This year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree arrived on Veteran’s Day. Having just recently visited Rockefeller Center, watched skaters twirl or grope their way around the famous skating rink there and taken a few photos, I’m again put in mind of the reach and lasting impact of this remarkable family. On a recent bus tour I attempted an impromptu listing of institutions founded or funded by the Rockefellers, whose creation came about largely due to Rockefeller influence, or whose activities have been significantly influenced by Rockefeller money and family members. Having listed Spelman College, University of Chicago, Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Rockefeller University, Rockefeller Center, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Historic Hudson Valley, I was reminded that I had left out Colonial Williamsburg, not to mention the Cloisters, Riverside Church, the World Trade Center, the siting of the United Nations Headquarters, Grand Teton National Park (which is connected to Yellowstone National Park by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway), Lincoln Center, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, carriage trails in Acadia National Park, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc., etc., etc. And that’s just the John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) branch of the family. Anyone having watched much PBS programming will have heard the name Geraldine R. Dodge in connection with program funding. Well, that “R.” stands for Rockefeller, Geraldine being a daughter of William Rockefeller (1841-1922), John D.’s brother and partner in Standard Oil.
In fact the John D. and William branches each had their own family bank. Legislation enacted in 1911 forced the Equitable Life Assurance Company to sell its subsidiary, the Equitable Trust Company, of which John D. became the principal shareholder. Over the ensuing years this financial institution grew to become the nation’s eighth largest bank. In 1930 the Equitable Trust Company was acquired by Chase National Bank, whereby Chase became one of the biggest banks in the world. Thus did Chase become the family bank of the John D. branch, with John D.’s grandson David (1916-2017) serving as president beginning in 1960 and as chairman and CEO from 1969-1980. On William’s side of the family, two of his sons, William and Percy, married two daughters of James Jewett Stillman, the then president of National City Bank, which ultimately became Citigroup. Young William’s son, James Stillman Rockefeller (1902-2004), became president of this competing financial institution in 1952.
In addition to banking, education, and the arts, Rockefellers and Rockefeller associates were influential in foreign affairs. Nelson Rockefeller was Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs at the conclusion of World War II, John D. III was prominent in Asian affairs, and John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk, board chair and president, respectively, of the Rockefeller Foundation served as US Secretaries of State under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson for 14 of the 16 years from 1953 to 1969.
Nelson, of course, went on to become the governor of New York State from 1959 to 1973 and Vice-President of the United States for two years under Gerald Ford. Nelson’s brother Winthrop became the governor of Arkansas. And John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, the son of Nelson and Winthrop’s brother John D. III, was first governor of and then US Senator from West Virginia.
Brothers William (in 1886) and John D. (in 1893) bought neighboring tracts of land in the Pocantico Hills above Tarrytown and North Tarrytown (renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1996) in the Hudson Valley. Eventually, William’s estate, named Rockwood, was donated to New York State to form the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. As for John D.’s estate, part of it, including its crowning main house named Kykuit (rhymes with PIE-cut), was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open for tours, with the rest of the estate remaining in family possession but allowing public access. David Rockefeller, the youngest grandchild of John D., who died just this past March at age 101, had his residence here. He was the last of his generation, his last living sibling, brother Laurance (born 1910), having died in 2004.
Less is known about family members descended from the children of John D., Jr. – the five brothers pictured above and their sister, Abby. A 2016 Forbes article put the number of living descendants at 174, with total family wealth of $11 billion. But the remaining personal wealth of family members doesn’t even begin to tell the story of the family’s lasting legacy and continuing influence, both in the institutions they fostered and in their ongoing participation on boards of directors of corporations and foundations. Clearly, a family legacy built to last, still touching our lives in ways seen and unseen.