The Rockefellers (2000)

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Documentary Description


They feared the temptations of wealth, yet their estate was once described as the kind of place God would have built–if only he had the money. They amassed a fortune that outraged a democratic nation, then gave much of it away. They were the closest thing this country had to a royal family, but they shunned the public eye, retreating behind the walls of their palatial home at Pocantico Hills, New York.



"The Rockefellers" is the saga of four generations of a legendary American family whose name is synonymous with great wealth.




"Mr. Rockefeller, your fortune is rolling up like an avalanche! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children's children!"

–The Rev. Frederick Gates, hired by John D. Rockefeller to guide his philanthropy




The story begins in the Christian revivalist fervor of the 1830s with a marriage of opposites: Eliza Davison, a pious young woman, and "Devil Bill" Rockefeller, swindler, snake-oil salesman, and eventually, bigamist. Their son, John D. Rockefeller, created an industrial empire–and a personal fortune–on a scale the world had never known. He ruthlessly crushed his competitors in the process, alienating the public and leaving a stain on the family name. His dutiful son, John D. Jr., was a self-sacrificing young man who devoted his life to redeeming his family's reputation. Junior's five sons scaled the heights of the American century. One, Nelson, reached highest, exposing the very private Rockefellers once again to the harsh judgment of public opinion. In the 1960s, a fourth generation of Rockefellers–"the Cousins"–rebelled against their family, which had come to personify what was then known as "the establishment."



With unprecedented access to the Rockefeller family and their archives, producers Elizabeth Deane ("The Kennedys") and Adriana Bosch ("Reagan") have created a complete documentary portrait of this renowned dynasty. "The Rockefellers" features on-camera interviews with Junior's two surviving sons, Laurance and David, and six of the Cousins generation: Steven Rockefeller, Rodman Rockefeller (who died in May 2000), Abby O'Neill, David Rockefeller Jr., Peggy Dulany, and the Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV; revealing home movies; and interviews with historians, biographers, and others close to the family. David Ogden Stiers narrates.



The world's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller Sr. held 90 percent of the world's oil refineries, 90 percent of the marketing of oil, and a third of all the oil wells. Working methodically and secretly, he did more than transform a single industry. When he formed his feared monopoly, Standard Oil, in 1870 he changed forever the way America did business.



Because of the ruthless war he waged to crush his competitors, Rockefeller was to many Americans the embodiment of an unjust and cruel economic system. Yet he lived a quiet and virtuous life. "I believe the power to make money is a gift of God," Rockefeller once said. "It is my duty to make money and even more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow men." By the end of his life he had given away half his fortune. But Rockefeller's vast philanthropy could not erase the memory of his predatory business practices. In 1902, when McClure's magazine published journalist Ida Tarbell's scathing exposé of Standard Oil, it unleashed a torrent of rage. In 1911, Standard Oil was declared in violation of antitrust laws and dissolved.



John D.'s only son, Junior, faced an almost impossible task, says biographer Ron Chernow: "He had to figure out a way to change the image of this family without openly repudiating the father he loved." The struggle took its toll. Junior suffered from incapacitating headaches and was forced to take rest cures to relieve the strain. In his quest for redemption and respectability, Junior would give away hundreds of millions of dollars, and would demand impeccable behavior from his six children. John D. III became a philanthropist and a valued expert on Asian affairs; Laurance, a leading venture capitalist and conservationist. Nelson was four times governor of New York and vice president of the United States. David, president of The Chase Manhattan Bank, was a leading figure in international finance. Winthrop was elected governor of Arkansas. Abby was deeply involved in cancer research.



The Rockefellers transformed America, helping build many of the institutions that defined the United States in the twentieth century: the United Nations, Spelman College, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, the United Negro College Fund, Lincoln Center, Chase Manhattan Bank, Riverside Church, Pan American Airlines, Radio City Music Hall, The Cloisters, the University of Chicago, Rockefeller Center, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare–to name just a few. Junior's wife, Abby, a leading patron of the arts, co-founded the Museum of Modern Art, known to the third generation of Rockefellers as "Mother's museum."



When he died at age 86, Junior left his six children and 22 grandchildren an invaluable inheritance: a name which stood not for corporate greed, but for "the well-being of mankind." Junior had lived to see his final vindication–the election of his son, Nelson, as governor of New York in 1958. "It was a sign that the people of the United States had in fact fully accepted the Rockefellers in spite of the early history of the family," says Nelson's son, Steven. "Nelson had done something that no other Rockefeller had ever done," says his biographer, Joseph Persico. "He had won the affirmation of the people."



In 1962, Nelson tried to take the family one step higher: A liberal Republican, he made a bid for the presidency of the United States. But his divorce from Mary Todd Hunter and marriage to Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, together with a rising wave of national conservatism, crushed his aspirations. "His political career started to come to an end at the time of his divorce and remarriage," his brother, David, confirms. Ten years later, while still governor of New York, he was held responsible for the violent putdown of the rebellion at the Attica state prison and was even called a murderer.



It was a time of turmoil for the nation–and for the Rockefellers. John D.'s grandchildren were caught up in the upheaval–civil rights, the women's movement, the war in Vietnam. "The Cousins found that they could no longer accept uncritically the role of being Rockefellers," says Steven. "You had to question the history of the family and your own identity."



Wanting little to do with a fortune they saw as tainted, some of the Cousins joined the assault of the left against the Rockefellers. In 1976 the Cousins collaborated with the editors of the leading radical journal, Ramparts, in a tell-all book that described the Rockefeller family as "having an abundance of everything except feelings."



The book's publication caused a deep rift in the family. "My father's generation was quite understandably very upset that their dirty laundry was being aired in public," says Peggy Dulany, a daughter of David Rockefeller. Abby, Winthrop, John, and Nelson had died by the end of the 1970's –Nelson under scandalous circumstances. Their deaths brought the family back together. "We came to realize that the real problem was the integration of power and goodness," says Steven. "And that if the family was going to continue to work together, philanthropic commitments and values would be at the center." In a society that has more millionaires–even billionaires–than ever, the story of the Rockefellers is both a cautionary tale and an exemplary one.



Source: PBS




TRANSCRIPT




PRIMARY SOURCES



Primary Sources: Rockefeller Family Ties



Until the 1970s, when they became the focus of a controversial book, the family dynamics of the Rockefeller dynasty were one of America's best-kept secrets.



That's exactly how John D. Rockefeller Sr. had always wanted it. Even in his personal letters, he avoided any intimate details or private confessions.



And yet, in all its Victorian restraint, Rockefeller's correspondence with his docile son John D. Jr. and his rebellious daughter Edith is surprisingly eloquent. Between the lines, these letters reveal the strong personalities and the sometimes strained relationships of these three very different Rockefellers.



Below is a sample of the correspondence, spanning the years 1887 to 1922:



Correspondence between John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr.


________________________________

26 Broadway

New York

November 28th 1887



Dear John:

Yours, of the 22nd, duly received. Excuse delay in answering. Have also your telegram of today for the cutter [sleigh], and will attend to it tomorrow morning. I assume you want the one to carry two persons. I had a pleasant time in Washington. It is a beautiful city. The weather was mild and lovely. After receiving my testimony they did not wish any other although they had subpoenaed eight of us. We feel very well about the experience over there. The New York World hasn't any further ammunition in this direction, is now going back to its first love, the Buffalo suit, trying to rake up something against us. Had a delightful Sunday at home yesterday. Feeling well and ready for business. Looking forward with pleasure to seeing you the last of this week.



Concur in your decision about painting the storm doors. You and Mother will surely have your own way in all these affairs, what's the use of my saying a word. You are monarch of all you survey.



Your loving,

Father

_________________________________

26 Broadway

January 20th 1888



My Dear Son:

We all welcomed yours of the 15th. Were very pleased to hear of your daily experience, and hope both you and Mother will be much better for this quiet country life. I am glad you know about it. It carries me back to my boyhood days. I am having a pair of shoes made to lace up. I am told they support the ankles better. I will bring them with me. Please tell Mother that everything is being done that can be in reference to the telephone wire to Forest Hill. A new route is desired and the effort to secure it makes a little delay. Aunty and I went to the Harlem River this morning with Flash and Midnight in a new cutter [sleigh] which cost $300. Very extravagant, I know, but the sleighing is so good could not resist the temptation to buy it and hope to get the worth of our money. I drove four times day before yesterday and three times yesterday making an aggregate in the two days of about eighty miles. Don't you think I am an enthusiastic youth? I am looking forward with great pleasure to seeing you next week but may not leave until Friday.



Lovingly,

Your Father

____________________________________

Home

4 West 54th St.

New York

January 26, 1895



My Dear Son:

I enclose check to your order for Twenty-one dollars, for your twenty first birthday, being one for each year.



It would be very pleasant if we could all spend the day together at home, but I think under the circumstances, it is better for you to remain at college as you have been obliged to be away from your work so much of late.



I cannot tell you how much happiness we all have in you. And how much we are looking forward to, and relying on you for in the future.



