Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan The Life of John D. Rockefeller

Titan – From the acclaimed, award-winning author of Alexander Hamilton: here is the essential, endlessly engrossing biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—the Jekyll-and-Hyde of American capitalism. In the course of his nearly 98 years, Rockefeller was known as both a rapacious robber baron, whose Standard Oil Company rode roughshod over an industry, and a philanthropist who donated money lavishly to universities and medical centers. He was the terror of his competitors, the bogeyman of reformers, the delight of caricaturists—and an utter enigma.

Drawing on unprecedented access to Rockefeller’s private papers, Chernow reconstructs his subjects’ troubled origins (his father was a swindler and a bigamist) and his single-minded pursuit of wealth. But he also uncovers the profound religiosity that drove him “to give all I could”; his devotion to his father; and the wry sense of humor that made him the country’s most colorful codger. Titan is a magnificent biography—balanced, revelatory, elegantly written.

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Book Review by Daniel Putman

Though I read and enjoyed Chernow’s biographies of Washington, Hamilton and Grant, I found this biography of Rockefeller his best. I did not expect that. The bland grayish cover, which shows a grim, almost sadistic-looking Rockefeller against a sterile cityscape, does not inspire a potential reader to think of “enjoyable read.” Likewise, the pre-book knowledge I had of Rockefeller’s founding of Standard Oil led me to think that this biography would involve a lot of dry reading about Rockefeller’s financial dealings. But I was completely wrong. This is a gripping story, much of it about an America we now live in but know little about the origins.

Chernow is, as usual, an excellent stylist. The book can roughly be divided into two parts: 1) how Rockefeller got the largest fortune in American history at the time and 2) how Rockefeller gave most of that away in philanthropic work. He drove thousands of small businesses out of the market and put multiple thousands of workers out of work using ruthless and cutthroat techniques, many (not all) of which were legal at the time. Cooperation with him was always better than competition and woe to anyone who did not agree. His personality is fascinating and Chernow does an exceptionally good job at bringing that out. In fact, Rockefeller’s personality and character are central themes that run throughout the book – how this pious Baptist who thought God wanted him to make as much money as possible so he could give it away could go through life with massive repression and apparent equanimity. His (and his son’s) philanthropy is incredible, from founding the University of Chicago to Rockefeller University to the Rockefeller Foundation. Millions for this, multiple millions for that in late 19th century and early 20th century money! It is mind-blowing. The book begins with Rockefeller’s father, a patent medicine quack showman who kept two separate families and ends with Rockefeller giving more money to advance real medicine than any individual in history.

The book expands the reader’s consciousness and is a fascinating and enjoyable read at the same time. Though Chernow’s Hamilton gets all the press these days, I learned more from this book about America and enjoyed it more. In my view it is a pinnacle of biographical writing – by any author.

Editorial Reviews – Titan


“A biography that has many of the best attributes of a novel. . . . Wonderfully fluent and compelling.” —The New York Times

“A triumph of the art of biography. Unflaggingly interesting, it brings John D. Rockefeller Sr. to life through sustained narrative portraiture of the large-scale, nineteenth-century kind.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Important and impressive. . . . Reveals the man behind both the mask and the myth.” —The Wall Street Journal

“One of the great American biographies. . . . [Chernow] writes with rich impartiality. He turns the machinations of Standard Oil . . . into fascinating social history.” —Time

From the Inside Flap

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, the National Book Award-winning biographer of the Morgan and Warburg banking families, gives us a history of the mogul “etched with uncommon objectivity and literary grace . . . as detailed, balanced, and psychologically insightful a portrait of the tycoon as we may ever have” (Kirkus Reviews). 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 will indelibly alter 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 thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.

While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller’s misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettablyhuman portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously–his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University–than anyone before him. 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. Pierpont 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow’s signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves.

“From the Hardcover edition.

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Originally published: 1998

AuthorRon Chernow

Genre: Biography

NominationsNational Book Critics Circle Award for Biography/Autobiography