There are several inappropriate ways I could commemorate the death of David Rockefeller, who passed away recently at the age of 101.
I only knew one person who worked for him, at the Trilateral Commission in the 1980s. He joked that he saw the red button that Rockefeller used to control the world, but that he wasn’t senior enough to push it.
One could fill an obituary of David Rockefeller with fake news, since he was a rich guy who lived a very long time. There is, for example, the rumor that he had six heart transplants, which snopes.com reports ultimately came from a satirical news site that also claimed to have eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion. This did not stop websites for mouth breathers from claiming that Rockefeller actually had seven heart transplants.
But there are things that one can say about him and the Rockefeller family’s philosophy of giving. Here are some things that I think are significant.
- Yes, he was long lived. But he came from a long-lived family. Recall that John D. Rockefeller lived to 97. More significantly, John D.’s father, William Rockefeller Sr., lived to 95—an astonishing feat for someone born in 1810.
- David Rockefeller was the last significant Rockefeller. As New York Times obituary writer Jonathan Kandell elegantly put it, “Mr. Rockefeller could well be the last of a less and less visible family to have cut such an imposing figure on the world stage.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, David Rockefeller’s nephew, was an important politician, but he is not known for his philanthropy. John D. Rockefeller had lots of great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, but the only time they’ll make the news is when they denounce the petroleum-fueled fortune that made their trust funds possible.
- David Rockefeller earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. He took courses from Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard and from F.A. Hayek at the London School of Economics. Michael Cox, in this piece written for the London School of Economics blog on David Rockefeller’s centennial in 2015 notes that David Rockefeller, like his brother Nelson, was a “Rockefeller Republican.” But he thought Harold Laski was too left wing for him and Hayek and Lionel Robbins much more intellectually compatible. He stayed in close touch with Robbins for the next 50 years.
- David Rockefeller wrote his memoirs, published in 2002. He was the only member of his family to do so. (Historians debate how much involvement John D. Rockefeller had in writing the short autobiography published under his name.) These memoirs are a valuable look into his life as well as other members of his family.
- He had a Rolodex of 150,000 people he met both through philanthropy and through his years heading the Chase Manhattan Bank. The Rolodex was so large it filled an entire room of an office.
- As for giving: remember that the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. all had their own philanthropic projects. Laurance  continued his father’s work on conservation. Nelson continued his mother’s work in funding the Museum of Modern Art and other art museums.  John D. Rockefeller 3rd  ended up pursuing programs of population control.
- David Rockefeller continued all of his family’s philanthropic projects. They include substantial donations to the Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Rockefeller University. He also donated a 1,000-acre farm in Maine to the Acadia National Park, which his father helped to create. We can quarrel with his giving while respecting the Rockefeller family’s commitment to a limited number of causes.
- He signed the Giving Pledge in 2010, when his net worth was estimated to be $3.3 billion. He noted when signing the pledge that “effective philanthropy also requires patience—patience to deal with unexpected obstacles; patience to wait for the first, slight stirrings of change; and patience to listen to the ideas of others.”
- Finally, I am indebted to Canadian journalist David Warren for reminding us that Rockefeller’s hobby was collecting beetles. He began discovering bugs when he was a small child, and steadily added to his beetle collection his entire life. His collection of beetles dwarfed those of many natural history museums, and will enhance the collections of the Harvard Department of Entomology. If you were a foreign dignitary wanting to impress David Rockefeller, bringing in a beetle he didn’t have got his attention and respect.
So ave atque vale, David Rockefeller. But what will happen to your 150,000 Rolodex cards?
 William Rockefeller Sr. ran around the Midwest selling dubious patent medicines when not returning to Cleveland to hit John D. up for money. At one point early in the 20th century, Joseph Pulitzer held a contest for his reporters to prove whether William Rockefeller was alive or dead. (He was alive.) The elder Rockefeller combined many vices, including bigamy, with being a militant teetotaler.
 Whose name is spelled that way because his mother wanted a girl named Laura and got him.
 I have read that, when he was vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller would spend his weekends flying across the country to buy Latin American art for his collections. He found this relaxing after workweeks in politics.
 Who liked the number after his name even though his son is John D. Rockefeller IV.
2 thoughts on “Farewell, David Rockefeller”
The FINANCIAL TIMES reported in December 2018 that Christie’s auctioned off David Rockefeller’s art in May 2018. It was the first time an auction from a single collector raised over $1 billion.
A short article by Ben Platt in the June 8 FINANCIAL TIMES reports that Christie’s acquired the rights to auction the 15,000 pieces in David Rockefeller’s art collection. The auction, scheduled for 2018, is expected to raise as much as $500 million, most of which will go to charity.