With a name like Rockefeller, a biographer can't go wrong. Whether it is Standard Oil, Chase Manhattan, politics in New York, Arkansas, or West Virginia, or massive philanthropy, there is an audience for the larger-than-life figures associated with this family. With David Freeman Hawke's biographical essay on "the founding father," John D. Rockefeller Sr., the reader comes to know the man who began it all.
At the age of 14, John D. -- he insisted on the "D" -- was, quite literally, dropped off in Cleveland by his father to acquire a decent education. After graduating from Cleveland's Central High School and taking business courses at Folsom's Commercial College, young John D. methodically began to canvass the Cleveland business community for a position equal to his talents. "It did not impress me," he said later, "as such a great ordeal to go looking for work every day for six weeks."
Beginning on Sept. 26, 1855, a day he would always remember, John D.'s career moved steadily from bookkeeping in the commission house of Hewitt & Tuttle to partnership in the commission business of Clark & Rockefeller and then to association in the firm of Andrew, Clark & Co. But there is more to the story of John D., the young man, than the record of his rise from bookkeeper to oil magnate. His drive for success was matched by personal integrity -- a rare commodity in big business at the time. He was a man who considered each contract a "covenant" -- a promise which, under God's law, he was bound to honor. Yet, he was a man who could use every device imaginable to force his competitors to sell out to Standard Oil.
Reconciling these apparent contradictions, showing the several sides and, more important, the uneven talents of this man who seemed almost obsessed with the challenge of eliminating all competition is the strength of Hawke's biographical treatment. In this portrait, Rockefeller is not a "robber baron," for the term implies a blend of ruthlessness and genius that John D. simply did not possess. He was creative and imaginative in some aspects of business, woefully shortsighted in others. In his view, research was what others did. When it came to recognizing the benefits of transporting oil products by pipeline rather than by railroad, John D. felt the pipeline would destroy the delicate balance of his empire. His indifference to and then undisguised hostility toward the critics of Standard Oil in the 1880s and '90s reflect his conception of the nature of the private enterprise system. The general public had no more right to criticize the inner workings of a man's business than it did to question his innermost religious convictions. Initially, Rockefeller assumed that company lawyers and "friends" in the legislature were essential only to those who broke the law. According to him, Standard Oil did not break the law. What was arrogance to outsiders was simple arithmetic to John D.; what was secretive to investigative bodies was "personal" to John D. It was hism conscience that placed Standard Oil beyond criticism.
The life that is so brilliantly synthesized here is a complicated one. John D. was a person with a massive ego in a love- hate relationship with many of his business associates. He was a man who was both daring and naive, a loner with talent for capitalizing on the abilities of the men he forced into the Standard Oil empire. Although he delegated authority, he himself personally interviewed each of the bookkeepers who worked for Standard Oil. In the fullest sense of the word he was an entrepreneur, yet an entrepreneur who constructed one of the most fragmented and inefficient business enterprises this nation has ever known.
Hawke has caught each facet of this oil mogul's life and fashioned a portrait that is both credible and enlightening. Fittingly, the image is cast in bronze -- and clay.