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Getting and Giving

The first family of American patronage of the arts.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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America’s Medicis

Getting and Giving

Photo Credit: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

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.

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