John Rockefeller Jr. was the only son and principal heir of John Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. Much of the younger Rockefeller’s working life was dedicated to philanthropy—first as an agent of his father and later with his own inherited funds. His principal philanthropic interests included conserving natural landscapes, preserving historical landmarks, collecting fine art, fostering international cooperation, and promoting the cause of Protestant Modernism.
Born in 1874, “Junior” (as he was known within the family) was earnest and devout, a dutiful son who labored conscientiously to reflect well on the family. After graduating from Brown, he went to work in his father’s office, with unspecified responsibilities, but an expectation that his time would be devoted to both business and philanthropy. He soon discovered he lacked his father’s aptitude for profit-making. After a nervous breakdown in 1904, Junior decided to devote himself almost exclusively to charitable giving.
Working alongside Frederick Gates, one of Rockefeller’s most trusted advisors, Junior helped launch some of his father’s most important philanthropic enterprises: the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (1901), the General Education Board (1903), the Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm (1909), and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913). Junior won his father’s respect with his hard work and commitment to the work he was given.
Junior rose to national prominence in 1915. The United Mine Workers had been striking against the Rockefeller-controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron, and in April 1914 the Colorado National Guard was sent in to keep order. A firefight broke out, in which two women and 11 children were killed. The “Ludlow Massacre” made John Rockefeller one of the most hated men in America. Junior stepped forward, reaching out to the union, speaking to the press, and testifying before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations. He charmed everyone. Even The Masses, a leading left-wing journal, called him “apparently frank,” “gentle,” and “Christianish.”
Impressed by his son’s leadership during the crisis, Senior began transferring his fortune to Junior. Between 1916 and 1922, Junior received gifts of approximately $450 million. By 1920, his net worth hovered around $500 million. This gave him independence in his charitable giving.
Once a philanthropist in his own right, Junior remained famously self-effacing. In the late 1920s, for example, he decided to visit Versailles. He had recently contributed $2 million to the restoration of the palace and its grounds, but arrived at closing time, and the guards, not recognizing him, turned him away. He thanked them politely and returned to his hotel. This became “headline news in France,” notes one biographer, “and no action on his part could have so endeared him to the French people.”
The younger Rockefeller was an ardent conservationist, best remembered for his leadership in creating Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and his contributions to Acadia National Park in Maine. In both cases, he bought tens of thousands of acres and donated them to the National Park Service; in Maine, he paid for the construction of 57 miles of auto-free “carriage roads,” where visitors could enjoy the park’s beauty at the speed of a horse instead of a car.
In all, it is estimated that Junior gave about $45 million to various conservation efforts, leading one expert to call him “the most generous philanthropist in the history of conservation.” He put up $10.3 million to preserve parkland in northeastern New Jersey, donated funds to buy land and build a museum in Yosemite National Park, and underwrote the purchase of land for California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park. He helped create Shenandoah National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The same conservative impulse that inspired Junior’s conservation efforts also animated his interest in historic preservation. In 1926, Junior visited Williamsburg, Virginia, then little more than William and Mary College surrounded by a few crumbling churches. Rockefeller began to restore the venerable town one building at a time, insisting on scrupulous historical accuracy, in what ultimately became a $60 million gift. It became a labor of love—“I really belong in Williamsburg,” he once said. He later repeated this effort in measures to restore sections of the historic Hudson Valley.
Junior’s conservation efforts spanned the globe. He funded the restoration of Notre-Dame de Reims, a 13th -century French cathedral that was devastated by shellfire in World War I. When an earthquake destroyed the main library of Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University), Junior paid for its reconstruction. Grants to the American School for Classical Studies helped archaeologists excavate the Ancient Agora of Athens. With a $2 million gift, he launched the Palestine Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum), the first institute in Jerusalem devoted to archeological preservation.
Junior’s taste in art was similarly traditional, as evidenced by his close involvement in the creation of the Cloisters in New York City. In the 1920s, Junior began working with George Grey Barnard, a sculptor who collected pieces from the great cathedrals of medieval France. Junior decided to combine Barnard’s collection with the medieval works he had collected—most notably the seven “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries. To house one of the world’s great collections of medieval art, Rockefeller funded the creation of a building that incorporates parts from five French cloistered abbeys, taken apart and shipped to northernmost Manhattan, where they were assembled between 1934 and 1938. Surrounding land was landscaped in styles recorded in medieval manuscripts and images.
Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had entirely different tastes in art. She fell in love with modern art quite early, and was given a modest allowance by her husband to pursue that interest. With those funds and some inheritance she acquired works by young, struggling artists. Later, she organized other donors who created New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1934, Junior loosened the purse strings and allowed his wife to spend what she pleased on contemporary works. When she died in 1948, he honored her memory with gifts to the Museum of Modern Art that ultimately totaled over $6 million, despite his lifelong distaste for contemporary art.
Junior also used his philanthropy to promote the cause of international harmony. He gave a library to the League of Nations, and later contributed the Manhattan real estate that allowed the United Nations building to be constructed there rather than abroad. He was a founder and major contributor to the Council on Foreign Relations. He funded dozens of International Houses, residential facilities on college campuses intended to enable graduate students from different countries to live together. He created the International Education Board and provided $28 million to fund graduate studies and institutions in 39 countries.
The largest component of Junior’s philanthropy—totaling some $72 million altogether—was directed to churches and religious causes. Every year between 1919 and 1933, he was the largest single contributor to the Northern Baptist denomination, contributing as much as 13 percent of its annual budget. During the 1920s, as Modernist and Fundamentalist factions increasingly came into conflict, Junior sided squarely with the Modernists. His friend and family pastor was Harry Emerson Fosdick, a leading light among the Modernists; Fosdick’s brother Raymond was a long-time Rockefeller employee (and Rockefeller Foundation president) and Junior’s first biographer.
In 1922, Junior paid for the distribution of Fosdick’s sermon “Should the Fundamentalists Win?” to every Protestant minister in the United States. He funded the nondenominational Riverside Church, contributing $32 million to its construction between 1925 and 1928. He supported the theologically liberal faculty at the University of Chicago Divinity School and gave millions to the Interchurch World Movement, an ecumenical effort to unite the Christian denominations. By 1935, Rockefeller cut off all contributions to the Northern Baptist communion.
Historians estimate that John Rockefeller Jr. gave away $537 million during his lifetime, slightly less than his father’s total lifetime giving of $540 million. Although one of the nation’s most accomplished philanthropists, Junior always subordinated himself to his father. When the Virginia legislature formally honored him for the creation of historic Williamsburg, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was invited to deliver a few remarks. At one point, he looked up, departing from his prepared text. “How I wish my father were here,” he said, his voice choking. “I am only the son.”
~ Martin Morse Wooster