Originally published in Issue 57 of The Rake, Nick Foulkes writes that, if the Old World’s aristocracy was raised on the feudal system, the New World coined its nobility through banking and industry. From the Rockefellers and Astors to the Vanderbilts and Carnegies, these ‘ungartered’ peers helped forge the myth of America with their astonishing fortunes and lavish spending.
“Christie’s has been selected as the global auction house for the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller. This vast collection will be offered for sale in May 2018 at our flagship auction rooms in Rockefeller Center in the heart of New York City. The sales will be conducted in keeping with David Rockefeller’s pledge to direct the majority of his wealth to philanthropy, and provide for the cultural, educational, medical and environmental causes long supported by the couple.” It is a bald statement, but there is nevertheless, in those words, a world of pride and satisfaction. And so there should be. It is a once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime event. Topping the list of these museum-quality works is what is described as a Matisse that will “reset the artist’s record”; a stack of Picassos that Rockefeller bought from the estate of Alice B. Toklas, who had been bequeathed them by Gertrude Stein; and works by Seurat, Gauguin, Manet, Signac, Gris, Corot, Van Gogh, Sargent, de Kooning, and Monet, each worth millions on their own merits before being enhanced by the Rockefeller provenance. One simply runs out of superlatives when describing the riches of this collection, as one does when attempting to describe the wealth and influence of the Rockefeller family. After all, art was just a hobby, one of the many things they spent money on. During the 1920s the family name had replaced that of Croesus as the synonym for limitless riches. Irving Berlin’s title number for the show Puttin’ On the Ritz features the family name as one of the axioms of money and the high life: Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks Or ‘umberellas’ in their mitts Puttin’ on the ritz And of course, the address at which the Rockefeller collection will be sold keeps it in the family. While others were wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929, John D. Rockefeller Jr. decided he would build in effect an eponymous Art Deco city within in a city, in Midtown Manhattan, that kept 40,000 busy during the nadir of the Great Depression. David Rockefeller, John Jr.’s son, was born in 1915, a year after one of the defining moments in America labour relations. In 1914 miners working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company were striking for better pay, conditions and union recognition. Turned out of their company houses, they were living in a tented town near the village of Ludlow. On April 20, National Guardsmen stormed the camp, and after a day’s fierce fighting razed it to the ground. Among the dead were women and children who had suffocated to death in burning tents. An event that shocked the nation, the ‘Ludlow Massacre’ became a cause around which workers rallied. And the man many blamed was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned a controlling interest in the company. As his youngest son, baby David, experienced the first days of what would be a long and extremely comfortable life, maybe his father thought of the infants who had died with their tiny lungs full of smoke the preceding spring. Certainly, their circumstances could not have been more different: David was born in the infirmary inside the family’s behemoth of a residence, two nine-storey houses linked together to give a good impression of a large hotel or medium-sized apartment block and, depending on whom you listen to, either the tallest or the largest private house in New York at the time.
John D. Rockefeller cutting his birthday cake (Photo via Getty)
The New York City home of John Jacob Astor in 1912 (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)
John D. Rockefeller Sr., circa 1890
John Pierpont Morgan, circa 1900s Photo by Granger/REX/Shutterstock (8700988a)
John D. Rockefeller Jr. with his wife, Abigail Greene Aldrich, 1932
John Jacob Astor with his second wife, Madeleine, 1912 Photo by Historia/REX/Shutterstock (7665073r)
Henry Kissinger with Nelson Rockefeller and President Gerald Ford in the White House, 1975 Photo by David Hume Kennerly/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Nelson Rockefeller photographed in 1961 with his first wife, Mary Todhunter Clark, and their five children (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Oscar de la Renta, John B. Fairchild, Marion Javits and Happy Rockefeller in New York, 1972 Photo by Tony Palmieri/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (6986960d)
Maybe Ludlow was a moment of Damascene importance, for he became known for ever more conspicuous acts of philanthropy throughout his life. Indeed, the wedding cake of a house was demolished, and the land transformed into the Rockefeller-branded sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. By then, John Jr. had moved into a more manageable 37-room triplex at 740 Park Avenue — still considered the trophy apartment in the world’s most desirable block of flats. By the time John D. Rockefeller Jr. died, in 1960, The New York Times wrote, in all seriousness: “Businessman and philanthropist Mr. Rockefeller was looked upon also as a leader in many other fields, including religion and public morals.” By then, of course, the family name had acquired the patina bestowed by money tastefully spent and houses beautifully furnished; the correct universities