The art of giving: Remembering David Rockefeller
On the first anniversary of David Rockefeller’s death, Michael Watts looks back at the extraordinary life of a man who inherited a philanthropic spirit from his parents — while this short film looks at how the family have shaped and preserved the American landscape
David Rockefeller caught the collecting bug, quite literally, at the age of seven, when he found a specimen of Parandra brunnea, a long-horned beetle. The fabulous art and antiques he spent a lifetime accumulating — the Impressionists, Cubists and Abstract Expressionists; the Chinese porcelain, the silver, the American decorative arts and furniture, right down to his stable of vintage horse-drawn carriages — all that came later. His passion for collecting began with the insect he picked up on his family’s land near Tarrytown, New York. After that, he just kept going.
Even as a globetrotting gentleman banker, who once calculated that he had visited 103 countries in 35 years and eaten 10,000 business meals, he might keep handy a jam jar for collecting beetles. By the time of his death last March, at the age of 101, he had gathered at least 2,000 species and 150,000 specimens, including a rare Mexican scarab that was his own discovery, christened Diplotaxis rockefelleri. Now these coleoptera, carefully mounted in airtight hardwood boxes, have been donated to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, his alma mater, as part of the great disposal of his assets to the benefit of many philanthropic causes.
David and his beetles: they were an eccentricity that endeared this gracious billionaire to an American public fascinated by the raw power of the Rockefeller name. As CEO and then chairman of the mighty Chase bank, David Rockefeller met and debated with presidents and dictators, heroes and villains, among them Egypt’s Nasser and Anwar Sadat, China’s Zhou Enlai and a table-thumping Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow.
At home, he led New York City’s rescue from near bankruptcy in 1975, and facilitated the construction of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, which he moved heaven and earth to build, only to watch the hell of its destruction on 9/11 from the 56th floor of Rockefeller Center.
Chase was often thought of as ‘David’s bank’, though the Rockefellers never owned more than five per cent of its shares. By encouraging the bank to expand abroad, sometimes in places hostile to America, he became his country’s de facto ambassador and a very useful intermediary with foreign governments. He was perfect for the part: an East Coast Brahmin with exquisite manners who kept a Rolodex of 150,000 contacts in an office all to itself, and who wrote to everyone he met. And he had a more profound virtue: he was motivated by the impulse to do good.
‘My father was always very optimistic about human nature, and it was possibly because he looked in the mirror every morning,’ says his eldest child, David Rockefeller, Jr. (Rockefeller names tend to be dynastic). As chairman of the Rockefeller Family Office, David Jr. is charged with helping dispose of his father’s assets, and he agreed to discuss him with us a few months after he died.
‘One woman worked for him until she was nearly 90. They just couldn’t retire, because they were so faithful to him’ — David Rockefeller, Jr.
‘He worked very hard to be a person of principle and international sweep, in an industry where self-interest was frankly more common than not,’ he said. ‘He was a beacon, and many people have told me how moved they were that they’d met him, they were so impressed with his values. He inspired such loyalty. He had 100 people working for him when he passed, and some of them were in their late seventies. There was one woman who worked for him until she was nearly 90. They just couldn’t retire, because they were so faithful to him.’
The person most loyal to him was his wife of 56 years, Margaret Rockefeller, or Peggy as she was invariably known, who died in 1996. She was a prominent conservationist of both agricultural and marine environments, and an accomplished pianist who sat on the board of the New York Philharmonic.
And for her husband she had another, inestimable quality: ‘She was unafraid to speak her truth, and that was very, very good for a person of my father’s stature. Someone in that position does not often have people telling the truth to him, and my mother did that, not meanly but directly.’
David Jr. smiled warmly, and confessed that his father’s death had reawakened strong memories of his mother. He is an imposing man, with a measured way of speaking and a rich voice, like thunder rolling in, that seems ideal for choral singing and documentary voiceovers — both preoccupations of his, along with marine environmentalism.
David Rockefeller’s grandfather was John Davison Rockefeller, Sr., America’s first billionaire, whose monopoly of the US oil industry enabled the country to prosper with cheap energy. He ran his company in New York from ‘the world’s most famous business address’, 26 Broadway, familiarly known as the Standard Oil Building. This stern patriarch combined Christian faith with a keen pursuit of profit. So famous was he that John Singer Sargent twice painted his portrait.
