Information was one of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.'s most lethal weapons. Early in his career, he had learned that knowing every detail of the business was the best way to beat the competition. But when it came to his own affairs, Rockefeller much preferred disinformation. For years, he had kept a low profile while he quietly built the biggest business empire on earth. The press and the public knew nothing about the man behind Standard Oil. In a world not yet dominated by the media, no pictures of him had ever been published; no interviews ever conducted. And that was just fine, as far as he was concerned.
The public finally caught a glimpse of the mysterious oil magnate in the early 1880s, when the first in a series of antitrust legal challenges to Standard Oil reached the headlines. But the man they discovered as they read the detailed transcripts of his testimony was even more obscure than the one who had been hiding for over a decade.
Rockefeller's ability to be tight-lipped and oblique was already known to his business associates. In his efforts to avoid incriminating evidence, he would always write cryptic responses to their inquiries. A typical letter from him read: "Received yours of the 25th. Recommend that you proceed with all due caution. Signed, John D. Rockefeller."
"It was obvious that the hundreds or thousands of subordinates who were receiving these instructions knew exactly what he was referring to, but he would never actually name it," observes biographer Ron Chernow. "He was constantly covering his tracks. He had mastered what we call the art of deniability."
The antitrust trials and hearings that started in the 1880s to look into the legitimacy of Standard Oil's tactics gave Rockefeller the opportunity to transform that elusiveness into a veritable performing art. For him, the best defense was amnesia. When cross-examined about specific events, contracts, or records, he would deflect the question, pretend not to understand it or argue that he couldn't remember the details. But Rockefeller's 'bewilderment' in the witness stand was only temporary. In private, the forgetful entrepreneur miraculously regained the self-assurance that had gotten him that far.
At a New York senate hearing, investigating Standard Oil in 1888, he denied his involvement with the "Southern" Improvement Company -- a misnomer for the South Improvement Company, the alliance between railroads and refiners that had caused the demise of hundreds of independent oilmen. "Of course, I knew what I was answering," Rockefeller would admit privately years later. "I knew nothing of the affairs of the 'Southern' Improvement Co. I was quiet and self-controlled. It was no part of my duty as a witness to volunteer testimony. While they thought they were leading me into a trap, I let them go into the trap themselves."
The drumbeat of criticism and lawsuits against Standard Oil's monopolistic tactics would continue steadily for 30 years, at times forcing Rockefeller to become a fugitive from the law. But the state and federal efforts to curb what one prosecutor called "a conspiracy to monopolize the oil business, extort railroad rebates, and manipulate prices to cripple rivals" rarely accomplished more than sympathetic press coverage. Rockefeller and his advisors would always be ahead of the game. As harsher antitrust legislation came down in the late 19th century and under Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, they devised new ways to circumvent it, using loopholes and restructuring the trust to meet the new requirements.
Finally, in May of 1911, the Supreme Court announced its historic decision to dismantle Standard Oil. In a last, ironic twist, Rockefeller emerged unscathed once again -- and wealthier than ever, thanks to the multiplying value of his shares in the 33 subsidiaries created by the decision.