Book review: Titan – The life of Rockefeller Sr. by Chernow

Chernow, Ron, Titan – The life of John D Rockefeller Sr., 2004 (originally published in 1998), Vintage Books/Penguin Random House, NY. ISBN 978 1 4000 7730 4

4.5 stars


Although Rockefeller Sr. had an impact worldwide, his life clearly belongs to US History. That’s why this biography is shelved under the segment Book Reviews on the History of the USA.

  • For more insights in my overall reading preferences, go to My Books page on Goodreads.

Rockefeller was one of those man – together with other businessmen of his time like Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius van der Bilt and a little later Henry Ford – who changed history. Men that were “personal” stepping stones for the US to become an economic power in the world.

Titan, the Life of Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow

How hard is it to write a fascinating book about a, in many ways, boring and arch-conservative businessman? Not that hard, judging by the biography on John D. Rockefeller Sr by Ron Chernow.

Although not a bright student, from the get go young Rockefeller was mainly fascinated by the numbers. Money in the first place, but also by the way to cut costs of every business operation, working hours, transport volumes & distances, salaries, bonuses, et cetera.

The fascination for statistics combined by his religiously fed frugality made him special. And very rich!

The Oil business

After a few years as a bookkeeper he became a businessman. For a short while in foodstuffs, but soon in something completely new after large quantities of oil were found in the Northeastern state of Pennsylvania.

  • Note: The first commercial oil field was found in 1858 by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
  • Note: Rockefeller was born in Upstate New York, but as a young guy moved to Ohio, neighbouring state of Pennsylvania.

Soon Rockefeller started refining oil. That is to say, he bought himself into the refining business. Initially the main product extracted from oil or petroleum was lamp oil or kerosene to light up people’s houses.

Lucky Rockefeller

A lucrative business until, of course, the Northern oil fields would yield no more. Although at the time, that was seen as a real threat, Rockefeller was lucky in several ways.

First of all because soon oil fields were found everywhere, in the US & worldwide. Secondly, soon after Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb, scientists discovered other uses for oil. One of which would become more lucrative then ever before. Gasoline, to be used as a driving force for motors.

  • “At Whiting, Dr. William M. Burton produced his revolutionary discovery of how to “crack” petroleum, vastly increasing its yield of gasoline – an essential precondition of the auto age.” (Chernow, Ron, Titan – The life of John D Rockefeller, p. 288)
The richest man in the world

Meanwhile John D. Rockefeller became one of the richest, if not thé richest man in the world. And although a deep religious man he practiced business the hard way. Trying to monopolize not only the refining of oil, but also its transport & distribution.

  • Note: Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870, together with his companion Henry Flagler.

The Standard Oil Company did everything to make business impossible for competitors. Using all kinds of pressure. From buying them out to “buying” politicians. Rockefeller never got directly involved in these schemes, but knew of every step taken by his representatives.

Stock certificate Standard Oil Co. Rockefeller Sr. always held the most.
Stock certificate Standard Oil Co.
The most hated man in the world

As a result he became the most hated man of the US for many years. Hated by his competitors, but also by the unions, the workers, and the press.

Besides doing business, Rockefeller and/or Standard Oil, needed to be defended constantly in court. Because he kept very calm & professional inside the courtroom, he managed to keep his head high, although loosing in the end the Standard Oil Trust.

Personally I think Senior made some doubtful decisions or even serious mistakes. However I also agree with Chernow that guys like Rockefeller were the first BIG businessmen. From the get go they could make their own rules. That is, until it became clear they violated certain laws. Laws that guaranteed free & honest business. On those moments, the federal government tried to stop them and end the trusts.

  • Note: One of Rockefeller’s main political enemies was President Theodore Roosevelt. A man I think was one of most remarkable presidents the US ever had. That is, after reading the excellent biography about him written by Edmund Morris (in 3 volumes).
Rockefeller, the Philantrophist

To get rid of their bad image & their enormous amount of money the Rockefeller’s spend a fortune on good causes. Mainly on Education & Health.

Surely, this philanthropic work was to cleanse a bad image, but more so it was religiously based. To “do good” in a Christian way, so to say.

Rocekefeller Sr. literally thought he was chosen by God to set up a big business, earn lots of money and reserve a big chunk to help others out. People that weren’t as lucky as him.

Nowadays, the main reason the Rockefeller name is still used so often is because of the family’s role as a philanthropic institution. A role Senior started when still young and held up until he grew old, very old.

  • Note: Fascinating by the numbers, one of his final wishes was to live at least 100 years. Unfortunately though, he died when he was 97. One of the few goals he didn’t reach.
Titan- John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow
Rockefeller lived a long life.
  • Note: “Doing good” was mostly fed by Rockefeller’s Baptist religion. As was his anti-racism & opposition to segregation. (A welcome date for me personally while in the middle of reading the 3-volume work of Taylor Branch on the Martin L. King years (1954-1968) & especially the childish, mainly white resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s).

Because he lived so long though, he personally spend more time & money in the philanthropic business than any other.

Is money making people happy?

Asking myself in the end if all that money made the Rockefeller’s happy, I would say “Yes & No”.

I think it made Senior happy, but not without sorrows. For the rest of the family it was more a curse then anything else. Especially his only son, John D. Jr., not always purely for the amount of money, but more so for his own role in society as a “Rockefeller”.

John Rockefeller Sr & John D. Rockefeller Jr. The main characters in the book Titan by Ron Chernow.
John Rockefeller Sr & John D. Rockefeller Jr.

In conclusion, Ron Chernow wrote a beautiful interesting biography about John D. Rockefeller Sr. & his family. Highly recommended. The experience made me curious about the other books Chernow has written about more inspiring people.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
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