attended; the right clubs joined; by immense money publicly donated; and immense power discreetly wielded. Indeed, the Rockefellers are arguably the principal family among what the late historian and journalist Matthew Josephson described as “the ungartered peers of American industry”, and David Rockefeller, who died last year, a few months short of his 102nd birthday, was John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s last surviving grandchild: a link to an all together different time. The aristocracy of the Old World was born out of the feudal system, but by the 1800s banking and industry had replaced feudalism as the petri dish in which the New World cultured its nobility. The first dynasties of this new nobility appeared in the nation’s mercantile capital, New York, into which flooded European immigrants. Among them was a village butcher’s son from Waldorf in Germany just out of his teens, who had come to New York via London, where he had picked up some rudimentary English, a language he spoke with a thick German accent. It was enough to help the 21-year-old create a fortune in furs, then real estate. But although the fur trader turned real estate tycoon Johannes Jakob Asdour anglicised his name to John Jacob Astor, he shed neither the accent nor the manners of a rural German butcher’s son. On one occasion he appalled an English visitor by taking a plug of chewing tobacco from his mouth and using it to draw on a window, and during dinner he was not above leaning across the table to wipe his greasy fingers on his host’s daughter’s clothes. The man who would eclipse him for vulgarity among the magnates of antebellum New York was born a few years later on Staten Island, a steamboat captain called Cornelius Vanderbilt. His 1853 tour of Europe was one of the events of the decade, and was estimated to have cost him half a million dollars. North Star, his steam yacht, described by his biographer as “the largest that had ever been afloat at that time” had been built especially for this family holiday. Decorated in the Louis XV style, it featured rooms faced with granite and marble. He had a reputation for profanity, streams of tobacco-hued expectorant, and the sexual harassment of servant girls: such was the Commodore’s sophistication, he made Donald Trump look like James Bond. As Justin Kaplan, the author of When the Astors Owned New York put it, even “the Astors, for their part, looked down on the equally snooty Vanderbilts for being one generation closer than they were to the source of their wealth”. Meanwhile, the old families who could trace their ancestry to the days when New York had been owned by the Dutch (and was called Nieuw Amsterdam) were appalled. But these men were just the first tremors in an earthquake of plutocracy that would shake New York: they were the prototypes of a new breed of untitled aristocracy that would emerge in the later decades of the 19th century, with the Civil War the catalyst that would generate an entire social and financial elite. “The young men who were to form the new nobility of industry and banking had, most of them, reached their prime of youth or manhood when Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers,” says Josephson in his canonical work, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists. “Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, J.P. Morgan, Philip Armour, Andrew Carnegie, James Hill and John Rockefeller were all in their early twenties; Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford were over thirty; while Jay Cooke was not yet forty. In the ensuing years all of the members of this band of youth would have met with their first ‘windfalls’; sure-footed, they would take their part, they would take their posts in the economic revolution which rose to a climax in the War; and the end of the War would see them masters of money, capitalists equipped to increase their capital.” It was, he wrote, “as if the second American revolution were fought for them”.
Night-time view of the RCA Building at the Rockefeller Centre, Manhattan, 1938 Photo by Underwood Archives/UIG/REX/Shutterstock (3838293a)
Nelson Rockefeller with his granddaughter Meile, his wife, Tod, his son Steve, Steve’s wife, Barbara, and their son Peter, 1958  (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
The Civil War ended in 1865, and by 1869 the first transcontinental railway had linked the East and West coasts, creating a huge market for industrially manufactured goods. The Gilded Age, the name taken from a Mark Twain novel satirising the gaudiness of the new era, had begun, and the final decades of the century saw the wealth of the nation concentrated in a few hands who held the reins of the so-called trusts that exercised almost complete control over every aspect of trade and industry, from the National Biscuit Trust to Standard Oil, the most famous corporation in the history of business. Much as the nobility of Europe had exercised the power of life and death in their ancestral fiefdoms, so these men exercised the control of absolute rulers in their fields. The Vanderbilt name was associated with railways, as the Commodore had seen the importance of the iron horse during the Civil War and moved from ferries into trains; his Grand Central depot in New York was the largest covered space in North America when it opened in 1871, easily accommodating 15,000 passengers and almost 100 trains. He toured his empire in his own private railway carriage distinguished by its red and yellow livery. The scale of the fortunes being made was difficult to comprehend. Andrew Carnegie, a sanctimonious Scotsman who would give money to any