles as petty distractions. "You can abuse me, you can strike me," Rockefeller said, "so long as you let me have my own way."

Rockefeller equated silence with strength: Weak men had loose tongues and blabbed to reporters, while prudent businessmen kept their own counsel. Two of his most cherished maxims were "Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed" and "A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds."

When bargaining, he employed his Midwest taciturnity to effect, throwing people off stride and keeping them guessing. When angry, he tended to grow eerily quiet.

"Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things ... fail because we lack concentration—the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?"

Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. He never wasted time on frivolities.

Even his daily breaks - the midmorning snack of crackers and milk and the postprandial nap - were designed to conserve energy and help him to strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. As he remarked, "It is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time."

Taking for granted the growth of his empire, he hired talented people as found, not as needed.

"The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee," he once said, "and I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun."

In dueling with Scott, Rockefeller didn't try to demolish him - as Scott might have done to him - but called a truce to strengthen their alliance. His constant aim was to be conciliatory whenever possible and extend his range of influence.

Before the seaboard-pipeline battle, one could argue that Standard Oil had been an innovative force, modernizing the industry through up-to-date plants, superior management, and smoother coordination of the oil flow from wellhead to consumer. Now, it became a benighted custodian of the status quo, squelching progress to safeguard its own interests.

As he said, "It is chiefly to my confidence in men and my ability to inspire their confidence in me that I owe my success in life."

He liked to note that Napoleon could not have succeeded without his marshals.

Rockefeller was a unique hybrid in American business: both the instinctive, first-generation entrepreneur who founds a company and the analytic second-generation manager who extends and develops it. He wasn't the sort of rugged, self-made mogul who quickly becomes irrelevant to his own organization. For that reason, his career anticipates the managerial capitalism of the twentieth century.

He believed there was a time to think and then a time to act. He brooded over problems and quietly matured plans over extended periods. Once he had made up his mind, however, he was no longer troubled by doubts and pursued his vision with undeviating faith. Unfortunately, once in that state of mind, he was all but deaf to criticism. He was like a projectile that, once launched, could never be stopped, never recalled, never diverted.

When he did so, he showed no mercy against these reprobates and said with righteous indignation, "These people did not want cooperation. They wanted competition. And when they got it they didn't like it."

Rockefeller saw himself stoically suffering the fate of all revolutionary figures. "The ideas on which we worked were new ...," he explained. "But knowing that we were right, we went steadily about our business, founded on ideas that were an irresistible force."

Still handsome at forty-eight, with a full head of close-cropped hair and a neat reddish brown mustache, he strode in with a purposeful air. On closer inspection, however, one could detect lines around his eyes, and he seemed older and more tired than a few years earlier. He was now carrying a more onerous burden than he knew.

"His usual attitude towards all men was one of deep reserve, concealed beneath commonplaces and humorous anecdotes. He had the art with friends and guests of chatting freely, of calling out others, but of revealing little or nothing of his own innermost thoughts."

Rockefeller never offered blame or praise and revealed his opinion of employees only by adding or subtracting to their duties. His psyche was like a set of Chinese boxes: If you penetrated the outer wall, then you faced another wall, then another, ad infinitum.

One might have thought Rockefeller would relax in retirement, but he was still a prisoner to the Protestant work ethic and attacked recreational interests with the same intensity that he had brought to business. "I have not had the experience of the majority of business men," he later told William O. Inglis, "who find time hanging heavily on their hands."

Aside from the occasional courtesy call from other moguls, he hobnobbed with the same family members, old friends, and Baptist clergy who had always formed his social circle. He showed no interest in old-money clubs, parties, or organizations.

"Only fools get swelled up over money." Comfortable with himself, he needed no outward validation of what he had accomplished.

Part of his single-minded program for reaching one hundred was to go through life in a steady, unhurried fashion. He paced himself, husbanded his energy, and took pride in his abnormally low pulse: "That indicates a capacity for enduring and retaining one's balance." In his early years, he had struggled to master his temper and clear his mind of petty annoyances; now, he had a medical rationale for purging his system of turbulent emotions, especially anger.

Still the ascetic Protestant, he decried overeating, warning that it caused more sickness than did any other cause. He never ate hot food, waited for dishes to cool, and encouraged guests to start without him. Food was fuel for Rockefeller, not a source of sensual pleasure.

"His self-control has been masterful - he knows, nobody better, that to answer is to invite discussion, to answer is to call attention to the facts in the case."

That Rockefeller placed scientists, not lay trustees, in charge of expenditures was thought revolutionary. This was the institute's secret formula: gather great minds, liberate them from petty cares, and let them chase intellectual chimeras without pressure or meddling. If the founders created an atmosphere conducive to creativity, things would, presumably, happen.

He told Stone, for quotation, that the country's credit was sound and that, if necessary, he would give half of all he possessed to maintain America's credit. It was an unprecedented statement: A single citizen had promised to bail out Wall Street.