We are grateful beyond measure for your promise and for the confidence your life inspires in us, not only, but in all your friends and acquaintances and this is of more value than all earthly possessions.



We all join in the hope that this and all the days to come, may bring only good to you, and we rejoice that you know from experience, that good for you, is inseparably connected with the good you bring to others. But this is not a lecture, only a kind word from an affectionate father to a much loved and only son on the occasion of his 21st birthday.



John D. Rockefeller

__________________________________

11 Slater Hall

Prov. R.I.

February 3, 1895



Dear Father,

I want again to thank you for the check which you sent me last week and also for the letter that accompanied it.



I am grateful if my life brings happiness to you; it should bring much more than I have made it. But had I done infinitely better than I have in this particular, I should not even then have made anything like an adequate return for all that you have done for me.



I am glad for the confidence which you say my life inspires in you. I feel that I have but too little confidence in myself; but the very fact of you having faith in me will help me to make the most of my life.



Be assured, dear Father that my greatest happiness will ever be to do my utmost for you and Mother, and not only to keep clean, but be a credit to the honorable and noble record which you have made. People talk about sons being better than their fathers, but if I can be half as generous, half as unselfish, and half as kindly affectionate to my fellow men as you have been, I shall not feel that my life has been in vain.



Affectionately,

John

_____________________________________

4 West 54th Street

New York

November 11, 1899



Dear Father

I want to tell you again of my very deep appreciation of the generous, patient and kindly way in which you have treated me during the anxiety and pressure which has been brought upon you this week largely through me. Most Fathers would have upbraided and stormed, and that too, justly. Because of your forbearance and gentleness you have caused me to feel the more deeply the lesson which this has taught. I would rather have had my right hand cut off than to have caused you this anxiety. My one thought and purpose since I came into the office has been to relieve you in every way possible of the burdens which you have carried so long. To realize now that instead of doing that I have been partially and largely instrumental in adding to your burdens, is bitter and humiliating. My effort has been an honest one although I have failed in its accomplishment. I want fully to acknowledge my mistake and to shoulder the blame which rightfully belongs to me. With your expression of continued confidence which I most truly appreciate, I shall try again in the hope that I can live my appreciation of your magnanimity far better than I can express it in words. This has been a hard lesson but it may help me to avoid harder ones in the future.



Affectionately,

John

___________________________________

Hotel Bon Air

Augusta, Georgia

January 18, 1909



Dear Son:

I thank you a thousand times for the fur coat and cap and mittens. I did not feel that I could afford such luxuries, and am grateful for a son who is able to buy them for me. Be assured that they are much appreciated. Mother unites with me in thanking you.



Affectionately,

Father

_________________________________

26 Broadway

New York

January 11, 1910



Dear Father:

Since you have upon previous occasions expressed an interest in the total amount of money which I spend in a year you will be interested to know that my total expenditures for the year 1909 is $86,288.35. Subtracting from this amount $25,000 which I gave to Brown, leaves a total of $58,238.35. The total last year was $65,918.47. This excess in 1908 is accounted for by the amount which I gave away during that year as compared with the amount given away in 1909 less the $25,000 above referred to.



Affectionately,

John

__________________________________

Golf House

Lakewood, NJ

May 9, 1917



Dear Son:

A brief word only! History is making so rapidly, I can hardly keep up with it, but this fact is being very forcibly impressed upon my mind that my individual ability to do things for others is only a fraction of what it was before the Government took a first mortgage on my possessions and my income, requiring me to pay for governmental purposes many millions of dollars each year. With this in view, we must all reflect very carefully before any further committals are made for gifts of money, especially as I can now see where I shall require to pay in a very few months no less than twenty millions of dollars, not including what I have already paid and for which I am already in debt.



All goes well with us, and we are happy and contented and hope that you and Abby will be rational, restful, retiring, and right minded, and you will look with righteous indignation upon any overtaxing of your time and strength, remembering that you have much work to do in the world and it cannot all be done in a day. Be patient and be moderate. Allow other people to bear some of their share of the burdens of life, and in the end you will accomplish more, live longer and be happier.



Affectionately,

Father

__________________________________

Golf House

Lakewood, NJ

July 30, 1918



Dear Son:

I am this day giving you 18,800 shares of the Common stock of the American Linseed Company and 22,400 shares of the Preferred, and 500 shares of the Lakewood Engineering Company, 4,200 shares of the International Agricultural Corporation Preferred and 12,423 shares of the Atlantic Refining Company and 37,269 shares of the Vacuum Oil Company and 13,000 shares of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, and I have requested Mr. Houston to have the same transferred to you.



