Icons / September 2017

Fossil Fuelled: The Ongoing Curse of the Rockefellers

Being a powerhouse family in America brings untold wealth and power – and a pretty hefty jinx, if the Standard Oil family’s fortunes are anything to go by.

Nelson Rockefeller photographed in 1961 with his first wife, Mary Todhunter Clark, and their five children, named from left to right: Mary, Steven, Rodman, Michael and Anne.

The most peculiar incident of them all happened in 1961, when the 23-year-old son of Nelson Rockefeller – New York Governor, future Vice President and grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller - found himself adrift on an overturned catamaran off the southwest coast of New Guinea. Michael Clark Rockefeller – who had been hunting wooden carvings of the Asmat people for his father's newly opened Museum of Primitive Art – decided to swim ashore. Presumed eaten by sharks, he was later concluded to have made it to land, only to become the main course in a cannibalistic ritual.  

It is just one of many jerk-upright-and-take-notice yarns that chroniclers of the Rockefeller narrative will encounter. The most powerful family in the history of the most powerful nation on the planet, their story begins in the mid-19th Century with a young assistant bookkeeper by the name of John Davison Rockefeller. The son of a feckless huckster, aged just ten John allegedly loaned $50 to a local farmer at 7 per cent interest; by 16, he had had a two-pronged ambition: to live to 100 having made $100,000. He died two months shy of his 98th birthday, but it’s impossible to overstate the extent to which goal number two was accomplished.

By 22, John had saved enough money to build a company which drilled oil wells, and a refinery to go with it. Witnessing the developed world’s growing appetite for oil thanks to the arrival of the automobile and the hunger for affordable indoor lighting, Rockefeller senior bought his partners’ stock. When oil transportation moved from the railroads to the pipelines, he reacted like lightening. His first oil refinery, established near Cleveland, incorporated the Standard Oil Company in 1870, and by 1882 its grip on the flow of American black gold was tight enough to prompt the passing of antitrust laws.

The breaking up of Standard Oil unlocked share values and saw the dynasty founder’s fortunes double overnight, and by the time John retreated to the great refinery in the sky in 1937, his assets amounted to 1.5 per cent of America’s total economic output. Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book ‘Outliers’, estimates the value of Rockefeller's fortune at its peak at $318.3 billion making him, in relative terms, three times richer than Bill Gates is today. His son’s building of the Rockefeller Center, an expanse of 19 commercial skyscrapers whose centrepiece serves as a statement dagger thrust into the heart of Midtown Manhattan – at the start of the Depression, no less, and financed solely by the family – remains a fitting monolith to almost unfathomable power ever wielded by a single family.

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