There were no billionaires before the U.S. Government made John D. Rockefeller into one. He was a titan of industry. In fact, he was probably the inspiration for the phrase. In the longest book I’ve read this year, Ron Chernow tells the life story of America’s first member of the three-comma club. A man who eventually had so much money he had to hire people to help him figure out how to give it away.
Must be nice.
The author Ron Chernow has this amazing talent for coming in and telling a story that everyone seems to know for sure, adds a little more context, and changes the way the public perceives the subject. For example, if you’ve seen the video where Lin-Manuel Miranda announces that he’s writing a hip hop musical based on Chernow’s book on the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, you know that audience reacts as if he’s telling a joke. While I doubt Lin-Manuel Miranda will go to that well twice, I can’t help but imagine what would have happened if Miranda picked up Titan instead of Alexander Hamilton that day.
Just like Hamilton, Rockefeller came from scandalous parentage.
While Rockefeller’s mother was about as upright and Christian as you could get, Rockefeller’s father was a con-man, a literal snake-oil salesman. Bill Rockefeller’s graft was so convincing that his con-man persona of Doc Levingston overtook his legitimate one. When “Levingston” died, his second wife of 50 years was bewildered why the richest man in the world showed up to visit him in the days before his passing.
Rockefeller’s personality and character seemed to be somewhere inbetween his mother’s self-control and his father’s business ingenuity. He never drank. He attended church every Sunday. He transformed the field of medical research with benevolent donations in the millions.
But all of this was possible because he played hardball at business. While others were risking it all to strike oil, Rockefeller instead owned the refineries that oil-drillers would have to use in order to sell their product. He offered rebates to the railroads for reporting every barrel of oil that his competitors shipped, providing the market information Rockefeller needed to undercut them.
The legendary accusation that Rockefeller sold at a loss in order to drive competitors out of the market seems to be overstated. Make no mistake, Standard Oil did undercut competitors. However, Standard Oil was such an efficient operation that they simply didn’t need to sell below cost. Standard Oil became so essential and ubiquitous that the fear of feeding “the Octopus” led to a movement to choose smaller, regional competitors.
It took years of investigation and government regulation to reveal that Standard Oil also owned their plucky competitors. It makes me wonder if some of these competitors were ever chosen at a higher price just to spite Standard Oil, but only ended up making Rockefeller more money than he would have made under the brand name.
Decades after Rockefeller had retired, the government came in and forced the massive Standard Oil to be broken up into smaller chunks. While this might have been intended as punishment, the collective value of Rockefeller’s holdings only grew as a result.
That’ll show him.
The main takeaway from Titan is that John D. Rockefeller made most of his money through a seemingly endless well of self-control and a complete lack of interest in playing fair. While I’ve always been interested in the former, I only think the latter is okay when calling shotgun. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys historical biographies, Chernow’s Titan is just about as close to the gold standard as you’re going to get.
If you’re interested in rags to riches stories, you probably check out Alexander Hamilton, on which the hit Broadway musical is based. Chernow has also written a biography on J.P. Morgan, a contemporary of Rockefeller who was also filthy stinking rich. If you’re a budding entrepreneur that’s thinks they need big capital to get started, Shark Tank Daymond John’s The Power of Broke is good start.
Titan is the ninth book I’ve read in 2019. If you’ve got any suggestions for other books, I would love to hear them since I’ve decided to read 100 books again this year. If you want to see this year’s list so far, just check out revengemethod.com
Keep it real.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
John D. Rockefeller, Sr., history’s first billionaire and the patriarch of America’s most famous dynasty, is an icon whose true nature has eluded three generations of historians. Now Ron Chernow, a National Book Award-winning biographer, gives us a detailed and insightful history of the mogul. Titan is the first full-length biography based on unrestricted access to Rockefeller’s exceptionally rich trove of papers. A landmark publication full of startling revelations, the book indelibly alters our image of this most enigmatic capitalist.
Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world’s richest man by creating America’s most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded “the Octopus” by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.
Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation’s history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than 30 years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.
While providing abundant evidence of Rockefeller’s misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettably human portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously than anyone before him – his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.
John D. Rockefeller’s story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. P. Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller’s life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is Ron Chernow’s signal triumph that he writes this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves.