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John D. Rockefeller Jr

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John D. Rockefeller Jr

John Davison Rockefeller, Jr.
Born (1874-01-29)January 29, 1874
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Died May 11, 1960(1960-05-11) (aged 86)
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater Brown University
Occupation Philanthropist
Religion Baptist
Spouse(s) Abigail Greene Aldrich
(m. 1901—1948; her death)
Martha Baird
(m. 1951—1960; his death)
Children Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller
John Davison Rockefeller III
Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller
Laurance Spelman Rockefeller
Winthrop Aldrich
David Rockefeller
Parents John Davison Rockefeller, Sr.
Laura Celestia Spelman
Awards Public Welfare Medal (1943)

John Davison Rockefeller, Jr. (January 29, 1874 — May 11, 1960) was a major philanthropist and a pivotal member of the prominent Rockefeller family. He was the only son among the five children of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller and the father of the five famous Rockefeller brothers. In biographies, he is commonly referred to as "Junior" to distinguish him from his father, known as "Senior". He was a nephew of Standard Oil co-founder William Rockefeller (1841—1922).

Early life

John Davison Rockefeller, Jr. was the fifth and last child of philanthropists John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. (1839—1937) and Laura Celestia "Cettie" Spelman (1839—1915). His four older sisters were Elizabeth (Bessie), Alice (who died young), Alta, and Edith. Living in his father's mansion at 4 West 54th Street he attended Park Avenue Baptist Church at 64th Street (now Central Presbyterian Church), and the Browning School, a tutorial establishment set up for him and other children of associates of the family; it was located in a brownstone owned by the Rockefellers, on West 55th Street. His father and uncle William Avery Rockefeller, Jr. had founded Standard Oil together.

Initially he had intended to go to Yale but was encouraged by William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, among others, to enter the Baptist-oriented Brown University instead. Nicknamed Johnny Rock by his roommates, he joined both the Glee and the Mandolin Clubs, taught a Bible class and was elected junior class president. Scrupulously careful with money, he stood out as different from other rich men's sons.[1]

In 1897 he graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, after taking nearly a dozen courses in the social sciences, including a study of Karl Marx's Das Kapital. He joined the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Business career

After graduation, Rockefeller, Jr. joined his father's business (October 1, 1897) and set up operations in the newly formed family office at Standard Oil's headquarters at 26 Broadway. He became a Standard Oil director; he later also became a director in J. P. Morgan's U.S. Steel company, which had been formed in 1901. After a scandal involving the then-head of Standard Oil, John Dustin Archbold (the successor to Senior), and bribes he had made to two prominent Congressmen, unearthed by the Hearst media empire, Junior resigned from both companies in 1910 in an attempt to "purify" his ongoing philanthropy from commercial and financial interests.[2]

In April 1914, after a long period of industrial unrest, the Ludlow massacre occurred at the coal-mining company, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CFI). Junior owned a controlling interest in the company (40% of its stock) and sat on the board as an absentee director.[3] Twenty men, women and children died in the incident and Junior was subsequently called to testify in January 1915 before the US Commission on Industrial Relations. Many socialist activists attacked Rockefeller for ordering the massacre at Ludlow, including Margaret Sanger, who wrote an attack on Rockefeller and his family in her magazine The Woman Rebel where she referred to Rockefeller and his family as "leering, bloody hyenas of the human race who smear themselves with the stinking honey of Charity to attract those foul flies of religion who spread pollution throughout the land."[4][5] He was at the time being advised by William Lyon Mackenzie King and the pioneer public relations expert, Ivy Lee. Junior also at this time met with the union organizer, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones and admitted fault in his testimony. Mackenzie King was later to say that this testimony was the turning point in Junior's life, restoring the reputation of the family name; it also heralded a new era of industrial relations in the country (see below).[6]

During the Great Depression he developed and was the sole financier of a vast 14-building real estate complex in the geographical center of Manhattan, Rockefeller Center, and as a result became one of the largest real estate holders in New York City. He was influential in attracting leading blue chip corporations as tenants in the complex, including GE and its then affiliates RCA, NBC and RKO, as well as Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso), and Associated Press and Time Inc, as well as branches of what was Chase National Bank, now JP Morgan Chase.

The family office, of which he was in charge, called now formally "Rockefeller Family and Associates" (and informally, Room 5600), shifted from Standard Oil headquarters to the 56th floor of what is now the landmark GE Building upon its completion in 1933.

In 1921, he received about 10% of the shares of the Equitable Trust Company from his father, making him the bank's largest shareholder. Subsequently, in 1930, the Equitable merged with the Chase National Bank, now JP Morgan Chase, and became at that time the largest bank in the world. Although his stockholding was reduced to about 4% following this merger, he was still the largest shareholder in what became known as the "Rockefeller bank". As late as the 1960s his family still retained about 1% of the bank's shares, by which time his son David had become the bank's president.[7]

In the late 1920s, Rockefeller founded the Dunbar National Bank in Harlem. The financial institution was located within the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments at 2824 Eighth Avenue near 150th Street and serviced a primarily African American clientele. It was unique among New York City financial institutions in that it employed African Americans as tellers, clerks, bookkeepers and in key management positions. However, the bank folded after only a few years of operation.[8][9][10]

Philanthropy and social causes

In a celebrated letter to Nicholas Murray Butler in June, 1932, subsequently printed on the front page of The New York Times, Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler, argued against the continuation of the Eighteenth Amendment on the principal grounds of an increase in disrespect for the law. This letter became an important event in pushing the nation to repeal Prohibition.[11]

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. is best known for his philanthropy, giving over $537 million to myriad causes over his lifetime.[12] He created the Sealantic Fund in 1938 to channel gifts to his favorite causes; previously his main philanthropic organization had been the Davison Fund. He had become the Rockefeller Foundation's inaugural president in May, 1913 and proceeded to dramatically expand the scope of this institution, founded by his father. Later he would become involved in other organizations set up by Senior, the Rockefeller University and the International Education Board.

In the social sciences, he founded the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1918, which was subsequently folded into the Rockefeller Foundation in 1929.[13] A committed internationalist, he financially supported programs of the League of Nations and crucially funded the formation and ongoing expenses of the Council on Foreign Relations and its initial headquarters building, in New York in 1921.[14]

He established the Bureau of Social Hygiene in 1913, a major initiative that investigated such social issues as prostitution and venereal disease, as well as studies in police administration and support for birth control clinics and research. In 1924, at the instigation of his wife, he provided crucial funding for Margaret Sanger (who ironically had previously been an opponent of his because of his mistreatment of workers) in her work on birth control and involvement in population issues.[15] He donated five thousand dollars to her American Birth Control League in 1924 and a second time in 1925.[16]

In the arts, he gave extensive property he owned on West Fifty-fourth Street for the site of the Museum of Modern Art, which had been co-founded by his wife in 1929.

In 1925, he purchased the George Grey Barnard collection of medieval art and cloister fragments for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also purchased land north of the original site, now Fort Tryon Park, for a new building, The Cloisters.[17][18]

In November, 1926, Rockefeller came to the College of William and Mary for the dedication of an auditorium built in memory of the organizers of Phi Beta Kappa, the honorary scholastic fraternity founded in Williamsburg in 1776. Rockefeller was a member of the society and had helped pay for the auditorium. He had visited Williamsburg the previous March, when the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin escorted him — along with his wife Abby, and their sons, David, Laurance, and Winthrop — on a quick tour of the city. The upshot of his visit was that he approved the plans already developed by Goodwin and launched the massive historical restoration of Colonial Williamsburg on November 22, 1927. Amongst many other buildings restored through his largesse was The College of William & Mary's Wren Building.[19]

Through negotiations by his son Nelson, in 1946 he bought for $8.5 million - from the major New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf - and then donated the land along the East River in Manhattan upon which the United Nations headquarters was built. This was after he had vetoed the family estate at Pocantico as a prospective site for the headquarters (see Kykuit).[20] Another UN connection was his early financial support for its predecessor, the League of Nations; this included a gift to endow a major library for the League in Geneva which today still remains a resource for the UN.[21]

A confirmed ecumenicist, over the years he gave substantial sums to Protestant and Baptist institutions, ranging from the Interchurch World Movement, the Federal Council of Churches, the Union Theological Seminary, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York's Riverside Church and the World Council of Churches. He was also instrumental in the development of the research that led to Robert and Helen Lynd's famous Middletown studies work that was conducted in the city of Muncie, Indiana, that arose out of the financially supported Institute of Social and Religious Research.

As a follow on to his involvement in the Ludlow Massacre, Rockefeller was a major initiator with his close friend and advisor William Lyon Mackenzie King in the nascent industrial relations movement; along with major chief executives of the time he incorporated Industrial Relations Counselors (IRC) in 1926, a consulting firm whose main goal was to establish industrial relations as a recognized academic discipline at Princeton University and other institutions. It succeeded through the support of prominent corporate chieftains of the time, such as Owen D. Young and Gerard Swope of General Electric.[22]

Overseas philanthropy

In the 1920s he also donated a substantial amount towards the restoration and rehabilitation of major buildings in France after World War I, such as the Reims Cathedral, the Château de Fontainebleau and the Château de Versaillesfor which in 1936 he was awarded France's highest decoration, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d'honneur, which was awarded decades later to his son David Rockefeller.

He also liberally funded the notable early excavations at Luxor in Egypt, and the American School of Classical Studies for excavation of the Agora and the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attolos, both in Athens; the American Academy in Rome; Lingnan University in China; St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo; the library of the Imperial University in Tokyo; and the Shakespeare Memorial Endowment at Stratford-on-Avon.

In addition, he provided the funding for the construction of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem - the Rockefeller Museum - which today houses many antiquities and was the home of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls until they were moved to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.[23]


He had a special interest in conservation, and purchased and donated land for many American National Parks, including Grand Teton (hiding his involvement and intentions behind the Snake River Land Company), Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and Shenandoah. In the case of Acadia National Park, he financed and engineered an extensive Carriage Road network throughout the park. Both the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects Yellowstone National Park to the Grand Teton National Park and the Rockefeller Memorial in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were named after him. He was also active in the movement to save redwood trees, making a significant contribution to Save-the-Redwoods League in the 1920s to enable the purchase of what would become the Rockefeller Forest in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

In 1951, he established Sleepy Hollow Restorations, which brought together under one administrative body the management and operation of two historic sites he had acquired: Philipsburg Manor House in North Tarrytown, now called Sleepy Hollow, (acquired in 1940 and donated to the Tarrytown Historical Society), and Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home, acquired in 1945. He bought Van Cortland Manor in Croton-on-Hudson in 1953 and in 1959 donated it to Sleepy Hollow Restorations. In all, he invested more than $12 million in the acquisition and restoration of the three properties that were the core of the organization’s holdings. In 1986, Sleepy Hollow Restorations became Historic Hudson Valley, which also operates the current guided tours of the Rockefeller family estate of Kykuit in Pocantico Hills.

He is the author of the noted life principle, among others, inscribed on a tablet facing his famed Rockefeller Center: "I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty".[24]

In 1935, Rockefeller received The Hundred Year Association of New York's Gold Medal Award, "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York." He was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1943.[25]

He also helped fund Yellowstone and many other National Parks.

Wives, children and legacy

In August 1900, Rockefeller was invited by the powerful Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich of Rhode Island to join a party aboard President William McKinley, Jr.'s yacht, the Dolphin, on a cruise to Cuba. Although the outing was of a political nature, Rockefeller's future wife philanthropist Abigail Greene "Abby" Aldrich was included in the large party; the two had first met in the fall of 1894 and had been courting for over four years.

Junior married Abby on October 9, 1901, in what was seen at the time as the consummate marriage of capitalism and politics. She was a daughter of Senator Aldrich and Abigail Pearce Truman "Abby" Chapman. Moreover, their wedding was the major social event of its time - one of the most lavish of the Gilded Age. It was held at the Aldrich Mansion at Warwick Neck, Rhode Island, and attended by executives of Standard Oil and other companies.[26]

The couple had six children, a daughter and the five Rockefeller brothers:

Abby died of a heart attack at the family apartment at 740 Park Avenue in April, 1948. Junior remarried in 1951, to Martha Baird, the widow of his old college classmate, Arthur Allen. Rockefeller died of pneumonia on May 11, 1960 at the age of 86 in Tucson, AZ, and was interred in the family cemetery in Tarrytown, with 40 family members present.

His sons, the five Rockefeller brothers, established an unparalleled network of social connections and institutional power over time, based on the foundations that Junior - and before him Senior - had laid down. David became an internationally renowned banker, philanthropist and world statesman. Abby and John III became philanthropists. Laurance became a significant venture capitalist and major conservationist. Nelson and Winthrop Rockefeller later became state governors; Nelson went on to become Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford.


Junior's principal residence in New York was the 9-story mansion at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street, but he owned a group of properties in this vicinity, including Nos 4, 12, 14 and 16 (some of these properties had been previously acquired by his father, John D. Rockefeller). After vacating Number 10 in 1936, these properties were razed and subsequently all the land was gifted to his wife's Museum of Modern Art. In that year he moved into a luxurious 40-room triplex apartment at 740 Park Avenue. In 1953, the real estate developer William Zeckendorf bought the 740 Park Avenue apartment complex and then sold it to Rockefeller, who quickly turned the building into a cooperative, selling it on to his rich neighbors in the building.

Years later, just after his son Nelson become Governor of New York, John Jr helped foil a bid by greenmailer Saul Steinberg to take over Chemical Bank, Steinberg bought Junior's apartment for $225,000, $25,000 less than it had cost new in 1929. It has since been called the greatest trophy apartment in New York, in the world's richest apartment building.[27]

Further reading

  • Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

See also


External links

  • Rockefeller Archive Center: Extended Biography
  • The Architect of Colonial Williamsburg: William Graves Perry, by Will Molineux An article from the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, 2004, outlining Rockefeller's involvement
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Prince Albert, Duke of York
Cover of Time Magazine
19 January 1925
Succeeded by
Charles B. Warren

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