The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy
by Suzanne Loebl
Harper, 448 pp., $34.99
Study the histories of the creators of great fortunes and you’ll find a familiar pattern. The heroic capitalists whose innovative ideas resulted in great wealth tend to be libertarians or conservatives who strongly support the free enterprise system that made their fortunes possible. Their children, naturally rebelling against their parents, are usually far more liberal than their parents. Their grandchildren, comfortably ensconced with trust funds that obviate the need to work, sometimes become political radicals who use their inheritances to advance a socialist agenda. So it is with the Rockefellers. John D. Rockefeller was, of course, among the most rugged and ruthless of the wealth creators who flourished more than a century ago. His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (commonly referred to as “Junior”) was more liberal than his father but still had many conservative instincts. Junior’s children ranged from liberal Republicans (Nelson) to reflexive leftists (John D. 3rd).
You can view the Rockefeller saga in all sorts of ways, and Suzanne Loebl is the first to write a book that focuses on the passion that John D. Rockefeller Jr., his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and their children Nelson, David, Laurance, and John D. 3rd had for art collecting.
America’s Medicis is simultaneously boring and fawning: For her, the Rockefellers were not just collectors, but a “legendary family” comparable to the Medicis in their munificence. “America’s artistic landscape would be totally different were it not for the Rockefellers,” writes Loebl.
It is true that, without Rockefeller money, such important museums as the Cloisters, the Museum of Modern Art, and Colonial Williamsburg would not have been created. But it’s also likely that had the Rockefellers not been buying art, Andrew and Paul Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, J. Paul Getty, or other major patrons of the era would have acquired for their museums most of the great art the Rockefellers purchased. John D. Rockefeller Jr. was correct when he said that his purchases of art were morally legitimate because “they would in time probably come into public possession through their ownership by museums.”
Loebl is as transfixed by the greatness of the Rockefellers as a deer is by the headlights of a car, so she drains her story of conflict and passion. And much of this volume consists of lengthy lists of every piece of art any Rockefeller ever acquired, right down to the bird carvings acquired by Nelson’s son Steven for a tiny museum in Maine. Unfortunately, Loebl’s obsequiousness causes her to miss important incidents that help us understand the history of Rockefeller philanthropy. For example, in one chapter she dutifully tells the story of how John D. Jr., attending the annual convention of Phi Beta Kappa in 1924, heard the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg talk about the need to restore the town’s crumbling colonial buildings. Junior visited Williamsburg in 1926, and ultimately donated more than $60 million towards its restoration.
Yet Loebl ignores the battle that took place between John D. Jr. and John D. 3rd over Colonial Williamsburg in the late 1940s. The younger Rockefeller, looking for a philanthropic project, seized on the idea of turning Williamsburg into an anti-Communist think tank designed to promote democracy. Had John D. 3rd had his way, we might have had a Williamsburg Institute as lavishly funded as Brookings or Aspen. But Junior fought back, purging his son from the Colonial Williamsburg board in 1950 and insisting that Rockefeller money be used strictly for restoration. (John D. 3rd then switched his attention to funding population control programs.)
America’s Medicis does have some insights into the Rockefellers. Loebl reminds us that John D. Rockefeller Jr. was often thoughtful and sensible. Junior was, by the standards of his time, a liberal who did nothing to prevent the Rockefeller Foundation’s drift to the left. But his political positions were often reasonable: For example, like his father and grandfather, Junior was a fervent teetotaler. But as Daniel Okrent showed in Last Call, John D. Rockefeller Jr. did as much as any private citizen to end Prohibition by defunding the Anti-Saloon League after 1926 and by publicly stating, in 1932, that Prohibition was unworkable and should be repealed.
Moreover, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s taste in art was quite refined. His most personal project is the Cloisters, located on one of the highest points in Manhattan. In the 1920s, Junior began working with George Grey Barnard, a sculptor who collected remnants of French medieval cathedrals and shipped them to the United States. Barnard donated his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but Junior decided to create a building for Barnard’s collection and the other medieval works he purchased and enjoyed, such as the seven very large Unicorn Tapestries created around 1500. The Cloisters, opened in 1938, is operated by the Metropolitan Museum but would never have existed without John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s vision and taste. It remains the crowning achievement of Rockefeller arts funding.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. influenced art a third way by limiting the spending of his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who fell in love with modern art at an early stage. Junior’s response was to ban his wife from spending more than $1,000 on anything modern; Abby’s response to that was to spend money she inherited on smaller works by young, struggling artists. She also worked with other donors to fund the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1934, Junior relented and allowed his wife to spend more money on contemporary art. After Abby Rockefeller’s death in 1948, Junior chose to honor his wife’s memory by making gifts to the Museum of Modern Art which ultimately totaled over $4 million.
One of Abby Rockefeller’s favorite artists was the Mexican Communist Diego Rivera who, in 1931, obtained a commission to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center. In his wisdom, Rivera created a mural where, on the left, plutocrats and society matrons played cards under a cloud of syphilis and gonorrhea germs, while on the right, workers were being clubbed by police officers. “The dominant color is red,” one New York newspaper wrote, “red headdresses, red flags. Waves of red.”
“Mrs. Rockefeller said she likes my painting very much,” Rivera said. “Mr. Rockefeller likes it too.” But as soon as Rivera began to paint Lenin into the fresco the Rockefellers objected and the mural was, at first, boarded up and then destroyed in 1934. Rivera re-created it in Mexico City, making sure that Junior was added to the group of plutocrats doomed by venereal disease.
Most of John and Abby Rockefeller’s children bought art. John D. 3rd continued his father’s interest in Asian art and bought many Japanese sculptures, paintings, and prints, which he gave to the Asia Society. David Rockefeller bought a great deal of art for the Chase Manhattan Bank (which he chaired for many years) and also served as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art’s board for over a decade, steering it through several financial crises in the 1980s and ’90s. David has said that, when he dies, MoMA will get $100 million from his estate. But the most passionate art collector of his generation was Nelson Rockefeller. Buying art seems to have been a form of therapy for him. His chief art adviser, René d’Harnoncourt, recalled that, during his two years as vice president in the Ford administration, when Rockefeller would enter late Friday afternoon
absolutely gray-green from overwork, his idea of a relaxing rest was to take a night plane with me to the West Coast, arrive at nine a.m. and carefully examine some 1000 pieces of primitive art, of which he would buy about 40. He returned to Washington on the next night plane looking refreshed, rosy-cheeked, and as fit as after a vacation.
Martin Morse Wooster, senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is the author, most recently, of Great Philanthropic Mistakes.