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The Rockefellers | Article

Edith Rockefeller

Edith Rockefeller with her children. Rockefeller Archives.

In their long history, the Rockefellers have had very few rebels. Most of them have conformed to the rigorous moral and religious principles laid down by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. to shield his offspring from the temptations of enormous wealth. His son John D. Jr. struggled for years with the need to find his identity underneath that oppressive cloak. But his daughter Edith had no trouble at all finding hers. A true original, she used her intelligence, extravagance and stubbornness to face up to her intimidating father. In the process, she found herself on a path of deep personal introspection.

Born in 1872, Edith soon developed artistic and intellectual inclinations. She played the cello, learned to speak several languages, and was an avid reader of scholarly works. At 23, she married the heir to the McCormick reaper fortune, Harold McCormick, and moved to Chicago. Rebelling against the frugality that so preoccupied Senior, Edith spent her money freely. She was soon hailed as the thriving city's most prominent social hostess and patron of the arts. From her magnificent mansion on Lake Shore Drive, she entertained hundreds at extravagant parties and became a prime benefactor for the Chicago Opera and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Edith's health interfered with her social life. In 1913, following the deaths of two of her children and a long bout with tuberculosis of the kidney, she sunk into a deep depression. In what was to be a turning point in her life, Edith sought the help of Carl Jung, a charismatic Swiss psychiatrist and a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. She would spend the next eight years in Zurich, first as a patient and later as a collaborator and lay analyst. During that time, she became immersed in Jung's artistic and humanistic techniques, and she underwrote his work. She also came in contact with many scholars and artists — among them James Joyce, whom she supported financially for a time.

Emboldened by her newly found psychological insight, Edith reached out in letters to her estranged father: "There is warmth and love in your heart when one can get through all the outside barriers which you have thrown up to protect yourself — your own self — from the world," she wrote to him. But Rockefeller preferred not to probe the depths of his psyche. In his carefully worded responses, he would declare his fatherly love while politely declining to engage in such self-scrutiny: "Dear Daughter: I can think of nothing which I would more devoutly desire than that we should be constantly drawn closer and closer together, to the end the we may be of the greatest assistance to each other, not only, but to the dear ones so near and so dear to us."

The rift between father and daughter would only grow wider with time. He could not tolerate her extravagant lifestyle, her reckless spending or her peculiar choice of philanthropies; she thought him too rigid and judgmental, and resented the privileged treatment he had accorded his only son, the recipient of a disproportionate part of the Rockefeller fortune.

Further alienating Rockefeller from his daughter were Edith's financial and marital problems. In 1921, upon her return from Europe, her husband Harold filed for divorce and threatened to sue her for adultery. The ensuing negotiations resulted in an expensive settlement, which added to Edith’s enormous debt of over $800,000. To finance her extravagant lifestyle, her charities and more than a few disastrous business ventures, she had been borrowing against her dwindling trust income.

In 1931, unable to coax Senior into giving her more money, she arranged for Cartier to sell some of her magnificent jewels. She would die of cancer a year later, at the age of 60. The funeral attracted thousands of Chicagoans, thankful for the civic contributions that had seemed so wasteful to Edith's kin. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., then 93, was too frail to attend, thus sealing a series of failed encounters that had kept him apart from his daughter for almost 20 years.

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