The Rockefeller reach

By Laurie Bennett

August 1, 2017 at 9:15am

David Rockefeller
David Rockefeller

When David Rockefeller died in March, at age 101, the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Rockefeller could well be the last of a less and less visible family to have cut so imposing a figure on the world stage.

No living Rockefeller has the public profile of the Chase Manhattan chair or his predecessors. Yet the family name is iradicable, still shaping and reshaping the geographic, financial, philanthropic landscape. It’s written on the New York skyline, in the arts, academia and nonprofits. Although no Rockefeller currently holds public office, Rockefeller money continues to shape public policy through the funding of academic institutions and think tanks.

We present the interactive Muckety map above as a starting point. To expand the many connections would be to create a map so crowded, it would be impossible to navigate. So we’ve separated the Rockefeller reach into domains.

Oil and gas

The current oil and gas industry is a direct descendant of Standard Oil, the company founded by scion John D. Rockefeller. As Daniel Yergin would later write, in “The Prize,” when Rockefeller bought out his partner in a Cleveland oil refinery in 1865, it signaled “the beginning of the modern oil industry, which brought order out of the chaos of the wild Pennsylvania oil boom.”

John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller’s enterprise, wrote Charles Morris in “The Tycoons,” may have been the first business to control its entire value chain, from production and processing, to distribution and even to retail sales.

Standard Oil grew so big and so dominant, and John D. Rockefeller grew so rich and ruthless, that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered a breakup of the company. The resulting offshoots now dominate the global oil industry.

It’s no small irony that money made from fossil fuels now funds some of the largest environmental groups in America. (See the philanthropy section below.) Successor generations to the founder of Standard Oil have pushed Exxon Mobil to focus more on renewable energy and stop funding climate denial.


Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller

While current billionaires can pour money into super PACs and perhaps secure posts in the president’s cabinet, scions of the 19th and early 20th centuries relied on their offspring to run for political office. John D.’s grandsons came through for him, although Nelson never realized his dream of occupying the Oval Office.

He did, however, serve as Gerald Ford’s vice president and four terms as New York’s governor. A member of a now-extinct species, the moderate Republican, he dreamed big and spent scads of taxpayer money. The New Yorker wrote that he transformed the state “into a laboratory for the ambitions and occasional excesses of government.”

1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility
1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility

For his 14-year tenure as governor of New York, Nelson Rockeller is remembered for his draconian drug laws and his ordered attack on Attica prison inmates, a decision that ended in the deaths of 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. Later, he would be known for the shady circumstances of his own demise.

Although he reached the highest office of any Rockefeller thus far, he was hardly the only family member to enter politics. His brother Winthrop was governor of Arkansas. His nephew Jay, son of John D. Rockefeller III, was governor of West Virginia and a U.S. senator. Unlike other office-holders in his family, Jay Rockefeller retired as a Democrat.


More than wealth, the global views espoused by the Rockefellers made them the target of uncounted conspiracy theorists. As the longtime chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan bank, David Rockefeller took a leading role. He was a co-founder of the Trilateral Commission, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular participant in Bilderberg meetings.

In his memoirs, Rockefeller described these organizations as benign efforts “to bridge national differences.” Traveling the world, and practicing a principle he called “constructive engagement,” he built a network of people with information and influence. His Rolodex contained some 100,000 names.


Diego Rivera painting mural
Diego Rivera painting his mural at Rockefeller Center, 1933.

The Rockefellers have made tremendous donations to the arts. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Jr., was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art. Nelson Rockefeller’s extensive collection of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are now housed at the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan. Other artworks donated by the family are exhibited at the Cloisters in northern Manhattan, as well as museums in Boston, San Francisco, San Antonio, Providence and Portland, Me.

The biggest blotch on the family record for arts support came with the showdown between Nelson Rockefeller and Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was commissioned to paint a fresco in lobby of Rockefeller Center. Although he had not done so in the plans he submitted beforehand, Rivera included the face of Lenin in the mural. Rockefeller asked that it be removed, saying it “might very seriously offend a great many people.”

When Rivera refused, he was paid the rest of his commission and ordered off the premises. Although Rockefeller wanted to remove the fresco intact and donate funds for it to be displayed elsewhere, the effort proved impossible. To the horror of many in the arts, it was ripped from the wall and carried away in 50-gallon drums.


Nelson Rockefeller at Rockefeller Plaza
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller speaking at the unveiling of
the South Mall of Rockefeller Plaza in Albany, 1973.

The forbidding expanse of marble called Rockfeller Plaza in Albany, which replaced a working-class neighborhood with cold governmental blocks that repel pedestrians, represents many of the worst meanings of urban renewal.

Yet in Manhattan, Rockefeller buildings helped shape a lively cityscape. Rockefeller Center, completed in 1933 and providing much-needed work to tens of thousands during the Depression, is the brightest star in the constellation.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed the Dunbar Apartments, the first nonprofit apartment complex for black residents, on W. 149th St. W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and A. Philip Randolph lived here. He also provided the funds to purchase the site for the United Nations.

As president of the bank, David Rockefeller oversaw the construction of the Chase Manhattan Bank Tower. Opened in 1961, the skyscraper rejuvenated the city’s financial district.

Parks & historic sites

At his death, David Rockefeller left $20 million to the Land and Garden Preserve of Mount Desert Island, Maine. He had celebrated his 100th birthday by donating 1,000 acres to the preserve.

The family also has given land and/or funds to support Colonial Williamsburg, Acadia National Park in Maine and Rockefeller State Park in upstate New York.


In 1890, with an initial pledge of $600,000 (more than $25 million today), John D. Rockefeller became a co-founder of the University of Chicago.

Eleven years later, after his grandson died from scarlet fever, the Rockefeller Institute was founded to conduct research into infectious diseases. Laboratories opened, then a hospital, and the institute became Rockefeller University in 1955.

Support for higher education continued through the generations. David Rockeller gave millions to Rockefeller University and Harvard. The Rockefeller Foundation has made recent grants to Harvard, Cornell and colleges abroad.


The Muckety map above shows some of the recipients of funding from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the larger Rockefeller Foundation. (The map is better viewed in the larger version.)

The light blue boxes around the periphery are nonprofits. Grant recipients include environmental, education, health and foreign-relations programs. The darker boxes represent think tanks.

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