Life of Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Life of Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
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NBC Today Show
Katie Couric
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media,
Author Ron Chernow profiles John D. Rockefeller, the ruthless businessman who made a fortune in the
oil industry in the latter part of the 19th century and came to personify the word "tycoon."
John D. Rockefeller, Rockefeller, Center, Ron Chernow, Business, Titan, Tycoon, Oil, Standard Oil,
Family, Upbringing, Wealth, Money, Charity, Philanthropy, Philosophy, Rivals, Bill Gates, Economy
"Life of Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Sr." Katie Couric, correspondent. NBC Today Show.
NBCUniversal Media. 12 Aug. 1998. NBC Learn. Web. 28 January 2015
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Couric, K. (Reporter). 1998, August 12. Life of Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Sr. [Television series
episode]. NBC Today Show. Retrieved from
"Life of Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Sr." NBC Today Show, New York, NY: NBC Universal,
08/12/1998. Accessed Wed Jan 28 2015 from NBC Learn:
Life of Oil Tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
KATIE COURIC, co-host:
John D. Rockefeller was a ruthless business man who made a fortune in the latter part of the 19th century
by virtually cornering the oil industry. Beyond that, few people know very much about the man who was
once the richest man in America and a symbol of both wealth and greed. That's all changed with the
publication of the best-selling biography "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller" by Ron Chernow.
Ron, good morning. Nice to see you.
Mr. RON CHERNOW ("Titan"): Very good to be here, Katie, thank you.
COURIC: This is a fascinating biography, and it seems to me that John D. Rockefeller, the man he
became, was so much shaped, as many of us are, by his parents, who were polar opposites. His father was
such a jerk. He was.
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, he had these very bizarrely mismatched parents. He grew up in three small towns
in upstate New York. His mother, Eliza, was a very sober, thrifty, church-going woman, and his father,
William Avery Rockefeller, was a snake oil salesman, a con man, a bigamist, and that was just for
COURIC: I mean, he hired his girlfriend as the family's housekeeper, and then he had children with both
his wife and the housekeeper.
Mr. CHERNOW: Yeah, they had a strange relationship...
COURIC: Charming.
Mr. CHERNOW: ...that's right--during the first two years of the marriage he fathered two legitimate and
illegitimate children under the same roof. And we don't know whether John D. Rockefeller Sr. ever knew
that he had two illegitimate sisters.
COURIC: Now, how did these two very different forces shape him as a man?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, ...(unintelligible)...he resembled his mother very much, that he became this--this
very disciplined Baptist. He was very sober and thrifty. He was very much like his mother. Of course, his
rivals saw a lot of the craft and the rascaliency of the father, the shrewd bargaining underneath, and so he
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really synthesized these two very different personalities.
COURIC: He felt like his wealth was preordained in some way, didn't he, that it was a God-given...
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, he said `God gave me my money.' That was when he was a teen-ager in the
Baptist church, the minister said to him, `Make as much money you can, give away as much money as
you can, and do it as well as you can.' And so for him, making money and giving it away was a part of this
divinely sanctioned circulation of money, and he was as charitable as he was ruthless. This is what makes
him such a fascinating and contradictory figure.
COURIC: He was incredibly philanthropic, and we'll get to that in a moment. Let's talk about how
devious he was as a businessman, in terms of--of how he amassed his fortune.
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, he started in Standard Oil before the Sherman Antitrust Act, and he did things that
by today's standards are almost inconceivable. For instance, if you were a rival refinery in Cleveland in
the 1870s, he would take all of the rolling stock of the railroad so you couldn't ship your oil. He would
buy up all the barrels on the market so you had no place to store your oil. He would actually buy up all the
chemicals on the market so that you had no way of refining the oil. He could tie you up in a thousand and
one different knots.
COURIC: And didn't he buy other companies and not let you know, if people did business with the other
companies thinking that they were hurting
Rockefeller, and they were actually helping him?
Mr. CHERNOW: That's right, and he secretly owned a lot of his rivals. He would communicate by a
secret postal box in Cleveland. Very often when he bought his rivals even the spouses and children didn't
know. And so very often people who wanted to protest, you know, this Standard Oil octopus would do
business with some courageous independent without realizing that that courageous independent was a
wholly owned subsidiary of John D. Rockefeller. So you couldn't escape him, really.
COURIC: In terms--in terms of his wealth, how does he compare to someone like Bill Gates today?
Mr. CHERNOW: OK, in 1913, Rockefeller reaches the peak of his net worth at $900 million. That
translates into only $13 billion today, well south of Chairman Bill's $50 billion plus, but he loomed much
larger of the economy of his day, because $900 million in 1913 was actually larger than the federal budget
that year, which was $715 million. So he could have paid the entire federal budget. The accumulated
national debt of the United States was $1.2 billion. He could have retired three-quarters of the national
debt. So Rockefeller loomed much larger in the economy of his day, believe it or not, than Bill Gates
COURIC: Let's talk about the way he raised his children. He raised them in a very austere setting, did he
not? He wanted to duplicate his upbringing?
Mr. CHERNOW: He tried to duplicate his upbringing, even though he was on his way to becoming the
richest man in the world. He was very afraid of the corrupting influence of wealth, and, as a result, these
kids were growing up on these 1,000-acre estates. John D. Rockefeller Jr., his one son, said that until the
age of eight he wore only girl's clothing. Why? Because the three older children were girls and he had to
wear hand-me-downs. His mother once made the statement, `I'm glad that I know what my son wants for
Christmas so I could deny it to them.' They were intent upon the children not being spoiled by the money,
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and they carried it to what seems like ludicrous extremes.
COURIC: So very different from the Vanderbilts and other sort of robber barons of the day?
Mr. CHERNOW: Well, you see, looking at the Vanderbilts, other families who they considered very
ostentacious, and, so--but they lived on these vast estates, they avoided any kind of personal luxury
ostentation. When John D. Rockefeller's wife died in 1915 the most expensive item of clothing in her
estate was a seal coat and muff that was worth $150. She was still wearing the $3 wedding ring from
COURIC: Well, they're certainly a fascinating family, and, as we can see here in Rockefeller Center that
was established John D. Jr., apparently wearing those girl's clothes didn't hurt so much. Their influence is
long-lasting in this country. Ron Chernow, the book is called "Titan." It really is fascinating. Thanks so
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