Affectionately,

Father

_____________________________________

26 Broadway

New York

February 11, 1919



Dear Father:

Once more my breath is taken by the receipt of your letter of February 5th announcing the stupendous gift of New Jersey stock which you are making to me. I need not tell you how deeply I realize the great responsibility which each of these gifts bring, for every day of my life I realize more fully the peculiar obligations which rest upon those of large means. A sense of the burden of the responsibility which, through your great generosity has come so rapidly to me during the passing years, would be almost crushing were it not off-set by the vision of the wonderful opportunity for useful service which comes with responsibility.



I appreciate more and more each day what your wisdom and intelligence and broad vision in giving has meant to the world. I realize increasingly the tremendous value that attaches to your endorsement of an enterprise, business or philanthropic, and I need not assure you that it will be my great pride, as well as my solemn duty, to endeavor, while emulating your unparalleled generosity, to live up to the high standards of intelligent giving which you have set. Whenever I am discouraged because of the littleness and the meanness and the petty jealousy of men I find renewed courage as I contemplate your patience, your bigness of heart, your Christian tolerance. Whenever I am oppressed with the feeling that one man can do so little even when he is doing his utmost, I only have to review the marvelous accomplishments of your extraordinary life in order to be heartened for the task which lies before me.



May the God who has led you so wonderfully during all these years of your life, Whom you have served so faithfully and so untiringly, lead me in the same path of duty and of service, and help me to carry on worthily the works for mankind which with marvelous prevision you have so solidly and wisely established.



I thank you, dear Father, for this great gift, and for the continued confidence in me which it implies. May God bless you and help me to live up to the high ideals which have guided your life.



Lovingly,

John

__________________________________

Kijkuit

Pocantico Hills

New York

October 22, 1920



Dear Son:



I am giving you a check for $500,000. It will be available for use on Monday next.



Affectionately,

Father

_________________________________

Kijkuit

Pocantico Hills

New York

October 23, 1920



Dear Son:

I am giving you a check for $500,000. It will be available for use on Tuesday next.



Affectionately,

Father

__________________________________

Kijkuit

Pocantico Hills

New York

October 28, 1920



Dear Son:



I am today giving you a check for $500,000. It will be available for use at once.



Affectionately,

Father

__________________________________

26 Broadway

New York

October 28, 1920



Dear Father:

hat a delightful habit you are forming! This third gift, of which your letter of October 28th advises me, is as acceptable as was the first.



Again I would express my truest thanks. How can I ever make clear to you how much I appreciate your wonderful generosity!



Affectionately,

John

__________________________________

Ormond Beach

Florida

January 26, 1922



Dear Son:

As to the sums which I have handed you from time to time, it is to be remembered that I have already set aside large amounts in our different trusts, for benevolent purposes, in addition to my regular giving personally, and with the careful and protracted study which I give to each object of any considerable moment, it is evident that I shall not fulfill to the complete extent, my heart's desire to make everything that I can give to the world available, for many years to come.



As you are in touch with the world from a somewhat different angle from mine, and there have been ample means left by a kind Providence. I have hoped that with your constant and careful studies, and wide and broad knowledge of the needs of the world, you would have the fullest enjoyment in personally determining and carrying out plans of your own for helping the world, and I rejoice to afford you this opportunity, in the confident assurance that great good will result therefrom.



I am indeed blessed beyond measure in having a son whom I can trust to do this most particular and most important work. Go carefully/Be conservative. Be sure you are right — and then do not be afraid to give out, as your heart prompts you, and as the Lord inspires you.



With tenderest affection,

Father



Correspondence between John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Edith Rockefeller McCormick



Hôtel Baur au Lac

Zurich

September 4, 1915



Dear Father:

I want to thank you for your birthday cheque which is always welcome.



My thoughts in regard to the early history of yours and Mother's lives together is only for family research. It is the link in our family history which you alone can give now to hand down to your children, as I will hand down to my children dates and events in Harold's and my early lives together. Mother used to tell us about your going to school, about how you were dressed the first time you called, about your wedding and the early days in Cheshire Street. I am sure that you understand what I mean.



We would all like to help in your philanthropies. It is beautiful and developing work and John is privileged in a way which Alta and I as yet have not had the opportunity of being. I am sure that as women we are serious minded and earnest and deeply interested in mankind and that we would only be too glad to shoulder our inherited responsibilities if we were permitted to.



Fowler expects to sail back to school in a few days. We have had a beautiful summer all together.



May each day bring some new beauty into your life, dear Father, and may you feel the love of your children near you.



With repeated thanks and my love.