His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had a more straightforward sense of moral purpose. In 1911, Theodore Roosevelt, the ‘trust-busting’ president, had broken up the family’s ownership of Standard Oil, and half their fortune was lost in the financial crash of 1929, yet their accumulated wealth was such that he made philanthropy his main goal, and the number of Rockefeller funds, charities and non-profits grew accordingly. A strict Baptist and teetotaller, like his father, he conducted prayers and Bible readings for his children each morning before school, and encouraged David on Thanksgiving to take food baskets to poor tenements.
‘He wanted permission, in a sense, to pass on and not be burdened with the idea that their leaving will cause the collapse of what they built’ — David Rockefeller, Jr.
With an eye on posterity, perhaps, ‘Junior’ built Manhattan’s interdenominational Riverside Church, which welcomed speakers including Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr. A yet greater achievement was the soaring, Art Deco Rockefeller Center, a city within a city in the very heart of Manhattan. The family’s business address now became 30 Rockefeller Plaza, aka ‘30 Rock’, and occupied three floors, collectively referred to as ‘Room 5600’.
David’s mother Abby, a forward-thinking woman, was set on educating the public in contemporary art. To help create space for what became the Museum of Modern Art, her magnificent family home at 10 West 54th Street was torn down. But before its demolition, she commissioned the urban landscape artist Stefan Hirsch to paint New York from her son’s bedroom window.
Hirsch’s painting, which he called Midtown Range, is quiet, flat and geometric, but for an ominous cloud suggesting the dark times of the Depression that were shaping New York. David was then 15, and one can imagine him wondering at what part he might play as a Rockefeller in the turbulent century unfolding outside his window. He could hardly have suspected that one day he would be chairman of ‘mother’s museum’, or that he would own an art collection that after his death stands to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for charity.
He did understand the extraordinary privilege of being a Rockefeller. A limousine trailed him when he roller-skated to school, in case he tired. At weekends, he and his four brothers and sister would be taken to Kykuit, a 40-room house on their estate at Pocantico Hills, which a visitor once described as the kind of place that God would have built if only He had the money. They travelled in a chauffeured sedan tall enough to stand up in. Summers, meanwhile, were spent at the Eyrie, a 107-room property in Maine, which was also torn down eventually.
When David visited Britain as a young man, in 1932, he was invited to a ball for the future King George VI almost as soon as he set foot in the country. In Vienna, he found himself discussing with Sigmund Freud his collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. David counted Henry Kissinger and President George H.W. Bush among his close friends, but he turned down requests from both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon to become US Treasury secretary.
By 2002, he had long retired from Chase, whose profits he had doubled, but even into his nineties he continued going to the office. He kept fit with a personal trainer and went shopping for everything from ties to paintings, particularly the work of Jamie Wyeth. He was there, aged 100, at MoMA’s annual party in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.
He died a year later. His son had dined alone with him the week before: ‘He wanted to know that things were OK. He was like many elderly people who want permission, in a sense, to pass on and not be burdened with the idea that their leaving will cause the collapse of what they built.’
But now that his remarkable life is over, its grand epilogue begins: auctioning for charity the fruits of that life, his three town and country houses, and many of his most desirable paintings — Nymphéas en fleur by Monet, painted between 1914 and 1917; Miró’s Murals triptych (1933), and Matisse’s sprawling, sensuous Odalisque couchée aux Magnolias (1923), which is expected to sell for at least $50 million. Christie’s anticipates record revenues, surpassing the $484-million sale of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, in 2009.
The pick of the works (with a high estimate of $100 million) could well be Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905). This picture was originally part of the Gertrude Stein Collection, bought in the late 1960s by a wealthy syndicate that included David and Nelson. The paintings were chosen by members drawing lots. In this way, David and his wife Peggy, always his sounding board when buying art, found themselves with eight Picassos and two works by Juan Gris at a total cost of $2.1 million. Gris’s La table de musicien will be offered in the upcoming sale.
These paintings, along with important Cézannes, Gauguins, a Seurat and Renoir’s gorgeously fleshy Gabrielle at the Mirror (1910), were shown at MoMA in the 1994 exhibition Masterpieces from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection. David Jr. believes that his parents never bought art of any significance that they didn’t both agree on.
