The Richest Man in the World

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John D. Rockefeller's view of the Hudson River Valley from the terrace of Kykuit. Photo: JH.

Looking out toward the season coming up in the next few week, I’ve been thinking about philanthropists. Philanthropist is the description of choice now for a lot of the social women (not all) who prefer it as a substitute for the word “socialite.” “Philanthropist” adds a little more weight to things. And if you’re going strictly by the book (Random House dictionary) these girls — and some of the boys who join forces with them — are true philanthropists – raising and distributing money and help to those in need.

America is a uniquely philanthropic culture. It really got underway late in the 19th century when the Robber Barons had made their pile and having lived it up to the hilt, were persuaded to do a little more with their money besides hoarding it or spending it.

By 1900, the richest man in the world was John D. Rockefeller, one of the founders and the man force behind Standard Oil (now known as Exxon). He had partners, like Henry Flagler (who later developed the East Coast of Florida and created Palm Beach), Stephen Harkness, Henry Rogers and O.B. Jennings, along with his brother William Rockefeller. All of these men became very rich, but John D. became like the legendary Croesus. His annual income at the beginning of the 20th cemtury was said to be in the neighborhood of $60 million a year. That’s the equivalent of about $2 billion a year in today’s currency. This was before income taxes too.

John D. Rockefeller, age 46.

It was about that same time that the muckrakers had gone to town on the man’s business practices. In 1904, Ida M. Tarbell, an investigative journalist published The History of the Standard Oil Company. Miss Tarbell was inspired to write the book after Mr. Rockefeller put her father out of business. The book exposed Rockefeller’s brutal business tactics in putting smaller competitors out of business. It also fueled very negative public opinions, even outrage, about Mr. Rockefeller, and was said to be a contributing factor in the U.S. government’s antitrust actions against Standard Oil which eventually led to the break-up of the company in 1911, forty-one years after its founding.

Mr. Rockefeller, of course, never quite saw himself that way. He was brought up by a hardworking mother. His father, a traveling salesman was often away and unbeknownst had another family at the same time under another name. John’s mother, however, demanded discipline and piety of her children. By the time the boy was 16, he was earning money and keeping track of it. His first ledger of his earnings and expenditures, later to become family legend, was called “Ledger A,” begun in 1845. Every penny, right to the penny, he kept record of. From the earliest times, he made sure to give some of it away. His first choices were religious missions and churches, as he was a very devout Christian.

By the time Ida M. Tarbell came into his life, Rockefeller was 65 and the richest man in the world. It was at that time, however, that he was given some sage advice to change his life, change his habits and make good use of his fortune. He followed the advice. In the first thirty years of the 20th century, Mr. Rockfeller gave away more than $600 million (about 20 billion in today’s currency).

Ida M. Tarbell in 1904, the year her explosive book on Rockefeller and Standard Oil was published.

During that time he founded and funded the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Institute, the General Education Board to assist colleges in increasing their endowments and teachers’ salaries; and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (in memory of his beloved wife) to promote the welfare of women and children in need. Along with these, Mr. Rockefeller funded all kinds of organizations and institutions including the University of Chicago. There was a frequently recounted (but apocryphal) story that claimed the choir sang “Praise John from whom oil blessings flow…” at the University’s chapel.

At the same time that Rockefeller began his dispensing of philanthropic funds, he also set about changing his way of living. In the second decade of the 20th century, Mr. Rockefeller turned much of his business over to his own son, John D. Jr. and embarked on building a new house on his estate, Kykuit, in Pocantico Hills north of White Plains.

The building of the house tells you much about the Oil King who thought of himself simply as a “man of figures.” He wanted the house, built on a knoll above the Hudson, to have views and a lot of light, air, beauty and comfort. Before the architect laid out the floor plans, he had himself built a smaller mock building on what would be the site of the new house. The building was constructed so that it could be manually rotated. Rockefeller wanted to figure out where the sun would be in certain times of days so that he could plan to have sun coming through the windows whenever he wanted it or didn’t want it.

The finished plan provided a dining room that would get lots of sunlight in the morning through the early afternoon. His den or office would have sunlight between two and three in the afternoon.

His beloved Kykuit which was perfectly set so that his days were full of light and sunshine.

He and Mrs. Rockefeller moved in in 1913. The house sat on a plot of 6000 acres that looked on the Hudson and the Tappan Zee. He had it equipped with a ten hole golf course. He loved to play golf.

In the new house, the Oil King developed a steady daily schedule. He was awakened by his valet at 7. By 7:30 he had washed and dressed (in a suit) to take the elevator from the third floor bedroom to the dining room on the first floor where breakfast was served.

John D. on the links. He finally gave up the game at 94.

His eating habits included anything he wished for but always in very small portions. He might have a few drops of coffee, a forkful of eggs, a tiny piece from a lamp chop, a spoonful of cereal; all of which was eaten very slowly. Some said that he even chewed the liquids he took.

Breakfast lasted an hour, after which he returned to his room and took the first of five short snoozes during the day. He could snooze for ten minutes and then wake up refreshed.

Then he’d change into his golf clothes and go down and play. He wasn’t a great golfer but he was enthusiastic and focused. By his mid-70s, early 80s, he weighed under 100 pounds and didn’t look like he had the stamina to even swing a club. His game, however, was steady and he was always looking to improve. There was no waggling before hitting the ball. He’d just socked it and went for the flag. He rarely lost a ball, and when he didn’t he figured out how it happened including determining where it was the fault of him or of his caddy. Supposedly he lost only three balls a year, but he could tell you exactly where and why.

After his golf game, he took one of his very brief naps and then attended to some business for an hour. He changed for lunch again. This was regarded as his big meal for the day. He’d have two or three spoonfuls of soup, dip into several vegetables, have a leaf of lettuce with some olive oil on it (a few drops) and then maybe end with some cheese. All of this was consumed slowly with a great deal of chewing.

John D. dispensing his dimes.

A witness once said that Mr. Rockefeller would eat in one long meal what most of would have consumed in three gulps. His entire daily intake was said to be about the equivalent of three medium sandwiches. After the meal, someone would read from one of three books – the Bible, a book of poems, and a book of his favorite sermons.

After lunch came another short rest, then some work at the desk, and then at 3:30 he went out for a ride. He loved riding in his cars. When he got in to go into the City, he’d look at his watch and remind his driver how long the previous trip had taken and suggest they try to better it in this trip. He never liked riding at less than 35 mph, which was not a slow speed on country roads. He kept a Lincoln and a Simplex.

When he returned from his ride, it was time for his late afternoon hour nap. After he rose, he spent more time talking to his son and his business associates and then at 7, he changed for dinner. He always dressed formally for dinner whether dining alone or with his wife or with a dozen others at the table.

After dinner he liked to play a game called Numerica. It was a kind of card game about numbers, although it wasn’t a “card” game. Mr. Rockefeller eschewed drink, gambling and any other vice that might be found in the Bible. However, numbers intrigued and excited the man who always described himself as merely a numbers man.

Mr. Rockefeller’s Crane-Simplex, one of two cars he liked going for a ride in every afternoon, always instructing the driver to push it a little. Courtesy of Le May museum.

Part of his new regimen was something called Public Relations. This term was invented by a man named Edward Bernays who along with another man named Ivy Lee, developed the public image of John D. Rockefeller, ridding it of the reputation spread by Ida M. Tarbell.

As a result, the man was fairly accessible to journalists, and they more often than not found him to be a charmingly agreeable old man with a great enthusiasm for youth. He decided to promote saving and thrift. He embarked on a program of giving away dimes and nickels to men, women and children. The shiny dimes were meant to instill an interest in accumulating coins (saving). He became world famous for dispensing the dimes. People collected them.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his father. Rockefeller Archive Center.

His own grandchildren were even affected by it. They were given tiny allowances weekly – one penny for every year they’d been alive. A five-year-old got a nickel, etc. One of his grandchildren, Winthrop Rockefeller, learned early on that he could negoatiate for a dime by offering his grandfather a kiss in return. The old man was not fooled by his motive but charmed anyway (“there’s a boy who’s going to go somewhere in life,” he recount to a friend).

Rockefeller loved his home, loved his days, loved his grandchildren. His relationship with his only son was very close. He had trained him well. He not only took over overseeing the family businesses, but he also developed the family philanthropies so that more than 70 years after the first John D.’s death (at 98 in 1937), they’ve given away tens of billions, more than any other individual or family in American history.

Someone once said that John D. Rockefeller was an old man at 18 and a young man at 80. At eighteen he wanted to become the richest man in the world. At eighty he wanted to do good works and live comfortably, enjoying the fruits of his labors. Philanthropy and self-discipline were the keys to his success with his ultimate goal.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his sons David, Nelson, Winthrop, Laurence, and John D. III, waiting for the arrival of the patriarch’s casket at his funeral in 1937.

This country has had many philanthropists dispensing their great wealth, including several of the time of John D. Rockefeller such as Andrew Carnegie, the brothers Paul and Felix Warburg, and Jacob Schiff. Some gave away more of their fortunes than John D., but nobody gave away more than John D. Because of it, and his strictly disciplined daily life, (and his piety), he became convinced he was going to Heaven and to a palace that would make Kykuit, his house in Pocantico look like a shack.

Knowing this set the man into his golden years in a kind of zen state. The philanthropy had returned itself in the form of a lasting bliss. That may be the main lesson.

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