Your loving daughter,

Edith

__________________________________

Hôtel Bar au Lac

Zurich

October 22, 1915



Dear Father:

Your cheque on the anniversary of Mother's birth linked together the past and the present and showed me that you still hold me in your remembrance. There is warmth and love in your heart when one can get through all the outside barriers which you have thrown up to protect yourself -- your own self -- from the world. This warmth and love draws me, for is it not living?



Thank you, Father.



Affectionately,

Edith

_________________________________

Hôtel Bar au Lac

Zurich

January 31, 1916



Dear Father:

I want to thank you for your Christmas cheque which brings with it to me your thought and remembrance.



Also I want to ask you if you will give me some more stocks in order to increase my income. In 1908 you gave me some S.O. stocks ($10,000.00) in 1909 or 1910 you gave me the Riverside property, and since then my principal and my allowance have remained the same. For myself I spend a sixth or seventh of my allowance and the rest I give away. As a woman of forty three I would like to have more money to help with. There are causes in which I am interested which are uplifting and of vital importance to my development which I cannot help as I should like to because I have not the money. I hope you will see that as a woman of earnestness of purpose and singleness of spirit I am worthy of more confidence on your part.



Hoping that you have entirely recovered from your cold, and with renewed thanks and love.



Affectionately,

Edith

_________________________________

Hôtel Bar au Lac

Zurich

June 22, 1917



Dear Father:

We are thinking of your birthday which is approaching and are happy in the thought that you are well and happy. I wish some times that you would let me get nearer to you -- your real self, so that your heart would feel the warmth of a simple human soul. Perhaps you will let me some day.



For this coming year on which you are just entering I wish you continued health and joy, and I send to you many loving wishes.



Your affectionate daughter,

Edith



P.S. For all the help which you are giving in so many times I am grateful and appreciative.

Edith

__________________________________

July 27, 1917



Dear Daughter:

I thank you for your beautiful letter on the occasion of my seventy-eighth birthday. I can think of nothing which I would more devoutly desire than that we should be constantly drawn closer and closer together, to the end that we may be of the greatest assistance to each other, not only, but to the dear ones so near and so dear to us.



All goes well with us at Forest Hill. It was never so beautiful here before. Our thoughts go out to all the dear ones, the memory of whom makes the place so sweet and sacred to me.



With tenderest love for each and everyone of you, I am,



Affectionately,

Father

_________________________________

April 9, 1921



Dear Edith:

Answering yours of the 10th ult., I cherish no unkindly feelings, but I could not say I did not regret you should not have taken my advice in respect to the use of the funds which I had given you.



However, while we have all suffered in this connection, for such things cannot be hid under a bushel, as perhaps I intimated in some former letter, yet you have had to bear most, and now, as to the future of your financial management I see no other way than that you will have to cut your garment to suit the cloth.



But, Edith dear, the financial question, while important, is not important when compared to the other question —- the great question of your being present with your children. And how sadly they need your presence, and how very solicitous we all are for them! In this connection I may add that you could have been a great comfort and help to your mother and me. But this sinks into insignificance also, when we consider the dear children, and the importance of the constant, jealous, watch-care of the mother, and the untold sorrow that may be entailed upon us all. Edith dear, you know it all, and so much better than I — indeed, I know so little. The responsibility is with you. I hope it is not too late.



This knowledge adds to my burdens, and with increasing years, though I do not complain, I have enough, possibly more than I should undertake to carry.



I am not lecturing. I am not scolding. I love you, Edith dear; and I am still hoping.



Affectionately,

Father

__________________________________

1000 Lake Shore Drive

Chicago

September 9, 1922



Dear Father:

Today is dear Mother's birthday, and as my thoughts turn to her in loving remembrance I am impelled to send you just a word of love.



One of my earliest remembrances is being wakened in the city house in Cleveland by your voice as you talked to Mother from your bathroom where you were dressing, while she coiffed her hair in your bedroom. Alta and I slept in the room next to your bathroom, and your voice which was deep and full, came through to us as you talked on. Then I remember sitting on Mother's lap by the middle front window in the music room, while she cut my nails (I must have been very young). Then I remember your sitting in front of the fire in the music room after luncheon on Sunday, and taking the meat out of a hickory nut for me with a nut picker. And then, one morning while Mother was playing the piano, you came up and rubbed my back which was making me restless on account of the prickly heat. You came up so quietly and you went down again so quietly. These are some of my earliest remembrances.



Mother's love for children and her belief that to mould them was building for the future was an inspiration in her life perhaps even the greatest one.



It is nice to be together again for a while as we were for so many years — you, Mother and I. She lives with us still, and her good works follow her.



As ever,

Your loving daughter,

Edith

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