Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Being a Rockefeller

The Hudson as seen from the terrace of Kykuit, looking northwest up the Hudson River. Photo: Jeff Hirsch.
Tuesday, September 23, the Autumnal Equinox 2014, the first full day of Fall. The Sun was out most of the time, and the temp was 68-70 and then ten degrees cooler at night.

UN Week has started but yesterday I never left my neighborhood so I didn’t have to deal with the traffic congestion it creates all over mid-Manhattan. I’m sure it was more than exasperating for those millions who did have to venture out in it. The East River was void of traffic except for a couple of NYPD cruisers.
Looking south on the East River yesterday afternoon about12:30 when a mass of dark clouds passed over.
I forget the names of these flowers in Carl Schurz Park but they've been blossoming all summer long and have a delicate rose fragrance.
This is also a week of notable protest demonstrations in the city  for the Climate Change including Sunday’s march and Monday’s gathering at the foot of Manhattan. There was also a protest by several hundred people over at Lincoln Center last night where the Metropolitan Opera was opening its season with “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

The protesters were calling for the opera company to cancel its scheduled performance of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The opera is about the hijacking in 1985 of a cruise ship by the Palestine Liberation Front which in the hijackers murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish-American passenger. The opera, which was completed in 1991, would be having its Met premiere this October.
The protest outside Lincoln Center.
Rockefellers. I was asked to read this book by a publicist: “Being a Rockefeller; Becoming Myself” by Eileen Rockefeller, the youngest child of David. I'd never read an account of any family members except the founder and his son. The Rockefeller family is interesting to me as a family because they continue to represent ultimate money and power in not only the United States but the entire world in the human era of fossil fuel energy.

Click to order “Being a Rockefeller; Becoming Myself."
I’ve met and known some members of its 4th generation who are referred to as The Cousins. They’re mainly the Boomer generation. They’re very nice people, decent, unaffected, friendly and uncontroversial personalities. Their personal style is mainly conservative. I don’t mean that in the political sense but in terms of conduct among others. They are not people who draw attention to themselves. There’s no “lookee here, lookee me” about any of them. This is my personal, superficial (or at least not deep) experience of family members. They’re generally WASPish in the the best and most authentic sense of the term. The values they reflect are textbook and what I grew up around in New England. They are the genesis of that over-used politically correct term “family values.” And many of them are highly philanthropic and forward-leaning.

My sense of the family has been formed mainly through those I’ve met and observed, and what I’ve read about their fathers, their grandfather and grandmother, and their great-grandfather who started it all. What is most curious to me is what is the dynamic that has flourished through the generations to keep them together.

It’s an enormous family now, six generations later, but still in many ways a unit. And that is an amazing fact. Eileen Rockefeller’s memoir – which is very personal– confirms that in her stories about growing up. Despite the luxury of their surroundings and the special treatment that  the name evokes in others, they remain pleasant, unassuming, yet self-possessed individuals.
Great-grandfather who set down the rules and traditions that have been carried out successfully for four generations of Rockefellers.
Whereas many of the rich automatically claim an elevated position compared to those who are not, Rockefellers don’t. Some of the younger generation wives maybe, but nobody else. The entire family holds bi-annual meetings bringing in multi-generations to discuss family matters and to basically maintain a bond among themselves. However, with all that, they are also still ... just people ... with all the highs, lows, doubts and self-doubts that affect most of us. Eileen Rockefeller exemplifies it in this book so that many men and women of her generation will get it.

Most Americans born in the first half of the 20th century have heard the phrase “rich as Rockefeller” which, to the ordinary American, conjures up the imagined thrill and pleasure of being able to live rich and pay for it. The Rockefeller family are what used to be called “plain” people, not meant as derogatory but rather as a recognition of the merits of the ordinary civil and civic behavior: Responsible, conscientious, enterprising, committed, dedicated, and following rules of decency.
The author's siblings: David Jr., Abby, Neva, Peggy, Richard, and baby Eileen Rockefeller.
Same family, growing up.
Eileen Rockefeller in discussing her roots tells how great-grandfather John D. Sr. starting keeping a ledger of his daily expenses when he was a young boy, under ten, first working for pennies wherever he could, and marking every expenditure including a 10% tithe to his church (he was Baptist).

Senior (JD Rockefeller) apparently wanted his children to learn temperance from scrupulous ledger keeping. They earned allowances and noted inflow and outflow line by line in their own ledgers. Luxuries were not in evidence. John D. Jr., the youngest of five and the only son, wore his sisters’ remade hand-me-downs until he was eight. When he became a father, he taught the third generation to be ledger keepers.

This tradition of ledger keeping was passed down to his son, and together he and his son taught the next generation a philosophy of philanthropy that continues to this day.Eileen Rockefeller’s own father, David, has a ledger from childhood that shows him earning two cents apiece for swatting flies, being docked five cents for lying, and spending his first dollars at age eleven on a little pot made by a Pueblo Indian woman.
Her mother and father with her two sons at Laurance Rockefeller's JY Ranch in Wyoming.
The author writes: “Though most of us in my extended family no longer keep ledgers, we still practice philanthropy and service, balancing questions of worth and relationship with opportunities and responsibilities. We are free to spend our money as we wish, but we have inherited the values passed down from my great-grandfather: to give no less than a third of our income away annually, and to give our time to causes such as social justice, the arts, and land conservation. We have promoted innovations in medicine, education, and science. Philanthropy is the glue that has bound us through seven generations (ed’s itals)." This is where everything comes together in explaining how this family has maintained itself as a unit.
The author with her husband Paul Growald on their wedding day in 1981.
There was also a very strong emphasis on the home. Eileen Rockefeller’s grandmother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (one of the founders of MoMA) wrote: “A theory about the brotherhood of man, about social hygiene, or child welfare, is not enough. There must be a place, a home, which will safeguard the children and provide comfort for the old ... a good home is created by love and sacrifice, by good taste, and self-control, and devotion to high ideals.”

Ms. Rockefeller is the youngest in a family of five. Being a Rockefeller is one thing to the outside world, but on the inside, little Eileen was the last of the line. She grew up feeling that she was often outside the interest or affection of both her mother and her father, feeling they favored siblings who came before her. 

She writes very frankly about her mother’s life being married to a Rockefeller. Despite the abundance and the luxuries, much was expected by family standards including the upbringing of the children. No amount of staff could fill the bill. The child often didn’t understand the mother’s pressures, or the mother’s pressures as the daughter of another mother.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. with his sons David, Nelson, Winthrop, Laurance, and John D. III on the day of John D. Rockefeller Sr.'s funeral in 1937.
She writes: “When she was stressed, which was much of the time, she was scary, just like her mother. If any of us dared cross her, she shamed us with guilt about the privilege of being a Rockefeller and lectured us, sometimes for an hour. If we protested, she turned on us, saying, “You stop that right now. You must always remember that as a member of this family you will get double praise or double blame.” We learned to step cautiously into the world. “Remember that as a member of this family ...”

That seems to be the mantra not only of the siblings but of most people who dealt with Rockefellers on a frequent basis. The respect they showed was the respect they also commanded. In many ways, Eileen Rockefeller’s childhood was not unlike that of her generation (she was born in 1954). She came of age during the era of Women’s Liberation, the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights Movement. Her life is witness to those changes. Being a Rockefeller also offered her exotic opportunities as well as meeting Heads of States and important artists, writers, scholars and intellectuals.
Aerial view of Kykuit, the main house of the Rockefeller family estate in Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson and the Palisades.
The girl grew up to get a good education, to follow her both her mother’s and father’s interests as well assert her own. For all her self-doubts and disappointments that she experienced growing up as their daughter, she grew up to be a creative, enterprising, community-minded, philanthropic woman searching for truth, beauty and meaning in her life.

Eileen Rockefeller with Norman Cousins in 1981.
Being a Rockefeller also meant being exposed to so much information and experience with conservation,from living close to the land, traveling the world to learn, meeting and working with Namibian women in Africa, to writing a poem for -- and later reading it to -- Georgia O’Keeffe (whose only comment was “why don’t you write a poem about yourself? I should think that would be more interesting to you.”)

Rockefeller confides that she “didn’t know whether to be complimented or crushed.”

Her reminiscences about Norman Cousins, the distinguished editor of the once prominent Saturday Review of Literature whom she regards as a mentor to the young woman Eileen, are both funny and touching in the affection this charming and wise man demonstrated. “Success,” Cousins once wrote to his student, “is one’s ability to avoid self-deception and to make the most of what one is ... Don’t dwell on possible failure. Failure is a matter of context. Concentrate on the context of your life and on creating situations in which good things can happen.” This is a book about how she achieved her context, Rockefeller or no Rockefeller.

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