The notation reflects Rockefeller's trademark matter-of-factness (his fortune is estimated to be $2.5 billion, which, he says, "comes in handy if I want to go out to dinner") as well as his unique role as an acquaintance of some of the 20th century's most important figures, from Kennedy to Khrushchev, Freud to Picasso. It also helps explain how, with October's publication of his autobiography, Memoirs, he became the first Rockefeller to write his life story since the family's rise to prominence three generations ago. "It occurred to me that I had had a very interesting life," says Rockefeller, 87, who began the project in '84 after retiring as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. "I had the feeling that my thoughts could be of interest." Apparently so: The critically acclaimed book came out last month at No. 12 on the New York Times' bestseller list (proceeds are going to charity). "David Rockefeller is an unusually discreet human being, so when he writes a book with this level of candor, it's worth taking notice," says Ron Chernow, author of Titan, about John D. Rockefeller Sr. "He has given us a window into one of the world's most private families."
Indeed, Rockefeller gets surprisingly personal in the book, detailing his father's nervous collapse in the 1930s and his own beloved wife's bouts of acute depression. He also shares details about his occasionally combative relationships with his four brothers and one sister—and later with his children, two of whom dropped the "Rockefeller" from their names. "In many respects we are the average American family," he says. "We have had advantages that not every family has, but we also shared all the concerns and differences every family does."
The grandson of John D. Rockefeller Sr., who founded Standard Oil in 1870 and became America's first billionaire, Rockefeller was the youngest child of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich, philanthropists who helped found Colonial Williamsburg and New York City's Museum of Modern Art.
Rockefeller and his siblings—including the late Nelson, a four-time governor of New York and former U.S. Vice President whom young David idolized—grew up on West 54th Street in what was then the largest private residence in New York City, with nine floors that held a squash court, music room and infirmary. Weekends were spent at a 3,500-acre Westchester estate where David, his grandfather's favorite, played card games and golf with John D. Sr. "I was devoted to him," says Rockefeller, who believes John D. has been unfairly branded as a robber baron. In his book he writes, "The accusations that Standard cheated widows and drove competitors into ruin are absolute fiction."
He speaks less kindly about his father, who suffered from an "emotional fragility," he writes, that robbed the children of their mother. "He wanted her to be with him always...the bond they shared was exclusive of all else."
Rockefeller would have similarly strained relations with his own children. In 1940, four years after graduating from Harvard, he married Margaret "Peggy" McGrath, the daughter of a prominent Wall Street lawyer, whom he had met at a debutante party. The couple enjoyed "a long and very happy marriage," Rockefeller writes. But his travels—first as an Army captain during World War II and later as a globe-trotter at Chase (where he started as a $3,500-a-year assistant)—took their toll. His wife "was often dealing with depression in the early years," says daughter Eileen Growald, while minding their six children: David Jr., 61, a conservationist; Abby, 59, an environmentalist; Neva, 58, an economics professor at Tufts University; Peggy Dulany, 55, founder of Synergos Institute, which combats poverty; Richard, 53, a doctor; and Growald, 50, the founder of three nonprofit groups. "It's not possible to be a good parent and a good world statesman at the same time," says Growald. "He wasn't very present as a father."
Instead, Rockefeller—who had earned a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago "to be sure I was judged on my own merits"—focused on hobnobbing with international leaders so he could develop new markets for Chase in countries like Cuba and Panama. "He had an enormous influence across the country," says his friend Joseph Verner Reed, 63, an undersecretary-general at the United Nations. But little influence on his children, whose involvement in liberal causes like the anti-Vietnam War movement proved baffling. Says Rockefeller: "It was a very difficult and not happy time."
It wasn't until 1980, during a vacation to Wyoming's Grand Tetons, that the family started healing its wounds. "Like so many people," says Growald, "we've done our years of therapy and worked through things." That was evident in 1996, after the death of Rockefeller's wife. The loss "was a devastating blow," says his close friend Albert Gordon, 101, but his children and 10 grandchildren (one of whom moved in with him for three months) saw Rockefeller through.
Today Rockefeller, whose hobbies include working out thrice weekly and collecting beetles (he has 150,000 specimens), lives in the four-story Manhattan townhouse he bought in 1948. He spends his days running Rockefeller and Co., a family investment firm, and handling his philanthropic bequests, which total in the millions each year. Looking back, he feels far more pride than regret. "I've earned my way," he says, "and it's more satisfying than it would have been otherwise. It's been a wonderful life."
Tom Duffy in New York City
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