Industrial titan John Rockefeller is an American icon for wealth, fame, and power. His great-granddaughter Eileen currently lives a modest life on a Vermont farm. How she reconciled these two existences is the subject of her new memoir, which traces the trajectory of her life and the many troubles that entered it despite her family’s resources and prestige. The author thus recasts one of America’s most glamorous families in a more human light.
“Real richness and power comes not from the amount of money,” Rockefeller writes, “but from our connections.” She offers intimate glimpses of her family, from her father’s obsession with beetles to the summers she, her siblings, and her mother spent constructing a cabin on an island in Maine. The first half of the book focuses on her often unhappy childhood. Her mother’s depression and her father’s absence left a brood of neglected children. Eileen, the youngest, was a timid and lonely youngster, and it took many decades for her to get beyond this.
Readers looking for philanthropic rather than personal insights into the Rockefellers will not find much here. The charming anecdotes throughout the book make it entertaining to read, but the private stories heavily outnumber substantive discussions. Eileen’s most cherished philanthropic accomplishment, founding the Institute for the Advancement of Health to foster the study of mind-body connections in disease and wellness, is touched on in one chapter. Even less attention is paid to her work in founding Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, or her involvement, with her husband Paul Growald, in the Growald Family Fund.
Rockefeller refers indirectly to her family’s changing views on public activity and giving. Discussing the events of a meeting at the family estate in 2000, she emphasizes the difference between her generation of Rockefellers and the one before it, which was more focused on politics and prominent displays of wealth. “We chose quieter paths, went incognito, and found as much value in helping a few people as in helping a nation,” she writes. Her light treatment of these topics leaves room for future books on how families can change their use of wealth, even as wealth changes the family.
This is an excerpt from Books in Brief in the Spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine.