As the last living grandchild of John D Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and the US’s first billionaire, the death of David Rockefeller at age 101 marks the end of an era. The Rockefeller family took the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral (“Reader, if you seek his monument look around you”) and applied it to the entire island of Manhattan; playing a unique role in developing a list of buildings that have become world famous sites: The World Trade Centre, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, The United Nations. Rockefeller Centre, The Museum of Modern Art. Lincoln Centre, The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, The Rockefeller University, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Riverside Church and The Cloisters are just some of the best known. Such was their stamp on the city that the Twin Towers were even nicknamed David and Nelson (his older brother).
Unlike his brothers Nelson (vice-president of the US and Governor of New York) and Winthrop (Governor of Arkansas) who were both major figures in US Public office, Rockefeller sought to have a powerful influence on world affairs from his position as a businessman. He encouraged international engagement and became the first director of the think tank set up by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and founded of the Trilateral Commission, created in 1973 to bring together private sector leaders to discuss issues of global concern. David was also one of the US’s leading philanthropists, and was particularly generous in his support of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which his family had helped found.
In 1961, Rockefeller became president and co-chief executive officer of what was by then Chase Manhattan. 8 years on he took up the position of sole chief executive, steering the bank towards expansion overseas. He also played a vital part in the rescue of the City of New York, whose bonds were a key Chase holding, after the City’s financial meltdown in the 1970s. By the time he stepped down as chairman in 1981, the bank’s profits had doubled. He broke new ground by taking Chase into the Soviet Union, China and Egypt, and sought influence abroad via advisory groups aimed at a wide growth of American influence, rather than a narrow focus on his own company’s’ profits. His influence was huge: He was crucial in persuading Carter to admit the deposed Shah of Iran to the US for cancer treatment, provoking his opponents to seize the United States Embassy in Iran. Rockefeller was also criticised for befriending autocratic foreign leaders in an effort to establish and expand his bank’s presence in their countries.
Whilst David Rockefeller’s passing marks the effective end of the old American patrician families who dominated American life in the 19th century, he leaves a legacy that has seen more and more billionaires make their will felt in government policy. In 2010 the controversial Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (along with several subsequent ones) removed virtually all limits on how much money corporations and non-profit groups can spend on federal elections. This included how much individuals can give to political-action committees, who have proffered blank cheques in exchange for influencing government policies to super rich ideologues, as was the case of the Koch brothers or David Mercer. Whilst David Rockefeller may be dead, both the artistic institutions made possible by his philanthropy and his traditions of political influence, are very much alive.