When a Rockefeller turns 21 he or she publicly introduces him or herself to the wider Rockefeller clan at one of the bi-annual family gatherings – in June at the Playhouse on the grounds of the historic family estate in New York’s Hudson Valley or in New York City over Christmas. “They tell a little about themselves and people welcome them,” Peter Johnson, a longtime family consigliere says. “The idea is to say you are part of the family.”
This coming-of-age ritual – you might call it a Wasp Bar Mitzvah, although there are now, six generations on, Jewish Rockefellers, too – is part of a broader tribal culture that has allowed the Rockefellers, more than 70 years after their founding patriarch’s death, to remain a powerful force in US civil society.
“There’s no family like the Rockefellers in American life,” says Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the Asia Society, which was founded by a Rockefeller. “They have a very developed sense of reticence and responsibility. What’s amazing is how many institutions they have touched through their multiple efforts.”
As America’s new gilded age starts to sputter, the Rockefeller family is the most influential living extension of its first gilded age: the raw, revolutionary decades after the civil war that laid the foundations of modern US capitalism. The family’s forefather, oil mogul John D. Rockefeller, is described in Titan, Ron Chernow’s biography, as “an amalgam of godliness and greed”, who was both the nation’s “fiercest robber baron” and its “foremost philanthropist”. Standard Oil, the mighty trust he created was broken up by a Supreme Court ruling in 1911. But by then, Rockefeller was already devoting most of his time to giving his money away.
Today, Mr Chernow says, that “oil is ancient history” for the Rockefellers. The family had been more concerned with good works, not business. Yet this week, the usually low-key family grabbed the spotlight by bringing their philanthropic concerns to bear on ExxonMobil, the biggest of the corporate beasts spawned by Standard Oil. Led by Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a 63-year-old economist and the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peter O’Neill, a 45-year-old social worker and great-great-grandson, who lives in New York, the Rockefeller family threw its weight behind shareholder resolutions aimed at changing the corporate governance of the world’s largest non-state oil company. They also urged it to devote more attention to renewable energy and global warming.
One of the striking aspects of the effort is the sophisticated Rockefeller family networks it has revealed. So far, 66 of the 78 living adult descendants of John D. Rockefeller have backed the resolution calling for the splitting of the chairman and chief executive roles. Mr O’Neill thinks the final tally will be higher. “The reaction from the family is right on,” he says. He sent out the ballots less than a fortnight ago and not all the votes are in.
He is in a position to canvas his relatives because, according to Mr Johnson, Mr O’Neill chairs the family committee on socially responsible investing, one of dozens of family structures created to help each Rockefeller be an effective philanthropist and steward of his or her personal wealth.
Six generations on, the Rockefellers no longer dominate America’s plutocracy: only David Rockefeller Snr, the sole surviving grandson, made it on to the latest Forbes rich list. But the Rockefeller clan – there are 242 of them, including spouses and minors – has endured as a powerful force in causes ranging from promoting the environment and championing civil society to patronising science and the arts. Jay Rockefeller represents West Virginia in the Senate and 92-year-old David Rockefeller Snr – described as “New York’s first citizen” by his close friend, private equity billionaire Pete Peterson – remains the city’s premier philanthropist and an example to its nouveaux riches. Last week he gave $100m to Harvard, the largest gift from an alumnus in Harvard’s history.
“They have not only conveyed wealth in their family, but they have conveyed values, and that is a real achievement,” says Mort Zuckerman, the publisher and property tycoon and friend of the two David Rockefellers.
Mr Johnson believes one reason for the Rockefellers’ enduring influence is that the history of their fortune spared them the big decisions over how to run the family company, or when to sell it and divide the proceeds, which have riven other dynasties. “The Rockefellers never had a company to fight over,” he says. “They never had to quarrel about who owned what. I can’t tell you how important a factor that is.”
Henry Kissinger, a friend of the grandsons, says: “Sometimes there has been rebellion against the older generation but it has always been in terms of being more progressive or more liberal. I have never known a playboy Rockefeller.”
Indeed, the Rockefellers make a conscious effort to teach their children to preserve their money and use it to improve the world. A key lesson, says Mr Johnson, is that “touching capital is a cardinal sin and you should try to live on your income”.
An NGO activist who has done work for the Rockefellers called them “earnest, hard-working people” with smart habits for getting along; for example, the informal non-solicitation rule that prohibits family members from tapping each other for their personal charities.
At ExxonMobil, the Rockefellers face an unaccustomed challenge – to be taken seriously. They describe themselves as the oil company’s oldest continuous shareholders but no Rockefeller has been on the board since 1911. ExxonMobil stock is the single biggest holding of some family members, including Mr O’Neill, but Mr Johnson estimates that collectively the family owns only between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent of the company’s stock.
Mr O’Neill says they are hoping that by speaking out they will rally other shareholders to their cause at the May 28 shareholder meeting. They are not starting from zero: last year, 40 per cent of shares supported a motion to separate the role of chairman and chief executive. As Rex Tillerson, the man who holds both jobs, prepares to fight that effort again, the irony is irresistible. The biological descendants of America’s toughest robber baron are rallying the hoi polloi to force the man running the company John D. Rockefeller founded to loosen his control.