cause willing to name something after him, was the steel king. At its peak, production of Carnegie Steel, founded by Carnegie and managed by Henry Clay Frick, was greater than the steel output of the British Empire. Pineapple-nosed, cigar-smoking J.P. Morgan was the Napoleon of banking. A clue to his business style can be found in the names of his yachts: Corsair I, Corsair II, which, when used by the American Navy as a gunboat in the Spanish-American war, necessitated the construction of Corsair III. Morgan brought order to the financial markets, and could stop a stock market panic and economic collapse by the sheer power of his personality. According to the authors of the Illustrated History of New York, “No one in the history of the United States would ever wield more power”. Meanwhile, Rockefeller controlled the stuff that kept everything on the move: oil. No target was too lofty for the ambitions of these swashbucklers. James Fisk and Jay Gould even tried to corner the gold market using embezzled funds and corrupt government officials; they failed, but their antics caused the first use of the term ‘Black Friday’, almost brought the American economy to a halt, and forced many financial houses out of business. The monopolies catapulted men who in many cases had begun their lives in naked poverty to the status of royalty, though not a in a good way. Senator John Sherman accused these men of exercising a medieval level of power, “a kingly prerogative, inconsistent with our form of government, and should be subject to the strong resistance of the state and national authorities. If anything is wrong, this is wrong. If we will not endure a king as a political power we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” But Sherman was the exception: on the whole, politicians were to be bought or bullied. Just as Charles I had believed in the divine right of kings, so John D. Rockefeller believed in the divine right of money. “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God,” he said. “Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.” As Josephson points out, he was funding “missionary work in China at a time when the workers of his Colorado Fuel and Iron Company were being shot down or burnt alive in industrial war”. But unlike the unfortunate Stuart monarch, John D. Rockefeller not only kept his head but became the world’s first billionaire: the ungartered nobility of industry was by now richer than the royal families of Europe. Like the monarchs of old they built towns bearing their names in which their subjects — sorry, workers — lived, and they could command armed forces should order need to be maintained. The Ludlow Massacre was far from being an isolated event. Troops, armed militia and mercenaries were considered part of the legitimate business practice of the age when dealing with industrial disputes. One of the most famous disturbances had been at Carnegie’s Homestead plant in 1892, when 300 Pinkertons armed with Winchester rifles had tried and failed to recapture the steel mill from strikers and were instead captured before martial law was enforced and production resumed. It became something of a rite of passage for an industrialist to have a violent strike named after him or his business: one of the most notorious was the Pullman strike of 1894. Sleeping car inventor George Pullman built and operated many of the railway carriages in use in America, but an economic downturn reduced demand and led to wage cuts, which led to strikes, riots, sabotage and the paralysis of the national rail network. President Grover Cleveland had to send the army in to get the country moving again.
Gloria Vanderbilt and her husband, Pat DiCicco, in the 1940s (Photo by Getty Images)
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt at the races, circa 1940 (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Sisters Anne Ford Uzielli and Charlotte Ford Niarchos in 1967
Gloria Vanderbilt, circa 1960s
I am not a student of the television programme Game of Thrones, but from what I understand it bears more than a passing resemblance to the United States of America between 1870 and 1920, as alliances were struck and battles were fought to control the wealth of the most powerful nation on the planet. Some even tried their hand at world domination. Buck Duke, the creator of the American Tobacco Company, tried to corner the market in nicotine, and although his ambition was thwarted, his assault on the world markets led to the formation of Imperial Tobacco, to handle Britain and the Empire, and British American Tobacco, to sell to the rest of the world. As well as shaping the world tobacco market, he endowed Duke University and fathered one of the tragic heroines of the jet set, the archetypal ‘poor little rich girl’ Doris Duke. During the 20th century, Doris almost became a morality tale in showing that money could not buy everything. Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, was another, and she and Duke even shared a husband, the lively Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. And in her infancy, Gloria Vanderbilt was the subject of a bitter and scandalous custody battle between her aunt, the art-loving Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and her allegedly dissolute bisexual mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, the twin sister of Thelma Furness, the woman who preceded Wallis Simpson in the affections of the Duke of Windsor. Having acquired their money, they spent it in pursuit of what they felt was social polish. Where once sober brownstones had stood, palatial mansions now lined Fifth Avenue in a riot of architectural styles. The Vanderbilts constructed half a dozen such 19th-century ‘McMansions’, each a Trump tower of its day, including the awe-inspiring residence of William Henry Vanderbilt, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 51st Street. Apparently unsure as to whether he wanted to evoke the spirit of ancient Rome, the glories of Renaissance Florence, the exoticism of Japan, or the culturally enriching effect of a museum, he decided on them all. Other Vanderbilts were equally polyglot in their decorative tastes: William Kissam Vanderbilt favoured the mock-baronial Merrie England look for his dining hall, while Cornelius Vanderbilt II was obviously smitten with the Alhambra when it came to commissioning his smoking room. These sorts of buildings had an allegorical significance, appropriating the architectural forms of the Old World and using them to express the supremacy of the new. And one of the chief stylistic plunderers was Stanford White, whose masterpiece was the old Madison Square Garden (with a tower inspired by the Giralda in Seville), a huge auditorium suited to horse shows (sponsored by a syndicate including J.P. Morgan) and a place that particularly appealed to White, a rooftop cabaret where gentlemen could gather to enjoy the latest in light musical comedy. It was here, during a performance of Mam’zelle Champagne in the middle of the jolly number I Could Love a Million Girls, that White was gunned down by Harry Kendall Thaw, scion of a coal baron and a jealous husband. Thaw was a disturbed, sadistic man who had married the former chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (who had been sexually assaulted by White when she was 16). Nesbit was the early 20th century It girl who, as an artist’s model, had been painted nude by one of John Jacob Astor’s favourite contemporary artists and inspired another artist, Charles Dana Gibson, to create the idealised beauty of the Gilded Age: the so-called Gibson girl. She claimed that White, a notorious womaniser, had drugged her and taken her virginity in a mirrored room in which there was a red velvet swing — details that delighted the popular press. It was rather fitting that White was killed at the theatre, for he and his fellow architects created not homes so much as social stage sets, the venues for competitively elaborate fancy dress balls. Of course, the walls of these vast echoing halls needed to be covered, and thus the robber barons discovered art. Frick assembled the works that are now in the museum that his mansion has become; J.P. Morgan, too, was a collector of almost anything in industrial quantities — some of it was fake, some of it is now in the Met. And with the acquisition of works of art, a new arena of competition opened up: one in which these titans of industry were locked in a form of acquisitive combat that was exploited by men such as the influential art dealer Joseph Duveen, who, it is said, continued to sell masterpieces to the compulsive collector Henry Goldman even after the founder of Goldman Sachs had gone blind. The great transatlantic migration of art would continue for a century, resulting in collections such as the one offered for sale by Christie’s this May. By 1899, this mania for acquisition had become such a social phenomenon that the University of Chicago sociologist Thorstein Veblen came up with a name for it. “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure,” Veblen wrote in his masterpiece of social anthropology, The Theory of the Leisure Class, which analysed the tastes of the new aristocracy as money begat money and they built their fabulous sprawling estates, their elaborate “camps” and their monstrous seaside “cottages”. Gradually, as their money matured, the roughness of their first generations smoothed into a facsimile of European sophistication. They adopted the leisure pursuits of the Old World elite: William Whitney’s horse won the Epsom Derby in 1901, following the Prince of Wales in 1899 and the Duke of Westminster in 1900. Their families married into European nobility: most famously, William K. Vanderbilt’s daughter Consuelo became Duchess of Marlborough. And, on occasion, a scion of the untitled American aristocracy might even become an Old World nobleman in his own right: the first Viscount Astor in the Peerage of Great Britain was the great-grandson of the greasy-fingered German fur trader. It took the Great Depression and the Second World War to change the world to such an extent that these ruling titans instead became charming relics of a bygone age, pillars supporting the social edifice of American high society. But the fascination remained. Writing in a preface to a 1962 edition of his book, three decades after its first publication, Josephson wrote: “A surprising number of the family dynasties established in the period reviewed in this book have survived unto the third or fourth generation, and flourish better than ever. Three great foreign wars in this century have done no harm to the inheritance of the Rockefellers, Duponts, Mellons, Fords and Whitneys — the value of whose family estates may be reckoned in the billions instead of millions of dollars. Democratic opinion has apparently become reconciled to the looming presence of these monolithic family fortunes as established features of the American landscape.” It was famously said by Ward McAllister, the social arbiter, that four generations were what it took to make a gentleman. He was wrong… from all accounts of David Rockefeller’s privileged, elegant life, it would appear that the family that founded Standard Oil achieved it in just three. This article originally appeared in Issue 57 of The Rake.