Money and power are the source of incredible advantage in our society. And yet, for the fourth generation of Rockefellers, the so-called Cousins, dealing with the concrete consequences of an excess of both would turn into an ordeal. In the early 1970s, stirred by the turmoil of the times and years of pent-up family tensions, they staged a very public revolt against the "burden" of being a Rockefeller.
Growing up in the comfort of their magnificent homes and the idyllic environment of the family estate at Pocantico, the 21 sons and daughters of David, Winthrop, Laurance, Nelson, John III, and Abby Rockefeller seemed to be living a perfect existence. For many of them, though, this highly insulated environment was soon to become oppressive -- "something of a prison," as some of them describe it.
First came the realization that they would never be "normal people," that the rest of the world was not ready to judge them on their own merits, but rather as the bearers of one of the most envied and mistrusted names in history. But even within their own families, some of the Cousins felt stifled and powerless. Money was a taboo subject. So too were the details of the Rockefeller power, past and present, except for the family's commitment to "the good of humankind" and the responsibilities that came with being extremely wealthy.
"There had been almost an excess of politeness within the family so that even though there were clear disagreements, they weren't always aired," explains Peggy Dulaney, one of David Rockefeller, Sr.'s daughters. Like many American families, the two generations of Rockefellers did not see eye to eye on many issues, ranging from the Vietnam War to the U.S. involvement in South Africa and the Watergate scandal. But, unlike other families, they were about to see their differences become painfully public.
Seeking to strengthen their own identity, many in the fourth generation had turned to the social and political movements that were galvanizing the nation, only to find out that the main targets of those movements were often their own fathers. Foremost among the brothers, Nelson and David (then chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank) were the very embodiment of the Establishment that young people were reacting against.
In 1976, the Cousins, still eager to find an outlet for their frustration, agreed to collaborate with authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz in a controversial book, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty. In it, they painted a critical picture of the family, describing the claustrophobic environment they had been raised in. The Rockefeller family, they argued, had chosen to shield itself from the outside world by reinforcing family pride and loyalty at the expense of the real needs and aspirations of its younger members. The Cousins also lashed out against the paternalistic handling of their personal finances by the family office, the infamous Room 5600, which had a firm grip on their money and the different uses it was put to.
The book's revelations caused the first major rift in the family's history. Upset that their dirty laundry was being aired in public, the brothers accused their offspring of being ungrateful and disloyal. But 25 years later, many Rockefellers think the crisis had a cathartic effect: "[The book] surfaced the conflicts in a more acute state so that it made it impossible not to talk about them, and, to some extent, to work them through," says Peggy Dulaney.
As they slowly mended fences in subsequent years, the two generations found ways to compromise and regroup, mostly around a new commitment to philanthropy, one of the dogmas inherited from John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Some of the 'dissidents' chose to come back to the fold and are now working for family institutions. Others, like Abby Rockefeller, are well-known activists in progressive and environmental causes. Even though their coup was never consummated, the Cousins continue to struggle with the dilemma of what it means to be a Rockefeller in the 21st century.
"They've done a remarkable job of keeping themselves out of the public eye, which is not surprising given what their experience had been," says historian Ellen Fitzpatrick. "They're not that isolated anymore. More and more they're out there, being part of the normal arena of life."