Only gradually did [David] become comfortable with abstraction and relinquish the requirement that a painting be of something easily definable
In 1948, when they set up home together at 146 East 65th Street, his parents’ attention to art was perfunctory, as David admits in his autobiography. They hung decorative Currier and Ives prints and minor 18th-century portraiture. But when David became a trustee of MoMA, he fell under the spell of the museum’s early directors, Alfred Barr and René d’Harnoncourt, and his appreciation flourished and grew in daring.
In 1951, he and Peggy paid $51,000 for the Renoir nude and hung it in their living room, enjoying the shock it caused more staid visitors. Then, in their morning room, on a yellow wall above the mantelpiece, they placed André Derain’s Charing Cross Bridge (1905-06) — now in the MoMA collection — with its vivid sunset of exploding yellows and oranges that references Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art) painted 70 years earlier; Turner hired a boat on the Thames for a better view of the blazing Palace of Westminster.
According to David Jr., his mother had an intuitive sense of how to harmonise paintings in a room: ‘She had the design aesthetic, and my father was more object-oriented.’ But both parents agreed, he said, that art should principally be beautiful, and that great works of art were expressions of great beauty. Only gradually did his father become comfortable with abstraction and relinquish the requirement that a painting be of something easily definable. He then began purchasing works by Willem de Kooning and Alexander Calder.
The atmosphere at home was never academic, however, David Jr. emphasised: ‘My parents liked people who were witty and entertaining. I can remember the famous British writer James Morris coming, who became Jan Morris, and they were so charmed by him — and later by her, when she came back to the house. They had no narrow code of who was acceptable in their house.’
Yet protocol was keenly observed. On formal occasions, cocktails were at 6.30pm, dinner at 7pm, with a toast before the entrée. There were frequent dinners with distinguished guests, such as Kofi Annan and the pianist Van Cliburn, where the children were allowed to sit quietly and listen. ‘Toasts were a very important part of family lore,’ David Jr. remembered. ‘They were a way for my parents to express their values, so all of us learned.’
The many beneficiaries from the total assets reflect the breadth of the Rockefellers’ interests. They include Harvard University, the Americas Society, the Council on Foreign Relations, the David Rockefeller Global Development Fund, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and New York’s Rockefeller University. Peter Johnson, David Rockefeller’s amanuensis, calculates that, during his life, he gave away $1.345 billion.
Rockefeller University grew out of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, launched by David Jr.’s grandfather and father in 1906 to seek cures for diseases such as malaria, which Bill Gates has poured his own fortune into eradicating. When Gates and Warren Buffett had the idea of the Giving Pledge, asking billionaires to contribute at least half their wealth to good causes, David Rockefeller was their recruiting sergeant. He hosted the inaugural dinner of signatories at Rockefeller University in May 2009. Now, about 150 billionaires have signed up.
Philanthropy on this scale is uniquely American. In a country that shrinks from socialism and big government, it is the debt repaid to society by rich men of principle. John D Rockefeller, Sr., who tithed 10 per cent of his annual income, systematised the art of giving when he employed the Reverend Frederick Gates to help him choose recipients. ‘That era is gone,’ David Jr. told me. ‘As individuals, we don’t have the force de frappe that our forebears did, but I feel very proud of the Rockefeller name, and I think the positives and successes in philanthropy and the not-for-profit world are very much with us.’
Will the auctions at Christie’s in May signal a turning point for the Rockefeller dynasty? David Jr. answered without hesitation: ‘The clearest end points will be about the icons of art that inhabited the three homes of my parents and which will now be sold to others. That will be the greatest ending. All the people who have enjoyed evenings in those places will have some nostalgia when they attend the auction.’ He laughed. ‘And, hopefully, some of them will have so much nostalgia that they’ll want to be buyers.
‘My great pride is that all of the revenues are going to philanthropic causes, and that was as my father wished it. In life, he was very generous — and he hasn’t stopped.’ So we all raise our paddles to the achievements of this banker-statesman: a philanthropist, art collector and, not least, entomologist, which is how his story began.
A longer version of this article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Christie’s Magazine