"Mr. Rockefeller, your fortune is rolling up like an avalanche! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children's children!"
--The Rev. Frederick Gates, hired by John D. Rockefeller to guide his philanthropy
They feared the temptations of wealth, yet their estate was once described as the kind of place God would have built--if only he had the money. They amassed a fortune that outraged a democratic nation, then gave much of it away. They were the closest thing this country had to a royal family, but they shunned the public eye, retreating behind the walls of their palatial home at Pocantico Hills, New York.
"The Rockefellers" is the saga of four generations of a legendary American family whose name is synonymous with great wealth.
The story begins in the Christian revivalist fervor of the 1830s with a marriage of opposites: Eliza Davison, a pious young woman, and "Devil Bill" Rockefeller, swindler, snake-oil salesman, and eventually, bigamist. Their son, John D. Rockefeller, created an industrial empire -- and a personal fortune -- on a scale the world had never known. He ruthlessly crushed his competitors in the process, alienating the public and leaving a stain on the family name. His dutiful son, John D. Jr., was a self-sacrificing young man who devoted his life to redeeming his family's reputation. Junior's five sons scaled the heights of the American century. One, Nelson, reached highest, exposing the very private Rockefellers once again to the harsh judgment of public opinion. In the 1960s, a fourth generation of Rockefellers -- "the Cousins" -- rebelled against their family, which had come to personify what was then known as "the establishment."
The world's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller Sr. held 90 percent of the world's oil refineries, 90 percent of the marketing of oil, and a third of all the oil wells. Working methodically and secretly, he did more than transform a single industry. When he formed his feared monopoly, Standard Oil, in 1870 he changed forever the way America did business.
Because of the ruthless war he waged to crush his competitors, Rockefeller was to many Americans the embodiment of an unjust and cruel economic system. Yet he lived a quiet and virtuous life. "I believe the power to make money is a gift of God," Rockefeller once said. "It is my duty to make money and even more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow men." By the end of his life he had given away half his fortune. But Rockefeller's vast philanthropy could not erase the memory of his predatory business practices. In 1902, when McClure's magazine published journalist Ida Tarbell's scathing exposé of Standard Oil, it unleashed a torrent of rage. In 1911, Standard Oil was declared in violation of antitrust laws and dissolved.
John D.'s only son, Junior, faced an almost impossible task, says biographer Ron Chernow: "He had to figure out a way to change the image of this family without openly repudiating the father he loved." The struggle took its toll. Junior suffered from incapacitating headaches and was forced to take rest cures to relieve the strain. In his quest for redemption and respectability, Junior would give away hundreds of millions of dollars, and would demand impeccable behavior from his six children. John D. III became a philanthropist and a valued expert on Asian affairs; Laurance, a leading venture capitalist and conservationist. Nelson was four times governor of New York and vice president of the United States. David, president of The Chase Manhattan Bank, was a leading figure in international finance. Winthrop was elected governor of Arkansas. Abby was deeply involved in cancer research.
The Rockefellers transformed America, helping build many of the institutions that defined the United States in the 20th century: the United Nations, Spelman College, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, the United Negro College Fund, Lincoln Center, Chase Manhattan Bank, Riverside Church, Pan American Airlines, Radio City Music Hall, The Cloisters, the University of Chicago, Rockefeller Center, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare–to name just a few. Junior's wife, Abby, a leading patron of the arts, co-founded the Museum of Modern Art, known to the third generation of Rockefellers as "Mother's museum."
When he died at age 86, Junior left his six children and 22 grandchildren an invaluable inheritance: a name which stood not for corporate greed, but for "the well-being of mankind." Junior had lived to see his final vindication -- the election of his son, Nelson, as governor of New York in 1958. "It was a sign that the people of the United States had in fact fully accepted the Rockefellers in spite of the early history of the family," says Nelson's son, Steven. "Nelson had done something that no other Rockefeller had ever done," says his biographer, Joseph Persico. "He had won the affirmation of the people."
In 1962, Nelson tried to take the family one step higher: A liberal Republican, he made a bid for the presidency of the United States. But his divorce from Mary Todd Hunter and marriage to Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, together with a rising wave of national conservatism, crushed his aspirations. "His political career started to come to an end at the time of his divorce and remarriage," his brother, David, confirms. Ten years later, while still governor of New York, he was held responsible for the violent putdown of the rebellion at the Attica state prison and was even called a murderer.
It was a time of turmoil for the nation -- and for the Rockefellers. John D.'s grandchildren were caught up in the upheaval -- civil rights, the women's movement, the war in Vietnam. "The Cousins found that they could no longer accept uncritically the role of being Rockefellers," says Steven. "You had to question the history of the family and your own identity."
Wanting little to do with a fortune they saw as tainted, some of the Cousins joined the assault of the left against the Rockefellers. In 1976 the Cousins collaborated with the editors of the leading radical journal, Ramparts, in a tell-all book that described the Rockefeller family as "having an abundance of everything except feelings."
The book's publication caused a deep rift in the family. "My father's generation was quite understandably very upset that their dirty laundry was being aired in public," says Peggy Dulany, a daughter of David Rockefeller. Abby, Winthrop, John, and Nelson had died by the end of the 1970s -- Nelson under scandalous circumstances. Their deaths brought the family back together. "We came to realize that the real problem was the integration of power and goodness," says Steven. "And that if the family was going to continue to work together, philanthropic commitments and values would be at the center." In a society that has more millionaires -- even billionaires -- than ever, the story of the Rockefellers is both a cautionary tale and an exemplary one.
With unprecedented access to the Rockefeller family and their archives, producers Elizabeth Deane ("The Kennedys") and Adriana Bosch ("Reagan") have created a complete documentary portrait of this renowned dynasty. "The Rockefellers" features on-camera interviews with Junior's two surviving sons, Laurance and David, and six of the Cousins generation: Steven Rockefeller, Rodman Rockefeller (who died in May 2000), Abby O'Neill, David Rockefeller Jr., Peggy Dulany, and the Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV; revealing home movies; and interviews with historians, biographers, and others close to the family. David Ogden Stiers narrates.