Mention any of the great American titans of finance, business and industry in the early 20th century and you’re bound to come up with a few common names.
Carnegie, Morgan, Mellon and, oh yes, Rockefeller come to mind.
The Rockefeller name is among the most reviled in American history. John D. Rockefeller was the world’s first billionaire and became arguably the most hated man in America.
It’s also the subject of a new PBS American Experience broadcast, “John D. Rockefeller,” which airs Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KACV-TV.
It tells how John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent his lifetime recasting his father’s image in the hearts and minds of Americans. Was Daddy Rockefeller a likable man? Not even close. He built his fortune — which would be measured by the many billions of dollars using today’s currency — often on the backs of competitors. That’s how you got ahead, or way ahead, in the pre-Depression era of the 1920s.
Old Man Rockefeller’s baby, of course, was Standard Oil, which had enormous interests in Texas and Oklahoma, with the states’ oil-producing regions. The company pumped crude out of the ground here and shipped it off to be refined and used to drive the engines of industry.
Rockefeller did imbue in his grandchildren, notably Nelson and David, the notion that inherited wealth obligated those who held it to give much of it back to the nation that helped them build that fortune. Nelson Rockefeller, who went on to become governor of New York and vice president of the United States, embodied much of that “noblesse oblige” notion of wealth. The rest of us can thank his grandfather for filling him with that ethic.
Let’s look forward to the next American Experience to see how well John D. Rockefeller Jr. has done in recasting his father’s image.