Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “A well-written life is as rare as a well-led one.” With the publication of Memoirs, David Rockefeller has triumphantly achieved both.
David Rockefeller was born in 1915 into what was then the wealthiest family in America. His grandfather John D. Rockefeller built his fortune in oil, and along the way effectively developed the modern oil industry; later in life, he focused on giving his fortune away, and effectively created modern philanthropy. His father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., oversaw the family’s vast institutionalized philanthropy.
His father had a knack for making gifts spontaneously, “because,” Memoirs records, “there were opportunities to do things that needed to be done.” David Rockefeller describes how his father’s quick thinking, good eye for opportunities while traveling, and willingness to act led to his funding the restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia; the preservation of Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and the restoration of monuments in France. These trips with his father are remembered in the book as the highlight of a somewhat lonely, if privileged, childhood. Though David Rockefeller had five siblings, as the youngest child he recalls that his brothers and sisters thought him “far too young to be worth playing with.”
Educated at Harvard and the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics, it was during his service as an army intelligence officer in World War II that David Rockefeller says he “discovered the value of building contacts with well-placed individuals as a means of achieving concrete objectives.” Memoirs offers hints that this discovery came even earlier. His decision to pursue economics, for example, was made after consulting a family friend who at the time happened to be Canada’s prime minister. Rockefeller also picked his teachers well, studying under Joseph A. Schumpeter, Friedrich von Hayek, Frank Knight, and many other seminal figures in economics who shared a belief in the role of markets, which John Maynard Keynes was then challenging with his ideas about state intervention.
David Rockefeller’s educational and military experiences led him to become a passionate internationalist. At Chase Manhattan Bank, where he spent his entire working career, Rockefeller worked to build a global institution. In doing so he came to know most of the world’s leaders. Ironically, given that Marxist propaganda attacked the Rockefeller family as the epitome of American capitalism, David Rockefeller gained extraordinary access to the highest levels of many communist governments. Memoirs describes his fascinating encounters with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 1964, and with Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1973. Rockefeller recalls that Zhou Enlai was “most interested in discussing the international economic and monetary situation.” Not one to disappoint a host, he gave the Chinese leader an economics lecture that continued until almost 1:00 a.m.
Rockefeller discusses his years at Chase candidly, dwelling as much on rivalries, disappointments, and mistakes as on his successes. Throughout this section of the book the reader is struck by Rockefeller’s integrity and modesty. It’s a welcome contrast to many of today’s boastful memoirs by former CEOs.
Of particular interest to readers of this magazine will be Rockefeller’s discussion of his family’s philanthropy. He writes: “The Rockefeller philanthropic tradition was simple and unadorned. It required that we be generous with our financial resources and involve ourselves actively in the affairs of our community and the nation. This was the doctrine of stewardship that Father himself had learned as a young man and had carefully taught us.”
Rockefeller has followed his father’s principles and has been a generous and influential philanthropist for most of his life. His role in transforming two institutions founded by his family—the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and the Museum of Modern Art—demonstrates how he put the family doctrine of stewardship into practice. In both cases, he recognized that not even his family could provide all of the financial support these institutions required to remain preeminent in an increasingly affluent age.
The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was founded in 1901 by John D. Rockefeller and was the first medical research institution of its kind in this country. Its early successes included developing treatments for once-devastating infectious diseases and making important advances in cancer research and in genetics. David Rockefeller succeeded his father as chairman of the board in 1950. At the time, his family was still the institute’s only funding source. It proved a pivotal period, as some on the board were urging that the institute shut its doors because the original mission had been largely achieved. Rockefeller rejected these notions and instead recruited Dr. Detlev Bronk, then president of Johns Hopkins University, to begin a comprehensive evaluation of the research center. In 1953 Rockefeller persuaded Dr. Bronk to join the institute as director and to implement the vision he had proposed in his evaluation. This set the institute on a path to become a biomedical graduate university. Over the next decades, biomedical research throughout the country attracted a growing amount of private and governmental funding. Yet under David Rockefeller’s leadership, Rockefeller University grew and prospered, allowing it to remain one of the most important institutions of its kind in the world. In 1965 the institute’s name was changed to Rockefeller University, and it remains one of the premier medical research centers in the world.
David Rockefeller inherited a love of modern art from his mother, who founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) when he was a child. He was a trustee of MoMA for most of his adult life, and he served several stints as chairman. As a trustee he was forced to deal with a series of managerial and financial crises that regularly threatened the museum’s survival. In the face of these crises, when others were arguing for retrenchment, Rockefeller consistently advocated growth. Perhaps he did so because of the confidence he had in his fundraising skills. Charitable fundraising, he says, has “much in common with managing a business”; it requires “leadership, persistence, and creativity.” Under his guidance, several successful fundraising campaigns were launched. As a result of their success, a museum that had begun in one room of his boyhood home will soon occupy most of a city block. His last campaign aimed to expand MoMA’s facilities. The campaign’s success ensured the museum’s pre-eminent place in the world of art.
As a philanthropic leader, Rockefeller succeeded because he recognized early on that not even his family could provide all of the financial support these institutions would require.
Memoirs also discusses the struggles David Rockefeller had with his brothers over the direction of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a foundation they ran jointly. The brothers had clear but incompatible visions for the foundation’s direction and battled as only family members can to control its future. This chapter should be read as a case study on foundation governance by trustees of other family foundations facing this all too common conflict.
David Rockefeller’s success as a philanthropist is equally rooted in his wealth and his modesty. His wealth allowed him to be bold in his generosity, while his modesty was the secret to attracting the support of others, making his institutions and visions their own.
By focusing on concrete objectives and attracting other supporters, Rockefeller found potential where others often saw none. His is a life well lived, and now a life well written.